Many of us slightly older people remember the almost-forgotten era of the Christmas Special. Families would gather around the ginormous wooden T.V. and thrill to the likes of Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and John Denver celebrating the season with corny sketches, great music, and special guest stars. Some were truly awful but many were also great, including Bob Hope’s yearly shows filmed from whatever country we happened to be bombing at the time.
Bob Hope’s Christmas Show for the American troops on December 24, 1972 was his ninth and final holiday performance in Vietnam. The legendary entertainer, who was actually an Englishman by birth, began his annual performances for U.S. servicemen in 1941 during WWII. “I still remember fondly that first soldier audience,” Hope recalled in later years. “I looked at them, they laughed at me, and it was love at first sight.”
The Bob Hope Christmas Show racked up more than a million miles during WWII, entertaining the troops in the U.S., Europe, the Pacific Theater, and North Africa. He brought his show to Korea in the early ’50s and entertained U.S. troops at military bases in Japan throughout the rest of the decade.
U.S. forces in Vietnam were quickly multiplying by 1962, and Hope lobbied military brass for permission to perform for the U.S. servicemen stationed there. Plans moved ahead for a 1963 Christmas Show but they were scrapped when the Pentagon deemed it was too dangerous for the show to go on.
Hope continued to press the issue and was finally granted permission to proceed with the December 1964 Christmas shows. These performances would be filmed and shown as holiday specials early in the year back in the States, complicating already complicated logistics even further.
Security for Hope’s shows was exceptionally tight. The locations of Hope’s appearances were top secret, and no official confirmation of his performances was made. Even Bob Hope and his staff didn’t know what bases they were performing at until they arrived. The troops were also clueless and had no idea who would be stepping on the stage.
Hope’s travel plans were kept more guarded than those of high-level government officials. This was par for the course for all of Hope’s Vietnam Christmas Shows from 1964–1972.
Bob always showed up with a crew of supporting stars willing to endure the hardships and very real dangers of a war zone to bring a little Christmas cheer to the Armed Forces. From the troop’s standpoint, the biggest draw was the lovely ladies who gamely joined the Christmas show, such as Ann-Margret, Jill St. John, and Raquel Welch.
By 1972, there had been steady troop withdrawals from Vietnam, so Bob took his Christmas Show to the Philippines, Singapore, and Guam as well. On Christmas morning 1972, 1,200 SeaBees at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean were treated to a performance from Bob, wrapping up a grueling two-week tour.
He told a much-pared down group of Marines at Da Nang, “Wonderful to be working for you leftovers!” Then he quickly added, “You guys are lucky because you get to go home, not like our representatives at the Paris Peace Talks.”
The troops he entertained in Vietnam very much appreciated Hope’s efforts. Nevertheless, his hawkish views didn’t win him many friends, especially as public opinion continued to grow against the war. Vietnam had torn the nation apart and Bob Hope, who had spent almost three decades entertaining American servicemen, was not immune to criticism.
But there weren’t many questioning Hope’s dedication to America’s fighting men and women. During the broadcast of his last Christmas Show, Hope narrated film footage of Vietnam bustling with troops, and then deserted and overgrown with weeds a year later.
“Well, this is how it looks now…and this is how it should be…all those happy, smiling, beautiful faces are gone. But most of them are really where they belong, home with their loved ones.”