"Here, right here is where he was," says Paul Seitz. The 83-year-old World War II veteran is carefully picking a path along the deserted Munda airstrip, a mute boulevard of open land that Japanese and then American soldiers once cut across the middle of the intense jungle that chokes New Georgia Island, part of the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific. "His plane landed at that end of the runway and the Seabees built a little wooden stage at this end. The soldiers gathered along the eastern end of the runway for the show. Boy, that was something. It's one of the things I remember most about the war."
The "he" Seitz is referring to is Bob Hope, the event one of more than 700 shows the comedy icon has performed throughout his career for American servicemen and women serving in so many foreign countries that a number of them don't even exist anymore. In the summer of 2002, I was involved in a research project that, from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, took me to virtually every major battlefield from the war's Pacific Theater. More than once, spontaneous run-ins with men like Seitz made it seem as though Bob Hope had somehow hitched a ride along on my trip. Travel anywhere American troops have been stationed since the 1940s - Munda, Alaska, Sicily, Pusan, Da Nang, Beirut, Saudi Arabia - and chances are that Hope not only made a stop there, but, even if he stayed just a few hours, left enough of an impression to be remembered decades later.
America's greatest entertainer, patriot, and frequent flyer - he's believed to have logged about 10 million air miles - will turn 100 on May 29, 2003. For anyone else, reaching the century mark would signify a major achievement. While undeniably special, for Hope the number is just another to add to a list of unparalleled distinction.