By Larry Teren
Joe E. Brown is not the first person you think of when asked to name a Hollywood star who did heroic actions during WWII. There is Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier during the war. Next up is James Stewart who led bombing runs and attained the rank of Major for his effort. Clark Gable was a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. Stewart and Gable were tall, dark and handsome leading men. Joe E. Brown was a frail screen comedian. But Brown took everything he did seriously.
Joe E. Brown was famous for his signature wide open mouth and extended yell that had audiences reeling in the aisles in the 1930s as he made $100,000 a picture. He also learned that anticipation and not overselling the bit helped make the joke last longer than it probably deserved. He would open the mouth wide, hesitate, and speak his words in a soft tone while mugging for the camera.
Joe was also the guy who spoke the most famous throwaway line in movie history. He said matter-of-factly, “well, nobody’s perfect” when Jack Lemmon pointed out that he was a man and not a woman at the end of “Some Like it Hot”.
In June, 1945, The U.S. Army was finally on a major offensive to take back the Philippines. Brown happened to be there entertaining the troops. Incredulously, the senior officer of the 37th Division Major General Robert Beiehler offered Joe the opportunity for him to help capture the town of Bamboeng in the North Luzon district. Brown traveled in a medium tank not fully aware of the risk he was taking. The soldier next to him was shot through the head. According to the official accounting, Brown then popped open the lid, climbed out of the tank and used his carbine rifle to spray the area seventy-five to one hundred yards away. He was credited with killing two Japanese soldiers.
General MacArthur himself gave orders giving Brown permission to tag along on air raids. Brown had lost a son, Don, an Army Captain, when his plane crashed stateside in 1942. Part of his eagerness to take on the enemy was a desire to finish what his son had wanted to do.
When MacArthur made his celebrated return to Manila and Corregidor, he remembered a promise to let Joe walk beside him as he re-established US presence in the various Philippines footholds. At Corregidor, the General pinned the Asiatic Pacific service ribbon on Brown’s shirt for meritorious service. It was the first time this presentation had been made to anyone.
Joe E Brown, despite being officially a civilian, continued to help shoot guns and drop bombs during air raids in China, Burma, New Guinea and Italy.. There was one time where his plane flew low enough for him to drop grenades at Japanese snipers hiding in the tops of palm trees. At Palom Pom, one such tree and all its inhabitants disintegrated.
While entertaining soldiers around a campfire on Jolo in the Sulu Sea, a Japanese soldier in tattered garb approached to give himself up. Brown caught eye of him, and jokingly shouted for everyone to “stand back”, while he ran over and put his arm around the enemy’s shoulder. He led him off to the guardhouse.
The most poignant episode of his unofficial military career came not in combat. Brown was making the rounds in Luzon entertaining wherever a handful of soldiers congregated as they were still under siege and needed a morale booster. He heard that in one of the tents, in the Language Section, thirty-seven malnourished and wounded Japanese prisoners were being interrogated. He decided to go there to get a close up look at the enemy. Once he showed up, several of the prisoners immediately recognized Brown and started talking among themselves. One of them was a graduate of an American college and spoke English well. He acted as the other’s leader and asked Brown why he had to fight if he was an entertainer. Joe explained that he was not there as a soldier but officially to make the soldiers laugh.
When Brown was ready to leave he shook hands with the MP’s, the interrogators and other US soldiers in the tent. He then noticed that the English speaking Jap also extended his hand begging to shake Joe’s.
Joe turned to him, smiled, put out his hand and obliged the handshake. Laughter certainly wouldn’t win wars but maybe mutual respect would help hasten the peace.
Joe E Brown may have been a loud mouth, self-back slapper in the movies but he was also a quiet hero when it counted most.