Rare Irving Berlin WWII Play Photographs Online

[This blog post was written by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Photograph of songwriter Irving Berlin, wearing his U.S. Army uniform, standing against a wall next to a poster advertising the only civilian performance of Berlin’s traveling U.S. military play This Is The Army at the Teatro Reale dell’Opera in Rome, Italy, in June 1944. The play was in Rome performing for U.S. military personnel during an international tour in World War II (June 1944) [Photograph by: Zinn Arthur].

The State Archives of North Carolina’s Military Collection is excited to announce the availability online of 416 original photographs documenting the international tour of American songwriter Irving Berlin’s traveling U.S. Army play This Is The Army was performed from October 1943 through October 1945 during World War II. Developed from the 1942 Broadway musical play and the 1943 Hollywood film of the same name, This Is The Army (abbreviated by the cast and crew as “TITA”) was initially designed to raise money for the war effort in the United States, and featured one of the most famous wartime songs of the 1940s “This Is The Army, Mister Jones.” TITA became the biggest and best-known morale-boosting show of World War II in the U.S.

Beginning in October 1943, TITA left the U.S. for England, where it remained through February 1944. From there, they traveled to North Africa, Italy, Egypt, Iran, India, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Guam, Mogmog Island, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Hawaii, and numerous other locations in the Pacific Theater. The play traveled with makeshift stages that they set up on numerous locations and U.S. military installations/camps. The play’s cast played to hundreds of thousands of U.S. service individuals, including women’s bases and camps such as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) camps in the Pacific. They traveled by troop transport ships, rented cargo ships, and landing crafts.

View of African-American dancer, soloist, and comedian James “Stumpy” Cross introducing the song “Shoo Shoo Baby” during a performance by cast members of Irving Berlin’s traveling U.S. military play This Is The Army the hospital at Camp Huckstep in Cairo, Egypt, in August 1944. Part of the play’s “jam band” is pictured playing in the background. Photograph taken while the cast was stationed at Camp Huckstep to perform for U.S. military personnel in Cairo, Egypt, during an international tour (August 1944) [Photograph by: Zinn Arthur].

This Is The Army was the only full-integrated military unit in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII, with African American men eating, performing, and traveling with their fellow white cast and crew members. Many of the men were not just performers before the war, but also recruited to perform in the cast from the U.S. Army ranks in 1943. The cast was all-male, which required the men to dress as women in drag for the women sketches in the play. In all, the play would prove to be the beginning of the eventual desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces under President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981.

This particular collection of photographs was mostly taken by singer and later celebrity photographer Zinn Arthur. Arthur would select and send these photographs to fellow cast member and singer Robert Summerlin of Tarboro, N.C. Both men would add identifications to the images over the years, resulting in the collection currently held at the State Archives. This collection of the This Is The Army photographs is the only known, publicly-available collection of these images in the United States.

The complete set of photographs is available online in an album through the State Archives’ Flickr page. Original programs and tickets for the play are available for viewing in-house in the State Archives’ public Search Room.

Photograph of singer Robert Summerlin from the cast of Irving Berlin’s traveling U.S. military play This Is The Army, standing in front of a lifeboat on the deck of the small freighter El Libertador, which carried the cast and crew of the play around the South Pacific in May 1945 during World War II. The ship was in Manila, the Philippines, when the photograph was taken. Photograph taken while the play was traveling throughout the South Pacific to perform for U.S. military personnel during their international tour [May 1945] [Photograph by: Zinn Arthur].

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