Mel Brooks Goes to War

IN EARLY 1944 I used to be 17 years previous, in my senior yr at Japanese District Excessive College in Brooklyn, New York, and, after a number of summers spent working as a comic book at Catskills resorts, knew that I wished to enter present enterprise. However Hitler had began a struggle.

At some point a U.S. Military recruiting officer got here round and mentioned that if anyone within the class scored excessive sufficient on a flair take a look at, they may be part of the Military Specialised Coaching Reserve Program, the ASTP Reserve. If you happen to have been accepted, you’d graduate early from highschool and be despatched to a school paid for by the federal government. Then while you turned 18 and joined the military, you’d be in a greater place to decide on your subject of service. This sounded nice to me. I knew I used to be destined to be drafted anyway. So I took the take a look at. I believe they actually wished all people they may get. A few of the questions weren’t too troublesome, like “2 + 2 = what?” Evidently, I handed. I used to be despatched to varsity at VMI, the Virginia Army Institute in Lexington, Virginia, for particular coaching.

Life there was great and horrible. The horrible half was getting up at 6 a.m. to shave, bathe, and have breakfast. And having to make my very own mattress with hospital corners. The great half was that the VMI cadets have been so welcoming to us ASTP Reserve trainees. They by no means resented our sharing the college with them. VMI was not simply an educational faculty. Based in 1839, it was generally known as “the West Level of the South.” Along with my educational research {of electrical} engineering and studying all about cosines, tangents, slide guidelines, and such, in addition they educated you to be a cavalry officer. So I discovered to trip a horse and wield a saber—one thing I had by no means seen any child from Brooklyn do.

After I turned 18, I used to be formally within the military. They despatched me to Fort Dix in New Jersey, which was an induction middle. And though I had spent a semester learning electrical engineering at VMI, the military in its nice knowledge determined that I ought to be within the subject artillery. They shipped me out to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Discipline Artillery Substitute Coaching Heart. When decreased to its initials, it spells FARTC. (Which someway lingered in my unconscious and later made its method right into a comedy scene in my movie Blazing Saddles. Waste not, need not.)

Brooks’s potential to search out humor in unlikely locations has served him properly. If you happen to can cut back Hitler into “one thing laughable, ” he mentioned of his standard 1967 movie, “The Producers” (above), “you win.” (Avco Embassy Photos/Photofest)

Fort Sill is within the southwest nook of Oklahoma. It’s chilly, it’s flat, and it’s windy. If you happen to ever have an opportunity, don’t go there.

Having gone to VMI, primary coaching at Fort Sill wasn’t that troublesome. You discover ways to carry a rifle, easy methods to drill with a rifle, and easy methods to shoot a rifle. And we’d go on lengthy marches—5, 10, often 20 miles—with solely 10-minute breaks. That was robust. Then there’d be the infiltration course, the place they examined your abilities and used dwell ammunition when you saved your head down and crawled in your elbows and your knees. That was scary.

The extra reassuring half was that I used to be educated to be a radio operator. That was going to be my job after I went abroad with a subject artillery unit.

At age 17 in 1944, Brooks was a cadet at Virginia Army Institute.
By February 1945, he was posing for a photograph with two Brooklyn buddies earlier than boarding a troopship sure for Europe.
Brooks discovered loads of indignities in military life—together with the dearth of privateness that’s bugging this unidentifed G.I. (Kirn Classic Inventory/Corbis Historic/Getty Photographs)

THE REGULAR ARMY was an training. A extremely tough training. I’d by no means gone to the bathroom earlier than with 16 different guys sitting subsequent to me. I’d go loopy ready for the latrine to be free of individuals so I might rush in, do my stuff, and rush out. It took lots of getting used to.

Sitting with 12 different guys having breakfast was one other new expertise. Every little thing was “Move the butter! Move the milk! Move the sugar! Move the jam!” There was a strict code. When any individual mentioned, “Move the jam,” you weren’t allowed to cease the jam and put any by yourself plate. That was referred to as “shortcutting” and was not allowed. You needed to move the jam to the one that mentioned “Move the jam,” though the jam seemed good, and also you wished to take a bit of on the way in which. It was forbidden.

Once we have been on bivouac—a brief campsite away from the barracks—we’d stand within the chow line with our mess kits. Mess kits have been two small oval aluminum trays with indentations for meals and an aluminum knife, fork, and spoon hooked up. You waited together with your mess equipment, and so they’d throw some beef stew in one of many indentations. Then got here the mashed potatoes, and though there have been different indentations for the mashed potatoes they at all times threw it proper on prime of the stew. Then—you received’t imagine this—for dessert there have been normally sliced peaches. Which after all, you anticipated they’d put into one of many remaining empty locations within the mess equipment. However what did they do? They hurled it proper on prime of your potatoes and beef stew. They merely didn’t care. And we have been ravenous so we wolfed it down. (For some purpose, to this present day I’m vaguely nostalgic for some sliced peaches on prime of my beef bourguignon.)

After chow, you waited in line as soon as once more to wash your mess equipment. First you swirled it round in a rubbish can effervescent with scorching soapy water. You then moved it to the subsequent rubbish can of rinse water, nonetheless stuffed with the remnants of cleaning soap. After which the final rubbish can with clear scorching water. That did the job. It by no means occurred to me to ask my sergeants and officers: Why do we’ve to do all these items? Isn’t there a greater method? Couldn’t we’ve a bit of extra time for studying a e book we preferred, or perhaps taking a nap on occasion? After which I spotted: That’s why the military likes 18-year-olds. No questions requested. You do what you’re advised.

After I completed primary coaching at Fort Sill, I used to be shipped again to Fort Dix for abroad project. I used to be fortunate to get a weekend in New York so I might see my mother, my grandma, my aunts and uncles, and the few buddies who have been additionally within the service however hadn’t shipped out but. I stuffed as a lot of my mother’s scrumptious meals as attainable down my gullet. She made me issues I liked like matzo ball soup, potato pancakes, and stuffed cabbage—issues I knew have been rarely served on a military chow line.

Brooks additionally had a beef with how meals was unceremoniously tossed onto mess kits in chow strains—as apparently do these airmen at their base in Libya. (U.S. Air Drive/Nationwide Archives)

AND THEN ONE NIGHT—I believe it was round February 15 or 16, 1945—along with three or 4 hundred different guys, I boarded a troop transport on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the SS Sea Owl. I keep in mind taking place under to the third or fourth deck, and I used to be greeted with the sight of rows and rows of stacked steel bunks. Every row was six beds excessive. It seemed like tons of of bunks. Sadly, in my row I obtained the third one, which was proper sq. in the course of the stack with what seemed like a 200-pound G.I. above me.

Issues have been high-quality till the ship obtained to the open sea. No person advised me in regards to the North Atlantic in February. Big waves slammed us backward and forward after which, like a corkscrew, moved us method up and plunged us method down. And I spotted there was no solution to cease it.

Quickly the throwing up started. It rapidly turned a cacophony of puking that by no means stopped. I used to be sturdy and courageous for about eight days, however then I might not take sleeping down within the unimaginable stench that permeated the decrease deck. Not solely have been we weathering a stormy North Atlantic in late February, we have been additionally zigzagging each few miles to keep away from German U-boats.

It occurred to me that though the sinkings of Allied ships have been getting dramatically decrease in early 1945, there was nonetheless the bad-luck probability of a U-boat deciding to sink our troopship. So I made a decision to take my probabilities sleeping on the highest deck. With $20, I bribed a service provider marine sailor to let me put my sleeping bag below a lifeboat, and he was good sufficient to offer me some all-weather tarps to cowl me in opposition to the ocean spray. It was tough up on deck, however so significantly better, each smell-wise and torpedo-wise, than sleeping down under.

Happily I solely needed to do it for 2 nights, for on the third evening, there it was—the rugged coast of France. Quickly we have been moored on the port of Le Havre. However though I used to be despatched abroad as a radio operator within the subject artillery, the military as soon as once more determined that I ought to be one thing else. This time it was a fight engineer. The military moved males to numerous models as wanted; I used to be transferred with a few of my shipmates to the 1104th Engineer Fight Battalion. We have been placed on lengthy troop transport vans and despatched additional inland in Normandy for fight engineer coaching. Small teams of males have been deposited at completely different villages.

Eight males, together with me, obtained off at a bit of farmhouse with an indication on the doorway that mentioned “Mon Repos.” It occurred to me that Mon Repos—“My Repose”—was a fairly grandiose identify for, perhaps, the summer season house of a retired nobleman. However it turned out to be only a nation farmhouse. It was within the village of Saint-Aubin-sur-Scie. The village was close to a bigger city referred to as Offranville, not removed from the pretty large and busy port of Dieppe on the English Channel.

Brooks mans a jeep in Europe. He was assigned to the 1104th Engineer Fight Battalion, charged with detecting land mines and clearing buildings of booby traps.

We have been taught to soundly unearth land mines. A few of them have been large, and a few of them have been smaller. The massive ones have been referred to as Teller mines. They carried lots of explosives in them. You would need to probe the earth evenly together with your bayonet and if you happen to heard Tink! Tink! Tink! you knew there was one thing harmful beneath. You needed to be very cautious. So you’d clear away the grime after which ask the assistance of the one man in your platoon who was an professional at defusing mines—who actually knew what and the place all of the wires have been. He would take out a whisk broom and evenly mud away the earth surrounding the mine and proceed to disengage the fuse. I couldn’t actually see precisely what he was doing, as a result of we have been a superb 20 yards away hunkered down beneath our metal helmets. Fortunate for me, our professional at all times defused them with no mistake.

Different land mines have been trickier. They have been arrange with tripwires. Troopers may very well be strolling, hit the tripwire close to them, and then you definately’d hear a click on and an S-mine—a canister stuffed with all types of shrapnel nicknamed a “Bouncing Betty”—bounced up about chest excessive and, for a radius of 20 toes, destroyed something round it. If you happen to heard that click on, you knew that the mine was within the air, and also you hit the bottom as rapidly as you possibly can and buried your face within the earth as a result of it exploded in a conical method. The nearer you possibly can get to the bottom, the safer you have been. Operating was not an possibility.

We have been additionally taught to look and clear unoccupied homes of booby traps. What’s a booby entice? Nicely, for example, if you happen to have been sitting on the john and pulled the chain behind you, typically as an alternative of the flushing sound you would possibly hear a loud explosion and end up flying by way of the air. Which might imply {that a} booby entice had been positioned within the water closet above the bathroom. So earlier than troops might occupy a domicile, we had to make sure it was cleared of booby traps.

A sergeant instructs troopers in England on the risks of “Boomph Women”: pinup pictures with booby traps hooked up. “One contact and there’s one other lifeless soldier,” the wartime caption reads. (U.S. Air Drive/Nationwide Archives)
Brooks stayed in a French farmhouse throughout his coaching.

To this present day, though I’m not a soldier and I’m not in Germany and I’m not in a struggle, if I enter a bathroom with a pull chain behind the commode, I generally tend to face on the lavatory seat and peer into the tank above to see if there’s a booby entice—which hardly makes any sense in a restaurant in New York. Evidently, I by no means noticed any, however I nonetheless breathe a sigh of aid each time I look in and simply see water.

Along with clearing mines, fight engineers have been taught to construct makeshift buildings to span small rivers or creeks. They have been referred to as Bailey bridges. It’s like an enormous erector set: the bridge is constructed on one aspect of a river or a creek, after which swung over the water and dropped down on the opposite aspect. They have been gentle, sensible, and powerful sufficient to assist the load of 6×6 vans or perhaps a Grant or a Sherman tank.

When our coaching in Normandy was over, we boarded extra 6×6 vans and made our method by way of Belgium all the way down to France’s Alsace-Lorraine area, on the German border. I used to be fortunate to get by way of Belgium on my solution to Germany a few months after the Battle of the Bulge. Had I been born six months earlier, I in all probability would have been combating in that and who is aware of what would have occurred? Anyway, luck was with me, the Germans have been lastly in retreat, and life obtained a bit of higher and a bit of safer.

We have been stationed within the German metropolis of Saarbrücken, proper on the border with France. The 1104th Fight Battalion was hooked up to the Seventh Military. Our job was to make use of our fight engineer coaching in land mine and booby entice detection to clear the dwellings in newly captured territories. It was exhausting work, to not point out scary work, however we went over every little thing with a fine- toothed comb.

At some point I used to be out on patrol with my platoon and we discovered a case of German Mauser rifles close to an previous railway siding. They have been lovely sharpshooting rifles with bolt motion. Certain sufficient, there was a field of ammunition proper subsequent to them. So we had a contest. There have been these white ceramic insulation issues up on the phone poles, and any man who shot one down received a greenback from every of the others. I used to be fairly good at that, and I’d made about $21 when out of the blue we obtained an odd name on our command automobile radio: “Get again to the bottom instantly!”

Once we arrived again to our base there was loads occurring. Platoons of males have been shifting quickly far and wide. My firm commander advised us that military communications had been severed. Evidently some phone and telegraph wires had been destroyed. Uh-oh!

I rapidly realized that we have been the destroyers. These white ceramic insulators have been the incorrect issues to make a target-practice recreation of. So figuring out that we have been actually not at risk, I gallantly supplied to take my males out once more and seek for the enemy snipers that had sabotaged the cellphone strains. My firm commander gave me permission and despatched us off with a salute that connoted one thing like, “You males are a courageous bunch.” We by no means let on.

IT WAS THE BEGINNING of Might 1945, and it seemed just like the struggle in Europe was quickly coming to a detailed. My unit was then stationed in a German city referred to as Baumholder, within the southwest a part of Germany. We occupied a small German schoolhouse. There was a fellow soldier with me named Richard Goldman, who later turned a well known tax lawyer. He had been with me on the boat coming over, with me once we have been transferred from the artillery to the fight engineers, and usually slogged by way of the mud by my aspect as we tried to remain alive in the course of the struggle. Richard was very good. Loads smarter than I used to be. As a result of on V-E Day, that wonderful day that the struggle led to Europe, he marched me all the way down to the cellar of the schoolhouse and confirmed me some Okay rations and a bottle of wine that he had procured for us.

I mentioned, “Dick, what’s this all about?”

He mentioned, “Regardless that the capturing ended right now, tomorrow is the official announcement of V-E Day. Everybody will go loopy. They are going to be joyously firing their weapons into the air. Nobody in that state of euphoria will understand that what goes up should come down, and the bullets will certainly come raining down on what’s under. In order that’s why we’re going to spend the subsequent 24 hours on this cellar, buying and selling the enjoyment of victory for the drained cliché of simply staying alive.”

So because of the savvy pondering of Richard Goldman, I’m nonetheless right here.

The struggle was over, however I didn’t return to America instantly. We turned a part of the Military of Occupation. It was a lot safer, however form of uninteresting.

At some point, a lieutenant from Particular Companies who was touring military installations in our space mentioned, “Is there anyone on this unit who can sing? Dance? Inform a joke or play an instrument?”

I instantly raised my hand. He mentioned, “What are you able to do?”

I mentioned, “The entire above! I can sing, dance, inform jokes, and play the drums.” I advised him all about what I had finished from age 14 on within the Borscht Belt—an affectionate time period for the world of the Catskill Mountains about 90 miles north of New York Metropolis replete with Jewish summer season resorts—the place I’d found I used to be a comic. He requested my CO if he might borrow me for a number of weeks. So I joined his Particular Companies unit and have become one of many comics in a spread present touring completely different military camps. Evidently, I used to be an distinctive addition to his employees. In consequence, the lieutenant requested my CO if he might completely switch me to Particular Companies. Permission was granted, and I used to be an entertainer as soon as once more.

I reported to Particular Companies in Wiesbaden, Germany. I used to be made an performing corporal and put accountable for the leisure at non-com and officers’ golf equipment. It was an excellent gig. I used to be busy placing collectively German civilian expertise with American G.I.s who might sing, dance, and play devices for selection exhibits that I’d MC. I used to be virtually disenchanted after I was advised my time in Europe was up and I’d be going again to the USA.

The journey again to America in April 1946 was loads quicker and safer than the journey to Europe. We have been on the Queen Elizabeth, a ravishing boat and a giant step up from the Sea Owl. It was seven or eight within the morning once we entered New York Harbor. On the sight of the Statue of Liberty smiling down at us, many a G.I. broke into tears. I believe I used to be one among them.

After occupation responsibility, Brooks returned to the U.S. in April 1946 aboard the Queen Elizabeth—right here berthing in New York. (AP Photograph/Tony Camerano)

I used to be despatched to Fort Dix for a month or two earlier than processing my reentry into civilian life. I did some camp exhibits with Particular Companies whereas there. I exercised my songwriting abilities by writing parodies. For example, as an alternative of Cole Porter’s “Start the Beguine,” we’d sing, “Once we start to wash the latrine.” And for “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Firm B” we rolled up our pants legs and have become the Andrews Sisters.

I used to be discharged—honorably, I would add— in June 1946. Being a civilian as soon as once more was great and horrible. I didn’t must eat in a large number corridor anymore; I might eat Chinese language, Italian, or deli anytime I wished to. However what to put on? Within the military it was straightforward. You placed on the identical garments every single day. However I had really grown about an inch and placed on about 20 kilos whereas I used to be abroad, so I needed to get an entire new wardrobe. My favourite wing-tipped black-and-white footwear have been heartbreakingly too small to put on anymore. I had grown up.

The military didn’t rob me of my youth; it actually gave me fairly an training. If you happen to don’t get killed within the military, you possibly can study loads. You discover ways to stand by yourself two toes. ✯

Postwar, Brooks did some camp exhibits at Fort Dix earlier than his discharge—memorialized (above) within the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The query its headline requested has lengthy since been definitively answered. (Courtesy of Mel Brooks)

From the e book ALL ABOUT ME! My Exceptional Life in Present Enterprise by Mel Brooks, revealed by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random Home, a division of Penguin Random Home LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mel Brooks.