Doughboy Center

The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

40th Division

My Career at the Rear

Buster Keaton in World War I

Contributed by Martha R. Jett of the
International Buster Keaton Society
The Damfinos

Presented the Great War Society

Buster Bids Farewell to His Movie Buddies
Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John

In 1918. it was know as The Great War, or simply The World War. Over 4 million American men would be called to serve in the armed forces during the First World War. Given the nickname "doughboys," these young men came from cities and farms across the United States and from many different professions. One of these doughboys would be a 22-year-old actor from Hollywood named Buster Keaton. The great silent-screen comedian would later refer to this period of his life as "My career at the rear.

Buster Keaton had made his motion picture debut with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1917. The film was The Butcher Boy which was released two weeks after the start of World War I. With the success of this film, the team of Arbuckle and Keaton was firmly established. Buster had completed 12 two-reel comedies with Arbuckle when he was notified that he had been drafted into the United States Army.

Buster Keaton was assigned to the 40th Division. 159th Infantry. Company C on July 24. 19 18. Buster reported for duty at Camp Kearney. California in July of 1918. The nickname for the 40th Division was The Sunshine Division and it was organized in 1917 from National Guard troops from California and 5 other states. After two weeks of training at Camp Kearney, Buster's division was transferred to Camp Mills on Long Island. New York. This was the final training camp before troops were sent overseas. From Camp Mills, Buster Keaton embarked on a troop ship HMS Otranto to Liverpool. England before being sent to his base camp in France. . .

A Pensive Buster
Possibly in France
After some additional training in England. Buster Keaton arrived in France. The troops would travel for days in overcrowded boxcars which were know as 40-and-8s, but the troops nicknamed them "The devil's gift to transportation." Conditions awaiting a soldier during the 1st World War were very harsh. Food was in short supply and adequate housing for the troops was simply unavailable. Keaton would later recall his own personal experiences: "We slept in circular tents ... our feet in the center and our heads close to the drafts from the great outdoors. This was the beginning of an experience I have never forgotten. During my seven months as a soldier in France, I slept every night but one on the ground or on the floor of mills. barns and stables.

"There is always a draft close to the floor of such farm buildings, and I soon developed a cold which imperiled my hearing. Before I was overseas a month, my superiors had to shout orders at me. I had become almost stone deaf due to my being exposed to floor drafts each night. "Late one night, I had a narrow escape while coming back from a card game. A sentry challenged me and I didn't hear his demand for the password or the two warnings he gave me after that. Then he pulled back the breech of his gun, prepared to shoot. My life was saved by my sixth sense which enabled me to hear that gun click and stopped me dead in my tracks. "After bawling me out, the sentry listened to my explanation and got me past a second guard. From that day on-the fear of losing my hearing drove me half crazy permanently." For the rest of Keaton's life he would remain deaf in one ear. Many enlisted men from each company put together their own form of entertainment to entertain the troops and boost morale.

Buster's company was no exception. Since they had a career vaudeville and film celebrity in their midst, the 40th Division Company quickly took advantage of highlighting Buster's talents. Buster would describe the group as "22 men who could de something," and they became known as "The Sunshine Players." The Sunshine Players per-formed in barracks or YMCA huts and the main attraction was Buster. Buster performed what he called "My snake dance." It was a variation of an act he saw in vaudeville. Buster was dressed as an -Egyptian dancer with. theo "snake" being a length of link sausage& Buster would later repeat this act on film in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, the first film to feature the song Singing in the Rain.

Buster in the Middle with the
40th Division Sunshine Players

His snake dance routine proved so popular that when the end of the war came on Nov. 11,. 1918, the top brass kept Buster in France performing long after the buddies in his outfit were shipped home. It would not be until February 20, 1919 that Buster was finally given orders to ship out of France bound for home. He was finally discharged as a corporal from the United States Army on April 29, 1919. Buster was eager to get back, in front of the cameras again. After he arrived in Los Angeles in May of 1919, he started work with Roscoe Arbuckle on a film entitled Backstage. He made two more films with Arbuckle before acquiring his own movie company, The Buster Keaton Studios.

The golden decade of Hollywood in the 1920s would belong to Keaton. With such features as The Navigator, Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., and College, his films would firmly establish Buster Keaton as a true comic legend. Perhaps Buster's greatest film tribute to the military was his 1926 masterpiece, The General. This Civil War story stands even today as one of the greatest military films made. Buster would often highlight the military many times throughout his film career. There. are many gags in his films that have a military influence. In fact, the ship he used in his 1924 classic, The Navigator, was a former World War I troopship that was stationed in the same port that Buster shipped out of in France.

Being a war veteran also played an important role in saving Buster Keaton's life. In December of 1951, Buster started to hemorrhage very severely. His doctor rushed him to the veteran's hospital closest to his home to control the bleeding. The hospital was superbly equipped to treat such an emergency and it was at this veteran's hospital that the doctors were able to save Keaton's life. Buster Keaton would pass away on February 1, 1966. In vaudeville, motion pictures and television, Buster Keaton is recognized. as a comic genius. His performing career spanned over 65 years. Keaton had appeared in over 100 films during his lifetime. But, it should not be forgotten that for a short period in his life, Buster Keaton was proud to list his occupation simply as - a soldier.

Buster's Service from his own Records:

Buster's 1930 Tribute
to his WWI Service
July 7, 1918:
Long Beach, CA
July 8, 1918:
Camp Kearny, CA. Quarantined with Provisional Company No.24 (U.S.N.A.)
July 24, 1918:
Assigned to 159th Inf. Co. C, 40th Div.
July 25, 1918:
Service No. 1646852, Gun No. 240901
July 28, 1918:
Left Camp Kearny. (Written in Morse Code)
Aug. 5, 1918:
Arrived: Camp Mills, Long Island, NY
Aug. 8, 1918:
Sailed HMS Otranto With American Expeditionary Forces" (possibly someone else's handwriting)

Oct. 1, 1918:
[Promoted to] Corporal
Nov. 1, 1918:
Left Nerondes
Nov. 2, 1918:
Arr. Somme Saleux near Amiens
Dec. 8, 1918:
Dec. 9, 1918:
La Mans
Dec. 12, 1918:
Paris, Hotel Brighton
Dec 13, 1918:
Dec. 27, 1918:
Left Salouel
Dec. 29, 1918:
Cadillac near Bordeaux
Jan. 25, 1919:
Transferred to Headquarters Troop 40th Division
Feb. 20, 1919:
Bordeaux Embarkation Camp No.2. Sailed U.S.S. Luckenback
April 5, 1919:
Arr. Brooklyn, NY U.S.A. Sent to Debarkation Hospital No.3, NYC
April 15, 1919:
Fort McHenry, MD. General Hospital, No.2
April 21, 1919:
Left Fort McHenry. Stopped over NYC
April 25, 1919:
Camp Custer, MI.
April 29, 1919:
Discharged Camp Custer Mich., Muskegon, Mich.
May 2, 1919:
May 6, 1919:
Los Angeles, CA

Credits and Thanks: Martha R. Jett of the Damfinos first published the main portion of this article in the September 2000 issue of Good Old Days Specials. She invites you to visit the website of International Buster Keaton Society.

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