"Memories of Maggie" Excerpt
This page was last updated on 25 January 2010.
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
"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.
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"A few days later, the club was the target of rockets and
mortars and, though it was destroyed, Colonel Maggie and her memories live
"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
"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
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 1995-2010 by Noonie Fortin. All rights reserved.