Bob Hope in war and peace: a remembrance on the entertainer's 99th birthday

Thursday, May 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ When Bob Hope was named an ``honorary veteran'' in 1997 by an act of Congress and President Clinton's signature, the comedian remarked: ``To be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received.''

It seemed fitting then that on Wednesday, in recognition of his 99th birthday, another honor was awarded to Hope _ the dedication of the Bob Hope Veterans Chapel at the National Cemetery in Los Angeles.

The setting was ideal. Thousands of small flags left from Memorial Day waived in the afternoon breeze over the grave markers of veterans.

Hope's travels on behalf of the military began on May 6, 1941, when he bused a troupe of entertainers to March Field, near Riverside. They put on show for the Army Air Corps trainees that was broadcast over radio, and Hope was astonished by the waves of laughter and applause that greeted his quips.

The response was light years beyond what he could evoke from studio audiences in Hollywood.

``This is it!'' he said excitedly. ``From now on, we'll do all the radio shows in front of servicemen.''

For seven years, with two exceptions, he performed the radio program before men and women of the service. During the war, he traveled from North Africa to Iceland to the South Pacific and points in between, sometimes venturing in the line of fire.

``I have critics everywhere,'' he cracked.

From his career in vaudeville and Broadway, Hope knew exactly what his audiences wanted. He gave them jokes about officers, military food and living conditions, and brought along Hollywood beauties to warm the hearts of homesick soldiers.

This reporter first encountered Hope as an Associated Press correspondent in Fresno in 1944. He brought a busload of fellow entertainers from Hollywood to rock the airmen and women at Hammer Field. The laughter was explosive.

After a 90-minute show, the exhilarated Hope loaded the troupe onto the bus for the four-hour trip back home.

World War II was followed by the Cold War.

In 1948, Sen. Stuart Symington, a Missouri Democrat, asked Bob to take a show to Germany to bring much-needed Christmas cheer to the overworked Americans during the Berlin Air Lift. This time his wife, Dolores, weary of Bob-less holidays, declared she was going, too. Once a torch singer, her rich voice added to the entertainment.

The Berlin show was the beginning of a Christmas tradition that took his television show to bases, ships and hospitals in Alaska, Europe, the Far East, Greenland, the Caribbean, North Africa, Vietnam and finally, the Gulf War.

His tour de force came in 1987, when he flew around the world in eight days, with stops along the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans as well as the Persian Gulf.

He was rarely sentimental about the tours. Asked why he traveled so widely despite a busy career, he replied, ``I guess I'm hooked on box lunches.''

But he cherished the hundreds of honors bestowed on him.

Incapacitated by old age, he didn't attend Wednesday's chapel dedication. His wife was there along with celebrities Connie Stevens, Red Buttons and Debbie Reynolds.

``Speaking with Bob today ... I whispered in his ear that we were coming out for this, and although he can't respond very much vocally, he had just the most beautiful smile,'' Dolores Hope said. ``He knew what was going on and wishes he could be here.''

The ceremony included the reading of a statement from President Bush lauding Hope's work with U.S. troops and a flyover by the vintage Condor Squadron propellor fighter planes.

He would have loved the event.

Except for two things: too many politicians' platitudes and not enough laughs.