During world wars and conflicts, celebrity USO shows travel to military bases and overseas to raise morale for the men and women fighting for freedom.
One film star who is the most associated with entertaining troops is Bob Hope, who entertained during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Hope would bring celebrities with him such as Ann-Margret or Connie Stevens to bring the familiarity of home to them in a foreign land.
But there is one star who isn’t mentioned as much for her morale raising service as Hope: Martha Raye.
Nicknamed Colonel Maggie by soldiers, Raye was so revered by veterans that she received special permission to be buried with the U.S. Army Special Forces cemetery on Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina.
Martha Raye’s headstone at Fort Bragg. I visited Raye’s grave in December. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)
World War II
Her patriotic endeavors began when she traveled overseas during World War II on Oct. 31, 1942. Raye traveled with actresses Carole Landis, Kay Francis and dancer Mitzi Mayfair to entertain troops in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and North Africa. The adventures of the four actresses was later written as a book by Carole Landis called “Four Jills in a Jeep” and was made into a musical film by 20th Century Fox.
Raye, known for her large mouth and jazzy songs, was the comic relief of the group. Landis was the sex appeal and Francis brought class and glamour.
While in England, the actresses only had one show canceled. When they arrived at a base, they learned half of the squadron’s bombardiers were lost that day. They ate with the men and helped toast to those who had died, according to “Take It from the Big Mouth: The Life of Martha Raye” by Jean Maddern Pitrone.
Martha Raye performing in Africa in 1943.
While traveling to North Africa in a B-17, two German planes began to attack. After the firing stopped, the actresses learned their tail gunner was killed, according to Pitrone.
When Landis, Francis and Mayfair returned to the states, Raye stayed behind to continue entertaining the troops. She helped carry wounded men, worked with medics, and traveled by jeep to the front lines; performing four shows. Each show was at least an hour and a half long, Pitrone wrote.
Conditions were rugged in Africa: Raye came down with yellow fever and lost 22 pounds, and then was in a trench for three days with 200 soldiers while Germans bombed the area, according to Pitrone.
“It was chummy,” Raye said in a May 15, 1943, United Press newspaper article, “Martha Raye Now a Captain.”
Raye returned home with a rank of honorary captain in March 1943 after four and a half months overseas.
Martha Raye with soldiers in Africa.
“Their only complaint was that they didn’t get enough letters from home. That’s what they want most,” Raye told the newspapers, encouraging families to write, according to the United Press.
Her plan was to travel to the South Pacific, but doctors told her that she needed rest after her bought with yellow fever. Instead, she planned a six week American military base tour, which ended on the second day when she collapsed from fatigue. In 1944, she discovered she was unable to go on any USO tours, because she was pregnant, Pitrone said.
Korea and Vietnam
Raye traveled to Korea in the summer of 1952 to entertain troops, but it only lasted a few weeks due to illness.
Martha Raye in Vietnam in her signature Green Beret and combat boots.
She was most active during Vietnam; traveling overseas eight times from 1965 to 1972 for six month to a year per tour. She was in Vietnam so often that a blind soldier recognized her by her perfume.
“She spent more time in Vietnam than the average soldier. She virtually gave up her career, family and everything,” said Mildred Fortin, quoted in a July 6, 1993, Daily Gazette article, “Area veterans take on mission to honor Martha Raye.” Fortin was a Vietnam veteran and co-founder of Medals for Martha Raye, an organization that wanted Raye to receive the Medal of Freedom, the highest military recognition a civilian can receive.
Raye would go into risky areas for the soldiers, leaving the larger, safe bases and travel into the jungle to perform for as few as 25 soldiers, according to her 1994 obituary. In 1967, she was the first woman in the Green Berets with five qualified jumps, according to an Aug. 1, 1979, article by Vernon Scott.
“She came, regardless of danger,” said retired Master Sgt. Tom Squire in her obituary. “She talked, drank, told jokes, played cards. A lot of times when the regular Army didn’t know what was going on or understand, she would just go.”
In each base, she posted her home address and phone number, encouraging the soldiers to stay in touch. And when she would return home, she sent their letters to their family, called wives, and would tell reporters how the soldiers were discouraged and disillusioned by the lack of support they were receiving from Americans, according to Pitrone’s book.
“I think the way they’re being treated by a minority of idiots back home is just disgraceful,” Raye said in an Aug. 27, 1970, article before she went on her sixth tour. “What I do isn’t for sympathy or pity. It’s just trying to help in a small way. Our servicemen give so much and ask for so little.”
Martha Raye with soldiers in Vietnam.
Along with singing and entertaining, Raye would help as a nurse. Raye told people she was became a registered nurse in 1936 and worked at a hospital while also acting at Paramount. However, it seems she never was a registered nurse but was once a nurses’ aid.
The soldiers thought so highly over her, they once threw her a birthday party. Fortin said Raye was the mother that the boys were missing- sister, girlfriend or nurse.
“We had no idea who would be coming to Ham Long on Christmas morning (1971),” said Army Col. John B. Haseman. “You can imagine our surprise and delight when this wonderful lady, clad in her trademark jungle fatigues and Green Beret jumped out of the helicopter… I will never forget what she did for us, and I know there are thousands of other soldiers who can tell you a similar story.”
During Vietnam, the Army made her an honorary member of the Green Berets’ Special Forces and she was given an honorary rank of Army Lt. Col. The Marines made her a full Colonel. In 1969, she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work with the military, and in 1993, she was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even long after World War II or Vietnam, military personnel would check in with Raye. One World War II veteran who was with her in North Africa wrote into Ann Landers in 1991 asking if she was okay after seeing her in a wheelchair on TV.
“I was privileged to be Martha’s Jeep driver during the North African Campaign when she entertained the troops of the 2nd Armored Division,” he wrote. “She tripped while performing and hurt her ankle but refused to get it checked out by a doctor until she put on a show for 20,000 soldiers.”
At her Fort Bragg funeral in October 1994, the Honor Guard from the 7th Special Forces Group Airborne served as pallbearers, the 82nd Airborne Division band performed and 300 soldiers and civilians were there to honor her.
“She was Florence Nightingale and Dear Abby,” said Bob Hope. “And she was the only singer who could be heard over the artillery fire.”
Closer view of Raye’s grave at Fort Bragg (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)
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