THE armed forces of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have a great tradition of entertaining the troops in wartime through concert parties which bring popular entertainers to the frontline.
The tradition dates back to World War I when the generals decided to bring some light entertainment and comedy to the troops to keep their minds off more bloodthirsty matters.
The concert parties continued post-war in Malaysia (It aint' half hot mum, the popular television series used this as context), Vietnam and in other wars. As the Australian War Memorial recorded:
The non-stop 90 minutes of entertainment at Nui Dat, Vietnam, was greeted with constant applause, shouts of more and the occasional humorous remark. Most popular artists were vocalists and dancers Patti McGrath and Denise Drysdale, both of Melbourne. The concert party gave four performances for the troops of the Task Force and later visited Australian and RAAF troops throughout Vietnam.
But not so much is now recalled of the concert parties in Papua New Guinea during World War II.
The US troops were entertained by such outstanding celebrities Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Larry Adler, while on the Australian side the talent included George Wallace, Michael Pate, Gladys Moncrieff, Bebe Scott, Jenny Howard, and Colin Croft of the 1st Australian Entertainment Unit.
There were even concerts on board warships, such as HMAS Australia which was at the time in Milne Bay.
Australian celebrity George Wallace, posted to the 2nd Division Concert Party, toured New Guinea as producer and comedian. He was commissioned as Lieutenant in January 1946 and prided himself on being the only officer in the army whom no one saluted and everyone called George.
The concerts attracted huge audiences from battle-weary troops who were missing family and friends back home. A concert unit including Frederick Jagel, Robert Weede, Polyna Stoska, Isaac Stern and Alex Zakin landed in amphibious ducks to perform for 10,000 GIs in New Guinea.
The PNGAA website (thanks to Ed Zanders whose father Douglas was a pianist with a concert party) records the memoir of Corporal Frank Lamprell, an entertainer from Melbourne, who was with the 3rd Australian Division Concert Party:
We had been told by Jack Sparkes, who had been there before, that it was a woeful dump, but how wrong he was. We could see at once it proved to be the best spot of our entire tour.
The sisters and nurses disembarked for 118 AGH, which had come from Aitape to Jacquinot Bay, then we followed and got into a truck and were driven along a palm lined road for about a half mile where we got out to be billeted with an ammunition unit.
Bully beef and M and V were the main meat dishes with fish patties in close second; I nearly starved, but the area was so beautiful I would have willingly lived on tea and biscuits.
We were right on the edge of the Bay itself, there was no beach and swimming had to be a cautious event, as sharks were often seen close to the shore.
Small boats, lakatois, sailing boats and skiffs were to be found everywhere, abandoned by troops who had move out, so our boys grabbed what they could and repaired them, painted them gay colours and had much fun paddling around the Bay….
A couple of special concerts were presented to the nuns by Douglas, Don, Slim Jim, Ted and band, with Don creating a sensation by playing and singing German music and songs, Bach, Beethoven, etc. The nuns had heard no music for three years; one had never seen a saxophone.
We gave a show at the New Zealand Air Force about two miles away. They were most kind to us, nothing too much trouble for them and a really splendid audience too.....
On another occasion a couple of native lads came along as Jumbo was busy practising his trombone; they were looking down wondering where the noise came from. Jumbo could hardly blow for laughing.
Then we got them to sing; one was rather timid, but the other obliged in a high loud tuneful voice with a song that seemed to be endless. On another occasion Don asked the native to sing one of their native tunes and out came Lily Marlene!
Australian Military Forces concert party, Milne Bay, 1942 (Roy Hodgkinson), The members (left-right): Sergeant Will Handley (comedian, with top hat, seated), Corporal Terry Hughes (female impersonator), brothers Private R Holden and Private L Holden hold up Private T McElvogue (clown), Staff Sergeant F Tupper (compere, looking in mirror)