In real life, Eddie Albert—Eva Gabor’s costar in the TV series Green Acres (1965-1971)—was a hero in World War II. On 21 November 1943, at Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll, Lieutenant (junior grade) Edward Albert Heimberger took command of several LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) and sped to the rescue of 13 wounded Marines who were trapped on an exposed reef offshore under enemy fire, the tide coming in. He had already saved the lives of at least three others.
Many of them recognized Albert, whom they had seen in Brother Rat (1938), Four Wives (1939), and other movies ....
Having attended Catholic school and the University of Minnesota while working at a variety of jobs, including a stint as master of ceremonies for a weekly magic show, the young entertainer decided to strike out on his own. Quitting school, he became part of a singing-and-dancing trio and performed first on a program broadcast by a local radio station, then in Cincinnati, Chicago, and New York. By the time he got to New York he had dropped his last name, now using just the first two.
The group split up in New York, and after some lean times living without electricity and singing in clubs for a few bucks a night, Albert found work singing on NBC radio programs. He also began acting in summer stock and even landed a brief Broadway role. Persevering, by 1936 he was playing the part of Bing Edwards in the Broadway play Brother Rat, which attracted enough critical attention to secure his next Broadway role, in Room Service. By this time Warner Brothers had noticed the young actor and signed him to a contract. . . .
He also made some independent forays into Mexico, having heard stories of Japanese and Nazi secret activities there. Under cover as a trapeze artist in a circus show, he traveled throughout the country gathering information and taking pictures, handing it all over to Navy intelligence.
On 9 September 1942, at age 34, he joined the Navy and, thanks to his work in Mexico, was sent to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for officer’s training. On 31 January 1943 he was honorably discharged to accept appointment on 1 February as a lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Naval Reserve.
Lieutenant Heimberger was assigned to the amphibious attack transport USS Sheridan (APA-51), with Task Force 53. Commissioned on 31 July 1943, with Heimberger aboard as a “plankowner,”. . . the Sheridan, after a shake- down cruise off San Francisco, sailed for the western Pacific on 1 October. . . . The Sheridan was joining the savage battle for the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. . . .
Operation Galvanic, as it was called, got under way during the early-morning hours of 20 November 1943, but not much progress was made that day. Among the assault craft that waited offshore for clearance to start toward the beach were 26 LCVPs from the Sheridan. They waited almost 30 hours, the 95 Marines they held getting seasick, tired, and, of course, wet. . . .
Two LCP(L)s (landing craft, personnel, light) from the Sheridan supported the LCVPs, and a control boat (PA 51-14), under the command of Lieutenant John Fletcher, would guide them to their designated areas on the beach. A salvage craft (PA 51- 13), the assistant control boat, skippered by Lieutenant Heimberger, was to repair boats, refuel, and transfer men from out-of- action boats. Both commanders’ boats could move fast and were easy to maneuver. For crews, aside from their commanders, they had a coxswain and a gunner armed with a .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun.
Finally they got their clearance—at 0616 on the second day of the assault. They were to land on Beach Red 2. But by now the tide was lower than it had been the previous day, and there was barely two feet of water, with parts of the reef already dry. The boats could not get over the coral, and the Marines left their landing craft 500 yards from the shore, wide-open targets. They began dropping by the score, as artillery fire blew their disembarking craft out of the water.
Dead and wounded were all over the beach, and about 150 Marines were waist-deep in water, at least 100 of them wounded. More were getting shot up by the minute. Seeing the carnage, Fletcher and Heimberger both raced in, independently of one another, to aid the men. The boats made three or four trips back and forth, picking men up and ferrying them out to LCMs (landing craft, mechanized—large open flat-bottomed barge-like craft for carrying tanks and heavy vehicles ashore). From there the wounded could be transferred to ships. When Heimberger’s boat suffered a damaged propeller, he sent it back to the Sheridan with the wounded, taking command of an LCVP for his next trip in to the reef. They came under fire while taking the wounded aboard, but no one was hit. By this time the tide had begun to come in, and enemy fire was picking up.
Realizing that he could do more with several LCVPs, Heimberger decided that on his next trip he would try to get all the rest of the men at once. Leaving his coxswain with orders to keep up the excellent work, Heimberger now boarded a third boat and took over four others that were nearby. He had them transfer their extra passengers to LCMs, keeping only their crews. They were to follow him to the beach.
About halfway there (2,000 or so yards out) the bullets seemed to be hitting harder and faster. The Americans slowed down, trying to identify the guns’ positions. Finally they had it: the gunfire was coming from a sunken hull that they had thought dive bombers had knocked out an hour earlier, and from a machine- gun nest at the end of the island’s pier. There were also snipers and guns on the island.
The LCVPs fired on all of these positions, which silenced the enemy’s gunfire for a while, and the rescuers got back to work. Heimberger decided to pick up the wounded using one boat at a time; the others were to lay to 100 yards off and keep the enemy machine guns under control. Heimberger’s boat went in first.
As they started to take men off the reef, knowing that their eight drums of gasoline would be set off if incendiaries hit them, they had to pause to take out a sniper in a wrecked LCVP about 40 feet away. (Later, .60-caliber armor-piercing bullets were found in the boat.) During all this the coxswain had to control the boat against a strong current, holding it away from the wounded but close enough to lift them up, while at the same time taking care not to ground the boat on the reef.
At last, 13 men had been lifted into the boat, not always easily. They had to be grabbed in whatever way possible, which for some meant being pulled in by a badly broken arm or leg. Thirty-five unwounded were still in the water, and Heimberger said he could take some of them, but not all would fit. None of the Marines moved. They asked if he was coming back again, and would he bring them rifles. But the return trip, with requested rifles and ammo aboard, found those Marines nowhere in sight. Nearby gun nests had all been knocked out, so Heimberger could only hope they had made it to shore. He delivered the rifles to the end of the pier, where other Marines immediately put them to good use.
Also on the return trip, Heimberger intercepted a boat that held Colonel Elmer Hall, commander of the 8th Marines, who had been speeding toward the beach along with other boats. Heimberger told them about the enemy’s increased firepower and where he thought it was coming from. Noting the information, the colonel transferred a medical officer to Heimberger’s boat to tend to the wounded, ordering Heimberger to report to Commodore J. B. McGovern (primary control officer) in the Pursuit. McGovern had him transfer the wounded to the nearest ship (the Sheridan), after which he was to return for further orders.
Heimberger asked the wounded what they had gleaned about the enemy’s firepower and his position. With a freshly equipped salvage boat, he then returned to the Pursuit with two amtracs loaded with 37-mm ammunition. Reporting to McGovern, he submitted the information he had obtained from the wounded, after which McGovern had him take the two amtracs to the beach.
By this time the Marines had secured the pier, so Heimberger reported to the chief beachmaster for his next orders. He tried to relieve Lieutenant Fletcher, who had also been directing rescue operations and had been without relief or rest for three days, but Fletcher would not leave his job. Heimberger worked on the pier for the rest of that day helping to move supplies, an operation that was slowed by the annoying snipers. Finally he was ordered to coordinate the delivery of much-needed ammunition to Marines still in the heat of close-in battle, in the course of which yet another sniper was picked off.
Unaffected, affable, and carrying out his orders with dispatch and daring, Eddie Heimberger was an appreciated addition to the war effort wherever he was sent. That night he stayed on the island with the Marines. Trying to catch a bit of rest proved a fruitless pursuit when, during a fire burst, somebody fell into his burrowed-out crevice, right on top of him. As they snuggled in, sharing the space head to foot, the Marine remarked calmly that he had been in the service for 38 years and this was the worst he had seen yet. Gunfire continuing throughout the night above them, the Marine took off his trousers and folded them across his chest, commenting that at least he could still look sharp in the morning. Toward dawn, after cautioning Heimberger about a sniper he had spotted nearby, he put on his trousers and was up and out.
Minutes later Heimberger followed, noticing the Marine smoking a little pipe and helping the wounded. He asked someone who this remarkable man was; he turned out to be Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, founder and leader of the legendary Carlson’s Raiders. . . .
Along with the others who had picked men off the reef that day at Tarawa, Heimberger was cited for outstanding performance of duty during action against the enemy, in a 30 November 1943 letter from the commanding officer of troops, USS Sheridan, to the commanding officer of the ship. . . .
Eddie Albert found it difficult to resume his acting career, but he and his wife, Margo—they were married in 1945—began performing their own nightclub act, packing the house not only at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria but also in Hollywood, Miami, and Las Vegas. Albert also began producing documentaries for companies and educational films for children. Nor did he give up on acting, and by the early 1950s he had begun to find work as second leads and eventually in starring roles, consistently giving skilled performances, and no longer always as the good guy. He received a nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his supporting role in Roman Holiday (1953) and another for playing Cyhill Shepherd’s father in The Heartbreak Kid (1972). Other major work has included Attack (1956), The Tea- house of the August Moon (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and The Longest Yard (1974). Albert has also had plentiful television work.
He and actress, singer, and dancer Margo of Lost Horizon fame (1937) had two children. She passed away in 1985. Albert, a man of principle and action, became committed to environmental issues in 1969 and remains an outspoken activist, supporting as well several youth organizations. In 1994 he received the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.