MEMORIES OF MAGGIE: A LEGEND SPANNING THREE WARS
“For a short time, she allowed me to escape the lousiness of war and drowned me in laughter,” wrote Vietnam veteran JulioRodriguez. “I had a newborn son whom I had never seen and thought that I might possibly never see. Colonel Maggie was theonly sane person over there; she brought us all the sanity of laughter in an otherwise insane situation.” The “Colonel Maggie”Rodriguez refers to is none other than celebrated film, radio and television star Martha Raye. Although many enjoyed hercomedic antics in a career that spanned decades, few realized she had another side; she was a warm, caring individual whosacrificed her time to give thousands of servicemen a few precious moments of laughter in combat zones around the world.
In Memories of Maggie, retired Army reservist Noonie Fortin has captured the essence of Martha Raye. Born MargaretTheresa Yvonne Reed in a charity ward in Butte, Mont., on August 27, 1916, Martha Raye selected her stage name byrandomly flipping through a telephone book. And the rest is history. Colonel Maggie’s acting career began at the age of 3,when she joined her parents in their song-and-dance act on vaudeville. The spunky comedienne got her “big break” in 1935and went on to star with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
It wasn’t until the outbreak of World War II, however, that Martha Raye discovered the other love of her life–entertaining thetroops overseas. For four years she traveled to both the European and Pacific theaters of operation to perform for ourservicemen. When the Korean War erupted in 1950, Colonel Maggie again volunteered her services to entertain Americantroops in that country. With the buildup of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, Martha Raye was once again performing for troopsin a foreign land. She remarked to one Green Beret, “To hell with Saigon, I’m going where the real war is!” She flew intonumerous remote outposts and firebases. She entertained thousands of wide-eyed servicemen who were dumbfounded to seesomeone who genuinely cared about them and their concerns.
Prior to her acting career, Martha Raye had received nurse’s aide training. Her skills would prove invaluable during her time inVietnam. “After 15 hours of work, a nurse and I finished treating the wounded,” recalled Joseph Garrigan, Jr., of Marina, Calif.”I walked out into the cool of the night to smoke a cigarette. That same nurse asked for a spare cigarette. She removed hersurgical mask, and I recognized Martha Raye. She not only entertained, but worked as a nurse to help treat the wounded.”
In all, Colonel Maggie spent more than two years performing throughout South Vietnam, taking some trips at her ownexpense. She was made an honorary colonel in the Marine Corps and an honorary lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army SpecialForces. Although Martha Raye had received a host of commendations and awards, what was perhaps her greatest recognitioncame on November 15, 1993, when retired Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War,pinned the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Raye. After years of battle with the bureaucrats, Colonel Maggie’s unselfishpatriotism and dedication to U.S. servicemen in three wars was finally recognized.
Sadly, on October 19, 1994, Martha Raye died. She was buried at Fort Bragg, N.C., with “her troops.” Noonie Fortin,author of Memories of Maggie and one of the individuals who fought so hard to get her the Medal of Freedom, remarked:”The world had lost Maggie, but for many veterans of our country, her memory will live on forever. It will for me.”