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Column: 1940s entertainer was real ‘trouper’


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Martha Raye, wearing the uniform and beret of the Green Berets during one of her tours in Vietnam, is the only woman buried in the Special Forces cemetery at Fort Bragg, N.C.
SUBMITTED PHOTO
Martha Raye, wearing the uniform and beret of the Green Berets during one of her tours in Vietnam, is the only woman buried in the Special Forces cemetery at Fort Bragg, N.C. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Martha Raye is the only woman buried in the Special Forces cemetery at Fort Bragg, N.C.
SUBMITTED PHOTO
Martha Raye is the only woman buried in the Special Forces cemetery at Fort Bragg, N.C. SUBMITTED PHOTO


I was ready to click on the X in the upper right-hand corner of Jerry Curry’s email after reading only his one word greeting (WOW!) and seeing that he had forwarded me one of those chain letter messages.

I changed my mind and read on, although I am on a personal crusade against these kinds of letters because I suspect many of them have origins from within special interest groups that have a particular ax to grind.

There is a certain similarity to these emails. They usually sing the praises of some unsung hero but are really intended as shots at the news media and 21st-century celebrities who would not measure up to the true value of these heroes.

Frequent celebrity targets include Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. True to form, all three celebs were in the email Jerry had forwarded.

The unsung hero in his email was Martha Raye, a celebrated entertainer from the 1940s into the 1970s. Her story as reported in the email by an Army aviator was as follows:

“It was just before Thanksgiving ’67 and we were ferrying dead and wounded from an (area) west of Pleiku. ... All of a sudden, we heard a ‘take-charge’ woman’s voice in the rear.

“There was the singer and actress Martha Raye with an SF (Special Forces) beret and jungle fatigues ... helping the wounded into the Chinook and carrying the dead aboard. ‘Maggie’ had been visiting her SF ‘heroes’ out ‘west.’

“We took off, short of fuel, and headed to the (Air Force) hospital pad at Pleiku. As we all started unloading ... , a ‘smart mouth’ captain said to Martha ... “Ms. Ray, with all these dead and wounded to process, there would not be time for your show!”

“To all of our surprise, she pulled on her right collar and said, “Captain, see this eagle?

I am a full ‘bird’ in the U.S. Army Reserve, and on this is a caduceus, which means I am a nurse, with a surgical specialty. ... Now, take me to your wounded!”

“He said, ‘Yes ma’am, follow me.’

“Several times at the Army Field Hospital in Pleiku, she would cover a surgical shift, giving a nurse a well-deserved break.”

It was a nice story, but I believe in the “trust but verify” motto so I went to snopes.com (a website dedicated to confirming or refuting urban myths) and searched for Martha Raye in Vietnam. Sure enough, the story — word for word — popped up. It’s an email that started floating around in December 2010. It’s also a true story according to snopes.com.

Minutes after I got the verification, I received another confirmation, this one in an email response from one of the other recipients of Jerry Curry’s email.

Joe Kinderman, a Vietnam veteran who now lives in Columbus, was aware of the stories about the entertainer’s determination to be with the troops, regardless of the circumstances.

“I was at Pleiku Air Base for two of my months in Vietnam,” he wrote. “In December 1968, Martha Raye arrived at Pleiku to visit and entertain there and the surrounding units. It was my job to escort her to the next unit.”

Joe was standing off to the side of the officers club during the entertainer’s performance when the unmistakable sound of sirens spread over the area.

“Rocket attacks were pretty common in those days, and we took them seriously,” he said last week. “When those sirens went off, it was pretty common procedure for everybody to just dive for cover. You hid under whatever was available, tables, beds, etc.”

The singer was midway through her performance when the sirens went off, and a good portion of the audience wound up on the floor of the officers club. Some of them were, indeed, crouched under tables.

That didn’t stop her. She continued to stand on the stage and sing.

“It was kind of like that scene from the movie “Titanic” when the ship’s band was playing on the deck while the ship was going underwater,” Joe said. “She went right on to the end.”

During the performance there were other sounds to accompany the sirens.

“We could hear at least one explosion outside,” Joe said. “That didn’t stop her either.”

At the end of her act, the audience stood as one to give the entertainer a standing ovation.

Joe took her on to the next stop, a MASH unit nearby where she was to visit not only the wounded but the doctors and nurses caring for them. “That was always on her agenda,” Joe recalled. “Being a former nurse herself she wanted them to know they were appreciated.”

Joe spent only a few moments with the star on the trip between the two units, and much of their conversation centered on trivial matters.

However, he did ask her why she went on with the show during a rocket attack.

“She told me, ‘At my age, I don’t want to look like I’m running scared.’”

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