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Snap shot of Bob Hope and aircrew during the ETO USO Tour - Summer 1945.
 
 
 
 
 
Francis Langford, flowered dress, Hope and Jerry Colonna at right somewhere in Germany, 1945.  There is no shortage of both Signal Corps, press or private photos from Bob Hope’s 1945 tour - just none from the Bad Kissingen show.
 

Hope and dancer Patty Thomas at the Fritzlar stop of the tour.  The band members are seated behind screens marked at the top as 9th USAF and then at the bottom  “ s4s “ - the 4th Soldier Service Band.  The airfield was at the time, HQ for the 9th AF Fighter Command and 9th Tactical Air Command.

Then a series of images from the show.

 
Another view of Hope and Thomas.
 
And a third snap shot of Hope and Thomas.
 
P38 Droop Snoot was a variation that allowed a second crewman into the aircraft serving as a bombardier.  This aircraft would lead a formation of standard P38 aircraft to a target and then take the proper direction and altitude for the final bombing run. When the bombardier had made his final corrections, he would release his bomb, the accompanying aircraft would then drop their bombs in unison. 
 
Bob and a beaming Ruth Denas.
 
Gail Robbins and Bob.
 
Second image of this pair - all from the Fritzlar show.
 
Bob commands the stage.
 
Seen here is the mural showing the Statue of Liberty painting in Schweinfurt that Bob Hope commented on in his newspaper column.
 
From left:  Jerry Colonna, comedian Roger Price (in uniform), Bob Hope  ( he has just jumped into Price’s arms ) and the girls.
 
Amazing how many images turned up from that one show.
 
Bob and Roger.
 
Leaving the stage as the show wraps up.  From left:  Jerry Colonna (partially obscured),  Roger Price (in uniform),  Ruth Denas (accordion), Patty Thomas, Bob Hope (partially obscured), Gale Robbins, June Bruner and Jack Pepper.
 
Colonna at left and Price at center, the girls in the foreground.
 
Francis Langford, a popular singer and entertainer and long time member of the Bob Hope USO tour group signs an autograph for the troops somewhere in the ETO, 1945.
 
Gail Robbins
 
Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, the biggest stars of 1939.
 
  Judy and Mickey in one of the very popular Andy Hardy movies.
 

1942 and Mickey joins an Army band at the Hollywood Canteen, a club and snack bar run by the stars for the benefit of the troops.

 
Mickey and Ava Gardner in 1943.  He was a mega star, she was a bit part player on the rise.
 
Publicity still from Mickey’s last movie, National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor, prior to reporting for active duty in 1944.
 
PVT Rooney at basic training, Fort Riley.
 
Mickey and mom, a short leave back in California prior to reporting to Camp Seifert.
 
Divorced from Ava, Mickey married the local beauty queen, Beatty Jane Rase
 
Somewhere in France or Germany, trooper Rooney
 
Rooney, assigned to the Show Company, performing for the troops somewhere near the front lines.
 
Mickey’s Jeep Show group with unaccredited talent and photographers.
 
On the road - on the trails.
 
Shortly after the end of the war, Russian generals, Omar Bradley and Mickey at Bad Wildungen, Germany.
 

This is an Adobe PDF - click on the picture to view the full-sized document

Mickey plays BK - the souvenir program from the Soldier Show Company production of OK - USA staged in early September, 1945.

 
Mickey reunited with Beatty Jane - they had about two years remaining until divorce.
 
The last public photo of Mickey Rooney.
   

A Pair of Jokers

In the Summer of 1945, two of Hollywood’s biggest stars performed in front of the troops of the 9th US Air Force stationed at Bad Kissingen.  Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney played BK, a very small town in a large war torn country and while the story may have been quickly lost in the joy at the end of the war, those days and visits are certainly something worthy of recalling now.

From major stars to minor acts, American entertainers of that era were committed to bringing jokes, laughter and the old - soft – shoe to the troops through participation with the United Services Organization, USO, and the Army’s Soldier Support Companies.   Mickey ended up in uniform and was the king of the Jeep Show circuit - small shows traveling in jeeps bringing entertainment as close to the front lines as possible.  Bob Hope was the star of the grand revues, the Camp Shows, that featured a cavalcade of stars and played before troop audiences in the thousands.  Both entertainers could not have been better cast.

In 1945, Hope, Rooney and their respective caravans were rapidly crossing the European theater on separate schedules and it was probably a matter of coincidence that in the late Summer, both played Bad Kissingen.   Hope was there in mid August, Rooney followed about a month later.  I am sure that Mickey never let Bob forget the sequence and that Hope, at least on that occasion, had become the “ warm up act “

The story of these two iconic American entertainers and how they came to Kissingen is told in two parts.

It Says Here … Bob Hope - Bad Kissingen - August 1945

The Stars Wore Stripes - Mickey Rooney - Bad Kissingen - September 1945

It Says Here …

Bob Hope - Bad Kissingen - August 1945

Actor and comedian, Bob Hope, was the king of the USO Camp shows and in a career that spanned six decades, he appeared in 199 of them. He sold out the house in vast military camps and bases in America, England, Germany, all across the Pacific - then on to Korea, Vietnam and into the Middle East. The talent surrounding him changed through the decades, singers, pretty movie stars and starlets, comedians and athletes; they were always willing to put on a show for the troops when Bob came calling. As the faces changed, Bob was the first to note with a sly smile, the jokes were pretty much the same - maybe updated a bit but young men tended to understand the same jokes - appreciated the same humor across the decades and regardless of the military theater. Striding on to the stage with the band playing him in, many of the shows started with the same joke,

“ I’d like to thank the draft for providing such a large and wonderful audience today and isn’t it a thrill to be performing in front of the men of the … “

The crowd roared and cheered and Bob Hope was off to the races, it was that way in August 1945 at Kissingen and that way fifty years later.

The 1945 European Tour

In early Summer 1945, Bob Hope was temporarily free of Hollywood requirements and as usual, was working for the war effort. The mission at hand was fund raising for the Seventh War Loan Drive and accompanied by his regular radio show cast, the Pepsodent Players, he was in Washington DC. Among other events, Hope was feted by President Truman who asked to see the exact same show that was given for the troops. Truman was enormously pleased.

Working West, Hope and company performed in Chicago, South Bend, Sedalia and finally Salt Lake City. These were hardly single event stops. Most of the time, he was in town for four or five days of fund raising - he would perform his nationally syndicated radio show, do guest appearances and appear at celebrity golf matches. Bing Crosby had a habit of turning up unannounced and the two would immediately fall into the comedy routines that had filled movie theaters. The war in Germany was over and the nation could not be in a better mood.

The USO was concerned that the hundreds of thousands of G.I.s still in Europe, either on occupation duty or waiting transport to the Pacific Theater, should not be forgotten and they reached out to the top entertainers asking for yet another big tour. Hope, of course, said yes, he had done a very similar tour in the Pacific in 1944 and he departed in late May with most of his usual troupe of players: Jerry Colonna (entertainer) , Patty Thomas , singer Gale Robbins, musicians June Brenner and Ruth Denas   and comedians Roger Price (comedy) and Jack Pepper.

This was planned to be a long tour, 2 ½ months and it began with shows in London and Channel, France. The cast was soon running into other major USO talent who had committed to appear at least at some of the tour locations. The Bob Hope caravan was then off to Amiens and Marseilles where audiences over one hundred thousand troops were recorded. The city of Niece was one of the final stops in France.

Next on the agenda were 13 shows in Germany, among the stops: Bremen, Berlin, Bad Kissingen, Schweinfurt, Heidelberg, Furstenfeldbruck, Fritzlar, Kassel, Munich, Nuremberg and Mannheim. The Navy asked him to do a show in Monte Carlo so off they flew. The tour was so extensive that back in the USA, his regular radio audience began to complain that they were being neglected. By the time Japan finally surrendered, Hope was headed for Austria and finally Czechoslovakia. Not every American serviceman got to see a Bob Hope USO Show in 1945 - but he certainly tried.

The Twitter Feed: It Says Here …

Long before the days of Twitter and keeping in touch with millions of fans with a few key strokes, Bob and his publicists were well in front of the idea. Syndicated to hundreds of small town newspapers across the country, the “ It Says Here “ column, written by Hope, kept his fans aware of his overseas activities and was occasionally used to recall stateside adventures as well. It was written in that breezy, joke filled style that very much paralleled his on stage demeanor but when sent from Germany, he also threw in some war related facts that readers may not have been aware of. Not every paper carried each column and sometimes the dates got badly out of sequence but here is how Hope reported to the newspapers as his tour arrived in Bad Kissingen in August 1945.

It Says Here - August 4

( Airborne from Bremen ) Bad Kissingen is the name of a town not a description of a girl with a weak pucker. ( I just told that one to our pilot, Lt George McKellar, and he’s still trying to figure it out too. ) We got away safely this A.M. after having to go back three times to get out towels. Over here, everyone carries their own toilet equipment and it’s quite a novelty leaving the hotel and stealing your own towels and soap.

Had our last breakfast sadly at the American mess at the Bremen Rathskeller which is a very fine trough indeed. This Rathskeller is sort of an underground Brown Derby ( famous Hollywood restaurant ) with cobwebs. It’s over four hundred years old and the walls are decorated with murals of fat characters chasing fatter blonds all of whom seem to have mislaid their clothing ration books. And down in the sub basements are huge carved wine casks, seven feet in diameter that are so old they have to keep them full or they’d collapse. I could say we have the same things in Hollywood but that wouldn’t be a nice way to talk about W.C. Fields.

But the place is strictly G.I. now, Pvt Bert Parrish, who used to be half owner of a New York restaurant, is the maitre de and he’s really a chow-hound’s delight. The food is so good, termites are coming out of the walls and making reservations.

Our plane today was named “ half pint Nina “. Guys here tend to name everything and they really knock themselves out on some of the jeeps. Some names I recently noticed: “ Mrs. Astor’s Horse “, “ Jerky “ , “ Ophelia Bumps “ , “ Dead End “ , “ Candy “ and “ Ohh La Laa “ and yesterday I saw a Chaplains jeep names “ Heavenly Daze “. But mostly the guys like to put a girl’s name on the equipment.

After a couple of years overseas, the name and memory of a woman becomes awfully important to a fighting man. That name and that memory are never completely out of his mind and sometimes the name Margaret, Patsy or Jean is the only concrete thing he has to link him with home and the life he used to know. These boys do a lot of sitting and waiting and a lot of planning over here - and the planning is all built around those names they write on the jeeps, their planes, their tanks and their guns.

Got to cease now, we are dropping down. I can tell because my ear drums just met together in the middle of my forehead. Again.

It Says Here - August 5 ( appeared in US papers on Aug 19th )

Bad Kissingen - We are putting up here at a Press Camp which formally was a sanitarium. I won’t say what kind on sanitarium it was but it has padded doors and bell - hops all wearing white coats - they keep looking at me and murmuring “ Ahh … re-conversion and a new patient already! “

The Bad in Bad Kissingen means bath but so far, I haven’t been able to locate one here. This place is sort of a Bavarian Saratoga Springs. The Krauts used to flock here to soak in the mineral water they believed would cure everything from bunions to marital unfaithfulness. I tasted some of the water and all I can say is, “ I don’t think it will replace the old fashion mickey. “

This afternoon, I ran into six soldiers and an officer all wearing British uniforms and the Star of David shoulder patch. I stopped to talk with them and learned that the officer was Cpt. Horter Ishay of the Jewish Infantry Brigade. Though there were over one million Jews fighting in the Allied Armies, this was the only independent Jewish fighting unit. Cpt. Ishay, formerly a lawyer in Jerusalem, has been in the service five years and is up here now helping Jewish displaced persons get back to their homes.

Our unit went through its paces this evening up in Bad Neustadt for some 9th Army Air Force guys and afterwards we dropped over to the local Enlisted Man’s Club and hoisted a few beers with the guys. They were very glad to see us, meaning Neale, Patty, June and Ruth and hated to see us ( the girls anyway ) leave. We all sat at different tables and gave out the news from the states and signed autographs. ( When it was done, I was ahead by five fountain pens. )

There are a lot of displaced persons here, Poles, Russians, Czechs, Belgiums, Slavs - and during the show, a bunch of them were hanging around the outskirts of the crowd and although they did not speak any English, they seemed to be having a big time and laughed very loudly any time anyone else did. In fact I signed five of them up for my next Winter’s radio audience - if we ever get there.

It Says Here - August 6

Bad Kissingen - This morning I went for a ride in a “ droop snoot “ ( Note: this term has nothing to do with Jimmy Durante. ) A droop snoot is a P38 with guns and armament removed and a glass enclosed seat stuck right in the nose. Major Johnny Hatch of Decatur GA, commander of the 474th Fighter Squadron asked me if I wanted to go up in one and I immediately said “ Sure! “ ( I’m having my head examined tomorrow. )

Sitting in the front of one of those things, kids, is like riding on the handlebars of a bicycle with superman peddling. We really traveled and I know because I finally had the courage to open my eyes.

I had met Johnny’s father in the Pacific and every time he started into one of those dives, I wished his dad had remained a bachelor. It really is a thrill pulling out of one of those dives. Of course it wasn’t much fun when we landed and I had to hang by my heels for an hour to let the blood drain back into my head.

On our way into Schweinfurt, we flew over a big ball bearing factory that cost us so much to put out of commission - more than 100 flying forts in just one raid. We could see the remains of the ack - ack gun emplacements around the place and from what was left, get an idea of the tremendous amount of flack the Germans shoved up at our guys there.

After the show, we stopped in at an enlisted man’s mess that was being decorated in a big way. An Italian prisoner of war was busy painting a huge and very good mural across one wall showing the Statue of Liberty surrounded by waving American flags.

During chow, I bumped elbows with another Hollywood boy, Sgt Bill Cleland. Bill is the weatherman here but they are having a lot of trouble with him. No matter what the instruments say, it is difficult for a Californian to predict rain.

We had a great time talking with the boys of the 474th and after lunch, they presented our troupe with a mascot. It was a four month old Dachshund which after no particular deliberation, we promptly named “ Hildy. “ She is in my room now and looks particularly innocent chewing on my last pair of clean socks. She also seems very intelligent and ( opps! ) of course she still needs a little training.

From Schweinfurt we came back to Bad Kissingen and did an evening show in the courtyard of a Red Cross building, a former mineral water joint which is only a trifle smaller than the White House, for 8000 men of the 9th Air Force Headquarters. What a crowd - haven’t seen that many Colonels since I last played Iowa - can you believe I got laughs with that cornball joke?

And afterwards we ( Ooops! ) - well, there’s no use waiting, I’ve got to take Hildy for a walk and I’ll have a little talk with her.


It Says Here - August 9
Stalin’s Picture with laundry

Erlangen - We are putting up here in a little random hotel that reminds me of my vaudeville days. There’s only one bath in the whole place but it really is a godsend because there is hot water and that is a rare phenomenon in Germany. Everyone here is really ready for that treatment you need when your best friends just won’t tell you and about that certain aroma, and Jerry, Jack, Roger and Mike Cullen and a couple of other characters who just wandered in off the street are all trying to get in the tub at once.

We left Bad Kissingen this morning after spending an extra fifteen minutes trying unsuccessfully to get Olga, a cute 20 year old Russian who works at the sanitarium to take some money after doing a big stack of laundry for us. But she wouldn’t touch it. She just kept saying, “ I do it for all the fine artists. “ I guess it was a pretty good idea that we told her we were the Don Cossack Chorus.

She really did a swell job with the laundry though. I just couldn’t figure how she managed to scorch a picture of Stalin on to each of our shirts.

We flew to Darmstadt for our next show which was just like some we had done in the South Pacific. It was back in a huge forest and we went on for them in a clearing set up for the 415th P61 night fighter squadron with guys hanging from the trees all around us. It was a great day for the Tarzans. And quite a novelty for us to have an audience climb trees, we haven’t seen that since we last played Tarzana. ( a wealthy neighborhood in Los Angeles)

Between acts I chatted with Captain Mat Gilstrap and Lt Hank Long, Advisory Editor for the Germany edition of Stars and Stripes. Everywhere you go in Europe you find guys reading one of the five different editions they print here and everyone has a lot of respect for it.

Along with all the other tourists over here, this enlisted man’s paper is our only contact with what’s going on at home and the rest of the world. it’s a good contact and they do a fine job. The Germany edition alone, now printed on the presses of the once famous Frankfurter Zeitung runs off 200,000 copies per edition and gets them all to G.I.s the same day as printed.

Their offices are over a big brewery and they have to have a man standing by to blow the beer suds off the first 300 copies.

Had to send Hildy, our Dachshund mascot, back to the guys in Schweinfurt this morning. We were getting very fond of each other but when I woke up, she was having breakfast on my suitcase. ( She was really crazy about all the cardboard! )

I’d better halt now and get in line for a bath before the ring around the tub gets so thick that there’s no room for the water … what grimy little there is.

Back in the USA

In the Fall, the tour finally ended and the usual cast set sail for home. The only media coverage of Hope’s Bad Kissingen show were the glimpses provided in the It Says Here column and no photographs have surfaced.

An audience of 8000, all from the HQ 9th Air Force crammed into the riverside promenade? Maybe although by the time the small town newspapers that ran the column had read, transcribed and then typeset the wire copy - mistakes could have been made. An audience of 800 seems more plausible but this in no way takes anything away from his efforts. Although Bob Hope never served in the military, he was an ardent supporter of the USO and did more than ten men in helping it achieve goals of improving troop morale.

The next few years saw Bob Hope run up a string of hugely successful movies with Bing Crosby as well as continued success on the stage and radio. The bond drives, USO Camp Shows and all those performances in front of all those troops were behind him, or so he thought but in 1950 and a new war in Korea, the USO was reconstituted and the first person they called was Bob Hope.

There is a wealth of information related to Bob Hope and his grand participation with the United Services Organization.

A good place to start is here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Service_Organizations

Bob Hope bios on line are everywhere, this one is good.

To hear a complete Bob Hope USO Show from 1945 and see a montage of USO images.

Bob Hope Show in the South Pacific 1944 on YouTube.

There is good coverage of the 1945 USO European Tour in period newspapers and this book provides some detail.

Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy
Robert W Faith
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 030681207X

Bob Hope and crew in the center of the image, taken the day Japan surrendered while the tour was at USAF station Sandhofen, August 15, 1945. Bob Hope and his biggest fans Bob Hope and Ann Jillian at his final USO performance at Bahrain. 

The Stars Wore Stripes

In 2014, the US Army Soldier Shows Detachment, part of the Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs will play over fifty stateside dates - soldiers entertaining soldiers and family members.  Troopers wishing to participate as entertainers can apply for an audition through their chain of command and if selected, spend a year honing their talent and then performing song and dance numbers, choral assemblies and skits.  What a wonderful opportunity for that guy or girl always on stage in high school. 

Youth never looks too deeply to the past so here is the story of how the Soldier Show Detachment began, the biggest star and how a trooper small of stature played it big on the stage and brought the crowd to its feet in Bad Kissingen, 1945.  It really did begin with Mickey Rooney.

Mickey Rooney - An American Original

He was Hollywood’s top box office draw in 1939 while working a standard scale contract at MGM.  He received his first on stage credit at the age of three and was still cashing checks through early 2014.  He had that impish face with a ton of energy, the boy next door who could sing, dance, romance and tell a joke, a mix of innocence and sly devilment, a squeaky clean romantic and a hopeless womanizer.  Mickey did it all in Hollywood’s golden era, his face was seemingly always on screen, his face was seemingly always on the cover of the scandal magazines.

Mickey went through lots of changes and staged multiple come - backs, effortlessly going from screen to radio to stage to voice actor and then a final bow testifying before Congress about abuse of senior citizens.  They broke the mold when he showed up.  He dated all the top starlets, married icon Ava Gardner and then divorced her, earned millions, spent millions, paid alimony to multiple ex wives.  And through all of this, he told the standard self depreciating jokes the audience loved:

“ I’m the only guy you’ll meet with a marriage license in my pocket made out : To Whom it May Concern “ .

“ You know, all these divorces, when I married these women, it made them happy, when we divorced, it made them happy … when their first alimony check arrived, it made them happy.  All I do is make women happy! “

Mickey Rooney pretty much did it all - and this is to include as an enlisted soldier, telling cornball jokes, singing songs, banging on the hood of a jeep with drum sticks and entertaining troops just behind the front lines.  And did I mention - he staged a musical review that ran for a week in Bad Kissingen in September 1945?  Before you and I were in BK, Mickey Rooney was Boffo in BK.

Hollywood

Hollywood went to war on 8 December 1941 and from the studio board rooms to the screening rooms to the dressing rooms - everyone was expected to do their part.  The moguls would produce patriotic movies even as their top leading men lined up at the recruitment offices.  The experienced film technicians of draft age soon also departed. Hollywood was a dream factory run by old men and populated by female stars and starlets, with middle aged men both in front of and behind the cameras - and then there was Mickey Rooney, ever young, America’s favorite star.

His string of Andy Hardy movies and similar projects was quite successful coming into the war years and at MGM, eager to pack theaters and short of male leads,  Mickey was the go to guy.  It helped that his draft number was high;  he missed the call - ups  of 1942.    Content to do his studio work and to pitch in as a touring troop entertainer, Mickey split his time between the sound stages, the race track, chasing and then marrying the beautiful bit part player Ava Gardner and doing guest appearances at major Army camps throughout the nation.  He would sing, play the drums with the band, tell jokes, banter with the crowd - anything to entertain the ranks of soldiers.   This is how Mickey passed the middle war years.

Interestingly,  his box office appeal began a downward trend as the war dragged on. Maybe America,  in too somber a mood to accept the light hearted romantic films that were his specialty plus the drama of the now unhappy marriage to Ava, had just grown tired of “ the boy next door “.  He did have a critical success in the film, The Human Comedy, but on the whole, while he remained popular, many of his movies were not.

Rooney’s  pre draft medical status wavered from 1A to 2A, temporarily exempted due to war effort employment,  to 4F, exempted due to high blood pressure.  When the divorce from Ava finalized in early 1944 and the movie audiences clearly looking for a change,  - Mickey was back to a 1A status and the studio was not going to fight for another exemption.  He reported for basic training at Fort Riley Kansas in June 1944.  

 Andy Hardy Goes to War

The published accounts all agree that Mickey Rooney received little or no special treatment at basic training although on more than one occasion - he was invited to make an appearance at the Officer’s or NCO Club.  There are conflicting reports that he went AWOL once in a last attempt to salvage the relationship with Gardner, his autobiography recalled the incident as an authorized leave to visit his mother in California.  On the whole, he was considered a very good soldier.

Following basic, Mickey was to be trained in chemical warfare but his orders changed and his next stop was Camp Seibert, Alabama.  Here the Army was pooling musicians, actors, singers,  anyone with talent and in uniform who would provide entertainment at the front, much too close to the combat  for the regular civilian USO personnel.  The unit was given the title: the Soldier Show Company. 

As the major talent in this unit, Mickey was responsible for pulling the diverse group of fellow entertainers into a cohesive group capable of putting on shows in the field.  When not at the rehearsal hall with Jimmy Cook, a noted Big Band musician now troop band leader, as only Mickey could, he was conducting a whirlwind romance with the local teenage beauty queen, Betty Jane Rase.  They married after three dates and as the company deployed for Europe in the early October 1944, Mickey had his show on the road and Betty was pregnant with their first child.

The USO and the Big Shows

When America entered the war, among the thousands of areas discussed and planned for was how to maintain troop morale and consequently good combat effectiveness in what was clearly going to be a long, global war.  The colonels and general officers looking at this problem were for the most part, veterans of the First World War, and they recalled their own experiences.  Soldiers who are given some diversion from the constant strain of battle, some small creature comforts, a tiny taste of back - home America simply performed better and the challenge was to invent a system to make this happen in 1942.  The troop morale programs of 1918 were patchwork assemblies of well meaning civilian and religious groups, special projects of the wealthy or misguided civil efforts.  None of this would do.

Assigned to the task were two men, Fredrick Osborn, an academic from Princeton University who was first assigned to the Selective Service branch and then commissioned as a colonel and  promoted to Chief of the Morale Branch of the War Department and  Joseph W. Byron, a veteran and Military Academy graduate who had left the Army, been very successful in business and then returned as a senior civilian procurement advisor.  Together, these two men would respectively build the Special Services Division and the PX system, those two agencies most closely linked to soldier morale. 

The Special Services Division would consist of companies configured to directly enhance soldier morale in foreign theaters.  It took experimenting to get the framework approved  but in general, the units consisted of platoons and sections each with specific tasks such as mobile snack bars, mobile PX trucks, a motion picture projection section, recreational and sports equipment section, lending library - book give away section and a theater and entertainment support section.  This last section provided spotlights, loudspeaker systems, props and costumes for the United Services Organization sponsored civilian entertainers either hired by the government or volunteering their talents as part of the war effort.  A total of fifty - one such companies were planned and seventeen were actually deployed to Europe.  The officers assigned to these units trained at Fort Meade and they tried to become specialists in merging civilian USO entertainment into a military environment.  These companies would  soon accompany Divisions, Corps and Air Forces as needed to augment unit and individual morale as field commanders saw fit.

In the early days of the war, the system worked well.  England was dotted with bomber and fighter bases, huge cantonment areas filling steadily with troops destined for the invasion - the camps were perfectly suited for support by the Special Services Companies but once the invasion began, troubles, particularly with the live entertainment sections became apparent.  The civilian entertainers and their big production shows, so popular with the troops, were simply ill suited for the rough and ready field conditions as the Allies attacked across France.

Smaller shows were crafted, civilian talent was hired in England and liberated France but it seemed apparent that the combat troops, those most in need of a break from their danger and tedium, were being neglected.  Back in America, to solve the problem, the Soldier Show Company was authorized as part of the Special Services Division.  It consisted of a full complement of fifty - seven personnel, all experienced entertainers now in uniform to be sent to Europe initially on a ninety day TDY basis.  Mickey Rooney and his band of players, singers and comedians disembarked their troop ship and headed for Paris.

The Jeep Shows Hit the Road

The 6817th Special Service Company was designed to improve support to USO camp show efforts by consolidating all support into a single command and this appeared to greatly improve the relationship between the civilian performers, the Army units served and the Special Services. The unit was based just outside of Paris and it was here that Mickey Rooney and the Soldier Show Company joined the war effort.  Reporting also was another famous soldier entertainer, Red Buttons.  Drafted earlier, he had been involved with both military stage and movie productions.  Once free of those assignments, he was assigned to the Show Company.

Who actually invented the jeep show concept?  A couple of Mickey s biographers give him credit - the Army documents available indicate that the plan from the beginning was to use the all Soldier Show Company on a piecemeal basis.   The unit was to be broken down into about thirty, three man teams, each with a jeep and trailer.  Rattling down the roads and trails following as close as possible to the combat units, the jeeps shows had a master of ceremonies, and one or two musicians or comedians.  Their instruments, a small loud speaker, a tiny stage platform and the rest of their gear was in the trailer and they would give impromptu shows for units as small as platoons, well within the sound of cannon fire.  They would sing a few songs, play a few tunes, mix it up with jokes and banter with the troops - lead a sing a long and sign autographs when asked. 

Naturally, Mickey was the MC of his group but he excelled in all the tasks - beating out the rhythms with his drum sticks on the hood of the jeep, leading the songs, telling the jokes and happy stories of Hollywood and the stars.  Never was a man so perfectly configured to the task, he never complained or asked for special accommodations, always gave his best and the troops love it.  Military photographers also loved Mickey - there are dozens of photos of his jeep show at work and little evidence remaining of the other teams.

Now and then, several of the jeeps would converge to create a larger show when appropriate and the big musical they had planned at Camp Siebert and then rehearsed in Paris was dusted off on more than one occasion.  This is the contribution Mickey gave to the war effort.

Rooney -  Boffo - Bad Kissingen!

The specifics of Mickey Rooney’s entertainment caravan go cold as peace comes to Europe in the late Spring of 1945.  His biographers do not go into much detail beyond the fact that he was late in getting to the war zone and lacked the points for a prompt departure.  It is safe to say that he continued entertaining the troops in ever larger groups as the jeep shows gave way to larger productions at the major camps holding soldiers ready to depart Germany. 

The 6817th Company was reorganized into a battalion as it absorbed the live entertainment support sections of other Service Companies to include apparently the entire all female Special Service Company, the last SSC deployed to Europe. At some point that Summer, probably due to the ever larger audiences, the grand production musical show, OK - USA,  was performed for the troops and this is where Mickey, the Show Company and Bad Kissingen come together.

Unfortunately, no photos have surfaced from that event but we do have a wonderful souvenir program from the show that was performed for a week at the Kurtheater, in front of  personnel of the HQ 9th Air Force and certainly any other soldiers in the area.   As you look at the credits for each number, you can almost imagine how many of the skits and songs could easily have been performed in the jeep show days, and how grand the big production with full band and stage support must have looked on the professional stage at Kissingen.  Briefly looking at some of the names on the program, there was a lot of Army talent beyond Mickey:

  • Red Buttons had a long career in movies and TV as a comedian and became a staple late night guest with Johnny Carson.

  • Bobby Breen was a noted singer of that era and went on to run an important talent agency.

  • Gene Fullen spent his post war career as a Big Band leader and arranger playing in Las Vegas.

  • Hugh Martin had a long career on both Broadway and in Hollywood composing and writing for musicals.

  • A.C. Gannaway spent a career as a significant Hollywood TV producer.

A number of other named personalities have listed credits as musicians or arrangers on sheet music dating over three decades.

So What Happened Next?

Was OK - USA performed elsewhere?  Probably but there is no direct evidence.  We do know that Mickey Rooney was assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Network in the Fall of 1945 and soon was giving daily broadcasts from Frankfurt.  Elsewhere, staffers were busy writing the After Action Reports for the Soldier Shows and Special Services Companies that Winter - probably many of the actual participants had rotated back to the United States by that time and streamed to New York City and Hollywood to resume their careers.

In February 1946, Mickey finally had enough points to leave Germany.  He was awarded the Bronze Star by General Eisenhower for his great contributions to unit morale and in early March, was discharged from the Army and returned to Hollywood, motion pictures, the women and the horses.

As the Army mission in Germany changed from occupation to constabulary to the VII Army and the start of the Cold War, the Special Services Division, Soldier Show Company and morale services for the troops evolved.  With the units stationed in permanent barracks, morale services likewise became tied to each post and the military talent for shows was drawn from the rank and file.  There soon was a USAREUR symphony orchestra, jazz band and numerous singing combos, all grouped under a new soldier show concept.

The USO tours continued to employ civilian entertainers of all levels, there were the usual big shows with big stars but the talent still chased out to the remote locations in jeeps on occasion, even as far as the border camps.

The actual words and music for OK - USA appear to be lost.

To learn more about how the Hollywood stars went to war, go here.

To read some of the better Mickey Rooney obituaries, go here and here.

To read the After Action Reports of the Army related to the Soldier Show Companies and support of live USO entertainment in the European Theater of Operations, go here and here.

For a very well written history recalling the creation of  The Special Services Companies and the creation of the Moral Services Division, read:

American Girls, Beer and Glen Miller - GI Morale in World War II
James J. Cooke, University of Missouri Press
ISBN:  978 - 0 - 8262 - 1948 - 8

To read on line about the modern American Army Show Company, go here

 


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