From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Bob “March Field” Hope

In 1939, we didn’t take World War II seriously. The enemy armies were stalled at the French frontier, daring each other like kids with a chip on their shoulder.

1940 dawned. It was a year in which Hitler’s planes and tanks overran France and pushed the British Army into the channel. Still, we weren’t too concerned over here.

Then one night, after our weekly radio program “The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show,” one of the sponsor’s men came up to me and said that Pepsodent wanted to take the program out of its Hollywood studio and visit March Field, one of our military air bases.

I said, “What for? There’s no war going on here. Why should we drag the whole show down there? We’re doing all right without going out of the studio.”

I was resisting an idea that was to change my whole life.

The next Tuesday, May 6, 1941, I found myself on a bus with Jerry Colonna, Bill Goodwin and the rest of the crowd, on our way to Riverside, California, and March Field for our first show for the U.S. Army. We had no idea we were going to discover an audience so ready for laughter. It would make what we did for a living seem like stealing money.

Also on the bus was Frances Langford, who had replaced Judy Garland as our leading singer. I had always thought her fragile and vulnerable, but we were soon to learn Frances was the bravest of us all. She was actually enthusiastic about March Field.

I’ll never forget the moment when that bus pulled through the gates and we were mobbed by a bunch of homesick kids in badly fitting fatigues, screaming greetings. I got out my pen to sign a few hundred autographs, and they knocked me aside and went for Frances Langford. Frances, of course, was a real beauty, but it didn’t really matter to those guys. After thirteen weeks in basic training, anything female looked good.

Tom Harmon, then one of the biggest football names in the country, was in uniform at the base and helped us control the enthusiasm. Tom told us what we were doing for the United States Army was the biggest thing that had happened to the military since Gettysburg; we had gotten live girls past the sentries at the gate.

In those simple radio days, there were no cameras, no lights, no huge group of technicians; there were just me, the cast, the writers, the band and two guys with a microphone. We didn’t even need idiot cards. On radio, we all read from scripts.

We didn’t realize that all the rules of comedy were going to be changed. We represented everything those new recruits didn’t have: home cooking, mother and soft roommates. Their real enemies, even after war broke out, were never just the Germans or the Japanese. The enemies were boredom, mud, officers and abstinence. Any joke that touched those nerves was a sure thing.

That night, we were in comedy heaven and didn’t know it. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Bob ‘March Field’ Hope telling all aviators, while we can’t advise you on how to protect your ’chutes, there’s nothing like Pepsodent to protect your toots.”

The laughter was so loud, I looked down to see if my pants had fallen. I mean, there must have been something funnier going on than that joke. There wasn’t.

“I want to tell you that I’m thrilled to be here. But I’m really here on business. I came up to look at some of the sweaters I knitted.”

A howl. What was going on? I plowed ahead.

“One of the aviators here took me for a plane ride this afternoon. I wasn’t frightened but, at two thousand feet, one of my goose pimples bailed out.”

I got goose pimples myself from the roar that followed that one. Then I started to understand. What I said coincided with what these guys were feeling, and laughter was the only way they could communicate how they felt to the rest of the country. I was their messenger boy. A ski-nosed Western Union.

In the years that followed, I came to see that we brought them a special message, too. The soldiers all knew us by our voices. When they heard us speak, they were back in the living room, Tuesday night at ten, in front of the Atwater Kent radio, with Mom and Dad and their pesky little brother or sister, although, at that moment, they might really be in North Africa or Sicily or Guadalcanal. That’s why, many times when they were laughing the hardest, I could see some of them trying to hide their tears.

As time passed, we realized the reason for our overwhelming welcome from the troops all over the world was that we spelled, more than anything else, “home.”

Bob Hope with Melville Shavelson

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