(Editor's note: Before defining television with Sid Caesar and Dick Van Dyke, growing old with Mel Brooks or robbing casinos with George Clooney, entertainment icon Carl Reiner was, like many of his generation, an enlisted soldier preparing for duty in World War II. As Veterans Month wraps up, here's an excerpt from Reiner's 2014 memoir "I Just Remembered" -- at 94 years old, you're allowed multiple memoirs -- reprinted with permission from the author.)
At one point, during the Second World War, I was assigned to the Signal Corps where I was trained to be a Teletype Operator. It was at the Signal Corps School in Joplin, Missouri where I met Private Sol Pomerantz, who became my best buddy. I also met Private Herb Schwartz, who became my best buddy's worst buddy.
Herb was an egocentric who attempted to act like an altruist. He referred to himself as "The Kid" and "The Kid" was constantly offering his fellow barracks mates cookies, candies, magazines or any goodies he had cadged from the mess hall or his secret sources. Most servicemen often found themselves in a buddy relationship with a person who had similar interests, but there was no one in our platoon who had any interest in being Herb's buddy, which left him as the 'odd man out.' He was a hard man to shake and the few times we were successful in doing so, our guilt took over and we allowed him back into our circle.
Most of our days at school were spent learning how to type at a proscribed number of words per minute and studying the procedures for the proper sending and receiving of voice and teletyped messages. After a few weeks of concentrated study, we were tested on our proficiency as typists and on our knowledge of proper Message Center procedure. The tests were given in a large room that accommodated two platoons of trainees.
Carl Reiner huddles with Elliott Gould (partially obscured), George Clooney and Al Pacino during the premiere of "Ocean's Thirteen" in 2007 in Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Cliff Owen/AP
First up was the typing test. The cacophonous clacking of the typewriters was a sound I had never before heard. We were all aware that if we flunked either test we would be dropped from the Signal Corps and reassigned elsewhere. The unknown, dangerous 'elsewhere' is where none of us wanted to go.
Our group included Private Fred Robbins, a quiet chap who both Sol Pomerantz and I were happy to have as a friend. Sol was, by far, the best typist, the best student, the best educated and the most even-tempered. He was just a nice guy. He was also, as Herb knew instinctively, 'a soft-touch.' During the testing process, Herb requested "a small favor" of Sol. Herb's request, which to me, only a man with colossal 'chutzpah' (gall) could make, was for Sol to take all of his tests for him.
There were two parts, one was typing skills that required us to type a certain amount of words per minute. I did fairly well but Sol aced it – his fingers were a blur on the keyboard. The other test was a written one that graded our understanding of the procedure needed to successfully run the Message Center. I was given a passing grade of eighty, and Sol managed a cool ninety-six. Herb failed both tests miserably, which meant that he would be transferred out.
For some perverse reason, the Army allowed those who failed to re-take the tests. Herb knew that if he took the tests again he would fail again, but he also knew that those who monitored the tests did not know any of us. Armed with this knowledge, he dared ask Sol to take the tests for him. Sol, of course declined, saying that it was a type of crime for which, if caught, he could be faced with a court-martial.
Herb countered, and I was there to hear this exchange: "Sol Buddy, if I fail again, and I know I will, they'll send me to the Infantry—into combat. I could be killed! Do you want to live your life knowing that if you had done me this one small favor, I might be alive? … Sol, I know you … you wouldn't want my blood on your hands, would you?"
For both tests, Sol wrote Herb Schwartz's name atop the test papers and forged Herb's signature. On the written test, because Sol already knew the questions and had learned the answers to the ones he had missed, the faux Herb Schwartz scored ninety-eight, two points higher than Sol Pomerantz.
One year later, Sol's good deed had unexpected consequences. Our group, after being certified as Signal Corps Message Center operators, was shipped to Seattle where we boarded a ship and sailed on a decidedly non-pacific, Pacific Ocean-a roiling sea that did not allow me to keep a single meal down during our long, long, long crossing on a Liberty Ship, a jerry built vessel that was not equipped with stabilizers.
After docking in Oahu, and eating my first meal in days, I learned that our group was assigned to Detachment 18, which, on the following Saturday, was scheduled to be shipped to an unknown destination. At this point, fate stepped in and changed the trajectory of my Army career and of my life. Fate had me notice a poster that hung in our Recreation Room.
It invited service men to attend a performance of Hamlet that was being held in Farrington Hall at the University Of Hawaii. It was billed as the "G.I. Hamlet" and was being performed by the Army Entertainment Section. Sol and I decided to spend our last night in Oahu soaking up culture.
We were pretty sure that it was worth attending as it boasted the appearance of Maurice Evans as Hamlet. Maurice Evans had been a star on both the British and American stages and was presently, I learned, a Major in the U.S. Army. Sol and I were more than happy with what we saw that night. Major Evans and the cast were excellent, but the happy surprise for me was the presence of the actor playing the part of Laertes. It was my old compatriot, Howard Morris. We had worked together at the NYA Radio Workshop in New York. It was a WPA project housed in the building where the "Ed Sullivan Show" later emanated and where David Letterman now holds forth.
I went backstage to congratulate Howie on his performance but before I could get a word out, he asked me if I had a comedy act. Howie, besides acting as Laertes, was also the acting sergeant of an entertainment section administered by Major Evans. My old buddy was in charge of recruiting talent for the variety shows they sent out to entertain the troops at our Army bases. I told Howie that I did have an act and he asked if I would audition for Major Evans and his assistant, Captain Allen Ludden. Yes, that Allen Ludden, who, after the war, hosted TV's popular game show, "Password" and married Betty White.
I explained to Howie that I would have like to audition but I was shipping out the following night. Sol Pomerantz suggested that even if I could not join their entertainment company, I should audition. "Find out how good you are," he counseled, "see what professionals think of your act."
The following morning, I auditioned. I did my fairly good impressions of Jimmy Stewart, Charles Boyer and Akim Tamiroff and also dared to do a Shakespearean double talk impression of Major Evans' saliva-spraying delivery, which, thankfully, did not seem to upset him. Both he and his aide, Captain Ludden, agreed that I would be a welcome addition to their troupe and, with the aid of General Richardson, the head of the Central Pacific Base Command, I was transferred to Major Evans' entertainment section and performed at Army bases throughout the Central Pacific.
A year later, the war with Germany and Japan came to an end, and miraculously I found myself on Iwo Jima at a base camp, entertaining my old outfit, which included my buddies Sol Pomerantz, Fred Robbins and their nemesis, Herb Schwartz. Sol was so happy, not only to see us but also to tell us that a court martial he had been facing had just been called off. He quietly told me of the Damocles sword that had been hanging over his head for weeks. He took a deep breath and related how, as Corporal in charge of the message center, he had sent and received all voice and teletype messages that flowed in and out of the Command Post. He told of a voice message he had received three days before the Japanese officially surrendered, informing him that the "war was over."
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner accept their award for best spoken comedy album, "The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000," during the 41st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 1999.
Photo Credit: AP
At that time, no one knew that the voice came from a lonely G.I. who, while strolling along a beach in San Francisco, decided to play war correspondent and excitedly announced over his mobile walkie-talkie, "The war is over! Japan surrendered!" These words were picked up by a nearby Message Center and rebroadcast all over the Pacific. Sol heard that announcement, and even though he knew the end of the war was imminent, he followed procedure and asked the sender to identify himself and authenticate his message by using the proscribed language, which he did not do.
Sol guessed there was something fishy about the announcement and refused to pass it on. Sol's best judgement, however, was over ruled and, after a long, heated argument, Corporal Pomerantz reluctantly obeyed the command of his screaming, red-faced superior, Staff Sergeant Herb Schwartz! I could not believe that "The Kid," the insufferable Herb Schwartz, had become Sol Pomerantz's superior officer, and when I asked Sol how in the world such a preposterous thing could happen, Sol shrugged and said, "Herb had better credentials." I knew immediately that Sol was referring to the test scores.
When the officer in charge checked the two candidates' scores, he learned that both Private Pomerantz and Private Schwartz were excellent typists, but in the written tests on authentication procedures, Private Pomerantz scored a 96 and Private Schwartz, a 98. Herb, who took neither test and never learned one thing about the whole operation, was now Sol's boss. For almost a year Sol had been running a model operation but received no credit for it. Had Sol admitted that he had taken the test for Herb, Sol would have faced a court-martial.
The unauthenticated voice message announcing the war's end, that Herb ordered Sol to relay, was picked up by operators in places as far away as the Philippine Islands. It was there, at an ammunition storage facility that some exuberant G. I.s' celebrated the great news by exploding one of the bombs they were guarding. The explosion detonated other bombs that demolished the Quonset hut and killed some of the personnel in it.
For having passed on the illegal message that had fatal consequences, both Cpl. Pomerantz and his superior, Staff Sgt. Schwartz faced major disciplinary action. What saved their asses and caused a dismissal of their pending arraignment was the fact that a commissioned officer was not present in the Message Center when the illegal voice message was relayed. At that crucial time, the on-duty Captain was in the Rec Hall sipping a cold beer with a fellow officer. The Captain, for ignoring proscribed Army procedure, now awaited trial.
It took the end of two wars, one in Europe and one in the Pacific, for Sol to reclaim a life that did not include "The Kid."
"I Just Remembered" is available at Amazon.com, part of the Kindle Unlimited collection.