Being away from home can be repetitive and monotonous for soldiers. In the early 1940s, the United States decided that their troops overseas should receive some entertainment. To accomplish that goal the USO was formed. Over the last 81 years, the organization has put on shows American soldiers all over the world. Among the thousands of performers who have graced USO events, no one gave more to the USO than Bob Hope.
The First Show
By 1939, Bob Hope was already a pretty big star in radio and television. He was coming off The Big Broadcast of 1938, where he first sang his soon-to-be signature song, Thanks for the Memory. The comedian was onboard the RMS Queen Mary when World World I broke out. He volunteered to entertain the passengers by singing Thanks for the Memory with rewritten lyrics.
In 1941, Hope performed his first USO show in California at March Field. The United Service Organization had formed earlier that year after President Roosevelt requested a way to entertain troops and provide recreation services. In the very first year, Chairman Thomas Dewey was able to raise $16 million. And Bob Hope was soon to become the organization’s biggest star and most loyal backer.
World War II
Once the United States became involved in World War II, the USO was right behind them. The first USO shows of the war began in the Caribbean in November 1941. Hope, of course, was one of the biggest stars involved. And he was right at home performing in front of the troops. Author John Steinbeck, who was working as a war correspondent, said of the comedian, “When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.”
Hope became such an integral part of the war effort that he and his best friend Bing Crosby were offered the chance to become members of the United States Navy. Franklin Roosevelt stepped in, though, saying that Hope and Crosby should avoid joining a service so that they could continue to entertain all branches of the military.
There was Great Danger for Hope
Bob Hope went to enemy territory to do nothing more than entertain and lift the spirits of the troops. And while he was overseas, the comedian had no idea what kind of danger he was in. In fact, the Nazis tracked Hope, knowing that if they bombed the area he was in, they could also take out several Allied troops as well. According to war correspondent Quentin Reynolds, “He and his troupe would do 300 miles in a jeep, and give four shows … One of the generals said Hope was a first-rate military target since he was worth a division; that that’s about 15,000 men. Presumably, the Nazis appreciated Hope’s value since they thrice bombed towns while the comic was there.”
This wasn’t the only time that the actor was in danger. While performing for the military in Saigon in 1967, Hope later learned that the Viet Cong had planned a terrorist attack against him and his troupe. The terrorists missed him by 10 minutes. Hope later said that the revelation mystified him.
Vietnam was a different story.
During World War II and in Korea, there was strong support for the wars among Americans. Vietnam was quite different. There were several questions about the point behind the war, and young people were hesitant to risk their lives. This pushback against the war effort was felt by Hope as well.
The comedian continued his USO work like usual during the conflict. But he also questioned the anti-war sentiment. Hope wrote in a magazine article, “Can you imagine, that people in America are burning their draft cards to show their opposition and that some of them are actually rooting for your defeat?”
Desert Storm and Legacy
The last USO Show of Hope’s tenure was during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Due to the environment, the show was quite toned-down. According to biographer William Robert Faith, “There were so many restrictions. Hope’s jokes were monitored by the State Department to avoid offending the Saudis … and the media was restricted from covering the shows … Because in Saudi Arabia national custom prescribes that women must be veiled in public, Ann Jillian, Marie Osmond, and the Pointer Sisters were left off Hope’s Christmas Eve show.”
By the end of his career, Hope had spent 48 Christmas’ overseas with the troops. To honor him, the United States Congress named him the “first and only honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces.”