By Reg Reynolds
The B-17 Flying Fortress was a state-of-the-art fighting machine, but this one was in serious trouble as it flew through a storm towards Gibraltar. It was the height of World War II and air, sea, and land battles were all the news, but if this four-engine bomber crashed it would make headlines around the world as it carried four Hollywood stars celebrated variously for their acting, singing, dancing and comedy.
The four celebrities were actor Carole Landis, comedian and singer Martha Raye, actor Kay Francis and dancer Mitzi Mayfield. At an undisclosed airfield in December 1942 the women were issued with fur-lined flying suits to put over their clothes.
“I felt that I must look like a walking house,” wrote Landis in her book Four Jills in a Jeep, “and when I looked at Kay and Mitzi, I was sure of it. Some glamour girls.” The troupe was headed for Morocco to entertain troops who had recently landed in North Africa during the invasion code-named Operation Torch. The flight was very rough, and Landis, who was recovering from an infection after an emergency appendectomy, had to continuously excuse her way past the flight crew in order to get to the loo. The flight was scheduled to land at Casablanca but due to the poor conditions was forced to try for Gibraltar. The western Mediterranean was fog bound and the transmitter at Gibraltar failed so they couldn’t fly in via the directional beam. Landis described the frightening events in her book:
“A crew member came in with life belts and said, ‘Well girls, we’re sorry this has happened, but you better put on these Mae Wests.”
They were exhausted from the cold and terror of the flight.
“Do you mean….?” Kay asked.
He shrugged, “Could be,” he added laconically.
Suddenly, a bit of an opening came through the fog, and there in front of us was the Rock. A moment later and we might have crashed but in that split instant the pilot zoomed over and around it and flew back in the direction in which we had come. Then, just at the very last minute, as we were looking for a spot to get down onto the water, the transmitter came back on and they brought us in.
The women hadn’t been scheduled to perform at Gibraltar, and anyway they were exhausted from the cold and terror of the flight. They were driven to the Governor’s mansion where they warmed up and had something to eat. Landis was given some pills and slept straight through to the next morning. By now she was feverish, so they put her in the nose, the coolest part of the plane, for the flight, now destined for Algiers.
Formed in September 1941 under the auspices of the ‘Feminine Theatrical Task Force’, the Hollywood foursome of Landis, Raye, Francis and Mayfield embarked on a five-month tour of England, Ireland, North Africa and Bermuda. They were the only all-female troupe to entertain the troops overseas during the War. Although there was a certain amount of glitz involved, including a Royal Command performance, their work rate was exhausting. They made 150 personal appearances and put on 125 shows. Francis introduced the shows and acted as compere, Raye told jokes, Mayfield danced, and Landis sang.
To give some idea of what life on the road was like Landis wrote:
“We had a wonderful time everywhere overseas. But it was hard. For five months we never gave less than five shows a day. It was too cold to sleep nights and there wasn’t water enough to take a bath. We bathed and shampooed in cold water – there was no hot. I had to do my own washing. And I ate more sand and fog than food. I was hairdresser for the gang; at that we didn’t look too bad.”
During the North African part of the tour they experienced four air raids and an earthquake.
A review from the Gloucestershire Echo dated November 23, 1942 gives some idea of how their performances were received.
“Kay Francis and Martha Raye, the Hollywood Film stars, were among the artists who took part in a show for American and British troops at the Opera House, Cheltenham, Sunday afternoon. Others who took part were Carole Landis and Mitzi Mayfair. They put on a show that exceeded even the wildest expectations and it was enjoyed by a crowded audience.”
When the tour was over a film, also titled Four Jills in a Jeep, was made featuring the four stars along with performances by Phil Silvers, Dick Haymes and Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Pin-ups Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye made cameo appearances.
Famed New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was unimpressed: “It gives the painful impression of being thrown together in a couple of hours. All that happens really, is a lot of dizzying about the dames and some singing and dancing by them in an undistinguished style.”
Four Jills in a Jeep is available on DVD. The Gibraltar episode did not make the movie.