By KIM HILL
July 1962, on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. With goggles on and eyes shut tight, five young men from Illinois Wesleyan lie on their backs as the heat wave from a nuclear detonation 10 miles out hits them like someone opened the door to a gigantic oven. Seconds later, the huge concussion rolls over them.
These young men were not sailors or marines, but rather singers and musicians in the Apollo Quartet. Their witness of a nuclear test explosion was only one of their experiences during the quartet’s eight-week tour entertaining troops in the South Pacific for the United States Special Services.
The Apollos of the 1961-62 school year occasionally discussed how they might parlay their college success into a post-college career, but no serious plans emerged until early in the spring semester, when a surprising opportunity arose. Early in 1962, a chance for something big fell into their laps.
Robert C. Price ’50, a member of IWU’s Admissions staff, had served with the Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Branch in Europe. He knew the Apollos might be able to secure a gig entertaining U.S. troops at bases around the globe. The quartet quickly determined an overseas tour could be a great opportunity. “We were kind of late to get into it, so the European spots were already booked up,” Jim Stahly ’62 recalls. “But there was an opportunity in the South Pacific.”
The other Apollo members were Doug Amman ’61, who was a graduate student at the time; Gene (Michael) Cousins ’62; Roger Rilling ’63 and Alan Harler ’62, accompanist. The group left the day after graduation in June, not exactly as professionals because they were not paid, but it didn’t really matter. Stahly says today that even as the 20-somethings they were then, the Apollos recognized this was a special, even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Special Services arranged for their flights (for many in the group, their first-ever plane trip) and lodging, most often on base. As they toured in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Okinawa Island, Taiwan and Korea, they performed standards such as “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Lonesome, That’s All” and “Ol’ Man River.” Stahly has preserved a poster from the tour announcing the Hawaiian show. It bills the “versatile” group’s many talents, including soft-shoe numbers and comedy monologues.
Stahly estimates at least 6,000 people saw their show in Seoul, South Korea, but recalls most of their audiences were considerably smaller — but more memorable. The fact that they were only “five guys and an escort, five suitcases and three trombones“ meant they were far easier to transport to remote posts than the bigger groups with costumes, scenery and bulky props. “We went to troop areas that had gotten very little entertainment,” Stahly says. “Those were the groups that were so appreciative.”
After their performance at an officer’s club in Tokyo on July 4, the Apollos were asked by a Marine general to perform at his command on Christmas Island in the South Pacific. “The only time that could happen was during our last week, which was supposed to be R&R for us,” Stahly recalls. “We declined. He came back the next day, offered us $100 and said he would fly us down one day and back the next, so we still had most of the week for ourselves.”
Upon arrival at Christmas Island, the Apollos learned the troops there had received no entertainment for a long time. “Apparently, a mixed troupe had performed, and the guys got so out of hand, they had to stop the show,” Stahly says. “We were pretty nervous going in, thinking we would not be received well.”
At rehearsal, a man who they later learned was a civilian involved in the upcoming nuclear test approached them to ask if he could sing “Danny Boy” as part of the show. “We let him open, with Doug Amman accompanying,” Stahly recalls. “That brought down the house, and after that we were like one of them. It was an amazing show.”
The next morning, the Apollos were roused from their beds along with the rest of the installation. Officials had been postponing the nuclear test for several weeks due to unfavorable weather. This day, however, dawned with calm winds and perfect conditions.
“We were instructed to sit on the ground and wait, then given the word to cover our eyes and lie down,” Stahly recalls. “After the heat wave rolled over, you could see the roofs on the buildings bounce due to the blast.
“As we left on the general’s plane hours later, the mushroom cloud was still visible in the distance,” Stahly adds. “It was one of those experiences that stays with you for the rest of your life.”