Bill Corsair (left) in Tay Ninh, Republic of Vietnam, in 1969 (Photo courtesy Bill Corsair)
Vaudevillians, crooners, comics, and a classical violinist — all pulled together to put on show for the heroes at forward-fire bases.
I produced, engineered, and gave voice to the original talking G.I. Joe, for Hasbro. So there was a little irony when, shortly after that, I was called to active duty, in 1968. Stationed at West Point, for special training I was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, Forward Headquarters, just outside the Cambodian border.
Compared with other wars, there weren’t as many Hollywood stars and personalities signing up with the USO to entertain the troops in Vietnam. But the sincerity and commitment to the men and women who answered the call more than made up for their fewer numbers.
Bob Hope, of course, was always there for the Sky Troopers of the Cav’, and although there was a standing contract out on his life from the North, he tried his best to get his star-studded cast to as many of the troops as possible. Just the sheer size of his show made it logistically impossible to get to the smaller forward areas. But some, of a lesser stripe, did.
George Jessel, a star from another era, didn’t forget those who served in Vietnam, but we almost forgot him. “Georgie” had a WWII Army uniform that he proudly wore (having entertained the men of that conflict) when he was on tour. On one occasion, it caused him a bit of a problem. One of the generals lent him a jeep, which he picked up at the airport when he landed, and along with two of the chorus girls from his show, he headed for Saigon. A couple of very young military police officers spotted this, shall we say, older gentleman, in a WWII uniform driving an Army general’s jeep, with two costumed young ladies, sightseeing through the streets of the South Vietnamese capital. Not having the slightest idea who this vintage entertainer was, he and his companions were promptly locked up. It was several hours before the forgotten icon was missed, sought after, and released, along with his female compatriots.
When I was alerted that he was on his way to our forward headquarters, in Phuoc Vinh, to entertain, I was worried. I was almost 30 and knew of Mr. Jessel’s fame, but the young heroes with whom I was stationed were at least a decade younger. I was afraid they’d never heard of him and his repertoire of George M. Cohan–type tunes, which were far removed from those of Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, and the Stones. We set him up on a makeshift stage with his two-piece “band,” and I held my breath, as this 71-year-old man opened with “Give My Regards to Broadway,” strutting with a mic in one hand and a cane in the other.
The ol’ vaudevillian finished his song, and there was a long silence that seemed to last forever, and then one young Horse Soldier started to slowly clap and then another until the whole audience joined in adding whistles and foot stomping: A STANDING OVATION! Maybe it was for Mr. Jessel’s talent, or it was a genuine show of gratitude from these young warriors who had been forgotten by so many, thankful that this vision, from another time, in an ancient uniform, cared enough about them that he came to belt out some tunes and share some chatter, with an energy far beyond his years. Whatever it was, for a brief period of time in a hot dusty patch of war-torn Vietnam, the old and the young became one and shared a little bit of love that neither would forget.
When I could steal some down time, I’d get a grunt with a great voice and guitar, Bill Ellis, and a classical violinist, Phil Blackmar, and with the help of a few of my questionable jokes, we became a low budget “USO Group.” We’d beg a helicopter ride to one of the many forward fire bases and entertain (sometimes just a few dozen of) the 1st Team’s finest. The trick was to get on and off the Huey in seconds before the surrounding enemy mortar teams had time to rain down a barrage that they hoped would take out a chopper.
Ellis was the star of our little group, and my jokes wouldn’t play all that well, in “The World,” which I later proved. But the showstopper was watching the expressions on the troopers’ faces when Phil took out his vintage violin and opened with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. No worries, the “Jessel Syndrome” was in place in spades, when these hardened soldiers, without fail, always broke into applause. Again, shared moments in time never to be forgotten.
A couple of other patriots who never forgot, and whom I was privileged to see again, years later in the states, were Connie Stevens and Sammy Davis Jr. Ms. Stevens was a regular on the Bob Hope visits. She was shooting a scene on the TV movie The Wedding Album. My wife and I were cast in a different scene, and during a break, my wife thanked Connie for the time she spent entertaining the troops, the Cavalry in particular and me. “Thank him, for me, for his service,” she said, and my wife Janis responded, “Why not thank him yourself? He’s right over there.” Kisses, hugs, and an exchange of some memories followed. When the director called Ms. Stevens to the set, she said, “You’ll have to wait, I’m talking to one of my boys.” For another ten minutes, or so, a coterie of technicians, actors, and a chastened director stood by in silence while a TV star proved that she still remembered.
Sammy Davis Jr. — who always had time for the men of the 1st Team and was a guest on the syndicated TV show my wife and I co-hosted in the mid ’70s, Corsair & Co. — showed he hadn’t forgotten by saying: “I remember the faces of those young patriots and how grateful they all were that we took the time to be with them. I could never forget them, and I hope they remember me. George, Connie, Sammy, and maybe even Bill, Phil, and the staff sargeant who told corny jokes, I’m sure they never forgot, and I promise we’ll never forget them.