Multimedia piece by Sgt. Wally Reeves, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera). View his still images at http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/01/this-is-the-army-mr-greene/.
It’s been more than 70 years since opening night, but 93-year-old Seymour Greene remembers the day he took up his trombone in his country’s service like it was yesterday. His show, “This is the Army,” opened on Broadway – the Broadway Theatre, at 53rd and Broadway, to be precise – July 4, 1942. It was a typical, glittering, sold-out, New York opening, with “lights and excitement and sirens and all that jazz,” but it wasn’t a typical show. The 300-member company, including the 50-piece orchestra, was almost entirely made up of Soldiers, and the show had one purpose: to raise money for Army Emergency Relief. Greene, who had been drafted six months earlier, was the first chair trombone player, which earned him corporal’s stripes.
It wasn’t a typical Army unit, either, for it was integrated, the first integrated “outfit,” as Greene still calls his old unit, in the U.S. Army. He said everyone in the show felt so strongly about it, that if they arrived at a camp, station or city that was segregated, and the African-American cast members were told they would have to sleep and eat separately, the whole cast and crew would join the African-American Soldiers in the “colored” barracks. It was, however, an all-male unit, so men in drag played the female roles. “It was good for laughs,” Greene noted.
The only cast member who wasn’t in the Army was its creator, famous songwriter Irving Berlin, who had produced a similar show while in the Army during World War I. All of the cast members were professional entertainers – singers, musicians, dancers, comedians, actors and even stagehands – and Greene, the last known living member of the cast, was no different. He was 11 when he got his first instrument, and he had been playing professionally for seven or eight years before he was drafted at age 22. He played swing, jazz — anything really — in nightclubs “and all sorts of questionable places” around New York and his native New Jersey before the war began. Originally assigned to an artillery unit, he brought his trombone along to Fort Dix, N.J., “just in case,” and soon enough, another Soldier-musician, Herbie Fields, had Greene transferred to his band, which was touring the local camps, raising new GIs’ morale.
At the same time, Greene continued with his military training, when one day “a message comes out for me to go to the front office immediately,” Greene recalled. “I do and they said, ‘Turn in your equipment.’ They gave me a train ticket to Camp Upton, Long Island (N.Y.). I guess they went looking for musicians all over the country because back in those days, the orchestra consisted of people from the regular symphony orchestra, from the big bands. It was all experienced people.”
Full of song and dance numbers, comedy skits and even acrobatics, “This is the Army” was wildly successful, and the two-week run was quickly extended to 12 plus a cross-country tour with a stop in Washington, where they put on a special performance for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor and an all-GI audience. The president and first lady liked it so well, Greene said, “they invited the whole cast to the White House for a midnight supper the following night. … After the show, the whole company lined up in front of the National Theater where we had played, marched over to the White House, the back entrance, and there’s President and Mrs. Roosevelt … sitting by the back gate. I walked up and shook hands and said a few words. I wasn’t a bashful kid. It was quite an occasion.”
While on tour, the Soldiers had a choice: They could stay in the local barracks or they could find their own lodging with the $3.75 a day they were allotted for both rations and quarters. “Even in those days, that didn’t take you very far,” Greene explained. But he was clever: He’d go to different community and veterans’ organizations and say he was in town with the show and needed a place to stay. Someone always offered to put him up for the night. “There was always a family who would like to put up a GI, especially during the war. Every family had sons who were in the military. … I always had a place to stay in a nice, comfortable home and I’d have money left over at the end of the month.”
After a stopover in Hollywood to film a movie starring 1st Lt. Ronald Regan about the show’s successful cross-country tour (Greene can be seen in the extreme right of the orchestra pit), 150 members of the “This is the Army” cast and crew, who had by now raised millions for Army Emergency Relief, were on their way to England on the Monarch of Bermuda with about 10,000 other Soldiers. “Two meals a day and every other night you sleep in a bunk. The ship takes the scenic route. It doesn’t go directly. I think we went to Great Britain by way of South America,” Greene quipped. The circuitous route was, of course, to avoid mines and German U-boats.
The Soldiers performed for everyone who was anyone in London and throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, including King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and every general, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower “was so impressed with the show, he said, ‘This show will never break, can’t break, up. You’re going to go around the world.’ And right then,” Greene recalled, “we were booked to play around the world.”
From Great Britain, they headed to North Africa then Italy, landing only a few days after the Allied invasion. They stayed in a bombed-out palazzo in Naples that was missing both a roof and running water, and they narrowly missed a bomb that had been set to explode in the middle of a performance. (A member of the cleaning crew stumbled across it in a theater basement shortly before the show was scheduled to begin.) Greene was even present for the first audience Pope Pius XII gave after Rome was liberated. Greene is Jewish, but it was still an unforgettable experience, as was the trip to Palestine he and some other cast members were able to squeeze in after the tour took them back to Egypt. Next was Iran, which was a major supply route between the Western and Eastern fronts, then India, and then they were off to the Philippines, the South Pacific and Australia.
“We started out in New Guinea and we went to so many islands,” Greene remembered. “They assigned us a ship. It was a small ship meant for like 25 passengers. There was 150 of us they put on there. I didn’t like to sleep in the hold. I would throw a blanket on the deck. What we did, I think, was pretty unusual. In the islands, we’d pull within a mile or so offshore. They sent out the LST (landing ship, tank). I’d have my horn slung over my shoulder. The stage crew would set up the stage, which was usually at the bottom of a hill. The theater was a hill. Guys just sat on the ground. We would get audiences of 10,000, 15,000.
“Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Marianas, the Marshalls, we went to all of them,” he continued. “We had tremendous audiences. You can imagine all of these guys stuck on an island to see a regular Broadway show. I don’t think such a thing has ever been done.”
It wasn’t all dancing and singing and joking, however. They were Soldiers and they were at war. They had rifles and they had helmets and they occasionally came under fire. During a performance on one of the islands (Greene can’t remember which one.), Japanese snipers still hiding in the hills that surrounded the outdoor “theater” opened fire. “We had an audience of 10,000, 15,000,” he said. “Everybody started running. We were sitting in the orchestra pit ready to play. Of course, there was a panic. I jumped up on stage. My horn was ruined. The MPs got after the characters who were causing it. … Everybody comes back to the show with smashed instruments so we borrowed some instruments from a local band and finished our show. … The slide part was the only part (on my trombone) that was wrecked, so I borrowed an instrument and I gave him back my wrecked slide and I kept the good slide. I still have the horn.”
The “This is the Army” cast and crew were still in the Pacific on V-J Day. They slowly made their way to Hawaii, which was where they held their final performance in 1945. Realizing there wasn’t much of a future in music and that thousands of other unemployed GIs would also be looking for jobs, Greene signed up for the brand-new GI Bill and studied accounting at Rutgers University in New Jersey while playing trombone in a burlesque show at night. He eventually went to work for the Internal Revenue Service for 30 years, but don’t worry, he said: “I was one of the good guys.” He kept playing the trombone on the side, however, and has played at every inauguration for the past 40 years or so.
The grandfather of five still plays, and still remembers the score from “This is the Army”:
“This is the Army, Mr. Jones,” he sang at his home in Maryland recently between sliding his trombone and blowing notes. “No private rooms or telephones. You had your breakfast in bed before, but you won’t have it there any more.
“It was an interesting experience,” he concluded. “In the history of show business, there’s never been a show that did what we did.”