Prologue Magazine

Irving Berlin: This Is the Army, Part 4

Summer 1996, Vol. 28, No. 2

By Laurence Bergreen

© 1996 by Laurence Bergreen

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.

Irving Berlin at San Carlo Opera House, Naples, Italy
Berlin sings "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, Italy, where the company played for the first half of April 1944. (NARA, 111-SC-337200)

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.

Playing piano in New Guinea
Berlin plays tunes for Wacs stationed in Dutch New Guinea during a December 1944 visit there. During the world tour of This Is the Army the composer frequently entertained troops with solo appearances. (NARA, 208-PU-17L-2)

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.

This Is the Army, Part 1
This Is the Army, Part 2
This Is the Army, Part 3

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.