The Bob Hope statue in San Diego immortalizes the iconic comedian. How completely fitting. In the county that hosts the largest military population in the U.S., bronze statues of the entertainer and his military audience stand against the dramatic backdrop of a retired aircraft carrier overlooking San Diego harbor.
Over 50 years, Bob Hope made 57 tours with the USO entertaining the men and women of the Armed Forces in every war and conflict since World War II. From Europe to Korea and from the steamy jungles of Vietnam to the desert heat of the Middle East, Bob Hope tirelessly brought humor and comfort to countless homesick servicemen desperate for a brief respite from the misery of war.
Already a big star in radio and television, Hope broadcast his first USO tour on the radio from an Army Air Corps base in Riverside, CA. Thus began his five-decade relationship with the USO and the military troops. He made his first overseas trip in 1942 for a show in Alaska, then only a U.S. territory, and soon after made trips to the European and Pacific theaters.
Dressed in military fatigues and displaying his unique, irreverent humor, he became one with his audience, bonding with them in a personal way. He became the witty guy in the next foxhole, commiserating with them about their officers, the weather, the enemy, and the politics that got them there.
And he made them laugh — at times they needed it the most.
In December 1948, Bob Hope and other performers traveled to Berlin, Germany, to entertain members of the armed forces participating in the Berlin Airlift. This was his first Christmas tour and the beginning of a Hope tradition that lasted until 1990. Nine of these 48 Christmas tours were in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972. Though the war had become extremely unpopular back home, Hope continued to be with the weary troops he so adored and admired.
The Bob Hope statue in San Diego, officially titled the “National Salute to Bob Hope,” located on San Diego’s Embarcadero is an amazing likeness of the actor with his iconic “ol’ ski nose” and lopsided smile entertaining 15 avid listeners from all different wars, all different services. One is missing a limb. One wears a cast while sitting in a wheelchair. One is sketching the image of Bob Hope, capturing it forever in her memory.
These servicemen and women would rather have been any place than where they were. Yet the beaming smiles on their faces reveal that for a brief moment, this clever man of humor made them forget their hellish plight.
A modern aircraft carrier lies moored just across the San Diego Bay. A Navy destroyer gets underway while a military helicopter circles overhead. No setting could be more appropriate. One can almost hear Hope joke to his rapt audience about the historic USS Midway behind them.
“That ship stays at sea a long time. They only go back to port when the chaplain asks to see a chaplain… To give you an idea how long these guys have been at sea, they just made Phyllis Diller their pinup girl.”
And the crowd roars.
A retired Navy captain stands next to a sad, disheveled man at the memorial and asks, “Do you think today’s generation can even understand what he did for us?” The man quietly responds, “I saw him in Da Nang in ’69. He was incredible.” Then adds wistfully, “I’m not sure they even have a clue.”
Bob Hope was proclaimed an Honorary Veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1999. Despite being in poor health, he tearfully exclaimed, “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime, but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received.”
Hope passed away in 2003 at the age of 100, but he lives on today in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of servicemen and women who he brought comfort to when they needed it most. And in the Bob Hope statue in San Diego.
From those who served and those who remember, thanks for the memories, Bob.