Captain Kangaroo and Lee Marvin, War Buddies?

Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo
John Springer Collection/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

In a story supposedly told by actor Lee Marvin on The Tonight Show, he served in the military with fellow U.S. Marine Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan, whom he described as "the bravest man I ever knew." This urban legend has been circulating since 2002.

Email contributed by F. Abbott, March 20, 2002:

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 life long 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".

Analysis: Despite sundry grains of truth scattered throughout — including the fact that both Lee Marvin and Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan served in the military as Marines during World War II (Keeshan a reservist), and that Marvin really was wounded in the buttocks while storming a beachhead (though it happened in Saipan, not Iwo Jima) — the story above is mostly false as told.

According to their respective biographies, 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. Neither 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, let alone attained the rank of sergeant.

Those old enough to remember Lee Marvin's occasional appearances on TV talk shows up until his death in 1987 will find the manner and spirit of the storytelling reminiscent of the man himself, but it seems unlikely he would have trumpeted such blatant lies about another man's service record on national television, nor have I been able to find any evidence in the form of tapes or transcripts that prove he did so.

 A version of this message circulating since March 2003 includes an addendum claiming that Fred Rogers, host of public television's "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," was a former Marine sniper (or, in another version, Navy SEAL) with dozens of wartime kills to his credit. This, too, is false.

Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan died on Friday, January 23, 2004.

Sources and further reading:

Bio of Bob Keeshan
Museum of Broadcast Communications

Bio of Lee Marvin

WWII: The Battle of Saipan Military History

Urban Legends and Outright Lies
News & Observer, 3 September 2006