Central View: Vietnam — A Bob Hope Christmas remembered
Ryan Summerlin January 8, 2014
In 1966, just before Christmas, we got word that the Bob Hope Christmas Show was coming to An Khe, the home base of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. We also learned the entire division of about 25,000 troops would be recalled to An Khe for Christmas. Just promoted to major, I begged our battalion commander to let me stay with my company through Christmas. He agreed.
The An Khe base was huge. To protect the division’s 453 helicopters from enemy mortar and rocket fire, An Khe’s concertina-wire perimeter was about 60 miles in circumference. In the center of An Khe, an enormous aircraft parking ramp had been hacked out of the jungle, much of it by hand, to create what we laughingly called the “Golf Course.” Considering all the division’s supporting elements, we had about 40,000 troops inside the wire that Christmas. Helicopters, earth-moving machines, trucks, jeeps and portable electric generators produced a jillion decibels of noise, day and night.
Close by the “Golf Course” was a natural amphitheater that could hold about 5,000 troops. That was where our engineer battalion built the stage for the Bob Hope Christmas Show. Our company headquarters was about a mile away from the stage. Knowing that even standing room would be limited, and over the objections of my 1st Sergeant, Mel Rand, early that morning I dispatched every last member of Delta Company, 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, to go see Bob Hope and his troop. Figuring, in later life, that Bob Hope and I might cross paths, I did not regret staying behind to attend the field telephone that connected us to battalion headquarters.
In fact, 16 years later, we crossed paths at the Nebraska Governor’s Mansion. Wonder Wife and I were standing on each side of Bob Hope when Governor Charles Thone signaled us to help Mr. Hope up onto a piano bench so the crowd could see and hear him better. She grabbed one elbow and I grabbed the other. By that time, the aging Hope was light as a feather. But his mind was sharp and he quickly had the Governor’s key supporters in stitches. Performance over, we set Mr. Hope back down on the carpet. But I digress.
Even a mile away from the stage, I could hear the troops applauding whatever Bob Hope was saying and whatever was going on. Then, at the end of the show, something magical happened. Except for the generator powering the sound set for Anita Bryant¹s microphone, the engineers must have turned off the hundreds of noisy generators that supplied electric power all over An Khe. Not a helicopter rotor was moving, not a creature was stirring. Nothing. Total silence across that vast space that was home to the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
Then, Anita Bryant began to sing the first verse of “Silent Night.” Her glorious voice filled the air. When she asked the troops to join her for the second verse, the entire An Khe Valley seemed lifted up by the voices of 40,000 home-sick troops, from all over the entire base, joining her and each other in that sacred song. There was no holding back the tears. Obviously, it was one of life’s never-forgotten moments.
Columnist William Hamilton was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S. Naval War College, the University of Nebraska and Harvard University.