Museum Column: Bob Hope and wartime Christmas

“There’s a man, there’s really a man.” That is how author John Steinbeck described comedian Bob Hope, who entertained the U.S. troops serving overseas for 50 years, starting in World War II.

A photograph of him is on display at the Museum of Veterans and Military History in Vilonia. Some may not see the significance but many do. Some talk about the importance of his USO tours. He is revered in their minds.

Also, we have a copy of the “Screaming Eagle,” from 1970 describing a visit to Vietnam. The publication said the division had ended its second year in Vietnam as a full division. It was a year of hard fighting and sweeping victories that ranged from Tam Ky in Southern I Corps to the desolate edge of the DMZ.

Christmas Day dawned wet and foggy in northern I Corps “but there was Hope.”

It was his sixth successive Christmas Day show in Vietnam and it marked the point farthest north in Vietnam that he had taken his troupe of entertainers. A little after 11 a.m. on Christmas Day, he walked on stage and said, “It’s great to be here.” From the amount of applause he received from the 18,000 or so troops, the troops told him they knew exactly what he meant. In the next sentence, he told the audience his “tremble factor” was up 10 points.

Hope began his career on radio in 1938. He entertained U.S. troops starting May 6, 1941, and became the first to be named an “honorary veteran” by Congress.

On his wartime USO tours, he insisted that his fellow performers follow one ironclad rule. Under no circumstances were they allowed to cry when visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals. This was often difficult given the amount of suffering they saw, but he told his performers that it was their duty to always smile and provide laughs and good cheer for the troops. According to an interview with Hope, he broke his own rule only once. While visiting an army hospital in Italy in 1943, he stopped at the bedside of a wounded soldier who had been in a coma for two months. The soldier suddenly opened his eyes and said, “Hey, Bob Hope. When did you get here?” He had to leave the hospital room to keep the troops from seeing his tears, but he returned a few hours later to present the soldier with his Purple Heart medal.

Located at 53 N. Mt. Olive, the museum hours are 9 to 4, Fridays and Saturdays. Also, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., on the first Sunday of the month. No charge to tour. For information, call 501-796-8181.

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