Tags: Ernest Borgnine, interview, naval history
He won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Marty (1955). And his many screen roles include Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity (1953), General Worden in The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch (1969). But he is perhaps best remembered as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale, the title character in television’s madcap sitcom, “McHale’s Navy” (1962-66). The congenial “real McHale” talked recently about his decade in the U.S. Navy and his film work with Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz.
Naval History: What made you decide to enlist in the Navy rather than any of the other services?
Borgnine: I’m what you call a Depression sailor. I got a job immediately after leaving high school; I was lucky—three dollars a week and all I could eat, working on a vegetable truck. I had never thought of it as a career, but that was all I could find in those days. You were lucky to get off the streets. One day while riding on the truck, I saw a sign that said: “Join the Navy, See the World.” So I went to the recruiter, unbeknownst to my mother and dad, and said I’d like to join the Navy. They put me on a waiting list and asked if I’d be ready to come when they called. I said, “Absolutely!” So I got the call and, believe it or not, got in on another fellow’s case of the piles. He failed, and I made it. I believe at that time only 11 or 12 of us made it out of 12,000; that many people were ready to go into the service, simply because they wanted to get off the streets. It wasn’t that we were bums. We just wanted to help our families, as I did, and also wanted to get out there and learn something.
So I joined the Navy and went to the Newport, Rhode Island, Training Station in September of 1935. It was a whole new experience. I’ll never forget the advice my dad gave me the morning I left. He said, “You know, son, you’re not going to be tied down by your mother’s apron strings any more.” He said, “You’re going to have to go out and do it on your own.”
I remember one day—I still get a little choked up about it—I was on board a ship, the four-stacker destroyer Lamberton (DD-119), and the crew was celebrating Mother’s Day by listening to a program about it on the radio. That hit me in such a way that I sat under a ladder and cried. You can’t imagine how hard I cried. And after it was over, I suddenly realized I had cut the apron strings. But it made a man out of me. And I have never regretted one day, not ever.
Naval History: What was your most memorable experience in the Navy?
Borgnine: I’ll never forget the day in San Diego I was put in charge of the captain’s gig. I polished that thing until it gleamed. And then word came that we were going to take the captain ashore. Well, I brought the gig alongside smartly, with my engineer down below, handling the controls. I put one foot on the gangway and one foot holding the boat. The captain came on board and said, “128th Street Landing!” I said, “Yes, sir!” and started to push off. As I pushed, my foot slipped on the deck of the boat, because I had polished it to such a high degree. My other foot slipped off the gangway, and I went straight down into the water, between the boat and the gangway—straight down. Then I came straight back up. As I was getting my hat back on my head, he looked down at me and said, “No, 128th Street!”
That was in the Lamberton, when we were towing target ships. I remember one day, instead of firing at the targets, somehow or other one plane miscalculated and began firing at us. You could hear the shots whistling between the stacks. And the only thing that saved us was the chief radioman, who got on the radio and told the pilot to stop. I also remember vividly having to go out and resurface some of the tows. Sometimes they’d turn over, and we would have to go and try to turn them back up again.
At that time the Navy didn’t want you to get your feet wet, so they would put boots on you—not small boots, but big hip boots. I said, “Wait a minute. If those boots fill up with water, we’re going to sink like lead.” We were informed that this was the way the Navy was going to do it. Well, the first chance we got, we cast them off, threw them away.
We also towed paravanes for mine-sweeping. That was a risky job, because paravane wire could cut metal. It was really something to watch those things work. Unfortunately, on another ship one time, the wire broke as an ensign was straddling it and cut him right in half.
Naval History: What was the biggest difference between the four-stacker destroyer and the converted yacht you served in during the war?
Borgnine: The yacht, the Sylph (PY-12), had been owned by old man Murphy, who made Murphy Beds—the ones that folded out of the wall. I had my own private stateroom. I was a first-class gunner’s mate, but the captain used to knock on my door before entering. Talk about having it made! We really did.
Of course, we weren’t supposed to bring booze aboard, but in this certain ship, it seemed we always got our share. How? Several of us would go ashore at night and buy milk. We would then paint the bottles white and fill them up with booze. When we came back, the watch officer would meet us at the gangway and ask, “What do you have there, men?” We would say, “Milk, sir, and hamburgers. Would you like one?” He’d let us by and we’d go down below and get roaring. Talk about “McHale’s Navy,” this was it!
So there was all the difference in the world. The destroyer was a fighting ship, built for war. The Sylph was a fighting ship, too, but there weren’t very many things that you could do with a yacht. We had a 3-inch/50-caliber gun that we were afraid to shoot because of the wooden decks. We also had six .30-caliber air-cooled Brownings, but they were like mosquito bites against the skin of a submarine. We had a Y-gun to shoot off the depth charges because we couldn’t go fast enough to let them roll off the stern if we met up with a submarine.
Naval History: Did you ever encounter any U-boats?
Borgnine: Yes, we did. We met up with one, and according to the skipper, we had him dead to rights. We were guarding an oiler, and he was going like crazy. We just couldn’t keep up. Our propulsion was sufficient just for going in and out of harbors slowly. But there we were, out to sea, trying to keep up; but we just couldn’t. That day, we did manage to snag onto a German submarine; there were a lot of them out there. We were like sitting ducks, though. Only three ships were guarding the entire Atlantic coastline when the war started. The others were the Zircon (PY-16) and the Sapphire (PYC-2).
When we made contact with the U-boat, the old man said, “Gunner, when I blow the whistle, you let that Y-gun go.” I said, “Yes, sir!” So we got all set, and he blew the whistle. I pulled the lanyard, and boom! Off she went. Everybody said, “ooh and ahh” as they watched the things go. It was the first time they had ever heard an explosion. I started kicking them in the behind, saying, “Come on, come on! Get it reloaded!” And we’d load it up again, pull the lanyard, and off she’d go. The whole time, I was listening for detonations—there were no detonations. We shot off 20 depth charges—no detonations. Finally one did go off.
I was standing there with the lanyards in my hand and said to myself, “I know I set them right—75 feet, just what the skipper ordered.” Because they didn’t go off, I could envision my carcass hanging from the yardarm. Believe me, I was scared stiff. Well, we came back into port, and sailors came aboard and started taking off the depth charges, when one fellow said, “You got a chippin’ hammer, gunner?” I said, “Yeah, I got a chippin’ hammer.” We took off about 147 coats of paint from one of the depth charges, and it said, right there on a nice little brass plaque: “Manufactured in 1917.” That’s how we went to war.
Naval History: What is the difference between your Navy and the Navy of today?
Borgnine: I’ve been to a number of places and seen for myself the caliber of people who are in the Navy today—in all the services for that matter. This is an altogether different bunch. These people of today are really bright, young, good people.
We had bright young men in our day, too, but we did not have the equipment they have today, either. Even radar was unheard of when I first went into the service. Then suddenly, they started putting bedsprings up on the tops of ships. We wondered what the devil they were doing, as these great big bedsprings were rolling around. We wondered what they did. Finally, the word came out: “It’s a secret. These can pick up and find all sorts of things floating through the air.” I said, “Come on, you’re crazy. Nothing can do that.” But they did!
Naval History: What experiences from the Navy did you borrow for some of your screen roles?
Borgnine: I had occasion once to make a picture called The Vikings (1958). The Navy stood me in good stead at that time, because, unbeknownst to anyone, I had pulled a bow oar in my whaleboat crew on the Lamberton. That’s one of the hardest places in the boat to pull an oar, because you’re sitting up forward and you’re almost a down-stroke. It was tough.
When we went to Norway to shoot this picture, the very first thing they asked me to do was to go out on the boat. I was dressed up in my civilian clothes, but I jumped right in. We were pulling 14-foot oars and going along pretty good. Then, up went the beat, a little higher, a little more. Well, when we finished, I had impressed the rest of the fellows there so much that they would have killed for me, because I proved I was one of them. I became their man. It was marvelous, thanks to the Navy for having me pull that bow oar in the whaleboat.
I’ll tell you what I did with “McHale’s Navy.” I wanted to do everything that I couldn’t do in the real Navy—like ski behind my ship. I did everything that you could possibly imagine, while always maintaining a good rapport with my troops. I made up my mind I was going to run this navy the right way. You see, Quinton McHale had been captain of his own tramp steamer before the war. Nobody knew this, of course, but it was written in the screenplay before we started. And they don’t reveal that in the show. As an old tramp steamer captain, McHale was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, so when the war started, naturally he went into the Navy. They had no other place for him, except to put him in a PT-boat.
I wanted to continue “McHale’s Navy” as a series and had some people at Universal interested in it, too. My idea was to have him wandering around New York after the war, when suddenly he hears, “Hey, skip!” from one of his old sailors. They eventually get the whole crew back together and seek out McHale’s old ship, which is owned by a woman who turns out to be another Captain Binghamton [played by Joe Flynn in the original series]. McHale becomes the skipper of the ship, which carries passengers but turns out to be a spy ship for the CIA. Universal said, “Let’s do it!” But nothing ever happened, and they let it go by the board. But it was fun to think about, and I thought it could have made a heck of a good series.
Naval History: Nothing ever came of it?
Borgnine: The man at Universal said, “This is the best thing I’ve seen since cut bread.” But he never did a thing.
Naval History: So it’s written down somewhere?
Borgnine: Oh sure, I have it at home, all written down. It would probably have made a good picture, too.
Naval History: Do you think the Navy might be a little better off today if it had more McHales and fewer Binghamtons?
Borgnine: Absolutely. But I don’t think too many Binghamtons are around anymore. The Navy has changed a great deal. Not that the officers of my day were bad, because I served under a lot of good officers, believe me. But there were a few bad ones, too.
I remember one gentleman, a lieutenant commander, when I first reported to the Sylph. He was captain of the ship. The morning I was brought to him to be introduced, he was still in bed, in his cabin. The fellow who brought me down knocked on his door and said, “I have the new gunner’s mate aboard.” The captain opened the door, and he had his hand underneath his pillow. I thought that was odd, and I said, “Good morning, Captain. How are you, sir? I’m reporting aboard for duty.” As we left, he made a move, and I saw that his hand was holding a pistol. Very odd, indeed.
Now, this gentleman used to have the hardest time docking that yacht that you ever saw in your life. The tugboat captain in New York would come down and watch him land, just for the laughs. Two of our fellows always came up out of the engine room to watch, too. One chief carpenter’s mate on board hated this captain. And every time he went ashore, he’d get drunk and abusive, come back to the ship, and yell down the pipe: “You no good so and so!” He kept on putting in chits for a transfer and finally got one. Two weeks later, the captain got one, too—to the same ship. As I understand it, they went to a huge transport ship that was getting ready to go overseas to Britain. Just before they took off, this carpenter’s mate threw his sea bag over the side and followed it. He said, “I’m damned if I’m going with you.” I heard later that the ship and all hands were lost in a 100-mile-an-hour hurricane off Nova Scotia.
Naval History: How do you think “McHale’s Navy” would play on TV today?
Borgnine: Are you kidding? People love it. It’s always playing somewhere in the world. Universal owns it, so it plays only occasionally in this country. They’ll put out shows like “Gilligan’s Island,” but they hold off on “McHale.” On Labor Day in Oakland, California, they had a big “McHale” to-do, and it went over tremendously well. It’s crazy, but I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You know, Mr. Borgnine, you’re the best baby-sitter in the world.” I say, “How do you figure that?” And they say, “When our children are watching ‘McHale’s Navy,’ we always know where they are.”
Naval History: What was the better duty station—Taratupa or Voltafiore?
Borgnine: Actually, I didn’t want “McHale’s Navy” to move to Italy. Our producer had tried to do it with “Sergeant Bilko,” but the Bilko people said they didn’t want to go to Italy. So he took it out on us, and we went to Voltafiore. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. I think the show could still be going if it had been left on Taratupa.
I’ll tell you something. Secretary of the Navy [John] Warner called me one time when I was in Washington. He wanted to see me. He said, “I want to tell you, Mr. Borgnine, that you have done more for the U.S. Navy with ‘McHale’s Navy’ than I’ve ever seen any recruiter do. People want to come into the Navy just to join McHale’s Navy.” That was quite a tribute to me and my troupe.
Naval History: What was a typical day of shooting like on the “McHale’s Navy” set?
Borgnine: We had a lot of fun doing it. In those days we used to start, anxiously, at eight o’clock in the morning. Well, by a quarter of eight, we were ready to go, all hands. And I guess we broke the mold, because now they start shooting at six-thirty. By noontime, we would have at least 12 to 14 pages of dialogue and action in the can. Then we’d take it easy, laze around, blow up a few fireworks, and scare a few tourists coming through.
Naval History: Do you keep in touch with the old cast?
Borgnine: Oh, sure. A few of them have died, you know. But I see Tim Conway [Ensign Charles Parker], and Carl Ballantine [Torpedoman Lester Gruber] is still around. He’s older than the hills, but he’s still around.
Naval History: How would you rate Hollywood’s portrayal of the military in general, and the Navy in particular, past and present?
Borgnine: I’ve found that in the past they were quite good. Of course they always took liberties. They had to put in the love interest and how it affected the man in his work and all that pertained to it. The majority of the time, though, they were quite good. We had a naval advisor on “McHale’s Navy.” After the first day of shooting, he said, “Ernie, what the devil are they shooting here?” I told him it was “McHale’s Navy.” He went storming off and said, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” He really left us in the lurch. He wouldn’t have anything to do with us, because we weren’t portraying the real Navy, his Navy. Then, the show suddenly began to blossom, and he started bringing people around to show them his “McHale’s Navy.” From that point, the Navy began treating us well.
Naval History: Do you think today’s films on military subjects may suffer a bit because fewer film makers actually served in the military?
Borgnine: Definitely, yes. There is always something lacking. But they try to get it as best they can.
Naval History: What were some good naval-oriented films?
Borgnine: Away All Boats (1956) was a pretty good naval picture. And I did a submariner picture with Glenn Ford [Torpedo Run (1958)] that was quite good. One thing we found while making that picture is that you can’t go horizontally with a Momsen Lung (an early underwater breathing device). You have to go vertically, straight up, or straight down. And they wanted us to go horizontally because of the camera angle. You can’t do it. You’ll fill up with water.
Naval History: We hear a lot today about too much violence on television and the movies. As one of the stars of The Wild Bunch, which came in for some criticism to that effect, where do you think we should we draw the line?
Borgnine: They asked the same question in Jamaica when the picture was first shown. And I kind of got up on my high horse, because if ever anyone knew the West, it was [director] Sam Peckinpah. He told it like he saw it and like he knew it. Of course, he hadn’t been alive in the days of the Old West, but based on what he had worked on and knew from past experience and reading, this was a hard, hard time. If you didn’t keep your wits about you, you were dead. It was that kind of a violence. And he tried to show the violence. What I said at the time was, “Would you rather have the violence on your screen, or would you rather see it on your city streets?” The key lies in the people who do not teach their children properly by saying, “Look, this is a violent picture, and it’s violent because man is violent, and people do violent things to other people. This is what you must not do.” But people don’t train their children that way anymore.
Naval History: So you’re saying it’s not the fault of movies and TV—it’s the parents’ fault?
Borgnine: Partly. It’s also the fact that they’ll do and redo anything that sells on TV or in the motion pictures. So we have rape, violence, explosions, and everything else, and kids sit back and say, “Man, isn’t that great? It must be, because we see it so often.” But is it? It sells. That’s the thing. And as long as it sells, they’re going to do it. I thought that The Wild Bunch, which later went on to become a classic, was done in a way that showed the terribleness of the situation, what these men lived through and died for—which was no good, because they died. Period.
Naval History: How important is history?
Borgnine: Very important, I think. They say history repeats itself. I think everybody should know their history. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t. I had a line in a show I was doing not too long ago. I was to say, “I was playing tennis in Corregidor,” and so on. I had a college graduate come up to me and ask, “Ernie, what’s a Corregidor?”