War Tours: Korea

The Korean Adventure

by Martin Abramson, from “The Real Al Jolson,” 1950

A living legend is entitled to sit back on his haunches but as long as people wanted to hear Al Jolson, nothing could keep him away from the center of the stage. He passed his 67th birthday working on plans for a third picture biography and for a leap into the newest entertainment medium, television.

Then, suddenly, his country became embroiled in another war. Jolie shelved all his own plans and wired Washington asking permission to go to Korea. On September 17th, 1950, a dispatch from 8th Army Headquarters, Korea, announced that “Al Jolson, the first top-flight entertainer to reach the war-front, landed here today by plane from Los Angeles.” Jolie had paid his own way over.

Teamed with his old confrere Harry Akst, the lean, smiling Jolson drove himself without letup through 44 shows in 16 days. Even though he had only one lung, his voice and personality had lost none of its boundless animation. He traveled by helicopter to various sections of the front. Once, when his pilot got lost and said nervously, “We may be over enemy lines,” Jolie cheerfully told him that “nothing can happen because Crosby gave me a tip on a nag that’s still running and I can’t reach the finish line before he does.”

When Jolson returned to Hollywood and to his wife and the two children they adopted, he seemed apparently none the worse for wear. He expounded gaily to reporters about his meeting with General MacArthur and his family, displayed the gold medallion the General had given him and talked warmly about “the boys.”

“What a job they’re doing!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got to look up my income tax and see if I paid enough. And after a while, I’m going back to Korea and do some more shows.”

To George Jessel and Jack Benny, however, Jolson confided the truth. The dust and dirt of the Korean front had settled in his right lung and he was close to exhaustion. On October 17th, 1950, he had the first twinge of a heart attack and was warned by his Los Angeles doctor, Dr. Raymond J. Spritzler, to take a long rest.

“Okay, doc, I promise to rest,” Jolie said. “I just want to clear up a few things first.”

In his hotel room in San Franciso a week later, while being examined by a heart specialist after showing symptoms, he said “You know, Truman only had one hour with MacArthur and I had two.”  He died that night.

Part 2

4 responses

26 01 2010
Jo Anne Behrens

Al Jolson’s voice was so unique and his singing style was incomparable. Thankfully, Al’s music will live forever for his countless fans to enjoy. The two movies on his life were indeed special and they, too, will give continuous pleasure to Jolson and Larry Parks fans alike. God bless Al Jolson and may he always be remembered.

11 09 2013

You always hear about the Bob Hope shows to entertain troops during WW 2,
Korea and Vietnam, and how he was a friend to the men and women fighting
in these wars. Hope did his part for the servicemen and women, but he also
turned his shows into radio and later, television specials. It was way to honor
the troops and, Bob Hope. Al Jolson did the samething, during two World War’s and Korea, but, unlike Bob Hope, Jolie entertained troops his way.
First, during World War 2 he put on shows for soldiers in hot, dangerous jungles and deserts, the ice cold Artic and Alaska and camps and hospitals across America. He wanted to entertained troops during the Korean War but was told by the Secretary odf Defense that there was no funds to do so, Al dug into his wallet and traveled to Korea and Tokyo and other countries on his own dime. He wasn’t out to grand stand or be filmed for movietoned news. All
he was interested in was bringing some happiness into the war – torn life of
the troops. He didn’t want to tour with the USO, or perform on stage with other entertainers. So, he and his piano player Harry Akst did it together, with one purple piano. Al Jolson should be honored for his contribution to the war effort, for the thousands of miles he traveled to put smiles on faces and songs in hearts, of young men and women, many who never made it home. Lets
set aside a special day and call it ‘JOLSON FOR THE TROOPS DAY’.

29 07 2016
Robert Nehotte

I was at the Pusan perimeter at the beginning of the invasion. Al Jolson was an inspiration to me and such a patriotic American over and above. I was fortunate to have been there to see and hear him sing. I had to climb a tree in order to see him well. It was so sad to see him pass on so early in life.

Bob Nehotte
8th Army

14 03 2017
Travis J. Ramage

Theres no comparing Al Jolson and Bob Hope. Al goaded and embarrassed those he called, The Brown Derby Crowd, famous personalities, who sat around grumbling, about the Korean War ( police action?) He tried to get them off there butts. If you guys DONT go to Korea and entertain and visit those boys (service men and women) trust me, youll be sorry the rest of your lives, you missed the chance. It took his going, 42 shows in 16 days plus hospital visits and personal messages and phone calls to families back home and finally when he returned to the US.A, it wore him down to the point of no return. Bob Hope understood, a great entertainer in his own right, he spent his entire life during and after W.W. 2 tirelessly being there for the service men and women. There were others. Someone / company/ Ken Burns, Stephen Spielberg? should do a film about these great entertainers who gave there All in a very special way.

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