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War in the Sahara, Bogart-Style

 

By Kenneth Koyen

 

Fourth Armored Division officers and members of the Hollywood crew, in the Mojave Desert in 1943, for the shooting of the wartime movie, "Sahara." Humphrey Bogart kneels at left. Standing behind him at far left is Armored Force Second Lieutenant (later Captain) Kenneth Koyen.

  

By Kenneth Koyen

 

Humphrey Bogart and I shared experiences in desert tank warfare during World War II. It was early 1943 and American soldiers were fighting German General Erwin Rommelís Afrika Korps in the Sahara Desert of North Africa. Bogie and I were in a desert alright, the Mojave of Southern California.

I was there with more than a hundred other men of the Fourth Armored Division of the U.S. Armyís Armored Force. Bogart was there to play the role of Sergeant Joe Gunn, a tough American tank commander in the fighting in North Africa. The War Department and the Army had given their consent and their blessing to the making of the wartime movie. It was to be a film that would, of course, celebrate an American triumph, however small, over the Nazis.

My division was undergoing arduous exercises in tank warfare in the Armyís vast California Desert Training Center.   We were ordered to supply troops to serve as extras for the movie. We know nothing of the film or its cast. My outfit was "C" Company of the 84th Reconnaissance Battalion (later redesignated "C" Troop of the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized). We set out from our maneuver area near Needles, California.

We drove a hundred miles south toward the Mexican border. We were astonished at what we found. Some 230 feet below sea level we came upon a lake covering 360 square miles. It was called, appropriately, the Salton Sea. Extending for miles from its shores was a shimmering expanse of sand dunes. It was here that we pitched our tents to join forces with the movie company from Columbia Pictures.

We learned why we were at that particular place. Hollywood had long ago discovered that it was an ideal location for shooting desert scenes. We were told that 22 years before we arrived at the spot, Rudolph Valentino had galloped across these very sands to portray an Arab chieftan in "The Sheik." The sleek Italian had captured the hearts of Americaís flappers as the passionate lover of a fair captive, an English lady. It turned out all right in the end because Valentino was revealed as an English lord.

We absorbed this information along with the word that Humphrey Bogart was to be in the current project. But we were astonished when we were told that our men were to be German, not American soldiers, in the film. We found that hilarious. Most of us were Easterners, Citizen Soldiers not long out of our usual jobs. We found the strange desert experience exhilarating as well as demanding.

The movie-making break from the routine of training was like a holiday. And the men found the business of getting into German uniforms sheer comedy. Officers were not required to change uniforms or play any roles. Any hopes that officers had of playing smashing supporting roles were dashed. We were there just to look after our men. (I was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant from the Armored Force Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Knox, Kentucky.)

We soon met Bogart and Zoltan Korda, the director. Bogart we found cordial and unassuming, with a cool manner and a wry sense of humor. He had an easy kinship with men in uniform, perhaps because he had volunteered and served in the Navy in World War I. Hungarian-born Korda, a younger brother of Alexander, the British film magnate, was a courtly man. It quickly became apparent that Bogart and Korda were not on the best of terms. Bogart seemed to regard Korda as affected. Korda, it was later reported, said he thought Bogart was behaving as if he were suffering from piles throughout the making of the movie.

Bogart had disputes with Korda and sometimes questioned his directions. There was a reason for Bogartís tension. His domestic life was descending even as his professional career was ascending. His classic movie, "Casablanca," with Ingrid Bergman had opened only a few weeks before. But Bogart was nearing the end of a third tempestuous marriage. His wife, whom he nicknamed "Sluggy," was actress Mayo Methot. They were staying at The Planterís Hotel at nearby Brawley. We heard reports of brawls in the Bogartsí room. Shouts pierced the walls with the sounds of smashing glass and displaced furniture. (Two years later the Bogarts were divorced, on May 10,1945. Eleven days later he married Lauren Bacall.)

Meanwhile as the shooting of the movie progressed we had time to learn more about the strange terrain that we Easterners found so exotic. We were 80 miles northeast of San Diego and only a few feet above the lowest place -- Death Valley -- in the United States.

At the south end of the Salton Sea was the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Created in 1930 it provides thousands of acres of water and land for migrating birds. Just west of the Salton Sea lies the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a large and beautiful desert area.

It was in this atmosphere that the story of our film unfolded. The time of the action was 1942. The key port of Tobruk had fallen to the Germans. Cut off by the advancing enemy in Libya, Bogart and his tank crew search desperately through sandstorms for water. They only come up with empty water holes. Finally Bogart and his surviving crew-members take a stand at a well that proves to be dry. They hold off a horde of thirst-crazed German soldiers -- our Fourth Armored men in disguise. Bogart persuades them to surrender as they plead, "Wasser, wasser," with reasonably good accents.

Then an enemy missile hits the well and enough water gushes forth to quench the thirsts of Bogart, crew and captives. The film concludes as Bogart learns that the British have stopped the Afrika Korps at the First Battle of El Alamein. Our part in the movie making was completed. In good spirits the men of the Fourth Armored turned in their German uniforms and returned to Army fatigues. We drove back to home camp to complete our training.

The movie opened that year, but we had no opportunity to see it. We were on our way to England and Normandy. The movie was Columbiaís biggest moneymaker in 1943. It earned $2,300,000 in its first three weeks. The movie was also Kordaís greatest success.   The movie was called, of course, "Sahara."

I did not see the film until years after World War II, and then on a television rerun. I found it difficult to pick out the once-familiar faces of the men of my old platoon.

Many of the men and officers of "C" Troop never did have an opportunity to see "Sahara." Casualties in recon outfits ran high and we were in the leading tank division of General Pattonís Third Army in Europe. The combat trail of the Fourth Armored Division ran from Normandy through France into Belgium and the Battle of The Bulge, into Germany and finally into Czechoslovakia to meet the Russian Army.

I have not been back to the Mojave Desert. Despite the heat and the sandstorms I remember it fondly. By now the scars left by our armored vehicles must have vanished from the sands... along with the tracks of Bogieís Sherman tank and the hoofprints of Valentinoís Arab stallion.

Bogart died 44 years ago, but his unique movie personality lives on.

 

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Kenneth Koyen is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Manhattan. Before and after World War II he was a reporter on the New York Herald Tribune. In combat he was on his divisionís G-2 (Intelligence) staff and wrote the divisionís history, "The Fourth Armored Division, from the Beach to Bavaria."

 

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