There is a continuing string of rumors to the effect that the P-40 Fighter Pilot Dan Rowan in World War II, flying with the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group, Papua New Guinea, who would later gain a certain amount of high profile standing as a member of the Rowan and Martin comedy team, was a major participant, if not THE major participant, in a little event that has come to be known as "The Battle of the Zamboogie Theater."
It seems for a few days late in 1943 a USO contingent showed up in Papua New Guinea to entertain members of the 7th, 8th, and 9th Fighter Squadrons. In the process members of the 9th were said to have gotten a female USO entertainer excessively over inebriated, having done so to such a point that when she started her act she began taking off more and more pieces of her clothes. When she got down to the very last two remaining pieces it is said Rowan jumped up on stage with all intents it is supposed, to assist in a quicker removal or even more. A near riot broke out with GIs jumping all over the place and the female USO entertainer "barely escaping in one piece --- on." The following quote is said to describe what happen, source unknown:
"At this point, the air raid siren began to wail, announcing Jap bombers on the way, the lights went out and a full-scale riot exploded as several hundred women-starved soldiers went on the warpath."
As the story goes the USO sent a particular group to Australia, Papua New Guinea and nearby environs to entertain the troops. Eventually during that particular group's tour they showed up at the 49th Fighter Group's handmade open-air theater known as the Zamboogie Theater. The contingent consisted of the movie actor Gary Cooper, actress Una Merkel, actress Phyllis Brooks, and accordionist Andy Arcari. Brooks, age 28 at the time, is said to have been the excessively over inebriated woman in question.
PHYLLIS BROOKS CIRCA 1940s
On October 24, 1943, Rowan left Tsili Tsili Airfield on what was beginning to take on all the trappings of a more-and-more routine strafing mission against barges, troops, and infrastructure south of Madang. Un-routine like, on one of his passes his plane was hit by ground fire and the engine began losing oil pressure. Staying low Rowan arced around hoping to reach Tsili-Tsilli in order to keep both himself and his aircraft intact. The engine seized so he decided to set down wheels up on a sandbar along part of the Waffa River, a subsidiary of the much larger Markham River about 50 miles northwest of Lae, albeit still in enemy territory. Part way down the sandbar and too late to do anything about it the belly of his plane hit something obscured by the sand. The next thing he knew his P-40 was cartwheeling, ending up upside down partly along the sandbar's edge and the heavy brush along the offside of the river. A couple of days later an air rescue crew spotted him and took him back to base. The crash severely injured Rowan's back. Of that injury, the following from the source so cited:
"Reports vary about the extent of Rowan's injuries, from just a sprained back to other reports saying it was so severely sprained he couldn't move, with others stating his back was actually broken. Whatever it was Rowan said they taped him up with splints and stuff and took him down to the flight line. However, he told me 'his back was so fucked up could barely move let alone climb into a cockpit' --- although he tried. They decided to wait a few days, then a few more days. Eventually he was sent back to the states and he never flew a plane again."(source)
There is a photograph below that clearly shows Gary Cooper receiving a physical in New York prior to his departure for Australia and Papua New Guinea dated November 8, 1943. There are as well newspaper articles that state Gary Cooper and his troupe arrived one week later in Papua New Guinea, November 15, 1943.(see). Records indicate the USO troupe arrived back in Australia a little over a month later, December 18, 1943, before heading back to the states.
The crash that injured Rowan's back occurred on October 24, 1943. According to Rowan himself his back was in such bad shape he could barely move let alone climb into a cockpit, although he tried. Cooper and his entourage arrived in Papua New Guinea November 15, 1943 and back in Australia December 18, 1943. Somewhere in there Cooper, Merkel, and Brooks showed up at the Zamboogie Theater, most likely before Thanksgiving day, November 25th.
Considering the timing of all the events, that is Rowan's crash and the timing of the USO contingent entertaining the 49th, if he was even there and not headed back to the states or at least in Australia, it isn't likely that Rowan would have been fully capable of chasing a nearly naked woman all over the stage let alone even climb up on the stage considering he couldn't even crawl into the cockpit of his P-40. While it is true a nearly naked woman may have provided more incentive than his P-40, his record speaks for itself. Roughly, fighter pilots in the South Pacific at the time had to have 10 combat sorties or 50 combat flying hours for the Air Medal, 20 combat sorties or 100 combat flying hours for an Oak Leaf Cluster to the Air Medal, and 30 combat sorties for the Distinguished Flying Cross, all medals, along with a Purple Heart, he received, so it's not like he didn't or wouldn't climb into the cockpit of his P-40 when it was time if he was able.(see)
Rowan notwithstanding, implying outright that Phyllis Brooks stripped drunk in front of hundreds of crazed GIs does have a tendency to impugn her character. After the war Brooks married a former PT boat commander that had served in the Southwest Pacific from 1942 to 1944 named Torbert Macdonald, who later went on to become an 11-term Massachusetts congressman. Most likely any major indiscretions by his wife such as stripping nearly naked in front of a 1000 horny GIs, no matter how honorable of an entertainment it may have been at the time, would have been leveraged adversely by any political opponent. Such does not seem to be the case.
One of my favorite cowboy-western movie stars when I was a kid was Roy Rogers. He was just about done with his acting career by the time the late 1960's and early 1970's rolled around and the Rowen & Martin's Laugh In was becoming one of the most popular programs on American prime time TV.
When I first became aware of the Zamboogie Theater incident I recalled the actress in question had starred in one of the best westerns Rogers ever made, the 1943 film "Silver Spurs." Rogers had made 100's of movies, although all were OK within reason and entertaining for the most part, many were not much more than mediocre, Silver Spurs was an exception.
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