Irving Berlin: This Is the Army
Summer 1996, Vol. 28, No. 2
By Laurence Bergreen
© 1996 by Laurence Bergreen
By today's standards, some of this story will sound old-fashioned, if not racist or at least archaic, but keep in mind that it took place in a much different era, in a much different America, and belongs to its time and place.
It is a story about the biggest and best-known morale-boosting show of World War II—Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, which began life as a Broadway musical designed to raise money for the military. It then toured the nation, and later the world, and was eventually made into a movie, starring the handsome young Lt. Ronald Reagan. I discovered the story when I had the great luck to catch up with many of the soldiers who had belonged to the show's company when they converged on New York's Theater District to hold their fiftieth—and final—reunion. They had faithfully convened every five years, ever since the company disbanded at the end of the war, but now the men were getting too old and their numbers too small to justify any more gatherings. As you can imagine, it was a deeply moving experience for all, an opportunity to savor victory, but also an opportunity to bid a final farewell.
At the time, I was researching my biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer, and was eager to learn more about this important but forgotten episode in Berlin's career. So I talked to as many of the men as I could, and with tears in their eyes, they described their experiences in the wartime show and with Irving Berlin. They told me what he and his work had meant to them and how the experience of working with him had transformed their lives.
This is their story and Irving Berlin's story, the story of This Is the Army.
Irving Berlin was fifty-three when President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. By Tin Pan Alley standards, the songwriter hovered on the verge of extreme old age. Had he never written another film score, another Broadway show, another lyric, another note, his reputation as the leading popular American songwriter was secure. The list of his enduring creations included "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "God Bless America," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "All Alone," "Remember," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance." They defined the nation's musical language. Holiday Inn, the movie containing "White Christmas," would be released the following summer, and Berlin would be able to sit back and watch the money roll in.
Always the zealot when it came to work, Irving had a different notion of what he should be doing with himself at this juncture in his life. The prospect of war sent a shudder of dread through the American people, but it also created a thrill of excitement. Berlin the showman responded to that quickening of the national pulse. "Songs make history and history makes songs," he said. "It needed a French Revolution to make a 'Marseillaise' and the bombardment of Fort McHenry to give voice to 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'" The war simplified everything for him. Now he knew exactly what to do: restage the surprise hit of his youth, Yip! Yip! Yaphank. Previously, he had sung of personal dramas—romance and woes and funny little incidents—but now he struggled to give a voice to national and even international issues, to locate himself in history, and to make a place for himself in what publisher Henry Luce termed "The American Century."
To set the wheels in motion, Berlin called Gen. George Marshall in Washington to propose his new all-soldier show. General Marshall approved Berlin's plan to stage a new morale-boosting revue on Broadway, and the production was under way. Irving promptly decided to call it This Is the Army. And in case the army didn't like it, he had another title in reserve: This Is the Navy. Or the Air Corps. Whatever. But his heart was with the army.
The next person to feel the force of Berlin's personality was Ezra Stone, whom the songwriter chose for the pivotal job of stage director. The twenty-four-year-old Stone was nationally known as the star of the radio program "The Aldrich Family," which had begun as a Broadway hit in 1938. When he met Berlin, Stone--a serious, heavyset man--was already in the army, engaged in morale work. Sensing leadership potential in Stone, the songwriter did his best to inspire him with a sense of mission.
Berlin anticipated composing the complete score for the revue at his customary breakneck pace: one month. And he planned to hold rehearsals at Camp Upton, New York, where he had overseen the creation of Yip! Yip! Yaphank a generation before. Once rehearsals began in the spring of 1942, Stone and Berlin were thrown together as weekday residents of Camp Upton. "On Sunday nights I would pick Berlin up at his house on the East Side," Stone said of the arrangement, "and we'd drive out together in my car. We'd spend the week at Upton and leave on Friday afternoon. So I was able to spend my weekends at home, and so was Berlin."
The building in which they worked was called, simply, "T-11." It was an old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks; at one end there was a large common room with a stone fireplace. "That's where Berlin wanted his special piano," Stone said. "It was right next to the latrine, which had a hot water tank that Berlin loved to lean against to warm his back. As he was doing this one night, he said that he could easily be a Bowery bum and let his beard grow. He hadn't shaved that morning, and he was in that kind of mood."
So far, Berlin's choice of personnel relied heavily on professional entertainers. He displayed real daring, however, in his decision to include black performers in the unit. At the time, the armed forces were segregated, and as a result of Berlin's insistence, the This Is the Army unit became the only integrated company in uniform. This extraordinary gesture derived not so much from Berlin's social beliefs as from his show business background and savvy. In the show business milieu, blacks had long been stars, popular with both African-American and white audiences. By integrating the revue, Berlin was simply importing the conventions with which he was familiar into the army. However, he was not blind to appearances; he knew his gesture would at the least be progressive, and probably controversial. But he believed the armed forces was the great leveler in American society. In his youth, he had seen the Great War reduce barriers separating Jewish, German, Irish, and Italian ethnic groups in the United States. Yet blacks had been excluded from this quiet revolution; even in Yip! Yip! Yaphank, the black numbers had been performed by whites in blackface in the manner of a minstrel show.
Eventually, black and white members of This Is the Army lived and worked together. His advanced ideas on how his men should live notwithstanding, Berlin clung to outdated conventions concerning the material he wanted the black actors to perform. Initially, he expected the first half hour of This Is the Army to recreate a minstrel show, which was the way he had kicked off Yip! Yip! Yaphank—110 men sitting on bleachers, and everyone in blackface. Ezra Stone, the director, was indignant. "Mr. Berlin," he said, "I know the heritage of the minstrel show. Those days are gone. People don't do that anymore."
"No, no, that's nonsense," the songwriter replied.After considerable discussion, Stone adopted another approach to convince Berlin to skip the minstrel segment: "How can we have 110 guys in blackface and then get them out of blackface for the rest of the show?" Berlin hesitated. Stone's argument gave him a way of backing down while saving face.
To give This Is the Army the contemporary feel that Stone wanted, the songwriter devised a new song for his black soldiers, something, he declared, "with a real Harlem beat." At first, Stone and the others had no idea what he meant by all this talk of Harlem. All they knew was that when they were trying to get some sleep in "T-11," Berlin would plunk away at the piano, night after night. One endless night he played the melody for "Puttin' on the Ritz"—his ode to high-fashion blacks strutting along Lenox Avenue—over and over again, and gradually the song evolved into something new: a different melody with the same tempo.
When reveille sounded, he announced to the groggy men, "I finally got the number for the colored guys—'That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear.'" Turning to a bleary-eyed Ezra Stone, he said, "I want you to call Helmy Kresa." Stone pulled the phone into the hall and held the receiver as the songwriter played and, in his way, sang to Helmy on the other end. Stone was astonished by the procedure, and he realized with a shock that Irving Berlin could neither read nor write music.
By the end of April, Berlin had completed most of the This Is the Army's rousing score. Although the songwriter had no official rank in the army and was technically a civilian, he trembled before senior officers as though he were an enlisted man. Berlin's anxiety over confronting military authority soared when Gen. Irving J. Phillipson notified Berlin that he wanted to hear the show. "What if they don't like it?" the songwriter kept asking before the audition. "What if they decide not to go forward?" The audition took place on Governor's Island in New York harbor, and immediately afterward, Berlin received word of approval. End of crisis.
Opening night, July 4, brought together Broadway excitement and war fever. Today, the stage production of This Is the Army is recalled as a blur of synchronized khaki uniforms and hundreds of soldiers singing patriotic slogans and indulging in innocent horseplay. Much of the revue did function on that simple level, but there was more to it than simple morale boosting. Through his songs, Berlin managed to inject human touches that made life in the armed services comprehensible to civilian audiences. Nowhere did he accomplish this goal more adroitly than in the title song, "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones," in which hapless inductees described how the war had altered their lives.
The show was a great success, but success had a way of generating more controversy for Berlin and his revue. The Broadway Theatre, where This Is the Army played to packed houses every night, was managed by the Shubert brothers, Lee and J. J., who were as contemptuous of Berlin in war as they had been in peace. When the brothers realized they had to live with Berlin's achievement for the rest of the summer, they hastily attempted to cash in on the show's popularity by demanding a weekly theater rental of three thousand dollars a week. Berlin was incensed. At that figure, he calculated, the Shuberts would be making a 100-percent profit, while he and the rest of the company were donating their services. On July 11 he made a counter offer of two thousand dollars a week, which would still leave the Shuberts a modest profit. He then enraged the brothers by threatening to inform the War Department of their excessive demands, warning them: "Please do not take advantage of this hit."
Berlin got his way concerning the rental of the Broadway Theatre, but the Shuberts remained spiteful. On August 21 Lee dictated a memorandum for his brother, J. J., reviling their theater's revered tenant: "As far as Irving Berlin is concerned, I would certainly make him pay for everything and not give him any concessions whatsoever. He always was a dirty little rat. He forgets that we gave him his first chance—did everything for him."
Berlin's insistence on donating the proceeds of the sheet music sales to the army upset his financial manager, Saul Bornstein, who gasped at the vast amounts of money the songwriter gave away. In a characteristic ploy, Bornstein tried to influence Bob Lissauer, the young soldier in charge of the show's music publishing division, to alter the policy without Berlin's knowledge. Bornstein summoned the young man and invited him to sit down in front of an enormous desk. "Bob," he said in his best confiding tone, extending his arms to the end of his desk, "I want you to know this desk does not belong to Saul Bornstein. I want you to know that in my heart this belongs to the Army of the United States of America. My heart knows the wonderful things that you fellows are doing, and the sacrifices that you're making."
Lissauer had one reaction to Bornstein's oration: "Bullshit."
By summer's end, it was apparent that This Is the Army had taken on a life of its own. Originally, Berlin had expected the revue to play four weeks on Broadway. Then, in the first flush of its success, he agreed to extend the run until September 26. At the same time, he found himself negotiating the sale of movie rights to Warner Brothers. And finally, the army was making plans to send the show on a national tour. It appeared that the show would go on—and on. This Is the Army had now consumed the better part of his energies for the year, but Irving believed he had a mission to fulfill as long as the war lasted.
The national tour had come about in part because of the enthusiasm of Eleanor Roosevelt. She had loved the show—loved it enough to have seen it three times and she wanted her husband to have the same pleasure. Since the President was unable to travel to New York to watch the revue at the Broadway Theatre, it was only natural that This Is the Army come to him. It was an honor that Berlin readily accepted.
The cast, however, soon discovered they would have to blunt some of the revue's rough-and-ready humor for the special matinee performance, scheduled for October 8 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. Ezra Stone was approached by a representative of White House security who was anxious about a sketch concerning KP duty. In it, Hank Henry, a big, burly comic, appeared on stage wielding a meat cleaver.
"How well do you know Hank Henry?" the security agent asked Stone.
"Oh, very well," Stone told him. "I knew him before the war."
"Has he ever said anything against the President?"
"What's your problem?" Stone demanded.
"Well," the agent said, "you've got him there stage right, and the President's sitting in his box fifteen feet away, and Henry's swinging a meat cleaver."
"No problem. There won't be a meat cleaver," Stone assured him.
"Why don't we have him come out chewing on a turkey wing?"
Stone agreed to the suggestion, and he later made one other critical alteration of his own: "I staged all the bows in military fashion. We'd present arms instead of bowing, and then I would give the left face command, and Irving Berlin would come in from the stage left wing. The spotlight would hit him, and we'd present arms to Mr. Berlin." But for the presidential performance, Stone conceded, "I made an error. I knew that we should acknowledge the President of the United States, so my first command was 'Right face.' And Mr. Berlin came in from the other side. He thought I had deliberately insulted him."
In other words, what the audience—and President Roosevelt—saw was the cast saluting Roosevelt while turning their backs on Irving Berlin. The thin-skinned songwriter never forgave Stone for staging what seemed to be a public humiliation in front of the President of the United States of America.
For the moment, there were congratulations all around and a show of unity before President Roosevelt. The day after the command performance, the entire cast and crew was invited to the White House to meet the President. "It was a night none us will ever forget," cast member Alan Manson said. "Roosevelt, crippled as he was, stayed up until 1:30 in the morning, shaking hands with all 359 men in the company. Mrs. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins were there. No one could go to sleep after that. We just sat up talking about it."
On December 14 This Is the Army opened at the Municipal Auditorium in St. Louis, and the feud between Berlin and Stone finally erupted into the open. After a performance, Berlin called a meeting in his dressing room. Alan Anderson, the company's first sergeant; Milton Rosenstock, the show's conductor; and Ezra Stone were in attendance. When they had assembled, Berlin declared that there were, as Stone heard it, "too many Jews in the show and too many of Ezra Stone's friends." Everyone present was astounded. Could Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, actually be saying this?
Stone retorted, "What about your friends? You've got everybody from the music publishing business." Rosenstock protested that there were more actually more Italians than Jews in the show, if anyone cared to count.
Berlin could not be dissuaded. He explained that he wanted to avoid the appearance that the cast of This Is the Army seemed to consist mainly of Jews trying to avoid combat duty by appearing in a morale-boosting show, but in the process he insulted everyone in the room. The cast did contain a number of Jews, but so did civilian show business. Furthermore, Berlin had approved everyone in the cast, so he had only himself to blame if he was unhappy with its ethnic composition.
Stone, meanwhile, was thinking of a spread on Berlin that had just come out in the glossy pages of Life magazine, trumpeting the official version of the songwriter's legend. Yet here he was complaining about the number of Jews in the cast. "Publicity—that's all you're interested in," Stone said to Berlin. "You'd sell your grandmother for publicity."
Berlin then insisted on reconsidering every member of the company. The decree sent shockwaves through the troupe; for them, leaving the company could well be a matter of life and death. Alan Manson told me, "I was always running into guys I had been at Camp Upton with, and I'd say, 'What about So-and-so?' And they'd say, 'He got killed.'"
It would be several months before Berlin carried out his threat, however. As the national tour worked its way west, Manson, Stone, and the rest of the company remained in a state of suspense about their future. The national tour of the revue ended in San Francisco on February 13, 1943. By that time, it had earned $2 million for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
After the national tour ended, Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studio, offered $250,000 for the film rights and, as Berlin specified, donated the money to the army. In addition, he promised to forward all profits from the motion picture to the same cause. A fresh series of censorship disputes flared up. Warner Brothers complained that the female impersonators, who were an important element in the show's tone and content, would prevent the movie from being released overseas. "Female impersonators do not exist in Latin America," explained one misinformed studio memorandum to Jack Warner. The author insisted the impersonators were "highly insulting and revolting to Latin sensibilities and censors. Even could the film be exported, United States soldiers cavorting in dresses would represent ammunition to the enemy's propagandists." So the studio reduced, though it did not entirely eliminate, the roles played by female impersonators, losing a good deal of the show's peculiar charm in the process.
Finally, Ezra Stone challenged Berlin on the issue of lyrics. By the time the film went before the camera, Berlin and he were no longer on speaking terms--as every man in the company was acutely aware. The dispute polarized the troupe into factions. Stone sensed his days with This Is the Army were numbered; he had fulfilled his role as stage director and was now dispensable. Berlin insisted on a new ending for the movie, the jubilantly bloodthirsty "Dressed Up to Kill." Upset, Stone and another soldier approached various church organizations to try to enlist their support against the song. Stone perceived his crusade in purely moral terms, but it appeared to others in the company that he took a certain satisfaction in having at last found an issue he could use against Berlin, and even subvert him.
For Irving, music could be as much an incitement to make war as to make love. He understood that war was, in the last analysis, not about singing or joking or fellowship, but about killing, and in "Dressed up to Kill," he gave vent to the animal energy released in combat.
Dressed up to kill,
Dressed up to kill,
Dressed up for victory.
Oh we don't like killing,
But we won't stop killing
Till the world is free.
Fired by Stone, religious groups went after Berlin and Warner Brothers with righteous glee, and by July the studio was awash with letters and telegrams criticizing the song. Warner proposed that Berlin substitute "Dressed Up to Win" for the original lyrics. Fearing bad press above all else, Berlin took Jack Warner's suggestion, and although the new lyrics made little sense, the soldiers singing them were still poised with bayonets at the ready, and they created just the same bloodthirsty impression that the song's critics tried to avoid.
As Berlin fought these myriad backstage battles, the 359 members of the show's cast and crew journeyed to Hollywood under military auspices. Classified as a "troop movement," their presence in the film capital was, officially at any rate, a secret. As such, the company's status ranked among the worst-kept confidences of the war. Their arrival by train on February 14, 1943, was greeted with Hollywood-style hoopla. When they reached Warner Brothers, they were amazed to find the streets packed with cheering civilians, all of them studio employees.
The soldier-actors occupied a sprawling, ten-acre camp site close to the studio. Now that they had made it to Hollywood, their lives became a bizarre amalgam of Hollywood razzle-dazzle and military rigor. In the camp, the men lived in heated, electrified tents constructed by the studio's prop department. They ran obstacle courses and performed drills. Under orders from the War Department, they marched in formation to the studio each day through a special entrance and reported for duty to their assigned sound stages. They were not allowed to roam freely, nor were they permitted to approach any actresses at the studio. (Off duty, at the Hollywood Canteen, their conduct was another matter.) After completing their scenes, the men marched back to camp.
To relieve overcrowding in their tent city, some of the soldiers found sleeping quarters in private residences. Most moved to humble rooming houses, but at least one found himself assigned to Cole Porter's Bel Air mansion. Once they began to mingle with the stars, they realized they had made it to Hollywood, after all. Alan Manson experienced the joy of hitchhiking with Ingrid Bergman each day to the room he rented in Hollywood for five dollars a week.
The only real Hollywood star that most of the members of the company came to know was a Warner Brothers contract player named Ronald Reagan. Now a lieutenant, he occasionally talked with Berlin during the making of the picture, but the distracted and frantic songwriter could never quite place Ronald Reagan. Was he a soldier, nonprofessional actor, or movie star? "The first several days I was introduced to Irving Berlin," said the future President, "he'd say, 'Glad to meet you!' and I couldn't understand why. But what really surprised me was that afterward he sought me out on the set, and he said, 'Listen, you've got a few things to correct: a little huskiness in the voice and so forth could be improved. But listen! You ought to give this business some thought! When you get out, you could have a future!'"
Along with the other cast members who were in uniform, Reagan earned military pay, about $250 a month, for his services in the movie. But civilians in the cast were able to command commercial fees. George Murphy, for instance, who played Reagan's father, was paid over $28,000.
Filming proceeded quickly until the day Berlin was scheduled to sing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" before the cameras; suddenly, he found himself at the center of a humiliating ordeal. The famous scene in Yip! Yip! Yaphank in which he was dragged from his tent was recreated with painstaking care for the cameras. Of course, Irving was now twenty-five years older. He was still as lean as a whippet, his hair still jet black, but his face was lined and clearly showed the strain of the months of touring with his show. And his voice, on which the success of the entire scene--the high point of the movie--depended, was weaker than ever: high and nasal, and yet at the same time muffled. Noted one brutally honest Warner Brothers memorandum, "As more than a million persons who saw the show from Manhattan to San Francisco know, Irving Berlin is no singer." As he neared the end of the song, his voice faltered so badly that a grip complained, "If the fellow who wrote this song could hear this guy sing it, he'd roll over in his grave!"
The opening of the filmed version of This Is the Army prompted a lavish military carnival. The mayor of Los Angeles declared "This Is the Army Day," and not to be outdone, the governor of California promptly declared "This Is the Army Week." The movie was given simultaneous premiers in three movie theaters. Ten thousand people saw the film at a time. At each location, stars, military bands, and military hardware such as Sherman tanks, jeeps, and four-thousand-pound "Block Buster" bombs were on display.
Amid the excitement, there was one missing element: Irving Berlin, who had taken refuge in New York with his family. Succumbing to his familiar opening-night shyness, he chose to stay away from the great event he had labored to create and publicize. This peculiar behavior was pure Berlin, another demonstration of the paradox he had become. Berlin was everywhere; Berlin was nowhere.
At worst an embarrassment, and at best a colossal curiosity by contemporary standards, This Is the Army did accomplish the task Berlin, the army, and Warner Brothers set for it: raising money. Throughout the summer and fall its popularity held, and it earned $9,555,586.44—a sum that Jack Warner proudly, if a trifle reluctantly, donated to Army Emergency Relief.
Before the foreign tour, Berlin finally carried out his longstanding threat to purge the company of undesirables, reducing the cast to 150 men. Once the selection process was completed, Alan Manson, Milton Rosenstock, and Alan Anderson all remained with the company and would go abroad with Berlin. Ezra Stone, of course, was left behind.
The plan, at first, was for the company to play throughout England for three months, after which This Is the Army would be disbanded for good. The company reassembled at Camp Upton on September 5, 1943. Their soldiering, too, remained important, as the men received carbines and took target practice in and around their tap dance and minstrel routines.
On October 21 the company sailed for Liverpool aboard The Monarch of Bermuda, crossing the treacherous, U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic as part of a convoy. Their ship was, like other troop carriers, jam-packed, and fresh water was in short supply. To fill their canteens, soldiers were obliged to rise at 6 a.m. and wait in line; if they were lucky, they would get their water before the faucet was turned off for the day at 7 a.m. Feeding the men posed a logistical nightmare; there was time to serve only two meals a day.
When the men weren't waiting in line, they turned their attention to music. There was a spiritual group under the direction of Sgt. Clyde Turner, who baptized the men on the voyage. There were jam sessions, even a string quartet--fifteen separate entertainment units in all. Other ships in the convoy heard the joyful noise and rechristened the ship Show Boat. They offered to ferry some of the men over to their own ships, but the Monarch's captain forbade such a risky maneuver. "There are subs out there looking for us," he cried. "Has everyone gone mad?"
They reached their destination ten days later, but fog prevented them from landing. Berlin flew across the Atlantic ahead of the men and installed himself in a suite at his favorite hotel, Claridge's. Arriving behind schedule on November 4, the performers immediately marched aboard a train bound for London, where Berlin met them at the station.
For prominent Americans wartime London was remarkable for the easy access they enjoyed to the highest echelons of British society. Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mixup, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.
On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister's residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin. The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. "How is war production in the United States?" he demanded.
Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. "Oh, we're doing fine," he hesitantly answered.
"What do you think Roosevelt's chances of reelection are?"
Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. "I think he'll win again."
"Good," Churchill replied. "Good."
"But if he won't run again," Irving offered, "I don't think I'll vote at all."
For the first time, he had Churchill's interest, not that he welcomed it. "You mean you think you'll have a vote?" Churchill asked, a note of wonder--or was it British irony?--creeping into his voice.
"I sincerely hope so," Irving said.
"That would be wonderful," Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. "If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other's elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch."
Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling that he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as "professor"? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill's probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest. The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion, and as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, "Berlin's just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face."
After London the revue toured the provinces—Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast—and returned to London to perform for General Eisenhower on February 6, 1944. At the time, everyone believed that This Is the Army had finally reached the end. But on February 8, Eisenhower wrote to General Marshall proposing that This Is the Army play to soldiers on all fronts.
A week later, the company took a train to Liverpool, where they boarded the SS Ormonde and sailed to Algiers, arriving on the first of March. After two weeks of performing in North Africa, the troupe sailed for Naples. "We moved into the destroyed palace of Victor Emmanuel on the Naples waterfront, which had received twenty-two direct hits," remembered Alan Manson. "While we were there, we had a twenty-third hit. The Nazis were bombing the harbor. No one was ever injured in our company, but the point was we were in the thick of it." War was not the only hazard the men faced in Italy; on March 23 Mount Vesuvius erupted!
The company finally found temporary shelter in the small San Carlo Opera House in Naples, where they played for the first half of April. "The men were brought down in relays to see the show. They didn't know what they were getting," said Manson. "They thought they were going to see an accordion player and a broad shaking her ass. But we gave them an enormous show, with 150 men" and, of course, Irving Berlin, whose poignant rendition of "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" was a highlight of each performance. By this time, the song had become more than an anthem of disgust with reveille; it was a protest against the monstrous war that had overtaken all of their lives.
By early June, Allied troops had taken Rome, and Berlin's company came riding into the city on trucks six days behind the victorious forces. Later that month, This Is the Army took up residence at the Royal Opera House, performing twice daily. In addition, the tireless songwriter found time to make thirty-five solo appearances in military hospitals, where he performed Italian melodies he had learned as a boy on the Lower East Side.
They reached Cairo, Egypt, on August 3, where they performed through the end of the month in the Cairo Opera House. They passed most of September and October in Iran. By year's end, the men were exhausted from their travels. It would soon be 1945, three years after they had reported for duty on This Is the Army, and there was still no end in sight to their rigorous touring schedule. When Berlin rejoined the company in New Guinea on December 30, he carried orders that they were to proceed into the Pacific and certain danger.
Few theatrical troupes have suffered as many hardships as did the company of This Is the Army, but the beleaguered soldier-actors prevailed through a combination of ingenuity and enthusiasm. Part of the credit belonged to the men themselves, by now welded into a band with a fanatical devotion to their cause, a fanaticism required to survive, and part belonged to Berlin himself, whose indomitable will had made the worldwide tour possible. The overcrowding aboard decrepit ships, inferior food, isolation, constant danger, and lack of women had all subjected the members of the company to an unusual degree of stress. Without Berlin's example of persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the company would have quickly disintegrated. With it, however, they could be resourceful and tenacious, even when their surroundings mocked their efforts, battered their health, and reduced the show from a Broadway smash to theater of the absurd.
During their year-end stand in New Guinea, for instance, the men received vaccinations hours before they were to give a show, and by the time the curtain went up, they were already suffering symptoms. Milton Rosenstock, the conductor, felt his knees buckle, and he could barely lift his arms. Musicians tried blowing on their instruments but were too weak to produce any sound.
When the show finally did take place, the audience was enormous: fifteen thousand tired, homesick GIs. Here they were, halfway around the world from home, stuck in a feverish nightmare of dampness and danger. And suddenly they had the opportunity to see the man whose songs they'd grown up hearing and singing: Irving Berlin. And not just Berlin, but an entire Broadway show, complete with orchestra, all of it here in the jungle. The only disappointment they felt was for the lack of real women in the cast.
At the end of the show, Berlin naturally gave an encore. The GIs could not be denied, after all. They had a request. "God Bless America," Berlin thought. But no, they told their commanding officer they wanted to hear Berlin sing his great hit, "Over There." Berlin, nonplussed, said he'd be pleased to sing the song "written by my friend, the late George M. Cohan." And he went on to sing "Over There" in a voice so wan, so uncertain that it sounded as though his mouth were full of marbles. But the soldiers loved it anyway.
For Irving, the experience of performing far from home offered unexpected rewards. One night, he was invited to an enlisted men's club, where the men serenaded him with his own "White Christmas." But the song was not only on the lips of American soldiers; the songwriter also heard it sung by the residents of New Guinea in a language he did not even understand. It was a wonderful experience, performing in the jungle this way, but it was also slightly mad. No other songwriter of Berlin's stature would have attempted to lead his own military troupe around the world. No other popular entertainer was willing to put his life on the line so regularly for the sake of the war effort.
Departing the New Guinea jungle for the vast expanses of the Pacific, the company discovered they had merely exchanged one set of hardships for another. In January 1945, they acquired what Anderson termed "a rotten old Dutch freighter that no Japanese commander would waste his time on. It was very small, 260 feet long. And we chugged all over the Pacific in it until June."
The boat, El Libertador, was designed to carry 25 passengers; now it had to transport 150 weary players. To squeeze aboard, the company jettisoned scenery, generators, costumes, props, and even irreplaceable musical instruments. The equipment that the troupe did take along quickly showed the effects of the region's persistent humidity. Wind instruments, unless coated with Vaseline, rusted quickly, and the few remaining costumes rotted away. It seemed to rain every evening, just as they were landing at a new destination and beginning to unload their equipment or trying to find a dry place to sleep. Most days they put on a show, then packed up, returned to the ship, sailed to the next harbor, unpacked, and tried to sleep; the next day they staged another show--or two.
When they were not battling nature, they often had to cope with the prejudices of the men they were trying to entertain. "In the Pacific, they tried to separate the black guys from the rest of the outfit," Anderson recalled. "We had to produce a paper that said, 'General Marshall gives us orders to travel together.' And they listened to us because they didn't want us to go back to General Marshall. So we were not segregated in living quarters, or in eating, or working."
While Berlin returned to Hollywood, the cast and crew of This Is the Army reached Guam on August 2, 1945. Four days later, the Enola Gay took off from that island to drop the first atomic bomb.
The final leg of the troupe's round-the-world journey sparked a remarkable burst of energy. In a span of ten days on Leyte, in the Philippines, the company gave thirty-six performances before a total of 77,000 GIs. On September 16, 1945, while they were in Okinawa, a typhoon struck, but they escaped without injury. The following week, they departed for Iwo Jima, where they spent two days, before pressing on to Eniwetok, Runit, and Kwajalein. They finally reached Hawaii on October 10.
Berlin planned to rejoin the company for the closing days of the tour. During the final performance of This Is the Army, on October 22 on the island of Maui, Irving Berlin sang "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" one last time and concluded his appearance with a speech in which he said he hoped he would never again have to write another war song. And he never did.
This essay is based on a talk given by Mr. Bergreen at the National Archives on July 11, 1995, on his book As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (Viking, 1990). The National Archives and Records Administration schedules author lectures throughout the year.