Anyone who has read the autobiographical portion of “Sunday Nights at Seven,” the Jack Benny story, will have seen his diary of a gruelling trip through Africa and the Middle East to entertain soldiers during World War Two.
If you haven’t, here’s a good contemporary report from PM’s Heard and Overheard column of October 4, 1945.
The work of the stars to bring emotional relief to the soldiers fighting overseas is admirable, to put it mildly.
They Loved Benny in Africa
By JUDY DEPUT
"Nothing spectacular ever happens to me," Jack Benny complained in his suite at the Sherry-Netherland when PM interviewed him the day after he returned from a ten-week USO tour of North Africa. "The plane didn't get bombed, we had smooth weather except for a sand storm over the Gulf of Persia and we always got the shows on for the boys," Jack, who is some 12 pound heavier and slightly grayer explained.
But Benny did get into Italy.
This is how it happened. His USO party, including Larry Adler, harmonica player, and singer Wini Shaw, was scheduled to play in Sicily a week ago last Saturday but found upon arrival that the men had crossed over into Italy. Benny's party was given the "go ahead" and new on to catch up with the troops. They did, about 75 miles from the fighting at Salerno, When Benny landed he was greeted by a Major with, "What the hell are you doing here?" But the surprised troops demanded the show and then went to battle.
Once Benny & USO Co. played for about 10,000 men right after a review during which 12 of them were awarded medals for bravery. It was 10:30 a.m., temperature 140, at a camp on the Persian Gulf. The men sat right in the blazing tun for an hour and a half. Wini Shaw and actress Anna Lee, who always dressed up for the show, climbed into evening clothes and went to work. Benny, Adler and piano player Jack Snyder of The Yacht Club Boys, wore civics for the shows, otherwise khaki.
Benny, playing the pinch-penny jerk, always went over big. If you heard his only shortwave broadcast back to the U. S. A., from Cairo, credit this gag to Goodman Ace of Easy Aces who sent it to Benny as a bon voyage token.
"Say, fellows, I just got a cable from Mary Livingstone. Forgive me while I read it. 'Dear Jack, I'm
sending you that five you cabled for but it's your own fault you're running short. I told you you couldn't do Africa on $20.'"
At hospitals and advance medical stations, Benny gagged with the boys and autographed casts on legs and arms. The doctors, whom Benny couldn't praise loudly enough for the job they're doing, told him that a belly laugh was the best tonic for the wounded men. He came back loaded down with home addresses and messages from
the boys, mostly "Tell mom I'm swell."