Wayne Newton couldn’t help but notice the guy in the front row.
“As I walked on stage he held up a sign that said ‘US Guam,’ ’’ said Newton.
In an instant, Newton knew the connection.
“So I did my usual show,” he said, “and I paid tribute to the vets and this man got up out of his seat and came over and shook my hand and he handed me a letter toward the end of the show. I didn’t read it until I was off stage and I’m glad I didn’t because I wouldn’t have been able to get through it.
The letter was dated Nov. 16, the date of Newton’s show at a casino outside of Sacramento.
The single page typed letter, signed by Corp. Tracey Eveland of Rocklin, Calif., began:
“In 1983 aboard the USS Guam, I was a young US Marine serving my country off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon. It was during one of the most difficult times in my life and I had never been so alone.
“It was Christmas and we were all feeling the pain of our fallen Marine brothers and we so far from home and missing our families,” wrote Eveland.
The reference to “fallen Marine brothers” was to the Oct. 23, 1983, Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 American servicemen, including 220 Marines.
Eveland, then 19, and many of his surviving Marines were still in shock three weeks later when they were shuttled over the Mediterranean to the USS Guam.
It was the highest single-day death toll involving Americans since World War II.
Eveland continued, “You arrived along with several other celebrities to perform a USO show. I wasn’t really up to the festive atmosphere and cheer at the time and I remained upstairs in my berthing area.
“I decided to go eat something and was waking down the corridor towards the stairs when I encountered an unfamiliar wandering lost.
“You asked if I could help you find the hanger bay and I told you I could and offered to lead you down. We made small talk and you asked me why I wasn’t attending the show. I told you I wasn’t feeling up to it but I would have a look since I was taking you there.
“I found us a great spot off the left side of the stage and told you we would have a great view from there to see the show and that’s when you identified yourself as Wayne Newton and told me you were going to be singing that night.
“Sir, having been through some of the worst days of my life and knowing there were many more ahead was what was on my mind then and I didn’t recognize you because of that night.
“When you told me who you were, the lights came on right away and I recognized you for being you.
“I stayed and enjoyed your show abnd watched the rest of the entertainers that evening. That was 30 years almost to the day.
“I want you to know how much that meant to my brothers and me aboard that ship during those dark days. You and the USO brought a little bit of home and for a moment we were given a chance to put down our burdens and get lost in the show.
“Thanks for the memories and thank you for your continued support of the American troops. You are a hero sir. Semper Fi!”
Newton said he plans to frame the letter and place it in his Red Room, an office where he keeps his prized memorabilia.
“And I’m also going to send a copy to USO because I know they’ve been taking a little heat in the last month or so. And that’s unfortunate that people do that because it’s not about me and it’s not about the people at USO, it’s about our servicemen and women. To start trashing something that good, it’s unfortunate.
The controversy, he said, involves a volunteer who “got bent out of shape when they found out what the hierarchy at the USO were being paid to do that job. My God, you name any organization in the world, from cancer research on, the hierarchy has to be paid because those are the people who are raising money.
“So this guy had taken umbrage that none of the rest of the people – none of the volunteers, none of the performers, none of the stagehands, none of the musicians, nobody gets paid. That’s fine, that’s as it should be.”
Standing up for the USO is in his blood.
He was seven years old when he did his first USO show. He was 16 when he first performed in Vietnam.
“That letter says more than anything I could ever say,” he said.
MARTY ALLEN SHOWED HIS METTLE
Imagine the surprise of his World War II buddies the night the Beatles made their U.S. TV debut on Ed Sullivan.
It wasn’t the appearance of the Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964, that had the airmens’ jaws dropping.
There on TV was their old friend, Marty Alpern, the squadron’s resident jokester, being introduced by Sullivan.
Except now he had a new name, Marty Allen, and he was teaming up with Steve Rossi as one of the hottest comedy teams in the world.
Hello dere, indeed.
Years earlier, Alpern was with the Army Air Forces in Italy. Their base was a bulldozed strip among olive trees.
“It was Christmas, 1944, and it was snowing,” he recalled this week.
“We were near Foggia, Italy, in a little town called Cerignola. I was on the ground crew of the heavy bombers, the B-24s.
“We were the ones who bombed the Ploesti oil fields (near Bucharest, Romania), the area that provided Nazi Germany with almost half of its oil.
“I just came into our tent. We lived in a tent and there were about five of us. It was snowing and extremely cold. I removed my jacket, boots and socks and placed myself before the warmth of our little stove. I was in my long johns and I knew the guys were kind of down because I knew it was Christmas. Some were reading letters from home and some were just looking at pictures. They were down in the dumps.
“I figured I got to get them feeling better so I started singing ‘Jingle Bells’ and doing jokes. I told them Santa Claus could never come through the top of our tent because he would burn his rear end on our stove.
“I told them I had been out there refueling an airplane and they were loading bombs and I took chalk and had written on one of the bombs ‘To Hitler from the Alpern family’ – and I got ‘em laughing and thought I had done something very good and made ‘em feel so much better.
“Someone said, ‘Thank God, we got a joker in our crowd.’ ”
What a joker. Allen & Rossi were such a sensation that Sullivan booked them 40 times on his Sunday night variety show, a ratings juggernaut from 1948 to 1971.
Allen and Rossi lasted from 1954 to 1969. Allen, who turns 92 on March 23, is still cracking up crowds with his wife Karon Kate Blackwell and his signature line, “Hello dere!”
“When I first went into the service, I was entertaining but I wasn’t a professional comedian. I was doing shows in St. Petersburg, in basic training. But then they transferred me to the 484thBomb Group, 824 Squadron,” he said.
“I entertained the guys a lot. I worked with a very competent lieutenant by the name of John Toland, who later became a famous author and won a Pulitzer Prize for a couple of his books.”
Did he hear from some of his refueling crew?
“Some guys sent letters after they found out I was Marty Allen,” he said.
They knew him for something else, too.
Several months after his spirits-raising Christmas antics, Allen found himself courting death.
“There was a truck with 4,000 gallons of gasoline and there was a motor on the back of truck and two guys would get up on the wing of the airplane and put the gasoline in,” he said.
“And somehow the motor caught on fire. The two guys jumped off the wings and left the hoses up on the wing. Everybody ran and I don’t know whatever made me do it but I got in the truck and pulled the truck away. I got the fire out on the back of truck.
“There were some sparks on the front of the airplane and I got those out and I went right into the bomb bay and made sure nothing had happened where the bombs were inside the plane. And with my jacket, somehow, I don’t remember how the hell I did it, but the next thing I know they came with truck with the snow (fire retardant), you know, and when I walked out they almost fainted.
“And they had an investigation and the next thing I know I got a soldier’s medal for bravery. I had enough points (that) it kept me from going into the Pacific (theater) after that. But they couldn’t believe what I had done and the only one I got hell from was my mother. She said, ‘I didn’t send you to war to do that.’ I still have the medal at home. Quite a great honor. I was so proud that I was able to be in service for our country. To me that was a great thrill. I love my country so much and I wanted to do something to help at that time.”
It will be in his upcoming book, he said.
“It’s going to be a winner,” he said.
Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-383-0244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more at normclarke.com. Follow @Norm_Clarke on Twitter. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.