The following is from an Army Aviator who takes us on a trip down memory lane:
“It was just before Thanksgiving ’67 and we were ferrying dead and wounded from a large GRF west of Pleiku. We had run out of body bags by noon, so the Hook (CH-47 CHINOOK) was pretty rough in the back.
All of a sudden, we heard a ‘take-charge’ woman’s voice in the rear. There was the singer and actress, Martha Raye, with a SF (Special Forces) beret and jungle fatigues, with subdued markings, helping the wounded into the Chinook, and carrying the dead aboard.
‘Maggie’ had been visiting her SF ‘heroes’ out ‘west.’ We took off, short of fuel, and headed to the USAF hospital pad at Pleiku. As we all started unloading our sad pax’s, a ‘Smart Mouth’ USAF Captain said to Martha: “Ms. Raye, with all these dead and wounded to process, there would not be time for your show!”
To all of our surprise, she pulled on her right collar and said “Captain, see this eagle? I am a full ‘Bird’ in the US Army Reserve, and on this collar is a ‘Caduceus,’ which means I am a nurse, with a surgical specialty…Now, take me to your wounded!”
The aviator answered, “Yes ma’am! Follow me.””Several times at the Army Field Hospital in Pleiku, she would ‘cover’ a surgical shift, giving a nurse a well-deserved break.”
Known as “The Big Mouth” and considered the female equivalent to Bob Hope, Martha Raye was an American icon in her own right.
She was born Margy Reed in Butte, Montana, to Maybelle Hazel (Hooper) and Peter Reed, Jr., vaudeville performers. Raye made her acting debut at the age of 3 as she toured the nation with her parents’ variety show “Reed and Hooper.” In her late teens she was hired by band-leader Paul Ash as his lead vocalist and was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout during a New York City concert in 1934. She soon relocated to Hollywood were she began making a name for herself appearing in a string of successful comedies alongside the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, W.C. Fields, and Joe E. Brown.
With the outbreak of World War II she took a break from film making to focus on entertaining servicemen and women traveling with the USO on many tour stops. She soon became even more famous for her dedication to America, its values, and its soldiers which helped earn her the beloved nickname “Colonel Maggie.”
She was honored in 1969 with an Academy Award as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient for her volunteer efforts and services to the troops.
On November 2, 1993, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to her country. The citation reads:
“A talented performer whose career spans the better part of a century, Martha Raye has delighted audiences and uplifted spirits around the globe. She brought her tremendous comedic and musical skills to her work in film, stage, and television, helping to shape American entertainment. The great courage, kindness, and patriotism she showed in her many tours during World War II, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam conflict earned her the nickname ‘Colonel Maggie’. The American people honor Martha Raye, a woman who has tirelessly used her gifts to benefit the lives of her fellow Americans.”
Politically, Raye was conservative, affirming her political views by informing an interviewer, “I am a Republican because I believe in the constitution, strength in national defense, limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility as the concrete foundation for American government. They reinforce the resolve that the United States is the greatest country in the world and we can all be eternally grateful to our founding fathers for the beautiful legacy they left us today.”
She continued acting into the late 1980s dividing her time between movies, TV guest spots, and occasional stage appearances. She passed away on October 19, 1994 after a long battle from pneumonia and was buried with full military honors at the Fort Bragg Main Post Cemetery, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Martha “Colonel Maggie” Raye was 78 years old.