Were Captain Kangaroo and Lee Marvin War Buddies?

Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo
Children's Entertainer Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo. John Springer Collection/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

According to a story supposedly told by Lee Marvin on "The Tonight Show," the actor served in the military alongside fellow U.S. Marine Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan, whom he allegedly described as "the bravest man I ever knew." This urban legend has been around since at least 2002, and while it contains some elements of truth, the gist of it—that Marvin and Keeshan served together in World War II—is false.

'The Tonight Show' Story

Evidence for this urban legend comes from a chain email featuring supposed dialogue from one of Marvin's appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." The exchange, however, never took place:

Subject: FW: Bravery

"Never judge a book by its cover."

Dialog From a Johnny Carson "Tonight" Show. His guest was Lee Marvin. Johnny said, "Lee, I'll bet a lot of people are unaware that you were a Marine in the initial landing at Iwo Jima and that during the course of that action, you earned the Navy Cross and were severely wounded."

Lee Marvin's response was: "Yeah, yeah ... I got shot square in the ass and they gave me the Cross for securing a hot spot about halfway up Mount Suribachi. The bad thing about getting shot up on a mountain is guys getting shot hauling you down. But Johnny, at Iwo, I served under the bravest man I ever knew. We both got the Cross the same day, but what he did for his Cross made mine look cheap in comparison. The dumb bastard actually stood up on Red Beach and directed his troops to move forward and get the hell off the beach. That Sergeant and I have been lifelong friends.

"When they brought me off Suribachi we passed him and he lit a smoke and passed it to me lying on my belly on the litter. 'Where'd they get you, Lee?' he asked. 'Well Bob, they shot me in the ass and if you make it home before me, tell Mom to sell the outhouse.'

"Johnny, I'm not lying, Sergeant Keeshan was the bravest man I ever knew! You now know him as Bob Keeshan. You and the world know him as 'Captain Kangaroo.'"

The Truth

One reason that this urban legend has persisted is that it contains a few kernels of truth. For instance, both Lee Marvin and Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan did, in fact, serve in the military as Marines during World War II. Also, Marvin really was wounded in the buttocks while storming a beachhead (though this happened in Saipan, not Iwo Jima).

The rest of the story, however, is false.

Marvin had already been injured and shipped back to the United States with a Purple Heart by the time Keeshan entered basic training. They could not have encountered one another in combat. And neither man was awarded the Navy Cross.

At the age of 20, Lee Marvin was a private in the U.S. Marines 4th Division, part of the Allied landing force that invaded the Japanese-held Pacific island of Saipan on July 15, 1944. He was wounded three days later on July 18, spent the next 13 months in Navy hospitals recovering from a severed sciatic nerve, and was discharged in 1945.

Bob Keeshan signed up for the Marine Corps Reserve shortly before his 18th birthday in 1945. Since the war was all but over by the time he finished basic training, it's unlikely Keeshan ever saw combat before completing his service a year later. There is no evidence that he ever attained the rank of sergeant.

Those old enough to remember Lee Marvin's occasional appearances on TV talk shows will find the manner and spirit of the storytelling in the email above reminiscent of the man himself. It seems unlikely, though, that Marvin would have trumpeted such blatant lies about another man's service record on national television.

There are no tapes or transcripts to suggest he ever did so.

Sources

  • Hickman, Kennedy. “A Bloody Fight: The Battle of Saipan in WWII.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battle-of-saipan-2361471.
  • “The Museum of Broadcast Communications - Encyclopedia of Television - Keeshan, Bob.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications, www.museum.tv/eotv/keeshanbob.htm.