Fort George G. Meade in war time was when the stars came out
By Kevin Leonard
Baltimore Sun Media|
Mar 26, 2020 at 5:00 AM
This is the second part of a two-part series about Fort George G. Meade.
In last week’s first part of this series, the work of Fort George G. Meade’s Special Services Division entertaining troops of the U.S. Army was profiled. The second part shows that the presence of Special Services meant a constant parade of civilian entertainers through Fort Meade, along with numerous Special Services soldiers stationed at at the fort who were professional — and famous — celebrities before joining the Army.
World War I
Celebrity soldiers appeared almost immediately after Camp Meade’s formation in the buildup to World War I. Congressman Royal C. Johnson enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 313th Maryland Infantry, based at Camp Meade. While fighting in France, Johnson was promoted regularly and eventually attained the rank of captain. He was wounded in battle and decorated for bravery. Hall of Fame football player Fritz Pollard was appointed physical director for African American soldiers at Camp Meade, a totally segregated community. Jockey Johnny Clark was in charge of Camp Meade’s horses and stables. He was allowed to periodically ride professionally at Laurel Race Track while in the military. Clark died at Camp Meade, a victim of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Washington Senators pitcher Jack Bentley, a native of Montgomery County, left baseball for a few years after enlisting. He also served with the 313th Maryland Infantry.
Civilian Babe Ruth made a post-war appearance at Camp Meade, hitting baseballs as keepsakes into a crowd of 1,800 soldiers in 1924.
World War II
The lineup of celebrity soldiers who served in Special Services at Fort Meade during WWII is impressive. In addition to the following soldiers, Fort Meade was home to dozens of professional actors, writers, directors, musicians, singers and every other profession involved in entertainment:
Legendary swing bandleader Glenn Miller (“In the Mood,” “Moonlight Serenade”) was one of the original attendees of the Special Services Training School at Fort Meade in 1942 before the school was moved to Virginia. Roger White wrote a six-part series for the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society’s newsletter, on the Special Services Division and the role played by Fort Meade during World War II. According to White, Miller believed Army morale would benefit from a program of swing music and he offered “to join the Army if he could lead a swing band.” The Army agreed, and Miller was sworn in as a captain.
Adapting to military life and, especially, the Special Services School was frustrating to the worldwide celebrity and “master of swing music,” according to White. "He chafed at being forced to endure prosaic instruction in conservative musical approaches.”
Miller’s military swing band, hugely popular with GIs, played live concerts, radio broadcasts and made records, to the consternation of Army traditionalists.
According to White, “Miller drew attention by adding to his marching swing band such unorthodox elements as string bass players and swing drummers, and by adding swing rhythm to John Philip Sousa’s marches.”
In a newsreel from WWII, Miller’s marching band is followed by an Army Jeep with the bass player standing on the passenger seat and the drummer playing on a platform attached across the back of the vehicle.
Captain Miller died in a plane crash in 1944 on his way to Paris to arrange for a performance. His plane was never found.
In his autobiography, “Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known,” actor Don Knotts (“The Andy Griffith Show”) recalled being assigned to Special Services at Fort Meade. He spent a few months with a group of soldiers rehearsing a variety show called “Stars and Gripes,” preparing to take the show overseas to the Pacific theater. He mentions in his book visiting local USO canteens, so he was probably in Laurel a few times. He spent the remainder of the war touring in the show with Special Services in dozens of locations across the Pacific.
Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans was another original Special Services Training School attendee and, like Glenn Miller, chafed at the instruction. As White recounts from Evans’ autobiography, “It was typical of the Army that we who had been teaching in the field were then brought together at Fort Meade to be taught how to teach.”
Evans starred in practically every Shakespeare play during his career. To prove to Army brass that Shakespeare would be appreciated by the servicemen and women, Evans used his own money to finance a production of “Macbeth,” in which he starred along with civilian actress Judith Anderson, at Fort Meade in 1942. The success of the production convinced the Army, and Evans then spent the war producing and starring in plays for Special Services.
Fashion designer Bill Blass spent basic training at Fort Meade before being assigned to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion, which was responsible for creating fake tanks, vehicles, ammunition dumps, and anything else to fool the Germans into thinking the Allied numbers were more than they were.
Actor Audie Murphy (“To Hell and Back”) was sent to Fort Meade for advanced training before shipping out with the 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. His unit saw extensive combat in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. After the war, he enjoyed a successful movie career with 44 films to his credit.
Actor and comedian Zero Mostel (“The Producers”) was drafted into the Army in 1943. After basic training, he was assigned to Special Services at Fort Meade. He only lasted six months in the service, however. The military suspected him of being a Communist based on his outspoken political views, but after an investigation the allegation was proved unfounded. He was discharged anyway and then toured with the USO entertaining troops overseas.
Jerome Siegel, who created Superman, served with Special Services at Fort Meade. He was a writer and cartoonist for the Fort Meade Post during the war.
Broadway producers Eddie Dowling and John Shubert also attended the Special Services Training School. According to White, " in 1942 Dowling served as the unpaid president of Camp Shows Inc., the branch of the USO that brought live civilian entertainment to the troops.” Shubert also worked with Camp Shows. He “secured performing rights for the presentation of stage plays to” the troops.
Actor Sabu Dastagir (“The Elephant Boy,” “The Thief of Baghdad”) was already an international movie star when he joined the Army in 1943. He spent four months in Special Services at Fort Meade, delivering mail and appearing in shows to sell war bonds. He left Special Services and became a gunner on a bomber, completing 42 missions in the Pacific.
Actor Sterling Holloway (“Winnie the Pooh”), a member of Fort Meade’s Special Services, toured in a show with a cast of amateur GIs.
Sgt. Joe Louis, the undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion, enlisted in the Army at the peak of his boxing career. Along with Corp. “Sugar” Ray Robinson and featherweight champ Sgt. Jackie Wilson, Louis trained at Fort Meade for 10 days in 1943 for a tour of boxing exhibitions at Army camps. While at Fort Meade, they worked with the post’s boxing team.
“Since each entertainment unit, before leaving the school, tried out its show on audiences composed of men stationed at the fort, Meade’s soldiers enjoyed some of the country’s best entertainers.” (“Maryland in World War II,” published by the Maryland Historical Society) Fort Meade in WWII was a revolving door of civilian celebrities:
Actress Helen Hayes starred in her Broadway show, “Harriet,” and actor Bela Lugosi brought his Broadway show, “Dracula,” to Fort Meade in 1943.
Actress and comedienne Imogene Coca (‘Your Show of Shows," “National Lampoon’s Vacation”) appeared in a variety show at Fort Meade in 1943 with a cast of both professional civilian entertainers and Army personnel.
Ventriloquist Edger Bergen and his very popular smart-aleck dummy Charlie McCarthy hosted a variety show at Fort Meade that also featured Don Ameche (“Heaven Can Wait," "Trading Places”) and Dale Evans (“The Roy Rogers Show”).
Concerts were commonplace at Meade, with headliners such as Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, The Andrews Sisters, The Ink Spots, Oscar Levant, Kate Smith and Eubie Blake.
Hollywood stars made frequent personal appearances to bolster morale and sometimes acted in plays and shows. Among those who appeared were ZaSu Pitts (“Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch”), Ann Rutherford (“Gone With the Wind”), Edward Everett Horton (“Top Hat”), Celeste Holm (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”), Ned Glass (“West Side Story”), Linda Darnell (“Unfaithfully Yours”), Marlene Dietrich (“Witness for the Prosecution”), Danny Thomas (“The Danny Thomas Show”), Joan Blondell (“The Blue Veil”), comedian Joe E. Brown (“Some Like It Hot”) and Anita Louise (“The Little Princess”).
Comedian Jack Benny staged his comedy show in the post field house in 1943 and broadcast it over radio station FGGM (Fort George G. Meade). Appearing with Benny were his wife, comedienne Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day and his sidekick, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
Comedian Milton Berle (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”) hosted and performed in a variety show at Fort Meade’s hospital. Before the show, Berle toured the hospital wards visiting the patients.
The success of Special Services at Fort Meade in boosting the morale of the troops was unquestioned. Fort Meade personnel also benefitted from the generous time and efforts of the celebrities. It’s no wonder so many alumni of the division went on to (or resumed) post-war success in the entertainment field.