Home History Mel Brooks Goes to War

Mel Brooks Goes to War

by Enochadmin

IN EARLY 1944 I used to be 17 years outdated, in my senior 12 months at Japanese District Excessive Faculty in Brooklyn, New York, and, after a number of summers spent working as a comic book at Catskills resorts, knew that I wished to enter present enterprise. However Hitler had began a struggle.

In the future a U.S. Military recruiting officer got here round and stated that if anyone within the class scored excessive sufficient on an inherent ability take a look at, they may be part of the Military Specialised Coaching Reserve Program, the ASTP Reserve. If you happen to have been accepted, you’d graduate early from highschool and be despatched to a school paid for by the federal government. Then whenever you turned 18 and joined the military, you’d be in a greater place to decide on your discipline of service. This sounded nice to me. I knew I used to be destined to be drafted anyway. So I took the take a look at. I feel they actually wished all people they may get. A few of the questions weren’t too troublesome, like “2 + 2 = what?” Evidently, I handed. I used to be despatched to varsity at VMI, the Virginia Army Institute in Lexington, Virginia, for particular coaching.

Life there was great and horrible. The horrible half was getting up at 6 a.m. to shave, bathe, and have breakfast. And having to make my very own mattress with hospital corners. The great half was that the VMI cadets have been so welcoming to us ASTP Reserve trainees. They by no means resented our sharing the varsity with them. VMI was not simply an instructional school. Based in 1839, it was generally known as “the West Level of the South.” Along with my tutorial research {of electrical} engineering and studying all about cosines, tangents, slide guidelines, and such, additionally they educated you to be a cavalry officer. So I realized to trip a horse and wield a saber—one thing I had by no means seen any child from Brooklyn do.

Brooks’s capacity to search out humor in unlikely locations has served him effectively. If you happen to can cut back Hitler into “one thing laughable, you win,” he stated of his well-liked 1967 movie, “The Producers.” (Avco Embassy Photos/Photofest)

After I turned 18, I used to be formally within the military. They despatched me to Fort Dix in New Jersey, which was an induction middle. And regardless that I had spent a semester learning electrical engineering at VMI, the military in its nice knowledge determined that I must be within the discipline artillery. They shipped me out to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Area Artillery Substitute Coaching Middle. When decreased to its initials, it spells FARTC. (Which one way or the other lingered in my unconscious and later made its approach right into a comedy scene in my movie Blazing Saddles. Waste not, need not.)

Fort Sill is within the southwest nook of Oklahoma. It’s chilly, it’s flat, and it’s windy. If you happen to ever have an opportunity, don’t go there.

Having gone to VMI, primary coaching at Fort Sill wasn’t that troublesome. You discover ways to carry a rifle, how one can drill with a rifle, and how one can shoot a rifle. And we’d go on lengthy marches—5, 10, often 20 miles—with solely 10-minute breaks. That was powerful. Then there’d be the infiltration course, the place they examined your expertise and used stay ammunition whilst you saved your head down and crawled in your elbows and your knees. That was scary.

The extra reassuring half was that I used to be educated to be a radio operator. That was going to be my job once I went abroad with a discipline artillery unit.

At age 17 in 1944, Mel Brooks was a cadet at Virginia Army Institute.
By February 1945, he was posing for a photograph with two Brooklyn buddies earlier than boarding a troopship certain for Europe.

No ‘Shortcutting’ the jam

THE REGULAR ARMY was an schooling. A very tough schooling. I’d by no means gone to the bathroom earlier than with 16 different guys sitting subsequent to me. I’d go loopy ready for the latrine to be free of individuals so I may rush in, do my stuff, and rush out. It took a variety of getting used to.

Sitting with 12 different guys having breakfast was one other new expertise. Every thing was “Cross the butter! Cross the milk! Cross the sugar! Cross the jam!” There was a strict code. When any person stated, “Cross the jam,” you weren’t allowed to cease the jam and put any by yourself plate. That was referred to as “shortcutting” and was not allowed. You needed to cross the jam to the one who stated “Cross the jam,” regardless that the jam seemed good, and also you wished to take somewhat on the way in which. It was forbidden.

Brooks discovered loads of indignities in military life—together with the shortage of privateness that’s bugging this unidentifed G.I. (Kirn Classic Inventory/Corbis Historic/Getty Photographs)

Once we have been on bivouac—a short lived campsite away from the barracks—we’d stand within the chow line with our mess kits. Mess kits have been two small oval aluminum trays with indentations for meals and an aluminum knife, fork, and spoon connected. You waited together with your mess equipment, they usually’d throw some beef stew in one of many indentations. Then got here the mashed potatoes, and regardless that there have been different indentations for the mashed potatoes they all the time threw it proper on high of the stew. Then—you received’t consider this—for dessert there have been often sliced peaches. Which after all, you anticipated they might put into one of many remaining empty locations within the mess equipment. However what did they do? They hurled it proper on high of your potatoes and beef stew. They merely didn’t care. And we have been ravenous so we wolfed it down. (For some purpose, to today I’m vaguely nostalgic for some sliced peaches on high of my beef bourguignon.)

Brooks additionally had a beef with how meals was unceremoniously tossed onto mess kits in chow strains—as apparently do these airmen at their base in Libya. (U.S. Air Drive/Nationwide Archives)

After chow, you waited in line as soon as once more to scrub your mess equipment. First you swirled it round in a rubbish can effervescent with sizzling soapy water. You then moved it to the following rubbish can of rinse water, nonetheless stuffed with the remnants of cleaning soap. After which the final rubbish can with clear sizzling water. That did the job. It by no means occurred to me to ask my sergeants and officers: Why do we now have to do all these items? Isn’t there a greater approach? Couldn’t we now have somewhat extra time for studying a guide we preferred, or perhaps taking a nap now and again? After which I spotted: That’s why the military likes 18-year-olds. No questions requested. You do what you’re informed.

After I completed primary coaching at Fort Sill, I used to be shipped again to Fort Dix for abroad project. I used to be fortunate to get a weekend in New York so I may see my mother, my grandma, my aunts and uncles, and the few associates who have been additionally within the service however hadn’t shipped out but. I stuffed as a lot of my mother’s scrumptious meals as attainable down my gullet. She made me issues I beloved like matzo ball soup, potato pancakes, and stuffed cabbage—issues I knew have been hardly served on a military chow line.

Seasick and sleepless

AND THEN ONE NIGHT—I feel it was round February 15 or 16, 1945—along with three or 4 hundred different guys, I boarded a troop transport on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the SS Sea Owl. I keep in mind happening under to the third or fourth deck, and I used to be greeted with the sight of rows and rows of stacked steel bunks. Every row was six beds excessive. It seemed like a whole lot of bunks. Sadly, in my row I acquired the third one, which was proper sq. in the course of the stack with what seemed like a 200-pound G.I. above me.

Issues have been tremendous till the ship acquired to the open sea. No one informed me concerning the North Atlantic in February. Big waves slammed us backward and forward after which, like a corkscrew, moved us approach up and plunged us approach down. And I spotted there was no option to cease it.

Quickly the throwing up started. It shortly grew to become a cacophony of puking that by no means stopped. I used to be robust and courageous for about eight days, however then I may not take sleeping down within the unimaginable stench that permeated the decrease deck. Not solely have been we weathering a stormy North Atlantic in late February, we have been additionally zigzagging each few miles to keep away from German U-boats.

It occurred to me that regardless that the sinkings of Allied ships have been getting dramatically decrease in early 1945, there was nonetheless the bad-luck probability of a U-boat deciding to sink our troopship. So I made a decision to take my possibilities sleeping on the highest deck. With $20, I bribed a service provider marine sailor to let me put my sleeping bag below a lifeboat, and he was good sufficient to provide me some all-weather tarps to cowl me towards the ocean spray. It was tough up on deck, however so a lot better, each smell-wise and torpedo-wise, than sleeping down under.

Reassigned once more

Happily I solely needed to do it for 2 nights, for on the third night time, there it was—the rugged coast of France. Quickly we have been moored on the port of Le Havre. However regardless that I used to be despatched abroad as a radio operator within the discipline artillery, the military as soon as once more determined that I must be one thing else. This time it was a fight engineer. The military moved males to varied items as wanted; I used to be transferred with a few of my shipmates to the 1104th Engineer Fight Battalion. We have been placed on lengthy troop transport vehicles and despatched additional inland in Normandy for fight engineer coaching. Small teams of males have been deposited at completely different villages.

Eight males, together with me, acquired off at somewhat farmhouse with an indication on the doorway that stated “Mon Repos.” It occurred to me that Mon Repos—“My Repose”—was a somewhat grandiose title for, perhaps, the summer season house of a retired nobleman. But it surely turned out to be only a nation farmhouse. It was within the village of Saint-Aubin-sur-Scie. The village was close to a bigger city referred to as Offranville, not removed from the pretty large and busy port of Dieppe on the English Channel.

Mel Brooks mans a jeep in Europe. He was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Fight Battalion, charged with detecting land mines and clearing buildings of booby traps.

We have been taught to soundly unearth land mines. A few of them have been large, and a few of them have been smaller. The large ones have been referred to as Teller mines. They carried a variety of explosives in them. You would need to probe the earth frivolously together with your bayonet and for those who heard Tink! Tink! Tink! you knew there was one thing harmful beneath. You needed to be very cautious. So you’d clear away the dust after which ask the assistance of the one man in your platoon who was an knowledgeable at defusing mines—who actually knew what and the place all of the wires have been. He would take out a whisk broom and frivolously mud away the earth surrounding the mine and proceed to disengage the fuse. I couldn’t actually see precisely what he was doing, as a result of we have been 20 yards away hunkered down beneath our metal helmets. Fortunate for me, our knowledgeable all the time defused them with no mistake.

Different land mines have been trickier. They have been arrange with tripwires. Troopers could possibly be strolling, hit the tripwire close to them, and you then’d hear a click on and an S-mine—a canister stuffed with every kind of shrapnel nicknamed a “Bouncing Betty”—bounced up about chest excessive and, for a radius of 20 toes, destroyed something round it. If you happen to heard that click on, you knew that the mine was within the air, and also you hit the bottom as shortly as you possibly can and buried your face within the earth as a result of it exploded in a conical method. The nearer you possibly can get to the bottom, the safer you have been. Operating was not an choice.

We have been additionally taught to look and clear unoccupied homes of booby traps. What’s a booby lure? Effectively, as an example, for those who have been sitting on the john and pulled the chain behind you, generally as a substitute of the flushing sound you may hear a loud explosion and end up flying by the air. Which might imply {that a} booby lure had been positioned within the water closet above the bathroom. So earlier than troops may occupy a domicile, we had to make sure it was cleared of booby traps.

To today, regardless that I’m not a soldier and I’m not in Germany and I’m not in a struggle, if I enter a rest room with a pull chain behind the commode, I tend to face on the lavatory seat and peer into the tank above to see if there’s a booby lure—which hardly makes any sense in a restaurant in New York. Evidently, I by no means noticed any, however I nonetheless breathe a sigh of reduction each time I look in and simply see water.

Along with clearing mines, fight engineers have been taught to construct makeshift buildings to span small rivers or creeks. They have been referred to as Bailey bridges. It’s like a large erector set: the bridge is constructed on one facet of a river or a creek, after which swung over the water and dropped down on the opposite facet. They have been mild, sensible, and robust sufficient to help the burden of 6×6 vehicles or perhaps a Grant or a Sherman tank.

A sergeant instructs troopers in England on the hazards of “Boomph Ladies”: pinup photographs with booby traps connected. “One contact and there’s one other lifeless soldier,” the wartime caption reads. (U.S. Air Drive/Nationwide Archives)

When our coaching in Normandy was over, we boarded extra 6×6 vehicles and made our approach by Belgium all the way down to France’s Alsace-Lorraine area, on the German border. I used to be fortunate to get by Belgium on my option to Germany a few months after the Battle of the Bulge. Had I been born six months earlier, I in all probability would have been preventing in that and who is aware of what would have occurred? Anyway, luck was with me, the Germans have been lastly in retreat, and life acquired somewhat higher and somewhat safer.

fortune favors the courageous

We have been stationed within the German metropolis of Saarbrücken, proper on the border with France. The 1104th Fight Battalion was connected to the Seventh Military. Our job was to make use of our fight engineer coaching in land mine and booby lure detection to clear the dwellings in newly captured territories. It was laborious work, to not point out scary work, however we went over all the pieces with a fine-toothed comb.

In the future I used to be out on patrol with my platoon and we discovered a case of German Mauser rifles close to an outdated railway siding. They have been lovely sharpshooting rifles with bolt motion. Certain sufficient, there was a field of ammunition proper subsequent to them. So we had a contest. There have been these white ceramic insulation issues up on the phone poles, and any man who shot one down received a greenback from every of the others. I used to be fairly good at that, and I’d made about $21 when all of a sudden we acquired an odd name on our command automotive radio: “Get again to the bottom instantly!”

Once we arrived again to our base there was loads happening. Platoons of males have been transferring quickly in all places. My firm commander informed us that military communications had been severed. Plainly some phone and telegraph wires had been destroyed. Uh-oh!

I shortly realized that we have been the destroyers. These white ceramic insulators have been the mistaken issues to make a target-practice sport of. So realizing that we have been actually not in peril, I gallantly supplied to take my males out once more and seek for the enemy snipers that had sabotaged the telephone strains. My firm commander gave me permission and despatched us off with a salute that connoted one thing like, “You males are a courageous bunch.” We by no means let on.

‘Is there anyone who can inform a joke?’

IT WAS THE BEGINNING of Could 1945, and it seemed just like the struggle in Europe was quickly coming to a detailed. My unit was then stationed in a German city referred to as Baumholder, within the southwest a part of Germany. We occupied a small German schoolhouse. There was a fellow soldier with me named Richard Goldman, who later grew to become a widely known tax lawyer. He had been with me on the boat coming over, with me once we have been transferred from the artillery to the fight engineers, and usually slogged by the mud by my facet as we tried to remain alive throughout the struggle. Richard was very good. Quite a bit smarter than I used to be. As a result of on V-E Day, that superb day that the struggle led to Europe, he marched me all the way down to the cellar of the schoolhouse and confirmed me some Ok rations and a bottle of wine that he had procured for us.

I stated, “Dick, what’s this all about?”

He stated, “Though the taking pictures ended at present, tomorrow is the official announcement of V-E Day. Everybody will go loopy. They are going to be joyously firing their weapons into the air. Nobody in that state of euphoria will understand that what goes up should come down, and the bullets will certainly come raining down on what’s under. In order that’s why we’re going to spend the following 24 hours on this cellar, buying and selling the enjoyment of victory for the drained cliché of simply staying alive.”

So due to the savvy pondering of Richard Goldman, I’m nonetheless right here.

The struggle was over, however I didn’t return to America instantly. We grew to become a part of the Military of Occupation. It was a lot safer, however sort of uninteresting.

In the future, a lieutenant from Particular Providers who was touring military installations in our space stated, “Is there anyone on this unit who can sing? Dance? Inform a joke or play an instrument?”

I instantly raised my hand. He stated, “What are you able to do?”

I stated, “All the above! I can sing, dance, inform jokes, and play the drums.” I informed him all about what I had carried out from age 14 on within the Borscht Belt—an affectionate time period for the realm of the Catskill Mountains about 90 miles north of New York Metropolis replete with Jewish summer season resorts—the place I’d found I used to be a comic. He requested my CO if he may borrow me for a number of weeks. So I joined his Particular Providers unit and have become one of many comics in a spread present touring completely different military camps. Evidently, I used to be an distinctive addition to his employees. In consequence, the lieutenant requested my CO if he may completely switch me to Particular Providers. Permission was granted, and I used to be an entertainer as soon as once more.

I reported to Particular Providers in Wiesbaden, Germany. I used to be made an appearing corporal and put answerable for the leisure at non-com and officers’ golf equipment. It was a fantastic gig. I used to be busy placing collectively German civilian expertise with American G.I.s who may sing, dance, and play devices for selection exhibits that I’d MC. I used to be nearly disenchanted once I was informed my time in Europe was up and I’d be going again to the USA.

The journey again to America in April 1946 was loads quicker and safer than the journey to Europe. We have been on the Queen Elizabeth, an attractive boat and a giant step up from the Sea Owl. It was seven or eight within the morning once we entered New York Harbor. On the sight of the Statue of Liberty smiling down at us, many a G.I. broke into tears. I feel I used to be one in every of them.

After occupation obligation, Mel Brooks returned to the U.S. in April 1946 aboard the Queen Elizabeth—right here berthing in New York. (AP Photograph/Tony Camerano)

I used to be despatched to Fort Dix for a month or two earlier than processing my reentry into civilian life. I did some camp exhibits with Particular Providers whereas there. I exercised my songwriting expertise by writing parodies. As an example, as a substitute of Cole Porter’s “Start the Beguine,” we’d sing, “Once we start to scrub the latrine.” And for “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Firm B” we rolled up our pants legs and have become the Andrews Sisters.

I used to be discharged—honorably, I would add— in June 1946. Being a civilian as soon as once more was great and horrible. I didn’t should eat in a large number corridor anymore; I may eat Chinese language, Italian, or deli anytime I wished to. However what to put on? Within the military it was straightforward. You placed on the identical garments on daily basis. However I had truly grown about an inch and placed on about 20 kilos whereas I used to be abroad, so I needed to get a complete new wardrobe. My favourite wing-tipped black-and-white footwear have been heartbreakingly too small to put on anymore. I had grown up.

The military didn’t rob me of my youth; it actually gave me fairly an schooling. If you happen to don’t get killed within the military, you’ll be able to study loads. You discover ways to stand by yourself two toes. ✯

Postwar, Brooks did some camp exhibits at Fort Dix earlier than his discharge—memorialized (above) within the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The query its headline requested has lengthy since been definitively answered. (Courtesy of Mel Brooks)

From the guide ALL ABOUT ME! My Outstanding Life in Present Enterprise by Mel Brooks, revealed by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random Home, a division of Penguin Random Home LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mel Brooks.

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