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GENERATIONS: Tony Nicholson: ‘Thanks for the memories’ indeed

Recently, I watched an old broadcast of a Johnny Carson “The Tonight Show.”

He had Bob Hope as one of his guests. Hope had just returned from a trip to Iraq to entertain U.S. troops stationed there. Hearing him talk of bringing his USO show to military personnel, my mind raced back to a time more than 50 years ago.

In early January 1964, I flew commercial and military aircraft from North Carolina to South Korea via California and Japan. In South Korea, the U.S. Army assigned me to Camp Casey, a compound northeast of Seoul, situated along the likely invasion route from North Korea to Seoul. Located a few miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, the 7th Infantry Division called Camp Casey home.

Within a few weeks, it seemed to my newly turned 20-year-old brain that I had been born in a green uniform in a rugged environment far from my rustic North Carolina home. Time passed ever so slowly in the completion of my 13-month tour of duty. In early February 1965, I returned by air to North Carolina via the state of Washington and California, my time of active military service soon to end in a few months. After being reassigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, my stint in Korea had all the trappings of a dream sequence from a soap opera. However, two events I recalled vividly, and still do. I spent several days on leave in September 1964 traveling to various cities of Japan including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The photographs I saw of the destruction in those cities by atomic bombs impacted my heart and mind with an unforgettable vision of the quote, “War is Hell.”

The second event occurred in December 1964.  Bob Hope brought his USO show to Camp Casey. Along with him he brought several male performers and the band of Les Brown. Oh yeah, he brought five of the most beautiful women that I had ever seen. Clad in evening gowns that left little to the imagination, those women were the hit of the show, notwithstanding the jokes of Hope and the music of Brown’s band. Doing little more than standing before a sea of young men wearing U.S. Army issued green winter gear, Ann Sidney (Miss World), Anita Bryant, Janis Paige, Anna Maria Alberghetti and Jill St. John brought cheers and smiles at their every comment and move.

At the end of the show, Hope sang his signature song, “Thanks for the Memories.” As he left the stage upon finishing the song, I wanted to leap to my feet and shout, “Take me with you.” I didn’t of course, but I wanted to, and I wanted to go home as did most of my fellow soldiers.

In the days after the show, I found comfort in knowing that I would be going home in a few weeks. In the meantime, I had to fulfill my guard assignments in the pre-Christmas nights, walking on cold nights with snow blanketing everything while the camp loudspeaker played Christmas music. In 1964, Bobby Vinton released “Mr. Lonely,” a song about a soldier who was “away from home through no wish of my own.” The song concluded, “I wish that I could go back home.” I knew desperately that feeling.

As I watched Bob Hope on the Johnny Carson show, I thought about that time in December 1964 at Camp Casey. I thought about all the military personnel Bob Hope entertained during his career. How he and members of his show brought smiles to thousands of men at first, and then to both men and women, if only for fleeting moments of time. I didn’t personally know the man, his politics and his character. What I do know is that there are only a few memories in a person’s life that are labeled “special.” The Bob Hope show in December 1964 is one of those memories in my life that I consider “special.”  

Thank you, Bob Hope, for that memory.