1st Airborne Rock and Roll Division

•  Ever seen US Marines slam-dancing?

•  Not exactly “3 Days of Peace and Music”

• Cheap Trick, Kansas, Doobie Brothers, for the boys

They used to send Bob Hope to entertain the troops. Or Playboy playmates (both in fiction – “Apocalypse Now” – and in reality — Playmate of the Year Jo Collins visited Vietnam in 1966). But it wasn’t until 1984 that rock bands were enlisted to play for US troops overseas.

I got drafted to ship out and cover it, for ABC Radio News.

The USO (United Services Organization) came up with the idea for the 1st Airborne Rock & Roll Division and they were able to persuade members of Cheap Trick, Kansas, and the Doobie Brothers, plus some players from lesser-known Pablo Cruise and Le Roux, to sign up.

Nielsen leads rehearsal

The tour started with rehearsals in Honolulu, Hawaii. Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick was the musical director. (His band was from Rockford, Illinois, and gained fame out of Chicago, where I had worked, up until the previous year, at a station that played them in heavy rotation. We became acquainted on the USO tour, and years later, at a rock event in Washington, DC, when I was with CNN, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Cheap Trick book. We talked about whether it would be no-holds-barred or a tamer “authorized biography.” I wound up not following through, as CNN work kept me plenty busy.)

Then the USO flew the bands and the traveling media folks to the big island of Hawaii and a very small base. The Kiluaea Military Camp was a joint US services training camp located in the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. It was a hot, dusty place.

“You’re in the Army now…”

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Most of the active Marines at the camp were not there when we arrived. They were out on a forced march lasting several days, through rugged territory filled with hardened lava floes, which practically guaranteed a lot of twisted ankles and angry jarheads. One of the officers told us that when they were marching back, on the home stretch of this rough training exercise, they were told, “Ladies, we’ve got a surprise for you back at camp: you’re going to get to see a rock concert. Just for you. Kansas, Cheap Trick, Doobie Brothers.”

You could imagine their reactions:

“Yeah right, Sergeant.” “Sure . . . a rock concert.” “Haven’t you messed with us enough, sir? Why are you playing with our heads, sir?”

Marching into the compound, they saw a flatbed trailer pressed into service as a stage, with stacks of amps atop it. And to their amazement, a rock concert broke out.

You have not seen anything until you see a mosh pit filled with US Marines. The term slam-dancing is never more appropriate as when it’s a bunch of the toughest fighters a military force can deploy doing the slamming. They were pogo-ing, banging into each other like defensive tackles at two-a-days, and raising a mighty cloud of dust. Twisted ankles be damned.

How much did it mean to these jarheads? (And I do not use that term derisively; the time I spent with Marines in Lebanon filled this old hippie with respect for them.)

The line stretched over the horizon as the rockers took a couple of hours to sign autographs and talk with each soldier.

The shakedown concert a success, the next stop was a US Navy base on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, nine thousand miles from Hawaii. But I wasn’t going. No, I didn’t wash out of boot camp. The powers that be at ABC News ordered me home. The story of the USO/rock music joint operation, they said, had been adequately told. Mission accomplished. Dammit.   

Postscript:  In 2011, Kilauea Military Camp was turned into a vacation resort for military families, with its cottages and apartments available for active duty and retired personnel. . .and hopefully not the Quonset huts in the photo above. Guests won’t get rock concerts, but Kilauea Volcano has kept things pretty hot recently.

Post postscript: My ABC bosses always told me that if I was done with an assignment and had vacation time accrued, I could start a vacation right then and there. Which was especially appealing if I was overseas. So, in this case, I flew to the island of Kauai for a week of R&R. Some sweet downtime, during which I learned, with the aid of a book that came with three beanbags, how to juggle.


3 thoughts on “1st Airborne Rock and Roll Division

  1. Having made a film about Bob Hope’d troupe that entertained troops in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific during WWII, but not having been alive to accompany them, it was fun to hear about your on-scene experiences. By the way, a year later, I made a film about Hawaiian dance, and when we filmed a guy chanting at the mouth of Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island, I thought Steadicam operator Larry McConkey and I were going to be overcome by the horrible sulphur fumes, and WE didn’t even have our mouths open like the local guy doing the chanting. You didn’t say anything about the fumes being a problem where you guys were, and I hope that was the case! Fun piece.

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