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Interview with Robert McCollum [April 24, 2002]

Pam McCollum Clise:

Today is April 24th, 2002. We're in Port Townsend, Washington. This is Pam McCollum Clise interviewing Bob Bachelor McCollum. His birth date is July 27th, 1920, current address 2117 Renee Place, Port Townsend, Washington. He served in World War II, and the branch of service was the Army Air Corps and highest rank was corporal, and we'll start the interview.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Robert McCollum:

I was drafted.

Pam McCollum Clise:

And where was your boot camp?

Robert McCollum:

My boot camp was Shepard Field, Texas.

Pam McCollum Clise:

And what about additional training?

Robert McCollum:

I was in the -- at the other end of the Shepard Field. One end was a boot camp and the other end was a training, and I was trained as a crew chief.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Crew chief? Okay. After training, where were you sent overseas?

Robert McCollum:

I was sent to Jefferson Barracks for my overseas training, and then -- and then I went to Camp Kilmer for my shipping off place, and I was sent to India.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Okay. What about the transport, what was your transport like?

Robert McCollum:

Transport was on a British ship called the Mauritania and we was something like 34, 32 days on the water getting there, to India.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Did you stop along the way?

Robert McCollum:

We stopped for fuel in South America and then we went over to Capetown, Africa, where we loaded mutton and we were there maybe two days and they give us a leave to walk around the town while we were waiting there to load and unload. And the next stop was Colombo, Ceylon, and there we had to train -- change trip -- ships because the boat we were on couldn't dock at Bombay, so we were loaded onto a smaller ship to go up to the -- to land in Bombay. That was the stops and goes there.

Pam McCollum Clise:

What about your ultimate destination?

Robert McCollum:

It was in Burma -- not Burma -- Assam, India. We called it Burma because it was so close to Burma but it's Assam, India. It was a state of India right up against the Himalaya Mountains.

Pam McCollum Clise:

What was your arrival like?

Robert McCollum:

It was pretty scary because we didn't know nothing about the foreign countries, and we had read all kind of stuff with pamphlets on the way over, what to do and what not to do when -- and about the animals and the people that live there and things like that, so it was kind of scary to rookies that had never been overseas and stuff like that, but we weathered it.

Pam McCollum Clise:

How did you get to your base camp?

Robert McCollum:

We landed at Bombay and we slept in English bashes, which India was controlled by English at that time, and the next morning we were put on the Indian railroad, and it was very small gauge and the boxcars were, oh, about the size of a small bobtail truck, and we went all the way across India to -- to Assam on this train, and we -- they did the cooking on one of the cars and whenever it came time for eat, we would stop the train and we'd all get out and march and get our mess kits and eat, and all the natives would get on the side and watch us eat and everything, you know. So we ended up in Assam.

Pam McCollum Clise:

What was it like when you got there?

Robert McCollum:

It's ____ kind of get desolate. We was in a tea patch, British tea patch, or Indian tea patch, whoever -- the British owned it but the Indians worked it, and our camp was right in the tea patch, kind of like a camouflage, but there was also a field there that the English played polo, pony polo, you know, and that was the clearing there. So they called it the polo grounds or Chabua, and it was a jumping off place for everybody coming through to go over into China and taking supplies and everything over to the different people there then.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Did you have any memorable experiences while you were there?

Robert McCollum:

Not -- not real bad experiences. We had -- that was where I first got tangled up with some -- some of the musicians there and we made a trio and then we played with the Red Cross woman. She was giving movies at night and we went along with her. In between reels we would sing. And then later on they bought a -- made a big bamboo hall there, theater, and we opened it with a big variety show, two and a half hour variety show, and the show was called Hump Happy, and at that one camp that's about the biggest thing that happened right there.

Pam McCollum Clise:

What about before you started the -- doing the theater stuff, playing music, did you go on any Army --

Robert McCollum:

Oh, we did -- I did volunteer for a -- there was an airplane went down -- sorry about that. There was an airplane went down over the hump, hydraulics froze up under her or something, I don't remember now, just now what it was, but they asked for volunteers to go in and help bring the fellows out and I volunteered, and we were flown in and I had never jumped from a plane and they give us a fast thing, how to jump out of airplane, and the -- we went in to parachute out and we went through a Nagara Indian headhunters village where the crew had jumped out, and some of them were hurt. So we stayed there until we got the ones that's got hurt fixed up and then we -- we walked them all off and out and it took us about a month to walk back out through the jungle. That was in Burma itself. We had to walk back out to our line, which was up in Lido, where they first started the Lido Road. Some people call it the Burma Road but it's two different things. Lido Road and Burma Road was two complete different things, but that was where the hospital base was and everything up there. So it took us about a month to walk out and carry -- carry the ones that's injured and stuff like that. That's about the biggest thing there right at that camp.

Pam McCollum Clise:

That's pretty good. When -- how long was it after that that you got together with other musicians?

Robert McCollum:

Oh, I'd say about a month. This happened when I first went over. I had made three trips -- three trips over into China and we were just waiting around for another load to get fixed up so we could go back again, and then I started -- I found these guys playing music, so I started signing up with them.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Did you say how you got started with that? You did --

Robert McCollum:

With the music?

Pam McCollum Clise:

With the music?

Robert McCollum:

Uh-huh.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Sorry. Do you want to share some of those travels with the music group with me?

Robert McCollum:

Yeah. The -- it was the best -- best GI show, all GI show that was -- they say that was ever done, and it was so good that they cut orders for us to go give shows all in the Assam area to all the services, English, the WACs, the hospitals and everything, and every night we went somewhere and give a show, and after we went through all the bases in Assam, we had -- they cut orders for us to go to other parts of India. We went through the central part and northern part and some of the areas where they're fighting now, we went to a lot of them, that area, and at one time when we was working out of Calcutta, they had a big hotel there and they had taken it over and we stayed there about a week and every night we went out and played, and they flew us to a hidden base, where, I don't know, but it was a hidden base and we had so many minutes to get our stuff off the airplane and get back into it. It was the Flying Tigers and they was fighting over in China, helping the Chinese, and then we did the show that night for them and then -- it was the only show they ever got. They didn't get any of the big stars or anything over there. And then after we went all over India -- we lost our major. I was supposed to go with him the next day to go back to our port. We had been out about a year and no mail and our major that was running the show, he was going back and get our mail and he was going to stay there for some kind of meeting and I was going to go along and bring back the mail to the people, but one of the fellows come down with a cold or something, so I had to take their part in the show. So the major went by himself and as he left one of the fields, he caught a ride on a load of incendiary bombs, and for some reason we didn't know, after he got up in the air it exploded with this incendiary boom, killed him and all that. And then about two days later we had to give a show at that same camp. And then later on, out of Calcutta, the Merrill Marauders, which went into Burma and knocked the Japs out of Japan -- out of Burma, they sent us down to give them a big show down there and we give them -- we was there two nights giving a show for them. They was training then to go into Burma. And the major, he was general -- not major -- General, General Merrill was their general and he had an accordion, but due to the hot weather, it messed up the reeds in it but it was good enough for us to play. We didn't have a piano, so the piano player could play the one hand. So the major -- the general loaned us the accordion and the next day, when we got ready to leave, he donated it to us, said, well, now, he was -- they was going into battle and he would probably lose it. He said we could probably make better use to it. So he give it to our piano player to use in the show, which I don't think we ever -- ever used it again because we always had a -- was able to get ahold of a piano someplace where we went. We might have used it one or two times, I don't remember, but after playing all the bases in India that they would let us, and the English bases, English and WACs, they cut orders for us to go over into Africa. So we went through -- through Central Africa, to the Gold Coast, and then up the Gold Coast to Casa Blanca, and then went back across Northern Africa and give shows every night somewheres. And being we had time on our hands during the day, and we had nobody to report to, we were able to see all the different -- the Seven Wonders of the World, Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and stuff, so we were able to visit a lot of the -- a lot of the castles, lot of the open graveyards where they was -- it was a whole city of just buildings with no roofs on it, and they would put these bodies inside these so-called houses, and we visited some big castle over there that belonged to some big ruler. And then we met -- we stayed at Oran and we went over to Sicily to play, but they wouldn't let us go any further into Italy because they were still fighting to -- of Italy then, so they wouldn't let us go any further, but we stayed there about a week in Oran giving shows. They would give these guys leave and they would come in to Oran and we would give them a show and then they would go back into fighting again. And then we went back to Egypt. From Egypt we went over to Yemen. Is that how you say it? Y-e-a-m-e-n, over there where they're fighting now.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Yemen? Yeah, Yemen, yeah.

Robert McCollum:

And we played -- we played for the king there and that was quite an experience because he didn't clap or yell or anything. The crowd, it was very quiet, and we thought we was really throwing a bomb in the show. So after the show, he come over and told us that he was educated here in America and that he was sorry that we didn't get a bigger response from people because they do what he does. If he yells or laughs or something, they laugh and yell. So he says that's why there was no response for what we did but said it was a very good show and he really enjoyed it and he invited us out to his home the next day, sent some -- three 1934 V-8 Fords to pick us up at our camp and we went out there and we had a chicken dinner and then he brought us back. And from then there we went to Admadan (ph). It was supposed to be the hottest place on earth. The ATC, which we were in, Air Transport Command, they were transferring airplanes into Russia to help Russia, and that was their -- our interest to get into Russia where Germans were fighting. And we did one show there and then we had no other place to go, so we thought maybe they would cut orders and we could get -- they raved about the show so much, that we would go back to -- get to come into America to do it but they didn't. They sent us all back to our regular camps, which we were from all different camps up and down Assam. We weren't all from one camp. I think three of us were the -- of the western trio, we was all from one camp in different groups. One was from Special Service, one was -- Service and Supply, one was in the Quartermaster, and two of them were in Weather Bureau, but we were all in ATC, and so we all had to go back to our regular bases and we broke up. And it was so fast that we didn't get a chance to get each other's address or anything where we lived. It was just a matter of us trying to remember later what state we was in or stuff like that, you know.

Pam McCollum Clise:

What kind of performers or what did the show --

Robert McCollum:

In the show?

Pam McCollum Clise:

What did the show -- what was it like?

Robert McCollum:

It was a variety show, two and a half hours, and we had -- we had skits, which if anybody had seen skits, blackout skits from the United States, we tried to put it together and made these blackout skits, and we had a variety -- variety singer, like a Sinatra, he sang Sinatra songs, we had a classical singer that sang classical songs, we had our western trio, which really was four of us with a violin, three of us sang and the violin player, he just played. We had a modeling act where we dressed up as women, in an evening gown, one of them was, and then one was a sun suit, and I don't know, it was four different things. I don't remember now what all they were. And then we had a strip tease and then we had one fellow did imitations. He imitated Roosevelt and imitated the English and different movie stars, and our finale was three of the guys dressed up as the Andrew Sisters and we lip-synced a record back of us, and that was about it. That was the biggest thing of the show, was the three guys doing the Andrew Sisters. And we all took parts one time or another. I was an Andrew sister one time and I was part of the skit one time, and I was a model at one time, but we all -- whenever one got sick or couldn't get on, the other one jumped in. So out of the 13 of us or 14 of us, we all changed around there. And we also had a pop band. During the intermission we had a little guy that played drums, we had a piano player, which was part of the cast too, and I played bass and one of the guys played electric guitar. We had an officer that flew us around, he played electric guitar, and we played pop music in all during -- during the show. Then after that we heard that Melvin Douglas was doing little skits in Calcutta and he was looking for people to do acts and stuff. So three of us wrote to him and he signed us up to come up there. So we went up and joined him. We was all waiting to go home and we got in a show called Over and Back. I had sang a song and Melvin Douglas liked it, and so he had his people write a skit called Over and Back about this song that I did. I didn't sing the song. I think they had a real good singer do it. I played in the band. And he sat down and wrote it, and one of the fellows in the show was a -- after he got home here, Melvin Douglas got him in the movies and he was a character actor in the movies. His name was Royal Dano. Have you ever heard of him?

Pam McCollum Clise:

Ung-ugh.

Robert McCollum:

And he was in -- a character actor and he played all the big western stars, James Stewart and all the big western stars, he played parts. So I don't know whether he's still living now or not, but he was a very good friend of mine. And I stayed with Melvin Douglas till my orders come to go home and I left the show, went back to Calcutta and he sent me back to my camp and about the next morning I was on my way home.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Do you know where the other people ended up?

Robert McCollum:

Some of them I do. Like I say, after they broke the show up, we all took off so sudden and we all didn't go back to the same base. I knew where two of the guys that sang with me, Johnny, he was from Illinois, and he's dead now, and one was from Rockford, Illinois, the piano player. He's up in Oregon here somewheres now. The imitator, he was from Philadelphia. There was one fellow called Al Roth and our emcee, Jim Davis, he -- they were both from New York. Our classical singer was from New York. I don't know the address for any of them. Of course, I was from -- I was drafted in California. That's about all. Johnny is the only one that I was ever able to contact after and I did meet him down in Arizona later on and he was in very bad shape then. He was a lot younger than I was but he has passed away, but none of the rest of them I have -- I don't -- I never heard from them and I don't know whether they're still living or not.

Pam McCollum Clise:

When you got home, did you continue with your music?

Robert McCollum:

Yes. I started -- I played bass in the Army by ear and I wanted to get into the big bands, so I went to Compton Junior College to learn to play by note, the bass, because I wanted to get in the big band and you had to be able to read music. After there two years, all the big bands started breaking up, so I played in nightclubs for -- in trios, pop music, for about two years, or a year and a half, and then I went to another place and started playing country music there and I was there for 11 years after that. I started out working for somebody else but I ended up running the band myself and I worked there about 11 years for this one same place. And we'd -- from there I got on different shows. Melvin Douglas -- the Bob Hope show I was on and I was on the Jack Benny Show, I played bass for Pearl Bailey, I played bass in the band for Kathryn Grayson. I've done recordings with some of the fellows in the Lawrence Welk Band, and I pinch hit for different people in the western field, and Freddie Hart, I don't know whether everybody knows Freddie Hart, I worked with him. I -- all the big people in California that was western, I worked off and on with them in different jobs, you know, not steady, but just different spot jobs, but all the time I was still working this one spot in the weekends, but off nights or something I'd go. And I, on account of another -- a second marriage breaking up, I went down and sold all of my stuff. I had broken up one marriage for playing, so I decided I wasn't going to -- I didn't want to break up another marriage on account of music, which it was breaking up, and so I went down and sold all of my instruments and quit music. And then that wife and I divorced again. And then I started playing with my baby sister at schools doing comedy acts, and then she married and I was all by myself again. So I started still by myself working at libraries and schools and I pretty well done that all through my life until I moved up here to Washington, and then I got in with this Washington Old Time Fiddlers and I've been working with them for about a year with volunteering to different homes and hospitals and stuff like that. So that's about where I am now.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Well, is there -- was there anything else that you'd like to add that we didn't cover?

Robert McCollum:

No, I can't think of it. The Army Air Corps was at that time in the -- the Air Corps was at that time in the Army and later on it branched out, but the branch that I was in was in the Army Transport. We -- the Army Transport transported troops, ammunition, food, anything over -- over to the different areas and I just want to make that clear.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Uh-huh.

Robert McCollum:

But it was a good life. There was -- I didn't have a bad life, it was just the idea of being away from home, being away from my wife and -- but no more than any of the rest of the GIs, so -- you'd make the best of it, whatever you can, but that's about all I can think of.

Pam McCollum Clise:

Thank you for doing this.

CONCLUSION OF INTERVIEW

 
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