February 23, 2015
Bob Hope appeared in or hosted almost 200 USO performances. (USO Photo)

Bob Hope appeared in or hosted almost 200 USO performances. (USO Photo)

These are tough times for war stories from high-profile TV hosts.

Fox News star Bill O’Reilly is under attack from Mother Jones over his claims that while at CBS News, he reported on the ground from active war zones – especially during the Falklands conflict between Argentina and Britain in 1982.  Adept at verbal combat, O’Reilly has called David Corn, the article’s co-author, a liar.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months without pay after his anecdote about being under rocket fire in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 turned out to be false – he wasn’t in that helicopter.

This hatched several published reflections on false memory. The problem with that, though, as S.P. Sullivan documented in The Star-Ledger, was that Williams embellished his story over the years.

So how does one properly recall an old war story?

Here’s an example from Bob Hope.

Yeah, you heard me. Bob “I wanna tell ya” Hope. A comedian. Through movies, radio and TV, a larger force in American culture from the 1940s into the 1970s than either O’Reilly or Williams is now.

He entertained the military with the United Service Organizations (USO) for 50 years, and he knew how to tell his own war story.

Hope had one from his first USO tour in 1942. At least twice, he told it “himself” in ghostwritten accounts – in Screenland magazine and his 1944 book I Never Left Home. Years later, he’d relate it himself, but only if asked.

Some details changed a bit in each telling, but even without the sausage factory of Hollywood publicity and with considerable means at his disposal to tell it many ways, Hope’s core story remained authentic, without self-aggrandizement.

And others can learn from this.

Here are the basic facts, gleaned from several published sources. Richard Zoglin’s excellent new biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century has some of these.

On September 16, 1942, Hope, comic Jerry Colonna, singer Frances Langford and guitarist Tony Romano were flown west from Yakutat to Anchorage, Alaska, with a stop in Cordova, along the coastline, in a 12-passenger twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar. The Army Air Forces co-pilots were Lt. Marvin Setzer and Lt. Bob Gates.

The leg from Cordova was a dangerous nighttime flight, taking off sometime after 9 p.m. after a break in the rain. The entertainers were trying to reach as many service audiences as possible, and – although the specifics are murky and this was before planes carried radar – they probably were advised of the hazards in advance.

At about 12,000 feet, a storm buffeted the Lockheed. As ice formed on the wings, the aircraft lost altitude, risking a crash into a mountainside. Unknown to the troupe, the radio had been knocked out as well. One of the pilots told the passengers to don lifejackets and parachutes and prepare to jump.

Everyone knew what this meant. No one expected to survive a jump onto either water or land. After the Lockheed circled for some time – perhaps as long as an hour – pilots of a passing commercial aircraft detected it and radioed Elmendorf Army Airfield, which put up searchlights so Setzer and Gates could descend safely.

The rest of the story varies only in what Hope is supposed to have said during and after the ordeal. Did he really crack the joke about the parachutist or did Hope just approach the cockpit and tell the pilots that all were praying?

Did he tell another joke upon landing, or did he wait for his writers to supply that later?

It doesn’t matter. His core narrative is sound.

The lesson: Don’t try to be Ernest Hemingway, inserting yourself into danger. Be a little more like Bob Hope.

Some rules:

  • 1. Don’t rush to tell the story yourself. Langford, a licensed pilot accustomed to emergency procedures, told it to reporters first, shortly after the troupe returned from Alaska. Hope, with radio and film obligations to fulfill, told his version two months later.
  • 2. Have authoritative backup. Gates, who piloted Hope on many subsequent USO tours and who died last August, told his most detailed version to Air & Space Magazine in 2010:

    “So we did a tight turn at 12,000 feet through the rain and started on course, and we got into the ice and one engine quit. And then the radio went out. So there we were, the mountains higher than we were, losing altitude about 200 feet a minute, and how we got through is beyond me to tell you, other than God was looking out for us.

    “I remember Bob coming up and tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Everybody back there is praying.’

    “I said, ‘You tell ‘em don’t stop!’

    “The commander of the 11th Air Force [Maj. Gen. William Butler] had sense enough when they couldn’t contact us to turn on all the search lights, and point them to this same point in the sky over Elmendorf. And on our arrival, as we were letting down at about 6,000 feet, we saw the glow in the murk in the sky, and let down on that and landed.”

  • 3. Don’t make yourself the hero. Easy enough for Hope, who nurtured a cowardly screen image. As Charles Lane wrote in The Washington Post, “Never trust an ‘I got shot at’ tale that doesn’t dwell on how really, really scared the tale-teller felt at the time.” As late as 1993, Hope’s punch line was “I had a laundry problem!”
  • 4. It’s OK to adjust the punch line. It’s even OK not to be funny. At 5:39, here’s Hope telling the story to Dick Cavett in 1972 without a punch line.

Jensen writes for Catholic News Service.

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