Times Past

Camp Roberts’ heat made it the ‘lowest circle of hell,’ but the entertainment was good

Popular 1940s singer Dinah Shore performs at the Camp Roberts Amphitheater.
Popular 1940s singer Dinah Shore performs at the Camp Roberts Amphitheater.

Camp Roberts was considered the lowest circle of hell by the men who trained there during World War II and the Korean War.

Our recent heat wave brought memories of veterans describing training for gas warfare at military base that rests along the northern border of San Luis Obispo County. Decked in battle gear, the trainees were expected to don heavily insulated canvas masks with Plexiglas eye covers in 115-degree heat while the room was filled with a noxious but non-lethal gas.

San Luis Obispo attorney and native son Peter Andre recalled that after such experiences, the only relief to be had was by crawling under the shade of a truck.

Tens of thousands of lonely young men came to Camps Cook, San Luis Obispo and Roberts. Hollywood tried to alleviate some of that loneliness.

The USO’s brought world class entertainers from the world of music, comedy and film. A top-rated classical pianist might appear with Abbot and Costello or Spike Jones.

Sometimes, there was a chance that a trainee might appear in the movies.

Herb Noble, a retired chief of the Minnesota Highway Patrol, was a private at Camp Roberts in 1943. He’d never seen a movie star except on the screen. Now there were rumors of his unit’s appearing on film.

Noble writes:

“In contrast to training for gas warfare, we became involved with the motion picture business. Universal Pictures wanted to make a movie as a tribute to the Hollywood Victory Committee... What was needed was a backdrop of soldiers forming an enthusiastic audience. Our commanding general grasped the opportunity and volunteered us.

“At first, there was grumbling in the ranks about our having to sit outside in the sun all day while someone made a boring movie with ‘wanna be’ entertainers. But that did not last long as we became what surely must be the most enthusiastic audience of soldiers to ever take part in a movie.

“We cheered as Sophie Tucker, the ‘Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,’ belted out her songs. We whistled for Jeanette MacDonald even before she sang. She was beautiful! So was her singing.

“And when Dinah Shore sang ‘I Walk Alone’ and ‘Long Ago and Far Away,’ we went delirious. We whistled, stomped, cheered, clapped. Hey! We even waved our guide pennants for Dinah.

“And we retained that fever pitch of excitement for the Andrews Sisters and the Delta Rhythm Boys. Just when one might have thought we could not keep our elevated level of enthusiasm, along came Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan. Clowning, dancing, singing, they lifted us to new heights of appreciation.

“Then we quieted down and listened with dignity to a masterful solo by pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Our applause was polite but truly appreciative, as it was for the performance of Carmen Amaya and Her Dance Group.

“We became our raucous selves again when a swing band was on the stage, for it was ‘our’ music and we reveled in it. And there was....Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five.

“But our most enthusiastic tribute was reserved for W. C. Fields, who performed his classic pool table routine.

“Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich surprised us with a hilarious comedy skit in which he was a magician and she was his assistant. George Raft, performed as the song and dance man he had been before becoming a dramatic actor, and Vera Zorina, who appeared as George’s wife, contributed two wonderful ballet solos.

“The movie was entitled ‘Follow the Boys’ and was released in 1944. I saw the film while stationed overseas. All but one of the performances filmed at Camp Roberts had been dropped, and in that one the audience of enthusiastic soldiers is seen only briefly.”

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.