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Carrying his trademark golf club in what he described as "the world's largest sand trap," comedian Bob Hope waves to the crowd as he is escorted to the stage at Eskan Village by U.S. Central Command Commander-In-Chief, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. The general and the entertainer are surrounded by staff members, and security forces provided by the Saudi Arabian government. (Photo by Mike Mauer)
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Twenty-five years ago, many people had something more to worry about than a sluggish economy and Christmas shopping. The usual brightness and bustle associated with the holidays were marred by dark clouds of war gathering over Southwest Asia.
On Dec. 22, 1990, oil prices rose to $26 per barrel and looked like they would shoot higher during the cold winter months. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was test firing its much-vaunted Scud missiles, and United States troop deployments to Saudi Arabia were approaching the 300,000 mark.
For families in the United States with loved ones being sent to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield, Christmas of 1990 may have seemed an empty holiday. Service members sweltering in the desert heat 8,000 miles away had an even harder time getting into the spirit of seasonal cheer.
Because of fears that Muslim forces in the coalition against Iraq might be offended, open celebration of Christmas by United States troops stationed around heavily populated areas in Saudi Arabia was discouraged. Additionally, 18-hour duty days, a ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages and a definite lack of snow in the forecast helped quell the chances of Desert Shield troops enjoying any type of holiday whatsoever.
Bob Hope entertains troops near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Shield. The venerable showman did his first gig for the U.S. Army on May 6, 1941, and was still going strong five decades later. (Photo by Mike Mauer)
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Despite everything going against the troops, they had hope. And, because of the United Service Organization, they got Hope – literally.
In Eskan Village a few miles from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, famed comedian and entertainer Bob Hope arrived with his entourage to inject some good humor into the flagging spirits of the troops. As he had done through the USO on battlefields from North Africa, Europe, the South Pacific, Korea and Vietnam over a span of nearly 50 years, the venerable 87-year-old took to the stage again, singing and joking for eager throngs of homesick service members.
The high point of the show wasn’t the comedian trading barbs with baseball great Johnny Bench or the seemingly ceaseless jokes about life in the desert. That was reserved for Bob’s wife, Dolores, who sang ‘White Christmas’ with the troops.
When the show ended, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. Central Command commander-in-chief, took the stage to wish the service members a Merry Christmas, then ordered them to avoid all market areas in Riyadh because the terrorist threat alert had been raised.
Less than a month after Hope’s visit, more than a dozen Scud missiles would be destroyed by U.S. Army Patriot batteries within 20 miles of the stage at Eskan Village. United States troop strength would swell to more than 500,000 and Operation Desert Shield would turn into Operation Desert Storm.
But regardless of the hardships the service members faced, the troops had their Christmas in 1990. Even better, they had Hope.
(Michael P. Mauer is a Life Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 914 ’Intrepid’ West Mifflin. He was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf for his actions as a military reporter in Operation Desert Storm.)
Originally published December 16, 2015.