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March 18, 1997

Gracie Allen and George Burns photo from WWII
From World War II, this photo shows entertainers Gracie Allen and George Burns with a serviceman identified as Sgt. W. R. Sargent of route one, Morrison. The picture appeared in this newspaper some 50 years ago, but we have been unable to locate Sgt. Sargent or a member of his family. Give us a call if you can help us find them

An 8 x 10 photo, a souvenir from the World War II era, has turned up in a recently found collection of pictures at The Journal office, and we'd like to know more about it. The black and white print shows comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen standing on either side of a uniformed Army soldier identified as Master Sergeant W R. Sargent of Route One, Morrison. The imprint "Frank Worth Photo" is rubber-stamped on the reverse side, but no further information is provided. We don't know when or where the picture was made, and our efforts to find someone in Sergeant Sargent's family have been fruitless. Presumably, George and Gracie were appearing in a USO camp somewhere at the time, and Sergeant Sargent somehow was chosen to be photographed with them. The print is in excellent condition, and if some family member is out there and wants it, please advise The Journal.

This little bit of information about USO shows of World War II reminds me of a day in August 1945 when I was on the French-owned island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, shortly after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. Air Force. The war in the Pacific ended a few days later when the Japanese surrendered unconditionally, and GIs everywhere knew they would soon be heading home. Putting it mildly, military discipline was relaxed in all branches of the service as thousands of American men and women savored the moment and eagerly anticipated their return to civilian status. As a reporter for the Army newspaper Stars & Stripes, I was touring the area with Sgt. Earl Wolf, a staff artist. One of the unexpected bonuses on that trip was running across Sgt. Willard Andrews, a long-time friend from Perry who was stationed with an Army Engineer outfit on New Caledonia. He was a member of a formidable service football team.

Our assignment with the newspaper already had given Earl and me a large measure of freedom at our home base in Honolulu, but that's not the point of this story. Before arriving on New Caledonia, we had spent some time on the jungle island of Guadalcanal, a rotten, steamy little piece of real estate in the South Pacific where hundreds of lives, both American and Japanese, were lost early in the war. There we heard about a broadcaster named Sgt. Jack Paar, who was with the Armed Forces Radio Service network. In that part of the world, where the war had passed by three years earlier, Paar's wit greatly helped relieve the monotony of servicemen. Paar was proudly irreverent in his treatment of officers. This, of course, made him a favorite with his fellow enlisted men. It was the kind of stuff greatly enjoyed by our newspaper's readers.

Paar was broadcasting from an AFRS station on New Caledonia. His popularity later was transferred to all of the U.S. when he became host of the early version of NBC-TV's "Tonight" show.

Earl and I had been dispatched from Honolulu by M/Sgt. Chic Avedon, managing editor of The Stars & Stripes, with an assignment to do a series of stories about life on those historic South Pacific islands which first dominated news of the war after America became a participant in December, 1941. We had planned to do a piece on Sgt. Paar after hearing so many stories about his wacky broadcast style. We made an appointment to meet him one afternoon at the AFRS station on the outskirts of Noumea, the major (and only) city on New Caledonia. En route to the station in a Jeep, we were listening to Sgt. Paar's radio show as he did an on-the-air interview with the well-known movie comedian, Jack Carson, who had arrived on the island that day as the headliner of a touring USO show sent out to entertain servicemen in remote areas. Carson (no relation to Johnny Carson, who succeeded Paar on the "Tonight" show) was a big, heavy-set man with a bombastic comedy style. He frequently was the second banana in some of Hollywood's biggest musicals of the 1940s. He later became a serious actor and won some awards.

As Earl and I listened that day, it seemed the interview was growing more incoherent and disjointed with each question asked by Sgt. Paar and answered by Carson. We wondered what was going on, and when we reached the studio, it quickly became clear. We peered through a large window inside the studio and there beheld Carson lying on his back on the studio floor with Paar sitting astride him, a microphone in one hand, moving it back and forth between them while the disconnected questions and muddled answers continued. At one point Carson took the microphone in both hands and clasped it tightly to his chest. I couldn't help thinking that he resembled a corpse laid out for final viewing, clutching the microphone like a floral piece.

The hilarious interview went on for several more minutes until time for that program was up, after which the two funny men retired somewhere to continue their dialogue privately. Though it was fairly early in the day, Earl and I suspected they had been sampling someone's cache of hard liquor, but other AFRS staffers in the studio said no, that was not the case at all. They were just two very sharp comedians who enjoyed each other and got carried away with the loony twists and turns of their conversation. It was, they said, the kind of thing that made Sgt. Paar so popular with his GI listeners on all those South Pacific island outposts.

In addition to Jack Paar, the staff of the AFRS station on New Caledonia included former child movie star, Jackie Cooper and an announcer named Hy Averback. A short time later, after the Japanese surrender, Averback was transferred to the mainland of Japan and had a show of his own. It was one of several GI disc jockey programs, but Hy was given the special chore of becoming "Tokyo Mose," a takeoff on the Japs' "Tokyo Rose," who broadcast statewide music and Axis propaganda to GIs in the Pacific throughout the war. In civilian life years later, Averback became first a TV performer and then a producer of several major shows on the CBS, network.

Unfortunately for me, Sgt. Paar also was immediately whisked to Tokyo for further AFRS duty after the surrender treaty was signed, and I never got to interview him. Years later, when he became one of the brightest stars in network television, I had a unique way of appreciating his quick wit, but I will forever associate him with Jack Carson and the AFRS during World Ware II, rather than his stint on the “Tonight” show. I thought he was funnier in uniform.