“I Was There”: Honorary Veteran Bob Hope
Entertainer Bob Hope brought comfort to generations of American troops on the Home Front and on battlefronts beginning in World War II.
During World War II, Bob Hope traveled tens of thousands of miles, crisscrossing the globe to bring a bit of home to those serving in faraway places. He was there.
Bob Hope performing in North Africa in 1943. Courtesy of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.
At the start of the 1940s, Bob Hope was just emerging as one of America’s most popular radio and film stars. Bob Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, England on May 29, 1903, the fifth of seven boys in a working-class family. Before Bob turned five, the Hope family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Hope spent his youth and early adulthood building his persona and honing his stagecraft—in vaudeville, then on Broadway, on the radio, and finally, Hollywood. His first film The Big Broadcast of 1938 featured the song “Thanks for the Memory,” which became his trademark and a signature component to his performances.
Hope broadcast weekly during World War II as star and host for NBC radio’s The Pepsodent Show. The show, which ran every Tuesday night from 1938-1948, held the number one spot on the radio charts from 1942-1944. Hope began each show with a monologue and followed it with skits and performances by special guests and his regular cast, dominated by Hope sidekick Jerry Colonna and songstress Frances Langford.
On May 6, 1941, Hope’s work took on added meaning when he was asked to perform his show outside of the studio, in front of a military audience, at March Field, California. That day, he discovered what would become his most cherished audience, the armed forces. He began to take his programs on the road to military camps and bases across the country. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, his efforts increased; his energy for supporting the war and those fighting it seemed endless. During the war, only nine of Hope’s 144 broadcasts were recorded in the studio. The rest were performed in front of troops.
The vaudeville troupe Hope assembled for The Pepsodent Show, also became his traveling partners for the overseas tours with the USO [United Service Organizations] and for other tours. The musicians, comedians, and dancers traveled in cargo planes, PT-boats, and in jeeps to meet soldiers, sailors, marines. The troupe put on shows on the backs of trucks, on stages made of coconut logs and in hospital wards, sometimes holding back tears while singing. Each performer recognized the importance of being there.
Hope and his troupe during a hospital visit in the Solomon Islands, 1944. Courtesy of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.
These overseas tours took place largely during the summer breaks from the traditional radio season. The 1943 tour encompassed the European and Mediterranean Theaters, including England, Northern Africa, and Sicily. The following year’s 1944 summer tour stretched across the vast Pacific Theater, from the Hawaiian Islands in the east to Australia in the west, covering more than 13,000 miles in 52 days. During that time, Hope and his troupe gave over 80 performances to tens of thousands of American servicemen and women. Hope’s connections to his fans did not end when he left the stage; he maintained contact with them through the mail.
Passage of letter from James Ruffner. Gift of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation, 2019.001.009.
“Dear Bob Hope” was the opening line of millions of letters sent to Hope by fans during his career. With the help of his assistant Marjorie Hughes, Hope waded through mountains of mail and endeavored to answer as many as possible. One of the countless wartime postal exchanges he had was with Seaman First Class James Ruffner, who wrote to Bob nearly two years after he met him in a hospital in North Africa. In a letter from March 5, 1945, Ruffner thanked Hope for giving him a drink and lighting his cigarette while he was waiting to be treated after being wounded in an air raid in Bizerte. He wrote, “I want to thank you for the drink as it must have did [sic] some good, anyway I’m still around.” In June, Hope responded, “Don’t think I’ll ever forget that raid at Bizerte! And don’t thank me for that drink…I’m still thanking you…and those other fellows…that I was in the position to give you a drink…or anything else that night!”
Bob Hope with assistant Marjorie Hughes. Courtesy Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.
Hope’s dedication to troops lasted for the many decades of his long life after World War II; his last performance overseas for troops was during Operation Desert Storm, when he was in his 80s. It is estimated that he entertained more than 11 million troops in his lifetime. In 1997, Hope received one of his most precious honors when he was declared by the United States government as the first honorary veteran for his service to the armed forces. He died at age 100 in 2003.
Bob Hope in the Pacific 1944. Courtesy of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.
Bob Hope is one of the many heroes you will come to know, through his own words and those of the many he connected with and who admired him, in Expressions of America.