A little while ago there was a tribute posted on Facebook to Colonel Maggie Raye. It seemed a great story and one of my friends, mother of one of our recipients, Liz, was motivated to look into the story to learn more about the amazing women who was Colonel Maggie Raye. I asked Liz to write a post for us as I thought others would like to read it too…
Thanks for sharing Liz…
Just a note- although an American story, I reckon the words in the COLONEL Maggie Raye video below are as appropriate today as they ever were.
Was it only 2 days ago that I read a Facebook comment regarding a lady called Martha Raye, or as she is more affectionately known ‘Colonel Maggie’? Having just read that one post and some of the comments that appeared on the original post I decided to do some classic Google stalking, if only to find out for myself who this ‘Colonel’ was.
To say ‘she entertained the troops’ would be a gross understatement. Maggie was an all round entertainer, actress, singer, comedian and yes nurse. She did ‘serve’ overseas entertaining the troops, but having read numerous accounts from veterans, she was so much more than that, she was a piece of home brought to them. A symbol of a mother, sister, a loved one, but most importantly someone who cared and hadn’t forgotten them. In recent times Maggie is remembered for the 25 months, not all in one tour, she spent ‘in country’ during the 8 years of war in Vietnam. But her ‘service’ as an entertainer of the military also spans World War II, performing in Britain, North Africa and Egypt. Sadly her tour in Korea only lasted a few weeks due to illness.
PHOTO 1 – Martha Raye WWII –Sahara Desert in Biskra, North Africa, Martha entertains men of the U.S. Army 12th Air Force.
During my search I found numerous websites either dedicated to Martha Raye or where she is mentioned. One excellent site was here, hosted by her friend and biographer Noonie Fortin. Much of my information came from here, but possibly the truest insight into Col. Maggie was unearthed from the countless Vietnam Veteran websites on a web-ring where many have posted their own personal encounters and memories. Of course with so much story sharing there is always a risk of truth being stretched. But so far the lady appears to live up to many a tall story.
Her rank of Colonel was an honorary title given during the Vietnam war, by her beloved US Marine Corps. Her other honorary rank of Lt Colonel was bestowed upon her by the US Army along with her membership to the Green Beret Special Forces unit, a beret she wore with much pride. Colonel Maggie appeared to have no issue with pulling rank when the need arose and it was in the best interests of her troops. Many of the troops believed she was a registered nurse in either the Army or Army Reserve, this is one of those instances where a slight exaggeration never hurt a good story. Maggie did, however, gain valuable practical nursing experience going back to her early days as a ‘candy striper’ in the 1930s. This was enhanced during WWII with further ‘on the job training’ during air raids in England and Africa where she assisted wherever she was needed. I doubt even Maggie knew how much her skills would be needed again in another war zone, that being Vietnam.
It is well documented, mainly by the troops themselves, how Col. Maggie, when not on stage, assisted in numerous areas around the base hospitals and medivac centres. She could be found helping out in x-ray, operating theatres, triage anywhere she was needed and anywhere it gave a nurse a well earned break, especially during heavy intakes of wounded. When taking flights back stateside which involved a medi-vac flight she wasn’t found to be idle, always tending to troops needs or just checking up on them on the long flight home. Holding a hand and talking to someone about ‘home’ can be the most important care given in traumatic circumstances.
It is well known that numerous big names went out to Vietnam to entertain the troops. But none of them stayed for the months at a time that Maggie did, many times at her own expense and putting her career back home on hold. Having got to know this lady a bit better, I can’t see that she would have wanted it any other way.
|Col Maggie with her troops in 1968. Source
As the demonstrations against US involvement in Vietnam started to take hold and public opinion turned against the military serving over there, a majority of which were conscripted, Col Maggie stayed true and loyal to her troops, going as far as filming a message and being introduced by John Wayne. I find it tragic, but sadly not surprising, that she believed she was blacklisted in Hollywood for many years for her support of the troops in Vietnam. This excerpt from ‘Memories of Maggie’ I believe sums it up –
“Maggie was fielding questions from the audience when one young trooper expressed his deep concern over the anti-war protesters. Maggie replied that she could understand how it must hurt to see people destroying the flag but, she said, “Son, remember one thing. Those people are not good enough to wipe the mud from your boots.”
In each base she visited, many of which were outposts with as few as 25 soldiers, she posted her home address and phone number, telling the soldiers to keep in touch. She carried letters home for their families, telephoned wives and wasn’t shy in telling the reporters how the troops really felt about the lack of support back stateside. Once home Maggie kept her word and her home in Bel Air was known as the ‘Team House’, where all veterans were welcome to drop by for a chat, a meal or a bed for the night. Oh to have been a fly on that wall!
|29 April 1967 Maggie taking the salute as Honorary Reviewing Officer at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Loyalty Day, the theme “Supporting our Troops in Vietnam
In her lifetime the military presented her with numerous citations and awards, finally culminating in 1993 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – President Bill Clinton.
Martha ‘Colonel Maggie’ Raye died on 19 October 1994. As per her personal request she was buried alongside her soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The only civilian woman, other than wives of military personnel, known to have been given this special permission. The Honour Guard from the 7th Special Forces Group Airborne served as pallbearers, the 82nd Airborne Division band performed and 300+ soldiers and civilians were there to honour and remember her.
Thanks for researching and writing this up Liz.
Till next time….. keep spreading the word and happy stitching!