LOS ANGELES – Bob Hope might need another century to be thanked by all the veterans who cherish the wisecracker’s performances for U.S. troops.
From World War II to Desert Storm, Hope swaggered fearlessly through battle zones as if strolling the back nine of a golf course. As he turns 100 on Thursday, Hope remains the only civilian named an honorary veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The ailing comic, who spends most of his time at his Toluca Lake estate, is no longer able to communicate and was not expected to appear at any of the numerous birthday celebrations. But his centennial has many servicemen offering remembrances of the entertainer, whose signature song is “Thanks for the Memory.”
“Just knowing he was coming was a release to everybody because when he’s there, you’re safe and you’re back home, even if you’re not,” said Michael Teilmann, who was an Army major in Vietnam in 1968 when he saw his first Hope military show.
Teilmann, now a retired brigadier general with the National Guard, heads the Bob Hope Hollywood USO center at Los Angeles International Airport. While in Vietnam, Teilmann also saw the comic at the Danang air base in 1971.
Even better than Hope’s self-deprecating shtick, some servicemen said, was the eye candy in his United Service Organization shows — beauties like Jayne Mansfield, Raquel Welch and Brooke Shields.
“Just knowing that Hope was coming rippled excitement up and down,” Teilmann said. “People were so excited knowing Hope would bring some pretty girls, bring (bandleader) Les Brown and it’s going to be fun.”
Although Hope was playing for hardened military men — to whom coarse language and sex jokes are practically standard-issue — the act was never raunchy.
“He kept it fairly clean,” said Chuck Bradbury, 65, of Easton, Pa., a Navy communications technician who saw Hope perform twice on the island of Guam, in 1957 and 1958. “He bordered on risque some of the times with some of his women, but he always kept it tolerable.”
On Wednesday, the Stars and Stripes military newspaper web site featured stories from readers who delighted in the ways Hope would snub military brass to fraternize with regular guys. Veterans in Bangor, Maine’s Memorial Day parade took a photo and sent Hope a card with hundreds of signatures. Birthday wishes came from Shalimar, Fla., where Hope held benefits to build homes for widows and dependents of Air Force enlisted personnel.
Some veterans who missed Hope’s show still felt entertained by his visit. The gatherings created a sense of good will that spread beyond the makeshift field theaters.
“Everyone who could possibly make it was there,” Don Poss, now 58, of Corona, Calif., said of a 1965 Danang show. But Poss, a dog sentry handler with the military police, was ordered to patrol the base perimeter during the event.
“We could hear the screaming and yelling all the way back to the base,” he said. “For days afterward it was like a trail of excitement, coming and going — looking forward to it and talking about it.”
Did it matter that he didn’t actually get to see Bob Hope? “Not in the least!” Poss said. “Our imaginations did the rest.”
Some veterans said they grew up idolizing Hope, and felt cheered by his admiration of them.
“I’d been watching his shows since I was 4 years old. Just to participate in it, to be there … the audience was the show,” said Michael F. Trochan, 55, of Ringwood N.J., who saw Hope at Danang on Christmas 1970. “We were part of history. You just had to be there. Just happy times, like one of your friends or relatives coming into town.”
“Like we still talk about ‘Remember the Alamo?'” said Trochan, who was a radio repair worker with the 101st Airborne Division. “I think we should say, ‘Remember the Bob Hope show,’ because it was important. It brought us together.”