This is the Army and the Story of the Box

On the occasion of last month’s celebration of Veterans’ Day, I posted on Facebook a couple of pictures of my Dad in World War II, performing in Irving Berlin’s all soldier show, This is the Army. I’m going to use this blog today to expand a bit on that post, and to also tell you a story that was a staple of my childhood, that today has a different ending than it did when I was a kid. Let’s start at the beginning…

My Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia (so no…I’m not legitimately a third as I don’t have a middle name), was born on October 5th, 1910, on the lower east side of Manhattan. He was one of 13 kids in a typical big Italian family, and like many kids of his generation, never went to High School because he had to go out into the world and earn money to help support his family. My father was different from many folks in those days though, in that his chosen profession was to be an opera singer. (One of the questions I wished I’d asked my Dad when he was still with us was, “Why an Opera Singer?”) Jobs were hard enough to find, but finding a job as an opera singer was even harder.

From stories I heard growing up, like many performers, my Dad had many jobs that did not involve singing. From selling pretzels in the park to being a messenger for a Wall Street firm, to acting as “secretary” to his voice teacher, Madame Novelli, he did what he had to do! Long story short, that’s why he was very happy when he got to audition for, and then was offered a job in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the Germans and the Japanese were edging the world towards war and this would impact my father’s life in a very large way.

Sometime in that first year of being a member of the Met chorus, he got his draft notice! After years of struggling and scraping by while supporting his family, he was finally at the point where he had a regular job, and now the US Army was going to change all that. He went to his draft board, looking to get an extension so that he could at least complete the season before reporting for duty. Ultimately, they did give him that extension, so he finished out his first season at the Met, and then went off to the army. (If you read the blog post, My Dad and His Family then you know the whole Draft Board story, if not, here’s a link https://rnewadventures.com/2020/10/06/my-dad-and-his-family/)

After kicking around at Fort Dix for a couple of weeks, my Dad was sure that he’d be sent off to some area where his background and experience would have no use to him. That’s why he was very surprised to be assigned to Camp Upton, in Yaphank on Long Island, to audition for Irving Berlin and his all soldier show, “This is the Army.” He passed the audition and joined the cast that included Broadway actors, movie stars, musicians from famous orchestras, and one singer from the Metropolitan Opera! For most of my childhood we’d be watching a movie or TV show, and my Dad would point out one of his “army buddies” that he’d traveled the world with in the show.

After rehearsals, the show opened at New York’s Broadway Theater (the same theater that gave us Mikey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie) on July 4th of 1942, and was expected to run for 4 weeks. It was such a success that the run was extended several times, and eventually it ran to the end of September of that year. Since the show was loved by so many, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw it 3 times and wanted her husband the President to see it too, next up for the company was a National Tour, with all ticket sales going to Army Relief. Washington was their first stop with a special Presidential Matinee scheduled at Washington’s National Theater. The day after that performance, the entire company of This is the Army was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, where festivities lasted late into the night! Another story I’d heard when I was a kid! When the National Tour ended in February 1943,This is the Army had earned $2,000,000 for the Army Relief Fund.

The next stop for the TITA company was Hollywood. Warner Brothers had offered $250,000 for the film rights of the show, and like the profits from the National Tour, this was donated to the Army, and the entire company spent 6 months in Hollywood making the Warner Brothers movie, “This is the Army.” Although, for the purpose of the movie, a sub plot was added that enabled Warner Brothers to include movie stars like Ronald Reagan (the only one of the “stars” who was in the service as an Army Lieutenant), George Murphy, Alan Hale, Sr., and several others. The musical numbers from the show were still intact and the performers in those numbers were still the soldiers. A camp for the 359 members of the company was set up near the Warner Brothers lot (with heated tents built by the Warner Brothers Prop Department), and each day, the company would march from their camp to the movie studio. As well as shooting the movie, the singers, dancers, and musicians all participated in regular army drills, as befitting soldiers in the US Army.

My Dad is the soldier on the far right

The real reason for the making of the movie was to raise funds for Army Relief, and towards that end, it was an unqualified success. It earned $9,555,586.44, which Warner Brother’s donated to the Army Relief Fund.

After their American performances, the company was reduced to a cast of 150 men, including my Dad. Their next assignment was to be shipped off to England, and play around the country for 3 months, but prior to that, they returned to Camp Upton on Long Island to re-stage the show taking into account the reduced cast. On October 21st, the company sailed for Liverpool aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. After 10 days of very crowded conditions, sailing in the dangerous North Atlantic, their convoy reached its destination. This is the Army played in London for Royalty and for American and Allied troops, and then embarked on a tour around Great Britain. On February 6, 1944, they returned to London and performed for General Eisenhower. At this point the cast thought they had reached the end of the road, and the show would be disbanded, and they’d all be sent off to regular Army units. However, after seeing the show, General Eisenhower thought that it would be a great moral tool for his troops, and requested from Washington that the show play to Troops at the front.

General Eisenhower’s request was granted, and a week later the This is the Army Company sailed for Algiers. This was to be the the first stop on their tour that would take the company around the world, and not end till October of 1945 in Hawaii, almost 2 months after the September Japanese surrender! Rather than performing for Army Relief Drives or heads of states, now they would chase the front, and perform for the soldiers actually fighting the war! Some of the places they performed were regal, and some just a thrown together stage in the jungle, and their audiences were now groups of soldiers who had just come out of combat and who would be heading right back into it after the show.

TITA Posters, The Original Cast Album, and pictures of Irving Berlin

After 2 weeks performing in North Africa, they sailed for Naples, Italy. In Naples they were billeted in the partially destroyed palace of Victor Emmanuel, and that’s where the story of The Box starts. This was not my father’s first visit to Naples. Back in the 30s, he had sailed from New York to Naples with his voice teacher Madame Novelli. Madame Novelli was originally from Naples, and they stayed with her family for several months while visiting . Among the members of the family was a young man about my Dad’s age, and the two of them became fast friends. Turn the clock ahead to 1944 and the American liberation of Naples. As soon as the “This is the Army” company got to Naples, my Dad looked for his old friends and found them living at the same address he’d visited as a young man. The war years had not been kind to his Italian friends, and my father did all he could to get them food and other supplies that they’d been without for years. One of the benefits of this was that my Dad got to eat with the family, and had home cooked Italian meals for the first time in several years. From my Dad’s stories, simple ingredients like SPAM in the right Italian hands could be turned into gourmet food, so this Italian kid from New York truly enjoyed his meals with his Italian friends!

The royal palace in Naples had been German headquarters in the city, and as such was a favorite target of the allied bombings. My Father would tell stories of sleeping in incredibly opulent surroundings with bomb blasted holes in the roof. The doors at the palace were about 10 feet tall and decorated with intricately carved and painted 4 inch by 10 inch panels. In a typical GI move, my Father pried one of these panels off the door as a souvenir. He told his friend about this and even took it with him to dinner one night to show the family. His friend said that he knew a wood carver and how would my father like it if he could get him to carve a box to match the panel, and use the panel as the lid? My Father liked that idea, and a plan was hatched. About a week later at dinner, his friend showed him the box. The wood carver had done an excellent job of matching the lid, and the carving was exquisite. All that was left was to paint the box to match the lid, and my father’s souvenir would be completed. He left them that night and promised to be back for dinner in 2 nights, and in turn, he was promised that the box would be ready for him to take. As they say, best laid plans.

On the afternoon of the second day, the “This is the Army” company was ordered to load their trucks and be ready to leave Naples within 45 minutes. The Allied forces were continuing up the Italian boot and their show was needed closer to the front lines to entertain the troops. There was no time to get to his friend’s house and no way to tell them what was happening, so that was the last of his stay in Naples, and of the carved box.

That happened in 1944 and was but a brief episode in all the escapades of the This is the Army troop, as they continued through Europe and eventually island hopped in the Pacific theater too.

So now turn the clock forward to the summer of 1971. I’ve just graduated from college and we’ve planned a 4 week trip through Europe. It starts at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany where we picked up a new Ford Capri. We traveled through Germany, Switzerland and down one side of the Italian boot and up the other side. I very distinctly remember the day we got to Naples. After getting situated in the hotel room, my Dad went down to the lobby and found a phone book. He looked up the last name of his friend’s family and found a listing at the exact same address they’d lived at when he first met them in the 1930s. My Father placed a call and when a young lady answered, he explained who he was and asked for his friend by name. She said that he was looking for her Grandfather and that she’d get him. In a few minutes his friend, who he hadn’t seen or talked to in over 25 years, came to the phone. He couldn’t believe that this voice from his past was on the phone and was in Naples. One of the first thing he said to my Dad that day was, “Frank…I’ve got your box!”

That happened 50 years ago this past July, and was the culmination of a story I’d heard my Father tell all my life. Now his story of “The Box,” the souvenir that got away, had a new, and almost impossible to believe ending! My Dad died in 1983, but I must admit that I have continued to tell the story, and I guess keep him and his “This is the Army” stories alive. My Father was a great story teller, and after growing up on so many of these stories, and then finally seeing the movie, I’ve always felt very connected to this time in my Father’s life.

Oh…and the box? Well, for many years it resided on my Mother’s coffee table in her living room in Bayside, as it had since we returned from Europe in 1971, and it completed its trip started in 1944! When my Mom died in 2011, the box moved to our dining room hutch in our Mineola home. When Susie and I moved to Ocean City permanently, and cleaned out the Mineola house, our youngest son (Kenny…the performer and spiritual heir to my Mom and Dad’s profession) asked if he could have the box. It’s traveled around the country with him and his husband Chris, and now lives in their St. Petersburg, Florida living room.  I hope it will always have a place of honor in our family, as a reminder of one of our family’s member of the Greatest Generation.

This is the Army was my Dad’s life for over three and a half years, and was how he fought the Second World War. My Dad made friends and had experiences that he talked about for the rest of his life. As well as entertaining thousands during the war, and making millions of dollars for Army Relief, This is the Army was America’s first integrated company in uniform! Up until I finally saw the movie at the Museum of Modern Art in the 70s, all I had were those stories of my Dad’s of this period of his life. Believe me, I heard lots of “This is the Army” stories growing up, but none of them was any more prominent that the story of “The Box!” His stories of This is the Army continued to be told for the rest of his life, especially every 5 years when the alumni of the company would get together for a reunion. Reunions my Dad relished going to until his death. Sadly, most of the folks that my Dad spent these years with are gone, and the reunions just a memory for those of us who heard our Dads talk about This is the Army.

Thanks Dad for your service!

One of the great sources that I had for filling in some of the TITA details was Alan Anderson’s book, “The Songwriter Goes to War.”

Here’s an excerpt from that book detailing a story my father often told about TITA in Italy – Click on the book cover below to open the passage…

Another excellent source for this period in Irving Berlin’s life, is a series of articles from the National Archives and Prologue Magazine. If you’d like to read more about this period of American History, here’s a link to the first part of the series on This is the Army.
https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1996/summer/irving-berlin-1.html

If you’d like to see the whole scene that the picture at the beginning of this blog is taken from, here’s a link https://youtu.be/G5xKrNeqqGY

If you’d like to see the whole movie, through the magic of the Internet, here’s a link to Irving Berlin’s, This is the Army https://youtu.be/1RYHowaXdFY

In Defense of Spam

Lately it seems to me that more and more, I see people taking pot shots at Spam.  Be it on Facebook, or on the Internet, I see people call it names, and folks saying that they’ve never eaten it, and never would!  The real slap in the face, is when these same people pick Scrapple over a true American Hero, Spam!

Spam was introduced by the Hormel Corporation in 1937.  Spam’s basic ingredients are pork with ham added, salt, water, modified potato starch (as a binder) sugar, and sodium nitrate (as a preservative).  By the last turn of the century, Spam was sold worldwide  in 41 countries, on six continents, and trademarked in over 100 countries.  It is a traditional food in places as far flung as the United Kingdom and Mainland China.  In our 50th State, Hawaii, residents have the highest per capita consumption of Spam in the United States, it is sold at both McDonalds and Burger King, and is so popular that it is sometimes referred to as “The Hawaiian Steak”!

Of course, Spam’s big heroic moment was World War II, when it became the answer to getting fresh meat to soldiers on the front lines.   Before the war ended, over 150 million pounds of Spam had been bought by the United States government.  As American solders moved across the world, Spam followed, and its popularity spread, which is the prime reason it is used in so many different food cultures around the world.  Local people took this canned “ham” and made it their own!   That’s why in Hawaii there is a dish called Spam Musubi, in Puerto Rico a local dish called Sandwich de Mezcla containing Spam, in Japan it’s a staple ingredient in the traditional Okinawan dish chanpurū, and in South Korea there’s Spam kimbap (rice and vegetable filled seaweed roll) .  If you’d like to read more about Spam’s history and worldwide appeal, here’s a link to the Wikipedia article about it….. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spam_(food) .

Susie’s and my Dad were both in the United States Army in World War II, and I guess in a way, they brought Spam home from the war.  We were exposed to it early in life,  as it was a staple in both our houses when we were growing up.  I will always associate it with Susie’s Mom, when she made her great dinner combo of Potato Pancakes and Fried Spam.  I remember my Dad telling WWII stories of him convincing the cook of their unit to try making it the Italian way (Spam Parmigiana?), and always remember it being in our house.  

As to how we use it in our house…for years we’ve made a great Spam and Pineapple Fried Rice, and we’ve used it as the protein in Pasta Dishes.  Of course, it has a real place in our breakfast portfolio as an ingredient in an egg scramble or as an accompaniment to fried or scrambled eggs.  We’ve also discovered that the Spam that is packaged in the “SPAM Single” size, is cut a bit bigger, but thinner than the canned version, and is the perfect thing to brown and slide into a grilled cheese sandwich!  

When we went to Hawaii in 2013, we were so amazed at the many varieties of Spam we found in the grocery store that we’d never seen before.  As one of its biggest markets, Hormel makes several flavors exclusively for the Hawaiian Islands.  We were so impressed, we bought a number of cans of Spam unknown to us, packed it in a Post Office Flat Rate box, and sent them home.

Our collection of Hawaiian Spam and a typical Hawaiian “Plate Lunch” featuring deep fried Spam

Did you know that there’s also a Spam Museum?  We do, because we’ve been there!  Austin, Minnesota was where Hormel was founded, and it is also the home of the Spam Museum.  The museum was one of our first sightseeing stops on our Bucket List Trip in 2016 after I joined Susie in retirement.  The museum has displays showing Spam’s place in history, the many places around the world where Spam is sold, and some of the many varieties that Hormel produces.  It also sells “Spam Gifts” of which we bought a few!

So there you have it, our interaction with an American Classic, and my defense of this heroic American canned meat product.  The versatile product, that’s good hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!  And  to all the Spam haters out there who love their Scrapple, I leave you with this quote from Wikipedia,  “Scrapple is typically made of hog offal, such as the head, heart, liver, and other trimmings, which are boiled with any bones attached (often the entire head), to make a broth.”  Just Saying!  Good Eating!

Day Three

 

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So the highlight of today was our visit to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. What else is there to say, after you’ve seen the Spam Museum?? So, see you tomorrow!

Oh, you want more? Ok, if you insist!

We stayed last night at a great Comfort Inn in De Forest, Wisconsin. Great room, wonderful lobby, incredible free breakfast this morning, what could be better? A wifi system that worked! Strange but true in the year 2016, but the average time you could stay on the internet with any device was about 45 seconds! Just as you got to where you wanted to be, you got a NOT CONNECTED message! Can you say frustrating????

We left De Forest and headed onto the interstate about 9 AM. We knew that today would not be as mileage intensive a day as the past two were, and of course we were rewarded with near perfect highway conditions. In other words, NO CONSTRUCTION!!! So much nicer to drive at the speed limit (or slightly above) and not have to spend miles in single file traffic!! We started this morning in Wisconsin, and are ending our day in Minnesota, so only 2 states today! Right now we are in a very nice Super 8 motel in Jackson. We might have pushed our travels a little further but for two factors. #1 is that we have reservations tomorrow night in Murdo, South Dakota (the first of our pre-planned reservations) and didn’t want to get too far ahead of the plan we made before leaving home. #2 is that the longer we drove this afternoon, the darker it got and the closer we got to rain. Susie looked at the radar on her iPhone and it didn’t look friendly, so we figured what better place to wait out the storm, but a nice dry motel with a Sailor Jerry Rum and Diet Coke in our hand. There’s a Burger King right down the road and in a couple of hours we’ll decide what’s for dinner, but for now, we are happy to be out of the storm. This is Tornado country, isn’t it? Total mileage today, 324 miles and we pulled in at about 4 PM Central time.

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imageSo, lets get back to today’s highlight, the Spam Museum! Austin, Minnesota is the headquarters of the Hormel Company, the makers of Spam. The lady we signed in with told us that this was a brand new Spam Museum that just opened in April of this year, and we enjoyed spending about an hour wandering around the various exhibits. There was Spam in the World, Spam and the Military, a look at the history of the Hormel Company, and lots and lots of Spam memorabilia! In addition there were hundreds of Spam cans, including several imagewalls made of cans, showing the various flavors of Spam…even more than we saw a couple of years ago in Hawaii! They even have a Spam Gift Shop! There you could buy everything from Spam Clothes (no thanks Susie, I really don’t need a Spam Hoodie) to Spam Mouse Pads, to Spam Key Chains, to a case of Mixed Spam! We left with only a post card (to send to a restauranteur friend at home), a couple of presents for the Grandkids, and a can of Spam Spread we wanted to try! It was a cool place, and downtown Austin looked like a very typical Midwest small town! What can I tell you. It was our first “tourist” thing we did on the trip, and we enjoyed it…just like we enjoy Spam!!

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imageAfter Austin, our next stop on today’s tour was in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Blue Earth has a couple of memorable things it hangs it’s hat on. First, the east and west crews working on Interstate 90 in the 70s met up near Blue Earth. There is a Golden Stripe on the highway there, kind of like the Golden Spike on the Trans-Continental Railway. Second, it is the home of the Jolly Green Giant. No, not the frozen vegetable company, they used to have a canning plant there, but it now has new owners. No, I’m talking about the 55 foot tall Green Giant Statue that has stood in Blue Earth since 1979! Turns out it was the idea of the guy that owned the local radio station (of course it was), and the statue has spawned a Giant Museum and a Giant Days Festival. All I can say, is that winters are long and hard in this section of the country, and they have lots of time to plan!

Susie said that between our visit to the Spam Museum and the Jolly Green Giant, we’d had our protein and vegetables for the day! I guess we would have had to venture south into Iowa to get our carbs, but who knows what form their potato worship might take???

imageThere you have the highlights of day three of our Big Adventure. We are still having fun and seeing interesting parts of the country. Like acres and acres for miles and miles of fields of corn on the sides of Interstate 90 today! We also ran into a couple of wind farms, with windmills on both sides of the highway, as far as you could see. Very interesting and much more like the wind farms we saw around Palm Springs, California a couple of years ago, rather than the 5 windmills we see in Atlantic City back home.

Our plan for tomorrow is to head out of Minnesota, and enter South Dakota. Either tomorrow or the next day, we will enter the first of many National Parks we will be visiting (Black Hills National Park) and then we will see one of my Bucket List attractions…Mount Rushmore! Our days ahead will be filled with visits to Rushmore, Devils Tower (remember Close Encounters?), Little Big Horn Battle Site, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Tetons. Much more sightseeing, and less mileage. We will end week one of the trip in Yellowstone!

Oh and before we leave you for today, guess who we ran into again today! The house we passed yesterday in Illinois, we passed again today in Wisconsin! We are not sure if we’re following it, or it’s following us!!

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See you tomorrow!