World War II Soldiers Loved to Sing—Provided They Got to Sing Their Way


The U.S. Military acknowledged the very important outlet that music supplied, however G.I.s most popular parody songs of their very own invention over healthful tunes pushed by high brass.

SINGING has lengthy been a part of army life, and the U.S. Military wished to maintain this heritage alive because it mobilized and educated greater than eight million troopers to combat in Europe and the Pacific. The military believed that group singing was necessary for “morale constructing via soldier participation” and “emotional stability via self-entertainment,” defined Captain M. Claude Rosenberry, who helped arrange the military music program.

Wanting issues finished its means, the military adopted a regimented strategy to music. In 1941, it printed its official Military Track Ebook, containing 67 patriotic, folks, and repair songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Stunning,” and “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” and it anticipated troopers to be taught all 67 songs. The Quartermaster Corps even wrapped pamphlets of spiritual tunes round rations to ensure healthful materials reached the entrance. The military organized formally sanctioned sing-alongs and envisioned each platoon with a barbershop quartet and a “camp-fire instrumentalist (guitar, ukulele, and so forth.)” and every firm with a music chief and “accordionist,” Captain Rosenberry wrote.

These by-the-book efforts fell flat. The military may inform males what to do, however G.I.s dug of their heels at being instructed what to sing and when to sing it. Troopers, a New York Herald Tribune editorial famous, “comply with just one rule of their selection of songs. They don’t sing what is anticipated of them by their elders.” They snubbed army-organized music periods, too. Their angle was “spontaneous or nothing,” famous Sergeant Mack Morriss, a South Pacific correspondent for Yank journal. 

Instead of songs with the military’s imprimatur, the boys invented their very own, making up numerous verses for present hits, patriotic anthems, and well-known folks songs. Their improvised lyrics, or parodies, have been typically sarcastic, typically bawdy however at all times brutally trustworthy. Their verses stretched the bounds of poetic license and typically obliterated the boundaries of excellent style, however they carried an influence skilled songwriters would envy and supply a glimpse, obtainable nowhere else, into what it was wish to be younger, within the service, and preventing the largest battle in historical past. 


(Man Aceto Assortment)

THE FATHERS OF THESE G.I.s had marched to France in 1918 belting out “Over There,” “It’s a Lengthy Method to Tipperary,” and “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” and their sons carried on this custom. They lifted their voices “at beer events and such get-togethers…on lengthy boat journeys the place there may be not a lot else to do,” and whereas using on open vans, wrote Corporal Pete Seeger, a folksinger who served within the Pacific and whose musical profession spanned greater than 50 years. Collective singing made it attainable for servicemen “to really feel comradeship, to be blissful collectively with out being emotional, or not visibly, and thus unmanly,” mentioned Samuel Hynes, a Marine flier within the Pacific and later a professor of literature at Princeton College.

The lads’s parodies have been greater than a means of amusing themselves and passing the time. They served as a significant outlet to alleviate wartime nervousness and the frustrations of army life. A soldier will endure nearly something “so long as he’s permitted to grouse, protest and joke about his destiny, to ridicule his leaders and to claim his important autonomy and private dignity,” famous folklorist Les Cleveland, a New Zealander who fought within the Pacific and in Italy. In reality, irreverent songs have been typically “the one means at their disposal for the expression of their subversive fears and frustrations,” Cleveland defined. 

The lads thought of the choices within the official military songbook to be lame—extra applicable for grammar-school kids than for troopers. Stateside composers churned out dozens of patriotic songs like “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” “Goodbye Mama (I’m Off to Yokohama),” and “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap,” however the G.I.s dismissed these anthems as “lots of drivel…about as shallow as a coat of paint,” Sergeant Morriss wrote. None was “, trustworthy, acceptable battle music,” military cartoonist Invoice Mauldin concluded. Parodies stuffed the void. 

Folksinger Pete Seeger leads the crowd in “When We March into Berlin” in 1944. Music helped fill the void, he said, when “there is not much else to do.” (Joseph A. Horne/Office of War Information/Library of Congress)
Folksinger Pete Seeger leads the gang in “When We March into Berlin” in 1944. Music helped fill the void, he mentioned, when “there may be not a lot else to do.” (Joseph A. Horne/Workplace of Struggle Info/Library of Congress)

ACROSS THE GLOBE, the music American servicemen most preferred to sing and parody was “Bless ’em All,” a British waltz to which they added their very own lyrics. In 1917, a 37-year-old Englishman, Fred Godfrey, wrote the tune to amuse his buddies within the Royal Naval Flying Service, and it turned an underground favourite with British troops. In 1940, English songwriters Jimmy Hughes and Frank Lake polished it up, and it quickly loved huge public reputation in Nice Britain. It crossed the Atlantic and was featured in American wartime movies like A Yank within the R.A.F, Captains of the Clouds, and Guadalcanal Diary, and on recordings by artists like Man Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.

Its rollicking refrain begged for group singing—“Bless em all/Bless em all/The lengthy and the brief and the talland its lyrics have been already charmingly irreverent towards army life: “There’ll be no promotions/This aspect of the ocean/So cheer up, my lads/Bless em all.” It was tailored for parodies as a result of “any phrases chosen at random appear to suit,” naval intelligence officer Otis Cary defined, however its intangible attraction was what endeared it to the troops. “The music isn’t a preventing music—it doesn’t yell blood & thunder, however individuals sing it,” Sergeant Morriss famous: “It has guts.” 

The elimination of “bless” was the primary change the G.I.s made. “It shouldn’t require a lot creativeness for even essentially the most shy and sheltered particular person to know what phrase changed it,” infantryman Dick Stodghill mentioned. The four-letter substitute, unspeakable in well mannered circles, was a staple of the G.I. lexicon. Servicemen would have been “nearly speechless” with out it, Personal Raymond Gantter recalled, and Robert Leckie, a Marine who served within the Pacific, mentioned he heard it “from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.’s and Ph.D.’s.” Its use was so computerized that many servicemen house on depart slipped up on the dinner desk and requested “a youthful sister or candy previous grandmother to ‘cross the f–king butter,’” mortarman John B. Babcock recalled with a chuckle. This phrase—and others prefer it—permeated the G.I. songs, which Life journal known as “mass vocal scatology.”

It could be a mistake, nonetheless, to see this language as merely the product of an all-male surroundings free from civilian restraints. Just like the parodies themselves, the forbidden phrases served as security valves, “treasured as a means for tens of millions of conscripts to notice, in a licensed means, their bitterness and anger,” mentioned Lieutenant Paul Fussell, later a professor of literature on the College of Pennsylvania. By singing “f–ok ’em all,” the boys may blow off steam, and the “’em” may denote whoever or no matter was aggravating them. Amongst those that agreed was Normal George S. Patton, who believed “a military with out profanity couldn’t combat its means out of a piss-soaked paper bag.” 

 Military men—like this group of Minnesotans in the navy—favored pairing well-known melodies with concocted, and typically irreverent, lyrics. (U.S. Navy/Hennepin County Library)
Army males—like this group of Minnesotans within the navy—favored pairing well-known melodies with concocted, and sometimes irreverent, lyrics. (U.S. Navy/Hennepin County Library)

Pilots used “Bless ’em All” to voice their nervousness about dying, extra simply acknowledged below the guise of humor: “No lilies or violets/For useless fighter pilots/So cheer up, my lads” and “No future in flying/Except you want dying/So cheer up, my lads.” With there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I humor, rear-echelon troops poked enjoyable at their frontline brethren—“They sit of their trenches/And consider their wenches/So cheer up, my lads”—and Marines confirmed macho pleasure: “So what if we endure?/Marines have it more durable/So cheer up, my lads.” Sailors mocked the indignity of the periodic examination of their genitalia for venereal illness—“You’ll get no erection/At ‘short-arm inspection’/So cheer up, my lads”—and glider troops derided their plane: “We’re fortunate fellows/We’ve acquired no propellers/So cheer up, my lads.

Married males sang of the concern that their wives within the States may be doing greater than preserving the house fires burning—“Our future’s an issue we will’t determine/Hope that our wives are alone of their bedsand sailors ridiculed the officious and annoying junior officers arriving from the States: “They’re salty as hell/And silly as effectively/Make sure and salute them, my mates. 

Troopers and Marines mocked the arrival of the U.S. Navy—“In 10,000 sections/From 18 instructions/Oh Lord, what a f–ed-up stampedeand Marines bemoaned the sore topic of inaccurate tactical air assist: “They bombed out two donkeys/5 horses, three monkeys/And 7 platoons of Marines.” One model, crafted by crewmen of B-17 Flying Fortresses to explain coming back from a troublesome mission, embodied the grimmest of humor: “They are saying there’s a Fortress simply leaving Calais/Certain for the Limey shore/It’s closely laden with petrified males/And stiffs who’re laid on the ground.” The variations of “Bless ’em All” have been as limitless as the boys’s limitless ingenuity.

The 1940 version of a 1917 tune was popular in Great Britain. It also was the song American G.I.s most parodied—adapting it to an extraordinary variety of themes. (Bless ‘em all, 1941. Ella Dot Martin Blake Collection (RB 015) )
The 1940 model of a 1917 tune was standard in Nice Britain. It additionally was the music American G.I.s most parodied—adapting it to a unprecedented number of themes. (Bless ‘em all, 1941. Ella Dot Martin Blake Assortment (RB 015) )

ANY TUNE WITH A well-known melody was honest sport, and making up new lyrics for previous songs was one other military custom. Within the First World Struggle, for instance, doughboys had modified “It’s a Lengthy Method to Tipperary,” a preferred marching tune, to “That’s the Fallacious Method to Tickle Mary” and had improvised dozens of bawdy verses for “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” one of many best-known songs from the sooner battle. 

The parody course of was Darwinian, and solely the perfect variations gained traction. Defined Pete Seeger: “a parody, except it’s a good music in its personal proper, won’t catch on and final.” He estimated that almost all of those ditties have been “sung for amusing a couple of times…after which forgotten.” They have been not often written down, however the good ones have been unfold by phrase of mouth in “a real oral custom, like folks ballads,” Samuel Hynes famous. The standard inspirations, Seeger mentioned, have been “disgust for battle, and the military (or navy),” and Hynes listed the commonest matters as being army life, senior officers, intercourse, and dying. Regardless of the topic, all have been “comedian, or have been meant to be,” Hynes mentioned, and the boys sang them “humorously, half cynically, by no means mournfully,” folklorist A. S. Limouze defined. There’s no “official” model of any of those songs as a result of the boys tailored every to suit native circumstances and have been continuously modifying the lyrics. 

Troopers weren’t educated singers, and plenty of had bother carrying a tune, however they substituted enthusiasm for lack of vocal expertise. “When the common group of troopers burst forth in music, it makes a refrain of tree frogs sound like grand opera,” Stodghill remembered. Listening to 1 sing-along, Morriss famous in his diary that “these guys can’t sing sober and even with a guitar they’ll’t sing drunk. However they positive try.” Typically, nonetheless, issues clicked. Seeger, whose musical profession took him to live performance halls and recording studios, recalled a music session in 1943 at Keesler Discipline, Mississippi, throughout which practically 40 males crowded into the tile-walled barracks latrine. The acoustics have been excellent, Seeger mentioned, and the outcome was “among the greatest music I ever made in my life.”

One other favourite music for the inventive course of was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Civil Struggle anthem that appeared within the official military songbook—however not in the way in which the G.I.s sang it. Airborne troops whistled previous the graveyard a few paratrooper whose chute didn’t open—“Gory, gory/What a hell of a approach to die/And he ain’t gonna leap no extra”—and sailors griped about shipboard life—“Holy Jesus/What a hell of a approach to reside/Then we ain’t going to sea no extra. 

Pilots sing in their ready room (above) aboard the USS Ranger before the 1942 invasion of Morocco. Judging by the smiles, this was not a sanctioned song—although the army and navy tried their best to inspire by dispensing official lyrics on “Hit Kit” fliers (below) and music on V-discs. (Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)
Pilots sing of their prepared room (above) aboard the usRanger earlier than the 1942 invasion of Morocco. Judging by the grins, this was not a sanctioned music—though the military and navy tried their greatest to encourage by meting out official lyrics on “Hit Package” fliers (under) and music on V-discs. (Stocktrek Photographs, Inc./Alamy Inventory Photograph)

(Some Wonderful Old Things/Alamy Stock Photo)
(Some Fantastic Outdated Issues/Alamy Inventory Photograph)

Troopers ridiculed Normal Douglas MacArthur’s perceived penchant for pompous pronouncements—“Mine eyes have seen MacArthur/With a Bible on his knee/He’s pounding out communiques/For guys such as you and me”—and airmen groused about their department of the service —“Ain’t the air drive f–cking terrible? The most effective-known “Battle Hymn” parody, standard in all theaters and amongst all branches of the service, mirrored the sarcasm of males itching to return to civilian life: “When the battle is over/We are going to all enlist once more.

One other standard quantity was “Down within the Valley,” a widely known folks music just lately recorded by the Andrews Sisters, a distinguished vocal group. Bomber crews lamented harmful missions over Germany—“Down the Ruhr Valley/Valley so low/Some chair-borne bastard/Stated we should go”—and joked about their concern of being shot down and brought prisoner: “Write me a letter/Ship it to me/Ship it in care of/Stalag Luft III.” Transport pilots sang of the acute hazard of flying gasoline and different provides over the Hump, as they known as the Himalaya Mountains: “That is the story/Of a Hump pilot’s life/For a gallon of gasoline, boys/He gave up his life.” 

The lads dusted off “Mademoiselle from Armentières” to mock the publicity given to feminine troopers (WACs) and sailors (WAVES)— “The WACs and WAVES will win the battle/So what the hell are we right here for?/Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous”—and to grumble about any state the place they’d educated: “—– is a hell of a state/Asshole of the 48/Hinky, dinky, parlez-vous.” 

Some parodies poked enjoyable on the males’s personal braveness. Portraying themselves “as a band of ignominious, self-seeking cowards quite than as valiant, battlefield heroes” was good for amusing, folklorist Les Cleveland defined, and acted as “a comic book demolition of the complete army enterprise.” B-17 crewmen sang of their want for a mechanical drawback to ship them again to their base earlier than they met the enemy—“F–ok the Flying Fortress/And pray that she’ll abort/We’d quite be at house/Than within the f–king Flying Fort”—and of one other inglorious approach to finish a mission: “We dropped our bombs within the ocean/Which no person can deny.” In “I Needed Wings (’Til I Bought the Goddamn Issues),” a music concocted by Chicago Solar correspondent Jack Dowling, airmen urged discretion over valor: “It can save you these goddamn Zeros/For these different goddamn heroes” and “I’d quite be a bellhop/Than a flier on a flattop. They realized, they sang, that “there’s one factor you possibly can’t snort off/And that’s after they shoot your ass off.”

About to board landing craft prior to D-Day, G.I.s bolster morale with a song. Collective singing encouraged comradery and helped stanch fear. (Photo 12/Getty Images)
About to board touchdown craft previous to D-Day, G.I.s bolster morale with a music. Collective singing inspired comradery and helped stanch concern. (Photograph 12/Getty Photographs)

THE ARMY MADE VALIANT EFFORTS to convey the music at present standard on the house entrance to the troops abroad. It distributed hundreds of “Hit Kits,” month-to-month bulletins of the lyrics for standard songs, and “V-discs,” recordings of what it known as “present and favourite songs and marches.” It even shipped wind-up phonographs abroad to allow the troops to play the V-discs. The lads shortly went to work on the brand new tunes. 

Airmen doctored up “As Time Goes By,” featured within the 1942 movie Casablanca. They sang in regards to the hazard of antiaircraft fireplace—“You should bear in mind this/The flak can’t at all times miss”—and the Fifteenth Air Power in Italy mocked the Eighth Air Power in England as publicity hounds: “It’s nonetheless the identical previous story/The Eighth will get all of the glory.” 

G.I.s used “Don’t Fence Me In,” popularized by cowboy star Roy Rogers, to ridicule paper-pushers blissful to spend the battle safely within the States—“Let me relaxation at my desk/With the pencil that I like/Don’t ship me out”—and servicewomen transformed “Fairly Child,” a ragtime period hit, into an ode to the surefire ticket house: “Should you’re nervous within the service/And also you don’t know what to do/Have a child, have a child.” For soldiers, “Wedding ceremony Bells Are Breaking Up That Outdated Gang of Mine,” a preferred customary, turned a tribute to buddies misplaced to German 88mm artillery shells—“Eighty-Eights Are Breaking Up That Outdated Gang of Mine”—and fliers used it to eulogize comrades shot down by German Me 109 fighter planes: “These Messerschmitts Are Breaking Up That Outdated Gang of Mine.” A parody of “White Christmas,” a signature music of crooner Bing Crosby, focused the boys’s eager for feminine firm: “I’m dreaming of a white mistress….” 

Even the service songs have been honest sport. “The Air Power Track,” for instance, was used to mock army bureaucrats—“Right here we go/Into the file case yonder/Diving deep into the drawer”—and Marines used their anthem to notice a doubtful achievement: “We have now the best VD fee/We’re United States Marines.”

One other style of soldier songs extolled the advantage (or lack thereof) of unique ladies in faraway locations. Two favorites have been “Soiled Gertie from Bizerte” (who “hid a mousetrap neath her skirtie”), and “Filthy Annie from Trapani” (who “stashed a razor up her fanny). Rival temptresses have been “Stella, the Belle of Fedala,” “Luscious Lena from Messina,” and “Venal Vera from Gezira.” These titles have been typically extra intriguing than the precise songs. 

Oddly, few songs confirmed hatred for the enemy. In reality, these verses directed extra venom and humor at their very own officers than the Germans or Japanese. One exception was a takeoff on the “Colonel Bogey March,” a British tune later immortalized within the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. It mocked the alleged anatomical peculiarities of the Nazi leaders: “Hitler has solely acquired one ball/Göring has acquired none in any respect.

Most commanders tolerated the parodies. They understood the necessity to gripe, grouse, and blow off steam, and older officers undoubtedly recalled with fondness the irreverent tunes they’d sung again in 1918. One outlier was by-the-book Colonel Eugene R. Householder, a 59-year-old West Level graduate who commanded an air drive coaching middle in Atlantic Metropolis, New Jersey. In 1943, he banned practically a dozen of the troopers’ songs as a result of, he mentioned, they impugned the boys’s braveness and inspired consuming. Among the many tunes he outlawed have been “I’ve Been Engaged on the Railroad” and “The Beer Barrel Polka.” The lads rolled their eyes, and Householder’s edict quickly turned the goal of parodies, the New York Instances reported.

The U.S. Publish Workplace additionally disapproved. In 1943, an writer named Eric Posselt printed a e-book entitled Give Out!, containing what he known as genuine soldier songs and what Time journal described as “the salty songs roared by males away from ladies.” Postal authorities took one look, labeled the e-book “lewd and obscene,” and banned it from the U.S. mail. An nameless reviewer from Yank journal shook his head in disbelief, saying lots of Posselt’s songs sounded as in the event that they’d been written by public-relations officers or Sunday faculty academics. 

J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI noticed one ditty—“Gee, However I Need to Go Dwelling”—as a part of a subversive plot to make troopers homesick. In actuality, it was nothing greater than good-natured griping about military chow: The espresso that they offer you/They are saying is mighty wonderful/It’s good for cuts and bruises/And tastes like iodine.”

From time to time, a music mirrored true bitterness. In 1944, Woman Astor, a sharp-tongued member of the British Parliament, reportedly known as Allied troops in Italy “D-Day dodgers” as a result of they hadn’t taken half within the Normandy landings. It’s unsure if Woman Astor truly did say this, however British, American, and Canadian troopers in Italy believed she had. They have been irate as a result of they’d suffered drastically and endured heavy losses within the Italian marketing campaign, which lasted greater than a 12 months and price greater than 300,000 Allied casualties. British troops used “Lili Marlene,” a German love music as standard with Allied troops as with the enemy, to skewer the viscountess, and this parody caught on with G.I.s, too. 

The troops bluntly instructed Woman Astor what they considered her: “You’re England’s sweetheart and her pleasure/We expect your mouth’s too bloody huge.” They described, with biting sarcasm, their dwelling situations—“Sleeping til midday and enjoying video games/We reside in Rome with a lot of dames”—and the preventing in Italy: “We landed at Salerno, a vacation with pay.” However to them, the enduring picture was the crosses over the graves of their fallen comrades: Heartbreak and toil and struggling gone/The boys beneath them slumber on/They’re the D-Day Dodgers/who’ll keep in Italy.”

After the battle, the G.I.s’ lyrics for “Bless ’em All” and different tunes have been largely forgotten, as veterans appeared reluctant to confide in their pals and households the verses they’d sung abroad. Possibly the tough language embarrassed them, or maybe they feared civilians would misunderstand their sardonic wartime humor. There was no motive, in fact, to fret both means, for these songs stand as a testomony to the wit, resilience, and spunk of those that carried the day at a pivotal second in historical past. 

Enlisted men aboard the USS Ticonderoga celebrate news of the Japanese surrender. After the war, the song parodies that had been so enjoyed were largely forgotten. (Lieutenant B. Gallagher/U.S. Navy/National Archives)
Enlisted males aboard the usTiconderoga have a good time information of the Japanese give up. After the battle, the music parodies that had been so loved have been largely forgotten. (Lieutenant B. Gallagher/U.S. Navy/Nationwide Archives)


In the summertime of 1943, the shock hit music amongst G.I.s within the Mediterranean Theater was “Soiled Gertie from Bizerte,” which Life journal known as the saga of a “mischievous siren [who] lured her boy pals to their undoing.” Among the many diabolical methods recounted within the music’s lyrics, Gertie “hid a mousetrap ’neath her skirtie. 

Bizerte was a metropolis in North Africa that the Allies had liberated earlier that 12 months, and everybody assumed “Soiled Gertie” had originated there. Some G.I.s even claimed to have met the true Gertie, and one other rumor unfold that the music was actually a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a model—the one feminine companionship troopers had been capable of finding within the war-torn metropolis. However the reality was far stranger.

“Gertie” was truly the brainchild of Personal William L. Russell, who had by no means set foot in North Africa. In November 1942, Russell, who had dabbled in poetry as a pupil at Cornell College, had dashed off the verse whereas nursing a hangover at Camp Lee, Virginia. He had seen Bizerte within the information and thought the identify had a pleasant ring to it. Russell despatched his eight-line poem to Yank journal, which printed it in its column of G.I. poetry.

Over in North Africa, Sergeant Paul Reif, a composer in civilian life, noticed Russell’s printed poem. He set it to a easy fox-trot melody, and Sergeant Jack Goldstein added a couple of verses. Quickly, Josephine Baker, an African American singer who had gained fame within the cabarets of prewar Paris, was singing “Soiled Gertie” to entertain the troops. The lads cherished it and, troopers being troopers, they shortly cooked up their very own scandalous verses.  

A cleaned-up version of “Dirty Gertie from Bizerte,” in which a G.I. woos a lovely lady, lacked the raunchier version’s appeal. (HistoryNet Archives)
A cleaned-up model of “Soiled Gertie from Bizerte,” by which a G.I. woos a beautiful girl, lacked the raunchier model’s attraction. (HistoryNet Archives)

Again within the States, Russell, now stationed at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, was flabbergasted that his poem had turn into a success music as a result of, he admitted, he himself couldn’t carry a tune and even whistle one. As for the racy lyrics, all he would say was, “Mom isn’t very pleased with Gertie.” Nonetheless, Russell smelled alternative and traveled to New York Metropolis to pitch his music. Music publishers have been , hoping the ditty would turn into as standard at house because it was with G.I.s. The salty lyrics, nonetheless, would by no means cross muster on American airwaves, in order that they needed to be cleaned up. “Soiled Gertie” turned “Flirty Gertie,” and as an alternative of hiding a “mousetrap ’neath her skirtie,” she was merely “purty, purty, purty as will be.” Alas, the spic-and-span Gertie lacked the attract of the saucy one, and the music by no means turned a giant hit again house. ✯ 

—Joseph Connor

This text was printed within the February 2022 situation of World Struggle II.

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