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"Memories of Maggie" Excerpt

This page was last updated on 20 January 2016. 



I chose "In The Mood" because that was a famous song during World War II when Maggie first began entertaining our troops overseas and it is still famous!

From 1964 to 1973, Martha traveled from camp to camp in isolated areas throughout Vietnam. She would stay “in-country” from four to six months at a time--usually at her own expense--to be with the troops she so dearly loved. She used the nurse’s aide skills she learned back in the 1930s, and surgical techniques she picked up during World War II to help treat the wounded. Whatever her official nursing qualifications, her assistance was often needed and very much appreciated. Her presence, whether as entertainer or as a nurse, helped to make life bearable for so many enlisted troops and officers.

Lieutenant Colonel Warren Henderson of Clovis, New Mexico remembers Martha in Vietnam sometime between June 1964 and June 1965. He was the Air Liaison Officer with the Twenty-first Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division stationed at Bac Lieu, and he lived with an Army Advisory Unit. During that year, only two “name” entertainers visited his group--Raymond Burr and Martha Raye, both of whom came through on more than one occasion. Martha used one of their “hootches” (simple huts or dwellings common throughout rural Vietnam).

While at Bac Lieu, Martha paid visits to their Regimental Headquarters. She also flew into outlying locations in resupply helicopters. Warren said that he was personally involved in one large operation near SocTrang, during which Vietnamese Army forces had many wounded. Martha worked at the hospital for forty-eight hours straight helping with those injured troops! He said it was a privilege to meet such a “high-caliber lady” who donated her time to help both morale and medical caregiving.

With the USO in Vietnam

In May 1965 Martha began the first of her eight USO tours of Vietnam, visiting military camps and outposts. On May 24, she arrived in Manila for a series of performances at U.S. bases in the Philippines. She was accompanied by Earl Colbert, a guitarist, and Ollie Harris, a bass fiddle player. From Manila she went on to visit Thailand and South Vietnam. During one of her shows, she was performed with Johnny Grant, Eddie Fisher, and John Bubbles. Johnny Grant later became an emcee on Channel-5 KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and also the “honorary” Mayor of Hollywood. That May tour lasted three and a half weeks.

In October that year, Martha was back in Vietnam with the USO for another six weeks. Until America’s withdrawal in 1974, Martha toured in Vietnam at least annually, sometimes with the USO (1965-1970) but most often on her own and at her own expense.

Some soldiers recall exactly when and where they saw Martha; others knew where but could not provide exact dates.

Maggie opened the Cobra Lounge in Takhli, Thailand. She also stopped in Korat and visited the Ninth Logistics Command. Sergeant First Class Harold Ward said he worked with the public address system for all events. “When Maggie said she was the ‘Big Mouth’, she sure was. I saw her stick a big microphone in her mouth.”

James Ryhal, Jr. of Hubbard, Ohio was in Vietnam in 1965. When he landed at Red Beach on March 8, his unit set up camp one and a half miles from the DaNang Air Base at the foot of Hills 327 and 268. It took them about thirty-three days to set up a decent camp of ten-man tents with generators for electricity. He saw Maggie twice and remembers her well.

"We had the use of some old French structures for a mess area and went from C-rations to B-rations. I figure it was in April or May when Martha Raye came out to talk to us and tell a few jokes. She had no escorts and no truckbed to use for a stage, and we had no bleachers or seats. She wore an old sleeveless dress; I guess they were called ‘shifts’ that you could picture your Mom wearing. There were only about thirty of us gathered around her in a semi-circle...We drank water from gerry cans, water buffalos and Lester bags.

"We went out at night and stayed in foxholes around the perimeter of the air base. There were a few times the enemy got into the air base and blew up planes. There were times you could hear small arms fire nearby. I want you to know she came out in remote areas like ours to entertain a few men...and I love her for this.

"I also saw her in November of 1965. I was taken from Charlie Medical Battalion on Hill 327 to DaNang Air Base to be evacuated to Clark Air Force Hospital. The plane was full of wounded. I only had an infected kidney that was taken out a month later. I was able to sit up; most were on stretchers. There she was, dressed in colonel U.S. Army fatigues. We were Marines, so I was a little surprised--but not offended. She walked down the aisle and talked with us and then, after a few words, she would go up to one of the men on a stretcher and visit. We got off at Clark Air Base and so did she. That was the last I saw of her.

"I could be wrong, but I doubt if Bob Hope ever went out in the boonies to entertain a handful. It seems he was at Saigon and larger areas where he entertained hundreds and maybe thousands at one time. I greatly admire him also--so no hurt intended."

In Harm’s Way

Gil Woodside, Jr., of Seekonk, Massachusetts was a nineteen-year-old Marine stationed at Chu Lai. His unit’s area was unsecured, and their perimeter was being hit or probed every night. They were building a combat airstrip that the Viet Cong did not want completed. It was a very dangerous area. Gil recalled Maggie’s visit.

"Five or six weeks after our landing at Chu Lai, some of us were detailed to help move some equipment and set up a makeshift stage for a show to be given by a Hollywood personality. We didn't know who it was going to be, but recognized her instantly as Martha Raye. I remembered her from “The Milton Berle Show.” As we worked, a Marine officer came up to Ms. Raye and told her that the small knoll that she had chosen for the stage site was in an area that would expose her to enemy fire and that the area had been the site of several sniping incidents. Ms. Raye looked around and said, 'But this is the spot where more troops will be able to relax and enjoy the show.'

"At great personal risk Martha Raye gave the first formal celebrity performance to American combat troops in Vietnam. After the show--which, by the way, was stupendous--she walked among the troops, signed autographs, took pictures with us, and had chow with us.

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"You will never know what that visit did for the morale of hundreds of Marines, sailors and Seabees who were fortunate enough to be able to be there with her.


"Only those touched by her and her troupe could ever understand the feeling of love, respect, and gratitude we have for her.

"We all appreciate the efforts and risks taken by many of America’s entertainers and sports celebrities but FEW have taken the risks or gone to the lengths to bring a little comfort and 'home' to the troops that Colonel Maggie has. How many wear the Purple Heart? Colonel Maggie wears two!"

Major General Ellis Williamson, of Arlington, Virginia organized the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) on the island of Okinawa in 1963 and commanded it for three years. These were among the first Army ground combat units to enter Vietnam in May of 1965. Ellis remembers Maggie well.

"Martha Raye entertained our troops during our first year over there. She made the remark to me that she thoroughly enjoyed entertaining troops and, except for wanting to see her grandchild every now and then, she would be willing to stay over there indefinitely. I asked her why she did not stay longer. She said that her contract was running out and that although she did not need the money, the band needed to be paid. I asked if she would stay if we of the brigade furnished her back-up music. Her answer was, “Of course.” I called General Sternberg [the personnel officer in Saigon] who said that it was okay with him.

"A flock of musicians volunteered to play her back-up. We had only a few limitations. The group had to be small enough to ride in one helicopter, and I insisted that my men wear Army uniforms and show our unit patch.

"We had many more volunteers than we could accept. Martha listened to many of them and selected three or four. She later told me that she could have used several times that many. Their first performance was on a U.S. Navy Aircraft carrier.

"She was a good trooper, and all of us loved her dearly."

While serving with Company B, Third Battalion, Third Marines, Sergeant Fred Olinger landed at Hue Phu Bai in April 1965. A few months later his unit was notified that there was a USO show forty miles away. They were expecting to see Ann Margret. Instead they found Maggie.

"But believe me we weren’t disappointed--Miss Raye put on a wonderful show. I had seen her on television, so I was familiar with her. She was really great.

"I had to go to Vietnam because I was in the service; Miss Raye didn’t have to come but she did. God bless her. I will never forget the joy and laughter she brought us."

Evening Dress and...Combat Boots?

Marine Private First Class James Cutler was also in Hue Phu Bai in 1965. He felt lucky to have been chosen to guard Maggie when she visited his area to put on a show. “She was a breath of fresh air.” He heard that she had been hit by mortar fragments during an enemy attack. His commander ordered the unit not to say anything because it would mess up other USO shows. Jim mentioned this to Maggie and she said, “Mum’s the word.” Later he was stationed at Lake Mead Base near Las Vegas and had the opportunity to see Maggie.

"I had my first flashback of Vietnam. Martha Raye was at the Sahara. I was thinking, will she remember me? How is she feeling about the war now?

"It took me a while to get to see her at the Sahara. I went one night with Jerry McCabe, a fellow Vietnam Vet. I wrote a note asking if she remembered me and if I could talk to her. We went in full dress tropics, ribbons, badges and a glow! We got to the room where she was playing. It was full--not even standing room. I thought I’d come back another night. I gave the headwaiter the note I wrote to Maggie and we were leaving when he stopped McCabe and me. He seated us at a table, front row and center stage.

"Martha came on stage, just the way I remembered her--what an angel. Her show was the best.

"The last part of her show, she came out in a full length evening dress. She sang a song, talked about Vietnam and our people in the war and how much she wanted everybody to get behind our troops in Vietnam. She said, “I am. One hundred percent, in fact!” She lifted up her full length dress. She had combat boots on. I felt real good!

"Then she said, “If you don’t believe me, just ask these two gentlemen down here” pointing at McCabe and me. She gave me my welcome home...We stood up for about ten minutes of applause. I didn’t even think she’d know me; what a pro she was!

"We were invited to her room after the show. That’s when she told me to call her “Maggie.” I gave her a set of bush greens with my name and hers on it, got some pictures and had a great time!"

Maggie appeared at large bases, too, such as DaNang, NhaTrang, Pleiku, Saigon and SocTrang. As battle conditions deteriorated, our military leadership usually limited big-name performers to these more secure areas for their own safety. Nonetheless, Maggie went most often to small obscure outposts where only handfuls of soldiers worked and which were often under threat of attack.

She was never taped, recorded, nor paid for her Vietnam television specials. She also refused to be photographed, except by the troops themselves and usually as they posed with her. She felt the people back home wanted to know about their sons and daughters--not about her. She did not want the publicity.

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Julio Rodriguez of Warner Robins, Georgia attended a show in the Fifth Special Forces Camp PlayBoy Club at NhaTrang Air Base in 1965. The show featured “The Old Lady of the Boondocks,” another nickname given to Maggie, and her performance brought hysterical laughter to the audience.

"Her antics on stage were in the true sense of “above and beyond.” Few people would have had the courage to put themselves in the position of self-humiliation, but she did it just to make us laugh!

"After the show Ms. Raye was signing autographs. I only had a Military Pay Certificate for paper, but she signed her name on a five-cent note, which years later I would lose. I no longer have her signature, but she and her show are locked away in my memories.

"For a short time, she allowed me to escape the lousiness of war and drowned me in laughter. I had a newborn son whom I had never seen and thought that I possibly might never see. Colonel Maggie was the only ‘sane’ person over there, and she brought us all the sanity of laughter in an otherwise insane situation.

"A few days later, the club was the target of rockets and mortars and, though it was destroyed, Colonel Maggie and her memories live on.

"She touched many lives, and I am thankful that she touched mine. I have only one regret...losing my Military Pay Certificate with her signature. She was every serviceman’s link to the joy of life and laughter."

Flying Economy Class: Gunship

Robert Wetherbie of Alexandria, Virginia saw Maggie when he was stationed at SocTrang with the 121st Aviation Company.

"Martha had more talent in her little finger than the entire U.S. presence in South East Asia. On several occasions I flew her and one of her escorts to some very dangerous outposts where she would entertain only a few troops. To my knowledge, she was the only civilian that ever flew with an armed helicopter platoon. Due to the mission, weight limitations, and rigid training requirements, no other non-crew members ever flew on the gun ships. During her stay, she endured several mortar attacks."

Serving with the Marine Corps in DaNang, Master Gunnery Sergeant T.C. Allen said that Colonel Conley had promised them steaks, corn on the cob, strawberry shortcake and some entertainment.

"The entertainment came in the form of Martha Raye. At least a thousand to twelve hundred troops were packed into the mess hall. When the colonel introduced Ms. Raye, the crowd went wild. Then the colonel had Ms. Raye turn around and bend over; the flight suit she was wearing had “Property United States Marine Corps” stenciled right across her rear end."

Herb Herther was also in DaNang during the summer of 1965. It was hot there, but at least they had a place where they could go to relax--Colonel Conley’s pride and joy, the MAG-11 Officer’s Club. It even had a little pond near the front entrance and a raggedy palm tree. It was more of a mud hole, really. Everyone called it the officer’s swimming pool.

"The club rules, even in that makeshift, rough-sawn, canvass-sided, nailed-together club, were the same as stateside. “He who enters covered here, shall buy for all, a round of cheer.” Of course in 1965 we hadn’t begun to feel politically-correct pressures. “He” meant “She” and everyone else.

"Well, wouldn’t you know it, in came Martha Raye, escorted by Colonel Bob Conley, purported to be an “old Friend”. She had her hat on and was dressed in uniform. It was some sort of Army or Air Force flying suit.

"There were about forty-five officers in the club, mostly from the four Marine fighter squadrons stationed there. The volunteer bartender rang the traditional bell and Ms. Raye had to buy the round of drinks. Of course, drinks were only ten cents, so it cost her about $4.50. I think Bob Conley picked up the tab. She sang a few songs and we joined in.

"I told her I had read the book, Four Jills in a Jeep [Carole Landis wrote the book in 1943 about the four women’s trip overseas]. She seemed very surprised, joking that I was the only one she’d ever met who had. She was a helluva nice lady."

Peggy Adams of Prince George, Virginia was an Army nurse stationed with the Eighty-fifth Evacuation Hospital near Qui Nhon from August 1965 through August 1966. She retired from the Army Nurse Corps as a captain. Peggy saw Maggie on two occasions. Maggie spent the night with the nurses in the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V) compound where they were temporarily housed while re-deploying. They shot the breeze with her until late one evening.

Peggy met Maggie again at a show in a warehouse at Qui Nhon, near the airfield. Maggie was fielding questions from the audience when one young trooper expressed his deep concern over the anti-war protesters. Maggie replied that she could understand how it must hurt to see people destroying the flag but, she said, “Son, remember one thing. Those people are not good enough to wipe the mud from your boots.”

Peggy has never forgotten those words. “She dressed like us, ate what we ate and was no cleaner than we were. No fancy quarters and VIP treatment. Just one of the gang.”

Copyright 1995-2016 by Noonie Fortin. All rights reserved.