Cousin Guerney says that, if you can cause 59 dishes to be broken by tripping the right waitress, you owe it to the world. Maybe a less vexatious translation might be: If you can inspire a great organization to do something great by writing one column, that's what you owe to the world. That, I owe. And herewith I pay.
I begin by telling you a little about my friend Charles Wiley. You're going to think I'm bragging about just knowing this guy, and you're right. At dawn on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wiley was lying about his age to a Marine recruiter. It didn't work. He was only 15. You had to be 17. When he was old enough, he got into the Navy and received a battle star at Okinawa. Forget what Wiley did during that two-year wait. I'm saving that for dessert.
I met Wiley in the early 1960s, shortly after he was released from a Castro dungeon; he’d been covering Cuba for WOR, the radio station I worked for in New York. No big deal for Wiley. He's been grabbed eight times by the secret police of dictators, including the KGB, who didn't appreciate his probing skills.
Meeting Wiley was like striking oil in my back yard. He was by far the greatest pro-American and pro-freedom speaker of them all, and that was when fewer and fewer American speakers were pro-American. I made him a regular on my late-night radio show and relaxed while Wiley built bigger and bigger audiences for me.
Once a group of anti-war students thought they'd try a new little trick. They thought they might sharpen their effectiveness if they varied their act and came on as opposing not the American attempt to defend South Vietnam against Communist aggression, but the use of napalm as a weapon.
Wiley embraced them sympathetically, saying, "You know, fellas, you're right. Napalm is a terrible weapon. I've seen it. It sticks to your clothes, your skin. It keeps on burning. Napalm may be the worst weapon in the world."
Those students thought they had, indeed, sharpened their effectiveness, until Wiley leveled his question at them. "Tell me," he asked, "What weapons would you use to keep the Communists from taking over South Vietnam?"
The young pro-Hanoi gang lost their audio!
Another time, the famous Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker came on the show to promote his revisionist history book claiming the Hungarian Freedom Fighters of 1956 were nothing but a crazed pack of fascist thugs. Early in round one of the broadcast, Aptheker did something remarkable. Once he saw that Wiley was no warmed-over disc jockey reading notes handed him by a producer, but rather a historian himself who knew too much about the Hungarian Revolution to let Aptheker get away with it, Aptheker quietly gathered up his book and papers right there on live radio and, without a word, walked out of the studio. Wiley’s applause came much later when we learned the Communist Party had scolded Aptheker for making Wiley look so good!
On yet another broadcast, Wiley was helping me out with a pair of Soviet Russian "journalists" back in the days when Moscow was trying to pretend its journalists were really journalists and not state agitprop agents. During a commercial break, Wiley leaned over to one of them and said, "You don't fool me. You're a colonel in the KGB." The Russian snapped back, "I am not. I'm a general in the KGB!"
The O. Henry ending is that they became friends and Wiley was invited to his New York apartment for dinner.
What amazes me most about Wiley is that, despite being one of the most avowed and devastatingly effective anti-communists on earth, he was nonetheless invited to lecture at a Soviet Russian university as well as one in Communist China. He's packed them in and had them howling and clapping as well in Germany, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan, Luxembourg, Thailand, Belarus, Namibia, and Albania.
Wiley made four separate trips to Vietnam, covering the worst of the fighting, the Tet Offensive, flew treetop missions with the South Vietnamese Air Force and later came home and coordinated the third-largest parade in American history: New York's parade to support our troops in Vietnam. He's covered 11 wars, not counting the Cold one.
In all, Wiley has lectured in 50 states and on five continents, belting out America's message in thousands of talks including hundreds of schools. Now in his mid-80s, he just figured out that his speaking schedule this year is more arduous than last year's!
It pains me, but I have to leave out a lot of good stuff. Let me jump to the period after Pearl Harbor, while Wiley was waiting to get old enough to fight in World War II. He was one of those usually-insufferable-but-this-time-just-great child actors, so he shipped out with the USO in those early days of World War II and helped entertain the troops in fully half the states. And that leads me to the mission of this article.
The USO didn't just entertain where the singing and dancing were easy. We remember in awe Bob Hope and his Hollywood beauties setting up the stage within small-arms range of the enemy. I seem to remember comic-actor Jerry Colonna bobbing around the Pacific in a life raft awaiting rescue. And my crowd will never forget the Andrews Sisters.
The USO is a magnificent organization. No other country has anything approaching it. It is not a government agency. The USO is a private, not-for-profit organization doing the same great job it always did through America's more recent wars.
Wiley is a rare surviving veteran of the USO from World War II. Publicity is the protein and the oxygen of great organizations.
Here's my plan: If the USO would just call, odds are off the charts that Charles Wiley would interrupt or rearrange his speaking schedule and hop a plane for Iraq or Afghanistan. Put him on the next USO stage and let him emcee, do standup, recount his earlier adventures with the USO — whatever and who cares. To have a virile, vibrant, America-loving, patriotism-exuding Charles Wiley up there for even one gig would turn tired blood into sparkling burgundy. And if you could measure the ensuing publicity in dollars it would look like a bailout!
Others can write checks for millions in donations to the USO. In dollars.
I just wrote over a billion in donations to the USO. In well-deserved publicity.
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