America’s original frequent flier recalls highlights in a career of leaving laughter in the wake of his worldwide wanderings.
I’ve been hitting the road since Bing and I made tracks to Bali, Morocco, Utopia and other places too numerous to mention. On the way I’ve met sultans and rajahs, kings and queens, Presidents and commissars, astronauts and admirals. I’ve done shows in hangars, warehouses, embassies, the White House, the London Palladium, Washington’s Kennedy Center, on aircraft carriers and in cargo planes four miles above earth. By the time I teamed up with Crosby and took the “Road to Zanzibar,” I had discovered that I enjoyed travel, especially to faraway spots. My overseas adventures began in 1941 after doing a show at March Field. I was hooked and began a romance with American GIs that’s lasted nearly 50 years, through three wars and, more recently, the crises in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. There are many memories of the places we visited while roaming the world, landing in places like Iceland, the Caribbean, Alaska, Korea, Vietnam, Morocco and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Once in the Yukon I asked an audience, “Would you like to hear Jayne Mansfield sing?” and a GI shouted back, “I’d be satisfied to see her breathe.” Another time in Greenland we’d wrapped the show with 60 m.p.h. winds howling outside, and we headed for bed. Then the phone rang. Mansfield was hysterical. She’d lost a diamond earring in the snow.
“Jayne, go back to bed,” I told her. “It’s pitch black outside, 20 below zero and a gale is blowing. No man in his right mind is going to search 50,000 acres of snow in a blizzard.” I was wrong. Outside my window I saw a gang of GIs with flashlights--searching for Mansfield’s earring. What’s more, they found it. Another moment I’ll long cherish occurred on a bleak, drizzly day in Asia. During the preceding week in Vietnam, Da Nang had earned its nickname--"Dodge City"--from the enemy shells that had torn it to pieces. Aware of the dangers, Jack Jones stepped up on stage and, before launching into his first number, turned to Les Brown and dead-panned, “Les, if there’s an enemy attack, cut my second number.”
Once I got caught in an ad-lib session with a kid at a weather station 20,000 feet below our plane over the Atlantic. We were returning home via Labrador; it was four in the morning when the pilot woke me.
A voice over the radio said this was Ocean Station Bravo. “How you doing up there; sorry we missed your shows.” “Man,” I said, “you guys stationed out here away from the smog and traffic really have got it made.” The guy cracked back, “They had to give us the job; we own the thermometer.”
Travel keeps me young, physically and mentally. We all need excitement, and what’s more exciting than seeing new faces, new customs, and different cultures? Sometimes, the reactions of people in foreign lands are just plain hilarious. Like the time I carried a golf club down Beijing’s main drag and strolled into the lobby of the Beijing Hotel and Chinese guests reached out to shake hands, asking, “Hey, Bob, how are you?” Wow, I thought to myself--here I was in China and the people knew who I was. It was later that I learned they were Chinese-Americans from San Francisco.
Sometimes I get an uneasy feeling I’m living on borrowed time when I recall some of the close calls I’ve had flying on USO tours during and after the wars. We missed being blown up in Saigon by 10 minutes, thanks to a delay in our drive from the airport. Nearly 100 were killed or injured by a bomb that our intelligence people suspected was meant for us.
On a flight to Alaska during World War II, our radio went out in heavy fog. After almost colliding with a commercial aircraft, we managed to come in on a single beam from an anti-aircraft searchlight.
On another flight our plane was hit by lightning between North Africa and Spain, and on another the Viet Cong blasted us over Nam. During a World War II tour to Sydney, an engine on our Navy Catalina began to sputter. The pilot feathered the prop and yelled, “Jettison everything.” We threw out luggage, oxygen tanks, food and cases of cigarettes.
After nursing us over several mountain ranges, the pilot sighted a small bay and ordered, “Everybody brace . . . lie flat on the floor.” We skipped across the water and slammed into a sand bar. Sitting on the wing, we spotted an Aussie fisherman rowing toward us. He smiled and asked, “Got any American cigarettes, mates?”
Forty years later when I was doing shows for our sailors and airmen aboard a naval ship off Lebanon, we were advised not to go ashore. But on Christmas morning, I coaxed a pilot to fly me to the Marine compound on shore. A few feet above the water the pilot warned me, “Tighten your seat belt; we may have to do some fancy flying to dodge the guerrilla fire.” Later, when I returned home, Johnny Grant handed me the remains of a shell that had landed where I’d been standing a half-hour later. On long tours you find yourself climbing in and out of planes daily. Flying becomes routine, and you stop worrying about whether you’ll arrive safely.
At Vincenza, Italy our plane was being refueled when the pilot smelled strange fumes and decided something was wrong. Mistakenly, fuel used by jet fighters had been pumped. Had we taken off, our piston-engine plane could have exploded in midair.
I manage to deal with jet lag fairly well for a man my age. For example, I got in the habit of ignoring time zones in the war years. Once during a Vietnam tour I flew 23,000 miles, crossed the International Date Line twice and put on 24 scheduled and impromptu shows.
On one wild, fast-paced trip last December I went around the world in eight days, doing eight shows in the Pacific, the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Europe and the Persian Gulf, traveling nearly 27,000 miles in an Air Force cargo plane. The jet lag alone was enough to knock out a marathon runner, and much of the time we got only two to four hours sleep. Back at Van Nuys Airport I told our producer, Elliott Kozak: “Never again!” A few weeks later I was off to Korea to tape a pre-Olympics show in Seoul, followed by a visit to the Demilitarized Zone to entertain the guys on duty in that forsaken place.
As soon as I finish writing this, I’m taking off for my annual week of non-working travel, heading to Alaska to go fishing, as I have for the past 30 years. We fly to Anchorage and from there on a small plane to a lodge that’s operated by a great guy named Mike Cusack. No plumbing, no heat, no electricity--but plenty of king salmon.
Before leaving home on a long flight I drink lots of water and watch my diet. My suitcase is always packed, and our housekeeper has a check list to make sure all my goodies are in it.
Someone is always asking why I’ve taken so many trips into so-called “hot spots.” My answer is that I enjoy entertaining our troops. Doris Day, who accompanied me on some of my shows, called the tours “frightening, educational, enjoyable, depressing and exhausting.” As she wrote in her autobiography, “We often flew through storms . . . that had me praying more than once.”
I’ll never forget my first plane trip. I was slightly nervous. A little old lady sat next to me. She was very calm, so I asked if she flew often. “Yes,” she said. “I do. I’m hired by the airline to make people like you feel safe” Since then I’ve learned to be more at ease on a plane. My theme song of course is “Thanks for the Memories.” And that’s what travel’s all about.