Martha Raye isn’t a name heard much these days. The actress and comedic singer was a stage and film star who worked in show business for about 60 years at the time of her death in 1994.
During the radio era, she was known for her performances in Al Jolson’s “CafÃ© Trocadero”. On television, she was best known for “The Martha Raye Show,” which featured a series of notable guests. She was probably best known for her USO work during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, where she entertained troops so often that she earned the nickname “Colonel Maggie”.
Raye was born Margie Reed in Montana in 1916. At the age of 18, she was already in the movies, performing on screen and on radio in the 1930s. When the United States entered the Second World War, Raye was more than ready to play for the troops. Her first stop came in 1942 when she was sent to England. From there, she took her USO show to North Africa with three of her friends, Carole Landis, Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair.
Their adventures from England to North Africa were immortalized in the 1944 film, “Four Jills in a Jeep”. Along the way, she received the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces for her service to the troops, but the military did not seem to know who they were dealing with when it was was Martha Raye.
The actress was well known for earning this honorary rank when the moment came. On more than one occasion, Raye has been told that her performances would have to be suspended or that flights would be diverted to assist the injured. She would pull the rank so pilots could go directly to the injured men and bring them to safety, rather than dropping her off first. Once in the field in a medical ward, Raye would help the medical staff in any way they needed.
She has helped in medical units so often that it soon became rumored that she had received training as a nurse before her days on the big screen. That was not true ; The closest the actress has ever had to nursing was serving for a time as a candy stripper in a hospital. As the war progressed, Raye gained a lot of experience in the field.
She continued to perform for troops in Korea and Vietnam, where she forged particularly close ties with the men of the Army’s Special Forces.
âThey ask for so little and give so much,â she said during the Vietnam War. “The least we can do at home here is to give them the love, respect and dignity that they, our flag and our country deserve.”
Raye served on the front lines of 20th century American conflicts for a total of 24 years, but to her, Special Forces were heroes through and through. She entertained them in places no one else would go and treated their wounds at the same time. Raye never complained about the conditions on the ground and lived the way deployed troops did all the time. In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifelong dedication to American troops.
Raye suffered from a myriad of health issues at the end of his life, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. She died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 78 in 1994. Her last wish was to be buried at Fort Bragg, the final resting place of many of her heroes. She was buried in October 1994 with full military honors, the only woman buried there.
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