Bob Hope and his USO troupe visiting a hospital ward in the South Pacific (from left) Tony Romano, Jerry Colonna, Bob Hope, Patty Thomas, and Frances Langford, 1944. Bob Hope Collection.
This is a guest post by Becky Brasington Clark, Director of Publishing.
In the spring of 1941, Bob Hope couldn’t understand why his producer was pushing him to broadcast his hit radio show from a California military base instead of the Burbank studio. He was a celebrity, a big star, a comedian who worked on stage, radio and film. And yet his producer, Al Capstaff, wanted Hope to perform in front of an audience of enlisted soldiers at a busy training installation known as March Field.
The comedian reluctantly agreed, taking the stage on a sweltering day in a gym packed with nearly 2,000 soldiers. There was no air conditioning, no cue cards. But the thunderous sound of laughter introduced radio’s hottest star to his most important audience.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed seven months later, thousands of men and women volunteered or were drafted for the war effort. Hope could have enlisted as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt had other ideas. Hope could best serve his country by entertaining the troops.
From 1941-1944, Hope and a core group of regulars (Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Tony Romano, Patty Thomas and Barney Dean) performed the radio show from a different armed forces base nearly every week during the broadcast season.
They also traveled to the front, enduring long, uncomfortable flights in military aircraft, tropical downpours, giant mosquitoes and incoming bombs to deliver laughs, music and news of home.
They took the show to Britain, North Africa, and Sicily in the summer of 1943 and to the South Pacific and Australia in the summer of 1944. Impromptu performances in remote locales and hospitals supplemented scheduled shows in each area.
These performances inspired thousands of letters and postcards of appreciation from soldiers, nurses, wives and parents. Some were penned on paper bags, coconut shells and toilet paper, others addressed only to “Bob Hope, in care of Paramount Studios,” or “Bob Hope in Hollywood.”
Hope answered as many of them as he could, sending holiday cards, autographs, toiletry kits—even fruitcakes—to the soldiers, and he relayed messages from them to their parents, spouses, and sweethearts.
Hope with secretary Marjorie Hughes. Hope Collection.
Meticulously organized by Hope’s secretary, Marjorie Hughes, this remarkable body of correspondence is among 557,000 items now preserved in the Bob Hope collection at the Library. A new book, “Dear Bob….Bob Hope’s Wartime Correspondence with the GIs of World War II” captures and celebrates the mutual affection and admiration between Hope and the service members he would entertain over the course of five decades.
Hope was a celebrity, but he didn’t act like one when he visited the troops. He mingled with the soldiers, listened to their complaints and ate with them in the mess halls.
Eager to give the “G.I. Joes” the best laughs possible, Hope sent writers to the bases in advance of the performance to learn specifics about the soldiers and their lives, working the information into jokes that seemed tailor-made for the moment.
Written and compiled by Hope’s longtime staff writer Martha Bolton, along with his daughter, Linda Hope, “Dear Bob…” paints a vivid picture of a typical performance. “Whenever a Bob Hope monologue touched on familiar topics such as military food, physical demands, or dealing with superiors, the laughter was deafening” they write. “The soldiers couldn’t figure out how Bob knew them so well. Had he been trailing them around the base, eavesdropping on their bunk-side complaints, listening to them in the chow lines? And how did he know which officers were the most demanding, or that the camp had just had an air raid the night before?”
Some of the letters he received over the years:
Aug. 9, 1944
The jolt in the arm which we so sorely needed was supplied with your humorous hypodermic. I cannot express in adequate English how much your visit meant to all of us. . .
Jan. 22, 1945
There is nothing which makes a man happier than good music from his favorites and a heap of laughs. My morale goes up forty points whenever I hear one of your programs.
A sailor laughed so during your show at the canteen Thanksgiving afternoon that he split his pants—the back seam from waist to——. I know. I am the girl who sewed it back.
Some of the letters to Hope. David Jackson, Library of Congress.
Hope always made time to visit with the wounded, often proving the adage that laughter is the best medicine. Men who hadn’t spoken or interacted since their injury responded to him immediately.
As Bolton and Linda Hope recall, “The wounded appreciated how he would look beyond their injuries to see the man (or woman) bearing them. Whatever the prognosis, no matter how grim the situation, Bob’s goal was to get a smile or laugh out of each of them, which wasn’t always easy. For some, it was their first laugh in months.”
Oct. 15, 1944
I’m in a hospital and was almost dead. But I started to get well, and last night I saw a short about you and Lana Turner frying steaks, and Betty Hutton and Judy Garland. I laughed myself almost sick again, but you really lifted up my spirits. Thanks a million, Mr. Hope, and God bless you.
May 21, 1946
I had just came from Guam on a stretcher a couple days before you and your troupe arrived and I mean I really appreciated the way you acted.
March 7, 1948
….on the morning of the day that I saw you I had been told that I could take my choice of two things: keeping what legs I had left with the probability of never walking again, or having them amputated with the possibility of walking with artificial limbs. I’ll not lie . . .I was plenty scared . . . I know of no other man whom I have ever encountered who could have so well lifted a lowered man’s spirits than you did that day. .. You stayed within range of my hearing about 20 minutes that day, and if I live to be a million, I will always treasure it as the outstanding day of my life.
Hope knew that many of the young men he entertained wouldn’t make it home alive. While he couldn’t erase the specter of death, he managed time and again to give the soldiers of World War II a brief respite of non-stop jokes amid gales of laughter.
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