They tell the story about Ed McMahon, about how he was born to be an announcer. At age 6 he was fascinated by what he heard on the radio and by 11 he was playing announcer around the house and

But he had another early dream too. "I was taken by the ads," he recalled. "They read, 'Earn your Navy wings of gold.'>"

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he set out to do just that.

"I wanted to join the next day," he recalled. "I went to Texarkana and got my wings at Pensacola. I applied for the Marines. Only one in three were accepted," said McMahon, proud to be one of the few to make it.

So it was easy for McMahon to say yes when producer Arnold Shapiro asked him to narrate his "Return to Iwo Jima" documentary, airing this Memorial Day week on PBS.

"I knew he was a former Marine and proud of it," said Shapiro. "He's a popular personality and not one who would usually turn up on PBS. I thought he could help bring an audience that might not ordinarily tune in." McMahon, Shapiro added, donated his fee to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

McMahon has been most widely identified as the permanent sidekick of TV's Johnny Carson. They've worked together on "The Tonight Show" for a quarter-century and the pair has been associated on nearly a daily basis for 28 years.

But predating that professional marriage was McMahon's commitment to the Marines.

After Pensacola, he became a fighter pilot, flying Corsairs in the Pacific theater. He did a combat tour, then became a flight instructor and also taught carrier landings.

"After the war I came out and went to Catholic University," he said. I wanted to get into a squadron based in Washington, but the area was loaded with officers."

McMahon received a degree from Catholic in 1949 and moved to Philadelphia, where he hosted, wrote and produced 13 television shows simultaneously. That lasted until 1951.

"I was called back for the Korean War," he said. Within 24 hours of landing in Korea he was making reconnaissance runs over the 38th Parallel. "I was over the front line within hours, flying an artillery spotter plane," he said.

He flew 85 missions in his L-19 and received six air medals.

When the war was over, he resumed his professional career but he also joined a Marine public information unit in New York as a reservist. Two years ago he retired from the corps with the rank of colonel.

After Korea, McMahon took a job at an ABC affiliate in Philadelphia doing a news-feature segment, and in 1957 he auditioned for the announcing job on a quiz show called "Who Do You Trust?" The host: Johnny Carson.

In the little time he has been away from Carson over nearly 30 years, McMahon has flown solo in spot- hosting duties, such as parades and telethons, and has done shows in Las Vegas. This TV season he has cohosted "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" with Dick Clark and has been the emcee of "Star Search." "Bloopers" managed to finish in the top 20 Nielsen rankings for the season, and "Search" enjoyed its biggest success in the Washington market, pulling audience shares in the 30 range.

And there's the umbilical-like tie to Carson, a friendship McMahon says has remained tight despite Carson's run of personal misfortune -- divorce, bad investments and the like -- and their constant bantering about them.

"The secret is to keep the comments sharp and funny but not insulting and damaging," said McMahon. Exhibit A: One night Carson made a comment about wanting to win the million-dollar give-away McMahon fronts for. Quipped McMahon: "Yes, but too bad you'd only get to keep half."