Accounts -274th - Jack Barton: The Movie Star
 

Pfc BartonOn the left, Pfc. Jack Barton, I&R 274th

In addition to all the hazards and difficulties inherent in the life of a combat infantryman, there are the never-ending daily deprivations which range from simply inconvenient to seriously health threatening. Somewhere along that continuum of constant deprivation is ranked the malodorous fact that front line GI's have next to no opportunity to bathe with any hygienic regularity.

Sure, a "sponge bath" can be obtained by utilizing an inverted steel helmet , some water, and a little imagination. But in France in the winter and early spring of 1945, the weather was so cold it did nothing to encourage bathing of any type except a very limited "spit bath".

Occasionally, in a liberated town or village, an infantry soldier might get lucky and find a civilian who was willing to swap a hot bath for some K rations or cigarettes. Just to bathe, however briefly, in a wash tub filled with hot water was a luxury that most GI's would kill for. But during combat, these total immersion ablutions were rare and as scarce as beefsteak and fresh milk in a fox hole.

In my own experience, from the time the 274th disembarked in Marseilles on 10 Dec '44 until the end of our combat duties in the Saarland on 20 Mar, 1945, I can recall only two "totally - unclothed" hot water baths that I was privileged to obtain. Two baths in 100 days! While I am certain this is no record, world-wise or regimental, it is certainly the longest personal record in which I was forced to neglect the fundamentals of reasonable bodily hygiene.

But more than that....not only was I limited to two baths in 100 days, the two baths I did have were about 60 days apart! And during those 60 days, not only did I not bathe, I wore most of my clothes constantly and did not once see the skin which covered my youthful body! The weather during this period was so cold that one did not dare expose bare skin to these devastating elements except at the dictate of the most fundamental needs.

I obtained my first bath in Niederbronn in early January '45. The I & R had returned to our billet in the "Chur House" and upon arrival there, we learned that just down the street from the billet, there was a bathhouse where a GI could get a "15 minute special" for a bar or two of soap or a couple of packs of cigarettes. I took advantage of this golden opportunity and had "15 minutes of heaven" soaking in a huge tub of warm - not hot - water. At the end of my allotted time, I was rousted from a languorous stupor by loud knocks on the door and shouts of "Time fini! Time fini!" Reluctantly, I emerged from the bath; dried and dressed in the same clothes I had been wearing since our arrival in France. I paid the bath matron - an ill-tempered old harridan - with the remainder of the bar of soap with which I had washed and a pack of Lucky Strikes.

My second opportunity to bathe came in early March '45 and therein lies a tale.

I was on duty at OP-1 in Kreutzberg when Cpl. LeRoy Mayer arrived accompanied by another I & R platoon member. LeRoy said I was relieved and the other man would assume my post. I wondered what was going on because this sort of unscheduled relief was certainly not SOP. LeRoy simply told me to follow him.

Together we left the OP and climbed the short trail up and away from the dugout. When we had hiked a way, I asked, "Hey, LeRoy! What's goin' on?" Lee looked at me and said, "How would you like a nice bath and some clean clothes?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Lee explained that the 70th quartermasters had set up a shower point and a clothing exchange at a place called Merlebach which was located a short distance southwest of Forbach. Lee said he had a jeep and he knew how to get to Merlebach and we were going to go there and have a bath and get a complete set of clean clothes. I asked if this little "side trip" was official and Lee simply said, "Don't worry about it. I've got everything squared away and we're not in any trouble." I knew when to keep my mouth shut and it was evident that Cpl. Mayer had pulled a few unofficial strings in order to arrange this most welcomed event. How he got permission....let alone a jeep....for this little sortie, I have never known. I asked no further questions and gladly "went along for the ride".

When we walked to the crest of the ridge, sure enough there was Lee's jeep waiting for us. We climbed aboard....Lee driving, me in the "shotgun" seat...and we took off for Merlebach. Lee seemed to know the way even though the route we took seemed to be complicated for it wormed through the hills and passed through some small villages with which I was totally unfamiliar. As I have stated so many times in these narratives, it pays to have friends in high places". A corporal's rate is not very high but when it is bestowed on an industrious, clever young man like LeRoy C. Mayer, those two stripes become the enlisted man's equivalent of two silver stars! LeRoy, the Miracle Worker, had arranged to have me chauffeured to a hot bath and clean clothes.

After about a 30 minute drive, Lee announced that we were on the main road to Merlebach. As we approached the city....for Merlebach is large, not as large as Forbach, but certainly large enough to be called a city....we noticed a substantial throng of people forming a living barricade right across the highway. We were puzzled by what we saw, and concerned, for there did not seem to be any apparent reason for this gathering.

The gathering itself was a peculiar mixture of civilians and soldiers. Nothing seemed amiss, indeed, as we got closer, we could see that the crowd seemed to be in a happy mood, focusing their attention on some central point in the crowd and waving and shouting in that direction.

Lee had to slow the jeep, for the crowd now prevented us from moving any further along the road to Merlebach. The city itself could be seen just beyond the large group, but their mass forced us to stop. Lee pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the motor.

From the jeep, the throng seemed to be moving toward us but their attention was still riveted to a central attraction. Soon the mixture of civilians and soldiers were all about our jeep but not expressing any interest in us. Their focus was back toward the center of the rolling mass.

There was a discernible movement of this mass toward us and it was evident that this object of the crowd's attention would soon be near us. And then, just a short distance from the right-front of our vehicle, this "center of attention" appeared and Lee and I were dumfounded. It was Marlene Dietrich! The Movie Star! The actress reputed to have the most beautiful legs in the world. She, of the sultry, smoky voice and the amazing pale gray eyes! Marlene Dietrich, whose unique vocalizations marked her with a style like no other in Hollywood.....her first song hit, "Falling in Love Again" and her most recent....at that time, in 1945...."Lili Marlene" , a war song almost written for her to sing.

As Lee and I watched in amazement, Miss Dietrich deliberately moved toward us until she stood right beside our vehicle on my side of the jeep! She was dressed in a uniform of tailored OD's which were cut to exhibit sensationally one of the great female torsos. Her shirt was open at the throat where a beautifully tied light blue scarf showed discreetly. On her head, she wore a GI wool knit cap perched daintily on the back of her head and gorgeous reddish-blond hair curls coifed carefully around the margin of her cap framed her magnificent face. On her feet, she wore a pair of custom made boots, reminiscent of paratrooper "jump boots" but crafted in such a way as to give her feet an appearance of dainty femininity. She was a vision! She was so beautiful and so perfectly packaged, I found it very difficult to look directly at her!

Standing there beside our jeep, she smiled at us and said, "You boys are from the front, right?" We agreed. Then, she went on, "I could tell by the way you're dressed and your guns (I was cradling my M-1) that you have been in the fighting." Lee said, "Yes, Ma'am."

I couldn't say anything!

As she was talking to us, the crowd moved in closer all around our jeep. Standing just to Miss Dietrich's left was a civilian woman with two children. The woman was holding the smaller of the two kids. The other child, a little girl of about 3, was standing by her mother's side. It was cold and the children were dressed in warm jackets and snug little tight-fitting pants. But not tight-fitting enough for the little 3 year old's pants were drooping down somewhat in the back. Miss Dietrich noticed this and spoke to the little girl in German. (Lee provided me with translations of the conversation which then transpired, all after the fact.) Miss Dietrich: Mädchen! Diene Hosen sind hierunter fallen!" "Little girl, your pants are falling down!"

Upon hearing the German, Lee broke our silence and said (in German), "You speak German!" Miss Dietrich, "Of course, I was born in Germany. And you, were you born there also?" Lee answered by explaining that he was a first generation American of German descent and that he had learned to speak German before he learned English. In fact, he had not spoken English until he had attended public school.

At that point, Lee and Miss Dietrich engaged in a torrent of conversation, all in German of course. The talk became so lively that Miss Dietrich leaned into our jeep while speaking to Lee so that she was positioned just above me on my side of the vehicle. She was so close I could smell her perfume and it must have modified my shyness for now I found myself watching her face (in profile) as she spoke so animatedly to Lee in her native language.

All too soon good things must come to an end. Miss Dietrich withdrew from above me and stepped back and stood erect beside the jeep. She looked directly at us, smiled and said, "I'm so glad you boys could come. I hope you have good hot baths and some clean, warm clothes. And please come to my show later on." Then she looked directly at me and with a smile, said, "Good-bye and good luck!" to Lee she said, simply, "Wiedersehen".

She waved and moved off to our right and the crowd moved with her. At my last sight of her before she was again engulfed by humanity, I could see her walking and talking to the woman with the two children.

I could not wait! I said to Lee, "What did she say? What were you talking about?" Lee explained that Miss Dietrich had asked where we were both from and why we had come to Merlebach. He had answered her by providing the names of our respective "home" States and explained about the shower point and the clothing exchange. Lee said he had asked her where she was from in Germany and why she had come to Merlebach. She had said that Berlin was her home in Germany and that she was on a USO tour and was here in Merlebach to do her show. She said there would be two performances....one later in the afternoon and the second one in the evening. She extended a special invitation for Lee and me to come to her performance. Lee said she had expressed this invitation in very formal and polite German. We could not wait to see her perform! But first, a hot bath and clean clothes.

As the crowd released us to be on our way, Lee pulled the jeep back onto the main road. The route to the shower point/clothing exchange was well marked. The Army quarter-masters had put up plenty of signs indicating the direction to the SP/CE and in a matter of minutes we located the facility. The "Exchange" was set up in a couple of buildings which were a part of an operating coal mine. The facility was comprised of the showers and dressing room accommodations regularly used by the miners as they began or ended a shift in the mines. The dirty work of mining coal almost mandated the availability of bathing rooms so the miners could return home bathed and in clean clothes at the end of each day's work.

An MP directed Lee to park our jeep in a secure motor pool area and we were told to leave our weapons, helmets, and webbed gear in the jeep. We were assured that every-thing in the jeep would be safe in the guarded parking area.

We entered the building as directed, and once inside, we could feel the warm humidity produced by the continuously utilized showers. It felt great to come inside a nice warm building featuring plenty of steam heat.

Just before the shower room was a large (un)dressing room equipped only with plain wooden benches and numerous "clothing hooks". Each hook was attached to a long, light-weight chain which hung from a pulley mounted on the ceiling. The free end (unhooked) of the chain was fastened to the wall just above the benches with a number marked on the wall by each chain. You removed your dirty clothes and attached them to the hook, then, pulling on the free end of the chain, the pulley above raised your clothing to a point suspended well above the room. You then re-attached the free end of the chain to the wall by your assigned number. Your boots and socks were left on the benches below.

In the bathing room, the shower heads were raised quite high above the tiled shower room floor. The showers were operated by pull chains. A tug on the pull chain and you were drenched by a cascade of good hot water. We doused ourselves thoroughly and then soaped and lathered our wet bodies until we were certain that the filth and grime of two months of combat were removed. Stepping back under the shower, another yank on the pull chain rinsed us clean under a sturdy stream. We hated leaving the wonderful baths but there was a continuous line of waiting GI's who needed a refreshing turn in the showers.

As we left the shower room, we were given towels by an attendant and told to retrieve our dirty clothes from the hooks above. We were to wear only our combat boots and carry all of our soiled garments into the "exchange" where we found large bins in which we dropped our filthy uniforms. Proceeding along the line, we came to a series of stations, each dispensing certain items of clothing. We were allowed to retrieve all the clean clothing we needed. All we had to do was yell out our size at each station and a new (clean) garment was tossed out to us. The only used item I retained was my pile jacket which was unique and not available for replacement at the exchange.

After the exchange line, we arrived at a fairly large dressing room which, as in the case of the "hook" room, was equipped solely with plain wooden benches. The room was filled with GI's dressing themselves in their newly acquired clean uniforms. Lee and I found an open bench and sat down and began tugging on the items which comprised our new ward-robes. I had almost forgotten the wonderful smell of clean clothes and how nice those clothes felt on your body.

As soon as we were dressed, we asked one of the quartermaster attendants where the USO show would be performed. He gave us directions and quickly we found our way to a large building which housed a spacious meeting room or assembly hall. The room could accommodate several hundred persons and when we arrived the place was already packed with eager GI's most of whom were from the 70th Division. Lee and I could not find seats, so we were forced to stand at the rear of the room. This was no major problem for the stage was well elevated so as to afford a clear view from any place in the hall.

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Marlene Dietrich, noted actress, eats GI chow at a command post of an engineers battalion (270th) near Saarbrucken, Germany, with Cpl. Art Beyer of Indianapolis (center) and Cpl. George E. Stevens of Walla Walla and Spokane. Cpl. Stevens, for several years circulation manager for The Spokeman-Review in the Walla Walla region, sent this picture from the front after Miss Dietrich and other entertainers put on a show for Yank troops. [This picture was scanned from the original photo that appeared in a March 1945 edition of the Stars and Stripes. The clipping was obtained from the collection of Mr. Orville Ellis. Mr. Ellis originally received it from John Bailey (B/270, deceased) in 1980.

The crowd became raucous in anticipation, and finally just in time, the house lights dimmed and the small "pit band" began the overture. An off-stage voice announced the long-awaited introduction...."Star of stage, screen and radio fresh from a long string of box-office smashes....the loveliest, the sultriest, the sexiest....the most beautiful woman in the world.....Let's give a great, enthusiastic Trailblazer welcome to Miss Marlene Dietrich!"

The GI audience roared its approval as Marlene "slinked" onto the stage. She had doffed her tailored OD's in favor of a red sequined, full-length, strapless evening gown which was slit from ankle to hip on one side in such a way as to frequently reveal ravishing glimpses of the world famous Dietrich limbs!

Bedlam prevailed! She bowed and waved and threw us kisses and murmured, "Thank you, thank you" over and over again in that smoky, suggestive, throaty voice. She was a vision!

Finally, the band prevailed and led off with "Falling in Love Again" and Miss Dietrich crooned this, her first big vocal hit, in a highly enticing, inviting way....convincing every man in the hall that she was singing just to him! A whole medley of songs followed consisting of Marlene's personal signature songs from her pictures, but also included were several of the (then) current, sentimental love songs of the era...."I'll Walk Alone" and "I'll Be Seeing You"....and the great wartime marching song, "Lili Marlene".

The vocal feast ended abruptly when a "baggy-pants" type comedian burst onto the stage from the wings and started a risqué patter with Miss Dietrich. Together, the two of them, threw out enough suggestive double entendres to really excite and arouse the al-ready substantial libidinal energies of the young audience. Cheering, laughter, and applause followed each "zinger" until it seemed the building itself was shaking! Tension relief was afforded when the comedian introduced several other acts. A pair of young singers who performed both solos and duets and a small troupe of nubile young ladies who danced and danced and danced!

In a quick exit, all the performers left the stage into the wings as the band continued to play. The performers returned several times to bow graciously while the band reviewed the music of the show. The crowd was ecstatic....on their feet and shouting, "More! More!". The off-stage voice broke in to announce the reprise of Miss Dietrich!

She entered from the left, alone and carrying a plain chair and, of all things, an ordinary carpenter's saw. She moved gracefully to center stage and set the chair down. She then announced that she was going to share with us her life-long love of fine music by playing her favorite instrument....the saw!

The crowd became very quiet and skeptically expectant. Miss Dietrich stood near the chair in her shimmering red sequined gown. Her right side - the side with the "split" in her skirt - was turned toward the audience. With practiced ease she lifted her left foot (high-heeled) and placed it on the chair. This move raised her skirt in such a way that the dress draped about her raised left leg while exposing her beautiful right leg in its entirety. Long silken hose covered her exposed limb high up on her thigh.

She began to play. Just how she accomplished this I'm not sure. By bending the saw, in varying degrees, with her right hand in control, she was able to produce tonal sounds of a twangy, metallic sort along the saw blade bent against her left leg. It was amazing! The audience was awe-struck! Here was this divine Hollywood beauty queen and star playing the "Missouri Waltz" and "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" on a carpenter's saw!

The applause and cheering was ear-splitting as she finished her strange repertoire. Then she announced that she would close the show by singing, once more, her first great hit, "Falling in Love Again". Staying in a position with her left leg still raised on the chair, she demurely laid the saw aside, gazed directly out at us in the audience and signaled the pianist to play her intro. He played and she sang....milking every sexy innuendo possible out of the lyrics.

But listening to her sing the now famous lyrics was not what commanded the rapt attention of her GI audience. No, it was something else....something she was doing as she sang. Without interrupting her steady gaze out at the audience, the fingertips of both of her hands were slowly, raising that portion of her skirt which had remained draped over her left leg! With each note....each word of the song....the skirt was raised higher and higher in a tantalizingly orchestrated exposure of a portion of the world's most famous flesh....Marlene Dietrich's legs!

The audience was holding its breath! Gone was the cheering and whistling and applause! The listeners sat in complete silence....except for the sound of her voice and the song....their collective eyes riveted on the tableau that was unfolding on that stage!

Slowly higher....slowly higher the sequined drapery rose to expose more and more of that luscious limb! As the skirt lifted toward its unknown climax, the provocative song reached its final line...."Falling in love again"....higher, slowly higher...."never wanted to" ....higher, higher...."what am I to do?"....almost, almost there! (Where?)...."Can't help it!" and, with that last vocal phrase, the song ended just as the red hem fell away, and there, above the top limit of her beautiful hose, high up on the inside of Marlene Dietrich's marvel-ous left thigh, was the 70th Division patch!

As the last of her vocal refrains faded away, Miss Dietrich continued to gaze intently out at her audience. The GI's erupted in a thunderous ovation. Marlene lowered her left leg from the chair....the split skirt again closed about those treasured gams. She turned to face us and bowed gracefully from her waist. The Trailblazers had blazed new ground...and they roared their approval!

Lee and I glanced at one another in mutual delight. Imagine: a hot bath, clean clothes and Marlene Dietrich all in one afternoon in early March, 1945.

Related

General Orders - 274th Honor Roll