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How Acting Legend Eddie Albert Served Our Country in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 6, 2024 3:02 am

How Acting Legend Eddie Albert Served Our Country in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 6, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, it’s time for another “Hollywood Goes to War” story from Roger McGrath. Eddie Albert played a sadistic prison warden in 1974’s The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds. He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for his 1954 performance in Roman Holiday, and the second in 1973 for The Heartbreak Kid. He also starred as Oliver Wendell Douglas in the 1960s television sitcom Green Acres. But his greatest role was the one he played in WWII.

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2024 Santa Fe available early 2024. And we return to our American stories, and now it's time for another Hollywood goes to war story from Roger McGrath. Hedy Albert played a sadistic prison warden in 1974's The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds. Roger McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries, and he's a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories. Here's McGrath with the story of Hedy Albert. Hedy Albert is probably best remembered for starring in the television series Green Acres, which aired from 1965 through 1971. In the series, he plays a New York City attorney who escapes the frenetic life of the metropolis to live the life of a gentleman farmer near the town of Hooterville. He and his glamorous Hungarian wife, played by Ava Gabor, are the proverbial fish out of water trying to adjust to their new life on the farm and their new down-home friends. Long before the highly popular Green Acres, though, Albert appeared in movies beginning with Brother Rat in 1938.

Altogether, he appeared in more than 80 movies, both as a leading man and as a supporting actor, and was twice nominated for an Oscar. While Hedy Albert was a highly recognizable actor to generations of movie and television fans, his World War II service in the Battle of Tarawa is largely unknown. Hedy Albert is born Edward Albert Heimburger in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1906. His father is Frank Heimburger, and his mother is Julia Jones. He is the first of five children. His paternal grandparents are German immigrants. His mother's parents are immigrants from Wales and from Germany. The family moves to Minneapolis when Eddie is one.

At six years old, they begin selling newspapers on Minneapolis street corners and later has a paper route. He works many jobs growing up, including a soda jerk at a drug store while he's a student at Central High School. He's a member of the school's drama club and appears in school plays.

Another member of the club is Harriet Lake, who later becomes the actress in Southern. From Central High, Eddie goes on to the University of Minnesota, thinking he should get serious about his future. He majors in business. After two years, though, he drops out to sing with a trio that works nightclubs and has a regular gig with a Minneapolis radio station. Since radio announcers often call him Eddie Hamburger instead of Heimburger, he substitutes his middle name for his surname and is known as Eddie Albert from then on. In 1933, he moves to New York City and begins singing with Grace Bratt. The duo is hired by NBC to host their own radio show, The Honeymooners, which runs for three years. Albert then performs in several Broadway stage plays and appears in one of the first television shows, The Love Nest, which is produced by RCA and broadcast over NBC's experimental television station in New York City. His radio work and his performances on stage attract the attention of Warner Brothers, and the studio brings him to Hollywood, gives him a screen test, and signs him to a contract. Albert appears in his first movie, Brother Rat, in 1938.

The movie is a lighthearted take on the struggles of three VMI cadets, played by Wayne Morris, Ronald Reagan, and Eddie Albert. After we get married, how many sons are we going to have? How many do you want? Well, it would be nice to have a full team. What's your favorite sport?

That's the trouble. Football. Albert delivers a strong performance that especially demonstrates his great comedic timing. In his very next movie, On Your Toes, in 1939, Albert is elevated to leading man, playing a dancer turned composer who falls for the prima ballerina of a Russian dance troupe. He's back to a supporting role in Four Wives, also in 1939, playing a physician. He appears in four movies in 1940, including Leading Man in An Angel From Texas, and In My Love Come Back. He's in five movies in 1941, with leading man roles in two of them.

Eddie Albert's star is in Ascendance. Between making his many movies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Albert takes a sailboat on trips to Mexico. He hears rumors of Japanese naval personnel posing as fishermen while making hydrographic surveys along the Pacific Coast. Even more ominously, he hears rumors of secret Japanese submarine refueling stations in Baja, California, where more than 1,000 Japanese settled during the 1920s and 30s, most of them in coastal fishing villages.

He reports what he hears to the U.S. government. This comports with what the Japanese are doing throughout the Pacific, and naval intelligence has Albert report after each of his trips to Mexico. Albert appears in two movies in 1942.

He's a leading man in one, and in a supporting role in the other. It's also in 1942 that Albert, very familiar with sailing the Pacific Coast, joins the U.S. Coast Guard. When he joins, he's in his mid-30s, but is accepted for officer school because of his sailing experience, his intelligence reports, and his college years. He graduates from OCS, but then is discharged from the Coast Guard to accept the commission as Lieutenant JG in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Before he's activated, he makes three movies that are released to the U.S. Coast Guard. He makes three movies that are released in 1943.

He's the leading man in two of them. In August 1943, Eddie Albert becomes an officer aboard a newly commissioned ship, the USS Sheridan, an attack transport. Sailing out of San Francisco, Sheridan takes her shakedown cruise during September 1943. Back to San Francisco for cargo loading, Sheridan departs for the Southwest Pacific in October. Three weeks later, she unloads her cargo at Noumea on the southwest coast of the island of New Caledonia. About 900 miles northeast of Brisbane, Australia, Noumea is a supply base and staging area for American forces. From Noumea, Sheridan sails for Wellington, New Zealand, where she takes aboard Marines of the 2nd Marine Division. Sheridan then sails to Ephate Island, some 300 miles northeast of New Caledonia, for several days of amphibious landing training with the Navy's Fifth Fleet. Lieutenant Albert is commanding one of the landing craft. After amphibious training at Ephate, the Fifth Fleet sails to Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands for Operation Galvanic. The main island of the Tarawa Atoll is Basho, only two and a half miles long and not more than a half mile wide, a total land area of only 291 acres.

Yet Basho is defended by 5,000 Japanese troops, all in fortified positions. And you're listening to the story of Edward Albert Heineberger, otherwise known as Eddie Albert, his star on the rise in ascendance in 1941, five movies and 42, two movies, but Hitler and his war machine were in ascendance, and so too was the Japanese war machine. When we come back, more of Eddie Albert's story here on Our American Stories.

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Let's return to Roger McGrath. For its size, Bayshoke is the most heavily fortified island in the world. A Japanese commander of Tarawa, Rear Admiral Shibasaki, brags that a million Marines in 100 years cannot capture Bayshoke Island. The unusual tides at Tarawa will make an amphibious assault very difficult. The tides rise and fall at uneven rates in the atoll shallow lagoon. It's estimated that high tide on the morning of November 20th, D-Day, for the Marine landing, will provide a depth of five feet over the reefs on the way to shore. The landing craft that the Navy will use to take the Marines from ship to shore is the Higgins boat. A fully loaded Higgins boat draws about four feet of water. Should the estimated high tide not live up to expectations, the Higgins boats will run aground far offshore, forcing the Marines to wade hundreds of yards to the beach, all the time subjected to deadly Japanese fire. Marine Operations Officer Lieutenant Colonel Dave Shoup calls for amphibious tractors, the LVT, for the landing.

However, the Navy can only supply not many more than 100 Amtrak's. This means most Marines will be in Higgins boats. Navy bombardment of Bayshoke Island begins early on the morning of November 20th and continues until just before 0900 each hour, when the first three waves of Marines in Amtrak's head for the beach. At 4000 yards out, shells from Japanese artillery pieces start splashing around the Amtrak's. At 2000 yards, shells from Japanese mortars begin dropping. At 1000 yards, Japanese machine gun fire begins hitting the Marines.

The sound is deafening. Shells are exploding everywhere and thousands of steel fragments fill the air. Amtrak's suffer direct hits and go down in balls of flame and smoke. At 800 yards, the surviving Amtrak's reach the reef, crawl over it, and begin the final run to shore in the face of murderous fire. Meanwhile, the Higgins boats in three waves are working their way towards shore. At 800 yards out, they reach the reef and begin running aground on the coral. The Marines can do nothing but leap out of the foundering boats and, holding their rifles high overhead, begin wading towards the beach. Shells explode all around them, throwing columns of water high into the air and sometimes the bodies of Marines. Other Marines are cut down by machine gun fire.

A Navy pilot in a plane overhead later said what it looked like from his elevated position in the sky. The water seemed never clear of tiny men. The rifles held over their heads, slowly wading beachward. They kept falling, falling, falling, singly in groups and in rows.

I wanted to cry. Yet the Marines keep moving forward. A war correspondent, who is in the fifth wave, says the Marines are calm, even disdainful of death.

Black dots of men, holding their weapons high above their heads, moving at a snail's pace, never faltering. Marine landings continue on day two. The carnage is as bad as that on day one. Of 200 men in the first wave, only 90 reach the beach.

Successive waves are similarly carved up. Altogether of the 800 reinforcements who approach Bay Show on the second day, nearly half are killed or wounded before they reach the beach. In the midst of the landings is Lieutenant Eddie Albert. He's commanding a Higgins boat and her crew and is tasked with carrying supplies to shore and evacuating wounded Marines from both the beach and the water.

He not only does those two jobs while maneuvering his boat through withering fire, but also attempts to rescue a group of Marines stranded on a coral reef after their landing craft is sunk. The Marines have left their wounded into Albert's boat, but those without wounds, despite heavy Japanese fire, refuse to climb aboard. They ask that Albert take their wounded buddies back to his ship and then return to take them to shore. They also want Albert to bring them weapons to replace those they've lost. By the time Albert returns, the Marines are gone.

Were they all cut down by Japanese fire or did another boat pick them up? Albert fears they were all killed and it haunts him for the rest of his life. On day three, Albert goes ashore to assist in organizing and coordinating the unloading of supplies, which was proceeding all too slowly for the Marines. Albert soon has a team of men moving the supplies in a more efficient manner. When they come under Japanese sniper fire, Albert kills one of the snipers himself.

By the early afternoon of day four, Colonel Shoup declares Bacial Island secured. It took the Marines only 76 hours to destroy Admiral Shibasaki's Vonta Defense Force, but the cost is dear. In those 76 hours, the Marines lose some 1,100 killed and 2,300 wounded. 3,400 combat casualties. Japan lost nearly all of her 5,000 man force.

Only 17 Japanese were captured, along with 129 Korean slave laborers. Lieutenant Albert is cited for evacuating wounded and dying under fire with courage and determination and for his boat handling and devotion to duty under machine gun fire. He will later be awarded the Bronze Star with V for Valor. After the Battle of Tarawa, Sheridan sails for Pearl Harbor, arriving early in December 1943.

The sailors get only a few days in Hawaii before Sheridan weighs anchor for San Diego, arriving in the middle of December. Lieutenant Albert is now ordered to Washington D.C. to join the training film division. The Navy thinks he was lucky to come through the Battle of Tarawa unscathed and will now be of far more value making training films. He is also set on war bond tours and is able to describe firsthand what the war is like in the Pacific and the need for those on the home front to dedicate themselves to the war effort. In March 1944, Albert is promoted from Lieutenant J.G.

to Lieutenant. He remains on active duty until January 1946. Eddie Albert makes three movies in 1946 and is the male lead in two of them. He makes another four movies in 1947. His movie career continues at a brisk pace through the mid 1950s. For his work in Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, Albert is nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

He is again nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Heartbreak Kid, starring Charles Grody and Cymbal Shepherd. Sir, I was very quiet at dinner tonight because I was listening. I'm in the banking business, you know.

I'm called upon to have many business dinners. I find I can tell more about a man by listening to his dinner table conversation than by reading all the books and the records and the balance sheets in the world. I heard everything you said. I heard everything you said. You don't think I see through you?

I've never once tried to misrepresent myself or deceive anybody. Leonard, you think you're quite determined, don't you? You think once you get your mind set on something, that's it. Leonard, you don't know what determination is.

I eat determination for breakfast. Did you honestly think you could come out here and wise guy yourself a girl like Kelly? This is my baby you're talking about.

Nobody wise guys away my little baby. It might be said that Eddie Albert's best supporting role was as a boat commander in the battle of Tarawa. When, according to the official after action report, his performance was considered outstanding and was an important factor in the successful operation of the landing. That's a performance to be applauded and remembered. And a superb piece of production as always by Greg and a special thanks as always to Roger McGrath for telling this important story of the life of Eddie Albert, the life and the service he gave to the country here on Our American Stories.

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