Some Celebrity Soldiers of World War II
|Captains Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart ca. 1943.|
If you are looking for a specific celebrity, do Control-F (pc) and type in their last name.
Below are some celebrities who served in the military during World War II. Naturally, a huge number of celebrities participated in the war effort, and so this list is not by any means meant to be all-inclusive or exhaustive or anything like that. Nobody is left out intentionally, the only rule was that, to be on this page, the person had to be a celebrity whose fame extended beyond the duration of the war - before or after. I hope to make this fairly comprehensive over time, but it will never be complete because there are simply too many veterans who became (or had been) celebrities.
Celebrity warriors generally fall into three camps:
- Celebrities who were famous before they served in World War II (and almost invariably remained famous thereafter, though there were exceptions such as Max Schmeling). The top figures in this category are Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Mickey Rooney;
- Celebrities who only became famous many years later, being unknown or largely unknown at their time of enlistment. Some names in this huge field include Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner and George Scott; and
- Celebrities who initially became famous to some extent due to their war service during the war, and greatly extended it after the war in some new direction. Audie Murphy exemplifies this group.
Celebrities who were huge stars before the war and enlisted after Pearl Harbor include among their ranks Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Cesar Romero, Henry Fonda and Mickey Rooney. Those who served and only became famous much later include Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine (one of the very few who served before the war in the 1930s, too) and pretty much 99% of the rest of the names that follow. Follow on below for a peek at some of the unexpected names on this list.
|This is probably how you remember Mr. John Banner.|
Please note: there are a few German celebrities included who served in the Wehrmacht. They were not convicted of any crimes and, in fact, in at least one case, saved innocent lives of people who would have been murdered. They were or became celebrities and they were in uniform, so they are included for purposes of seeing how that played out at the time and in later years. They also happen to be household names in the U.S, or were at one time.
I also want to pay respect to celebrities who perished during the conflict during their service. These include Glenn Miller and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
There really isn't any order to this page, and it is not alphabetical. If you served in the war, you were as good or bad as anyone else that served. There were no movie stars at 20,000 feet over Hamburg. I prefer to believe that every star, no matter how big, would have agreed wholeheartedly with that sentiment and asked for no preferential placement. For practical purposes, though, I did put a star or two in a particular spot to aid the flow of the article. Otherwise, it is pretty much random.
As always, if you want to see someone mentioned that I (so far) have overlooked, or you see any factual errors, drop me a note in the comments and I will get on it.
Apologies to those celebrities who just missed World War II, such as Gene Hackman (enlisted 1946), Steve McQueen (enlisted in the Marines in 1947), Willie Nelson (USAF 1950), Clint Eastwood (1951), and Sean Connery, among many others. They also served honorably, but this is a list of World War II Vets. Once again, I apologize for Vets I have overlooked. I am constantly adding new names, some quite prominent that I simply missed.
All right, let's start off with someone unexpected. Ladies first.
|Bea Arthur, accepting her Emmy for "The Golden Girls".|
Bea Arthur (née Bernice Frankel) (1922-2009) SSgt. USMC 1943-45 WW II. Bea enlisted at the age of 21 and was assigned as typist at Marine HQ in Washington D.C., then served at air stations in VA and NC. She apparently was a truck driver for a while. Did you know there were female Marines in World War II? How about during World War I? Yes, to both question - and Bea was one of them, at least in WWII.
Arthur was one of the first members of the Women's Reserve before World War II. On her volunteer application, Bea listed her active hobbies as hunting with a ".22 caliber rifle and a bow and arrow." When she was interviewed for enlistment, the notes described her as "officious – but probably a good worker – if she has her own way,” as well as “argumentative” and “over-aggressive.” I know, go figure, right?
Arthur achieved fame as the character Maude Findlay on the 1970s sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Maude," and as Dorothy Zbornak on the 1980s sitcom "The Golden Girls," winning Emmy Awards for both roles. She was a successful stage actress both before and after her television success. Being in the Marines no doubt helped to shape her abrasive professional personality that kept her busy for decades as a top character actress with an edge of sardonic humor.
Now, let's look at an unlikely female figure from the other side.
Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) is a somewhat unlikely figure to appear in this article. She was a native of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but when she was three, her family moved to Vienna, Austria for a year. They then moved back to Oakland, California. She became a well-known writer and "life partner" of Alice B. Toklas. All of this you may have known, or at least parts.
The part about World War II, though, is a little less well known. Gertrude Stein, though Jewish and a vocal lesbian, was a supporter of fascists such as Francisco Franco and Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Pétain. To put it gently, Stein became a collaborator of the German war machine during the war. At one point in 1934, fully aware that Hitler was "driving out the Jews from Germany," Stein "joked" to an interviewer from the New York Times that Adolf Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize because he was removing sources of internal conflict from Germany. Stein was warned to leave by US officials, but she chose to stay in France.
Stein spent the early war years in Paris doing translations for the Vichy regime into English, until that became unnecessary after Pearl Harbor . As late as 1944, Stein was lauding Petain's policies as being "really wonderful." The extent of Gertrude Stein's participation in the Axis war machine, and her motivations for doing so, is a very controversial topic. Many are quick to defend Stein and make excuses and argue this point or that, but there are undeniable facts that must be confronted.
|The Manitoban, January 10, 1944.|
|Monty Hall in The Manitoban, March 1, 1944.|
After his Canadian television employer, CBC, let him go, Monte Halparin moved to New York City in 1955. Monty began hosting game shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with his big break being "Video Village" on CBS TV in 1960. Monty Hall then helped develop and hosted "Let's Make A Deal," a famous game show which he continued to host until 1991 and with which he remained associated until his death on 30 September 2017. In all, Monty Hall hosted 4700 episodes of "Let's Make A Deal." Monty Hall received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 24, 1973, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars in 2000, and in 2002, he was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
Richard Bernard Skelton, known as Red Skelton, was a huge radio comedy star when the war broke out. As a married man, he had a deferment, but his wife left him (while sticking around to manage his career) in 1943. Drafted in early 1944, Red was inducted as a private on 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day.
Initially just an ordinary private, Red was transferred into the entertainment corps and entertained troops both stateside and in Italy. He undertook a huge workload and developed voice problems, which sent him to a VA hospital in Virginia. Once the war ended, Red was honorably discharged in September 1945 and resumed his NBC radio show on 4 December 1945. His radio show turned into a top-rated television show which continued until 1971, and he also did occasional appearances in films. While his service was just a blip in his long entertainment career, it had one enduring legacy: the termination of his radio show upon his induction led to his bandmaster, Ozzie Nelson, and his wife Harriet getting their own show.
|A wartime Dr. Seuss cartoon.|
|The Cat in the Hat & Dr. Seuss at the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden - Springfield, MA; statues designed by Theodor Geisel's step-daughter, sculptor Lark Grey Dimond-Cates; photo by Erika_F|
Theodor Seuss Geisel (March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991) was a well-known children's book author whose pen name is universal - Dr. Seuss. He joined the Army as a Captain in 1943 after having supported the war effort informally, and was commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. He wrote films that included "Your Job in Germany," a 1945 propaganda film about peace in Europe after World War II, "Our Job in Japan," and the "Private Snafu" series of adult army training films. While in the Army, Dr. Seuss was awarded the Legion of Merit. Only after the war, in the 1950s, did Dr. Seuss craft the series of children's books such as "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs with Ham" that are synonymous with his pen name and have sold over 600 million copies.
|Charles M. Schulz|
Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) was drafted into the United States Army at the age of 20 in 1943. He served as a staff sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe, as a squad leader on a .50 caliber machine gun team. His unit saw combat only at the very end of the war. Schulz did not like to play up his service and said later that he only had one opportunity to fire his machine gun - but forgot to load it. Fortunately, the German soldier he could have fired at willingly surrendered. Years later, Schulz proudly spoke of his wartime service. Schulz was good friends with Bill Mauldin, another celebrity cartoonist with deep roots in the war. Schulz, of course, later became famous for his "Peanuts" strips, among other classic works.
Mel Brooks (actual name Melvin Kaminsky) is well known as the director and writer of classic comedies stretching back to the 1960s. Among his better-known productions are "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers."
A fact that is a little less known is that Mel served as a private, then a corporal, in World War II, including combat during the Battle of the Bulge. After specialized training at Virginia Military Institute, Mel was in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion. One of his jobs was defusing landmines, which is no laughing matter and killed a lot of soldiers. He remarked of his service, "I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering."
|Dick Van Dyke in London, 1967|
|Dick Van Dyke with Mary Tyler Moore ca. 1961.|
In doing research for this page, I found that most of the results I already knew. A few, though, absolutely shocked me, and this is one of them. This is something I should have known, but didn't.
Part of my confusion lies in the fact that this man seemed to break through as a beginning actor in the early 1960s and appeared unconnected with his own generation. He also played, quite convincingly, a stranded serviceman in "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." in 1966. Overall, he always seemed much younger than he was (and still does, in fact). All that is deceiving, because this legend had been working on his "overnight success" for the entire decade of the 1950s. It was all local fame prior to the 1960s, however.
Okay, it is Dick Van Dyke. Dick enlisted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but initially did not make the cut. Van Dyke did not meet the weight requirement, being considered underweight. He tried three times to enlist, before barely making the cut. He then served as a radio announcer during the war, and he never left the United States nor flew a plane.
Dick was stationed at Camp Crowder in Missouri, and this became part of his acting career. In the first season of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," he several times alludes to that camp. During the show, as emcee of the entertainment for the troops at Crowder, he meets a singer/dancer played by Mary Tyler Moore, who, in the sitcom, he will later marry.
Camp Crowder had an awful reputation amongst the troops for its uncomfortable living arrangements. Apparently, it was hot, dirty, and bug-infested. Besides Van Dyke, the camp counted among its inhabitants the humorist Jean Shepherd and the cartoonist Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"). Apparently, service there brought out the humor in people.
As of this writing in 2014, Dick Van Dyke remains very much a working actor, though he has numerous times declared that he was "retired." Apparently for Vets like Dick, being retired means continuing to work. Dick is among the last of the World War II Vets still going strong in his occupation, 70 years after his service.
Glenn Miller, writer, and performer of classic jazz compositions such as "In the Mood," "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "Moonlight Serenade," was at the peak of his fame when the war started. In 1942, he was age 38, with his own band and hit records. He was well beyond draft age and could have sat out the war entertaining civilians and troops stateside. Instead, he volunteered for service in 1942, joining the Army after the Navy turned him down. He quickly became a Major.
On December 15, Miller was flying to Paris in a light plane that disappeared. Modern research suggests that his plane was hit by bombs dropped by Allied bombers returning from an abortive raid on Siegen, Germany. A crew member on one of the bombers stated that he saw a small plane hit by the bombs and sent into the sea, but there is no proof that it was Miller's plane. There are other theories, including a controversial one that states that Miller actually made it to Paris but died of a heart attack there while in flagrante delicto with a local girl. According to this version, his actual cause of death was covered up because of the embarrassing circumstances and a cover story of a lost flight crafted out of whole cloth. Whatever happened, Miller died in the service of his country. Perhaps his plane will be found someday - assuming there is a plane to be found.
Ray Eberle was a vocalist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra who was in the service at the same time that Glenn Miller was. Eberle sang on some of Miller's most beloved records, including "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "At Last." You might think that Miller gladly would have re-teamed with Eberle while they were both wearing the uniform. However, Miller had fired Eberle in June 1942 under murky surfaces, and Miller apparently never requested Eberle's participation in his own army band due to lingering bad feelings. Instead, Eberle, who was drafted in December 1943, served out his two years in the army quietly.
Ray's brother, Robert Eberle, also was a top singer and served in the army during the war. He sang with the Wayne King army band. However, it is unclear if Ray sang in the service as well. Bob Eberle, a Corporal, is perhaps most famous for singing "Bésame Mucho" with Kitty Kallen in 1944. He also sang on the "Notes From Your Soldier's Notebook" NBC Blue Network radio program later in 1944.
After mustering out after the war, neither Eberle regained his former popularity as a vocalist. Ray struggled to form his own band, hooked up with other performers such as Tex Beneke, and had occasional television appearances (including on "Happy Days"). Ray Eberle passed away on 25 August 1979 in Douglaston, Georgia, and Robert Eberle passed away on November 17, 1981. Ray's daughter, Jan, also became a singer and wrote a biography of her father.
Bob Dole-Army-1942-48-WW2-10th Mountain Division-Bronze Star, 2 Purple Hearts. He later became a Kansas Senator, Senate Majority Leader, and 1996 Republican candidate for US President. Bob is a long-time resident of the Watergate Hotel in Washingon, D.C. As of 2016, Senator Dole, who lost partial use of one arm from enemy fire, is still very much with us and serving as an elder statesman.
Eddie Albert was an amiable, avuncular actor who never seemed to have a harsh word for anyone. However, he was far from being a milquetoast. Below, an article is reprinted which goes into some detail about what Eddie Albert actually did during World War II.
Actor first earned fame for heroism in combat
By Charles A. Jones - Special to the Times
Posted : November 26, 2007
Best known for his role as lawyer-turned-farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas on the 1960s TV show “Green Acres,” Eddie Albert also had a strong following in the 2nd Marine Division after he helped save the lives of dozens of leathernecks during the Battle of Tarawa.
Albert, whose real name was Edward Albert Heimberger, established himself as an actor in pre-war Hollywood with his first movie, 1938’s “Brother Rat.”
But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II, he joined the Navy in 1942 and was commissioned as a Naval Reserve lieutenant junior grade.
He sailed to Tarawa as a salvage officer on the troop ship Sheridan, one of many ships that arrived on Nov. 20, 1943. Tarawa was a strategically vital Pacific island that was key to helping U.S. bombers attack Japanese forces in the Marianas.
Albert guided the assistant control boat he commanded to the designated drop zone on the beach, where it unloaded Marines and supplies.
However, a blunder by military planners predicting the tides stranded many landing craft hundreds of yards off-shore on reefs and exposed Marines to Japanese fire.
As Marine casualties mounted in the lagoon, Albert assumed the initiative, plucking the injured and dead out of the water and from under enemy fire in his salvage boat. He transferred the leathernecks to landing craft, which then transported them to ships further offshore for medical treatment.
When his boat was damaged, Albert sent it and the wounded Marines aboard to the Sheridan, taking command of a landing craft and rescuing more men.
Assuming command of a third craft, he led four other boats to the beach and loaded them with wounded Marines, taking them to various ships, including destroyers providing fire support.
Albert took 46 wounded Marines to the Schroeder on his final trip; records show 42 of them survived.
His last task at the end of the battle was to recover bodies from the surf.
After Tarawa, Albert made training films and did war bond tours. He left the Navy after the war as a lieutenant.
Albert resumed acting and was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1953’s “Roman Holiday” and 1972’s “The Heartbreak Kid.”
Forty-four years after the battle, due largely to efforts of Schroeder crew members, Albert received a Bronze Star with combat “V” for his actions at Tarawa. He died at age 99 in 2005.
|Bob Hope and sidekick Jerry Colonna during World War II|
|Bob Hope's service papers|
Purists will argue that Bob Hope never enlisted during World War II. Well, they would be correct. However, in fact, Bob was every bit as much a veteran of World War II as any GI who ever invaded an enemy beach or airman who shot down a FW-109.
How can this be?
On Dec 23, 1942, Bob Hope agreed to entertain U.S. airmen in Alaska. This was during a time when Japanese soldiers still occupied some Alaskan territory. It was the first of the traditional Christmas shows that Bob later performed for the troops into the 1990s. The trip to Alaska, then a U.S. territory, required a special permit. So, he entered a combat area and did his duty there.
In 1997, Bob Hope was designated an honorary veteran for his humanitarian services to the United States Armed Forces by Congress. He is the only individual in history to have earned this honor. He certainly is the only man born in England to win that honor from the United States.
So, Bob belongs here. I have no patience with people obsessed with technicalities. He went into a war zone in the service of his (adopted) country, he was almost 40 at the time of Pearl Harbor yet exerted himself to help the cause, he didn't have to do squat and yet did a great deal, and veterans invariably loved him. That's good enough for me.
|Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Lombard gave her life for the war effort, perishing in a plane crash during a war bond tour early in 1942. Montgomery signed up about the same time.|
Oscar winning actor Robert Montgomery (1904-1981) joined the U.S. Navy and served as Naval Attache on British destroyers hunting U-boats. He became a PT boat commander, and participated in the D-Day invasion on board a Destroyer.
Montgomery served five years of active war duty, was awarded a Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Ribbon, the European Theater Ribbon with 2 Battle Stars, one Overseas Service Bar, and promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander.
You likely don't know who Robert Montgomery was because chances are his star rose, burned very bright, and then set before you were born. He actually was quite famous in his day, starring in, for instance, the original "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" with Carole Lombard for director Alfred Hitchcock. Big time actor, biiiiiiiiig star both before and after World War II.
I know, still not ringing any bells. I understand. Let's try again.
Well, he had a very successful anthology show named after him that ran for almost the entire decade of the 1950s. Montgomery was a huuuuge television presence throughout the decade. Huuuuuuge.
No, huh. Still not ringing any bells. I know, that show has never been in repeats for some reason so it might as well never have existed.
Ok, one last shot: he was the father of Sabrina in "Bewitched." Yes, Elizabeth Montgomery was his daughter.
See? There you go! He was a great hero!
|Douglas Fairbanks Jr.|
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. joined the Royal Navy as a lieutenant, junior grade during the Second World War. Fairbanks served on Lord Mountbatten’s staff in England – giving him access to areas most reserve officers did not have. Fairbanks became proficient in military deception skills. He used this new-found talent to create the Beach Jumpers, whose mission was to land on beaches and make the enemy believe they were the force to be reckoned with when in fact the main attack was elsewhere. Fairbanks also led an assault on Casquet lighthouse on the French coast. Later, Fairbanks conducted a desert raid on Sened Station, North Africa. Fairbanks also took part in Allies' landings in Sicily and Elba in 1943. On D-Day, Fairbanks commanded a detachment of PT boats that sailed toward the coast of France in a non-targeted area in order to deceive Germans about the true location of the invasion. Fairbanks earned the British Silver Star award and DSC, the Italian War Cross for Military Valor, the Legion D’Honneuer, and the Croix Guerre with Palm. He stayed in the military after the war and eventually made captain.
|Neville Brand in "D.O.A."|
Neville Brand isn't much of a household name these days. However, you would recognize him if you saw him on screen.
After being born in Griswold, Iowa, Brand joined the Illinois National Guard in October 1939 as a private in Company F, 129th Infantry Regiment. This unit was absorbed into the U.S. Army on March 5, 1941. After training at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Brand served with B Company, 331st Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. Brand saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded on the Weser River on April 7, 1945. He received the Silver Star and several other medals. The Silver Star came about because he decided to singlehandedly go into a hunting lodge being used by Germans as a machine gun nest and subdue it. "I must have flipped my lid," he said in 1966.
After the war, Neville began a brilliant career as a character actor. He made a memorable debut in "D.O.A." (1950) as a crazed henchman, then went on play gruff characters in Bonanza and other shows and films. Neville Brand passed away in April 1992 and is buried in Sacramento, California.
Jack Warden, along with Ernest Borgnine, is one of the few celebrities who was in the military both before and during the war. Not only was he in it - he saw more of it than just about anyone else. Warden was another Vet who didn't say much about his experiences later while pursuing his later acting career, but Jack Warden earned his battle stripes.
Warden served in the U.S. Navy from 1938-1941, then joined the Merchant Marine as water tender in the engine room. He then learned that he heartily disliked convoy duty because of Axis aircraft attacks and his dangerous location 3 decks below the main deck which made survival highly unlikely in the event of a quick sinking (some ships went down literally in seconds) -- this, as he says, ended his "romance with the life of a sailor." Warden left the Merchant Marine in 1942, joined the Army and became a platoon sergeant and parachute jumpmaster in the 101st Airborne - the outfit that held Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st were (and are) the ultimate badasses. That's just an amazing career progression in the military for anyone, much less a celebrity.
Oh, and Jack Warden later became a top character actor on television and films. He was Juror 7 in "12 Angry Men" (1957), but after that mostly played gruff-but-understanding types in a slew of television series. My personal favorite Jack Warden appearance was as a lovelorn convict in the original "The Twilight Zone," where he somewhat played against type, and he cornered the market on gruff-but-understanding police lieutenants in "N.Y.P.D." (1967-1969). Jack had an interesting career progression in Hollywood, too - he started out in films, became a huge television actor starring in about as many different series as anyone in the business, and then spent the final decade of his career almost entirely in films again. If you like cult films, pick up a copy of "Used Cars" (1980), with Jack as feuding twin used car salesmen, a role he was born to play. Jack Warden passed away in 2006.
|Bob Barker, USN.|
Bob Barker was in Drury College on a basketball scholarship when he joined the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot. When World War II began, Barker enlisted in the U.S. Navy and began training as a fighter pilot. However, the war ended before he could be assigned to a seagoing squadron. After the war, Bob resumed his education at Drury and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics. Much later, Bob Barker became the long-time host of "The Price is Right" and won a phenomenal 19 Emmy Awards (among many other honors, and he has quite a few). Bob Barker remains active in the entertainment business as of this writing in 2018.
Julia Child was an American spy during WWII for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to CIA). She became a top secret researcher for the director of the OSS, the legendary William "Wild Bill" Donovan. And, later, she worked to reduce the threat of U-boats, the deadly Kriegsmarine submarines.
Yes, cooking show hostess Julia Child. Yeeesss, Julia Child. Big war hero.
|Ronald Reagan, May 2, 1942|
Ronald Reagan, the future United States President in the 1980s, already was a leading man in Hollywood at the time of Pearl Harbor. Original caption of the second photo above, written on the back, reads: "5/2/1942-San Francisco, CA- Picture shows Lt. Ronald Reagan, New Morale Officer at Fort Mason in San Francisco, CA at Hamilton Field."
Many people know a lot about Ronald Reagan due to his political success. Even people who know more than others, though, may not appreciate that Reagan actually joined the military well before not only Pearl Harbor, but even before Hitler invaded Poland. Despite being a huge film star already, Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corp of the Cavalry on 25 May 1937.
After war broke out, Reagan was called up on 18 April 1942. Due to poor eyesight, his service options were limited. The Army sent him first to Fort Mason, California, where he served as a liaison officer. Later, he transferred to the Army Air Force (USAAF), again serving in public relations. Ultimately, he wound up in the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. He later participated in war bond sales, and his unit produced some 400 USAAF training films. Reagan did what the Army wanted him to do, and he did it well. He mustered out on 9 December 1945 with the rank of Captain.
Mr. Reagan returned to his film career after the war, did some television work, served as President of the Screen Actors Guild, then graduated to politics in the 1960s.
|David Niven in 1944 "somewhere in Europe."|
David Niven the man is seen by many American as the archetypal posh English pouffe attended to by servants and drinking champagne in the back of his jalopy. While all of that may be true... well, actually it's not true at all. But he's one of my favorite actors, and it's great that he also was a bona fide war hero.
James David Graham Niven in point of fact did come from a distinguished family, full of heroic types killed with glory in the Zulu War and bearing hyphenated names and distinguished medals and all that. Niven, however, was a bit of a black sheep and got thrown out, as they say but in his case for real, of some of the best schools in England. Winding up at Sandhurst, he graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1930. He served for a few years, got bored, resigned (that's a delicate way of putting it, he actually escaped from house arrest and fled to America), tried selling whiskey in New York City, tried to break into acting in Hollywood, went to Mexico and worked menial jobs to earn his way back into the States with a resident alien visa, and then finally got accepted by Central Casting as, well, the archetypal Englishman who might be attended to by servants and drink champagne in the back of his jalopy.
Success followed - how could it not for someone who so firmly fulfilled the image? - and by 1939 David Niven was the toast of the town, friends with Errol Flynn and renting Rosalind Russell's house. However, after 3 September 1939 he quickly returned to England - the Foreign Office wanted successful actors like him to stay there and work in patriotic films, but David had shown that he didn't take kindly to instructions of that nature - and re-assumed his old rank of Lieutenant on 25 February 1940. Apparently, the little matter of insulting the General (that's why he had been under house arrest) was forgiven now that there was a war on. Niven wound up in the Commandos because, once again, he got bored with ordinary soldiering, and worked in the Film Unit - which was a nice cover for what he was really doing. You know that film "Argo"? Stuff like that, for real.
Niven went ashore a few days after D-Day as a member of the "Phantom Signals Unit." It was a sort of military intelligence outfit, but Niven - like many of his day, see Christopher Lee elsewhere in this article - refused to talk about it afterward, so we don't really know what he did. Suffice to say there was some skullduggery involved, the whole false-moustache bit at which he, a top actor, excelled. Niven ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel, receiving the Legion of Merit at the hands of General Dwight D. Eisenhower for whatever it was that he did - and it must have been something indeed to get that kind of honor.
Niven returned to Hollywood after the war and became one of the top leading men of his day, once again playing bon vivant types who never earned an honest day's pay in their lives. He won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Actor playing, what else, a Major in "Separate Tables." He also gave a fantastic turn in "The Guns of Navarone" that should have received more awards as a soldier who's seen one too many dead men for his liking, but stands tall when it's time to be counted.
One of the most under-appreciated (for his military service) heroes of the war, Niven continued for the remainder of his career to draw roles which inevitably saw him elegantly attired in tuxedos and sipping champagne playing Sir such-and-such. Perhaps his greatest honor was the fact that Ian Fleming, a former spy type himself, chose Niven as the only Bond actor ("Casino Royale" 1967) to mention by name in any of his novels.
Jack Palance (1919-2006), US Army Air Corps, 455th bomb group. Required facial reconstruction from terrible injuries received in 1943 when, as a student pilot, he had to bail out of a burning B-24 Liberator bomber during a training flight over Arizona. Previously he was a boxer. He went on to play both boxers and soldiers during a phenomenal 55-year career in Hollywood. He experienced a late-career resurgence with films such as "Batman" (1989) and "City Slickers" (1991), for which he won an Oscar. His was perhaps the most successful facial reconstruction in history.
Gene Autry (1907-1998) was in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Before the war, Autry already was a well-established radio, film and rodeo star. He also earned his own private pilot's certificate, which came in handy during the war. He was inducted during a live broadcast of his radio show.
Autry enlisted in 1942 and earned his Service Pilot rating in June 1944. Starting out as a Technical Sgt, he became a flight officer and flew the C-109 transport for Air Transport Command. Autry ferried fuel, ammunition, and arms to China in the China-India-Burma theater of war flying over the Himalayan air route, "The Hump." Autry also volunteered his talents as an entertainer for numerous Air Force shows. He had his own radio show entitled "Sergeant Gene Autry." When the war ended, he was reassigned to Special Services where he toured with a USO troupe in the South Pacific until 1946. Autry received the American Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
After the war, Autry continued his radio show and film career and also had his own television show beginning in 1950. In the early 1960s he bought the Los Angeles/California Angels major league baseball team, and eventually his "number" - 26, for 26th man on the 25-man roster - was retired due to his passion for the franchise (he also briefly had considered a baseball career as a young man). Autry retired from show business in 1964 after having made almost 100 films, and thereafter focused on numerous very successful business interests such as the Angels and the CBS affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona.
Gene Autry passed away in 1998. He is buried at the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, where his epitaph reads, "America's Favorite Cowboy ... American Hero, Philanthropist, Patriot and Veteran, Movie Star, Singer, Composer, Baseball Fan and Owner, 33rd Degree Mason, Media Entrepreneur, Loving Husband, Gentleman." Gene Autry is remembered every Christmas season due to broadcasts of his classic rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which continues to this day to be a top-played carol every year, and "Here Comes Santa Claus," which he wrote.
John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan (October 26, 1914 – March 1, 1984), enlisted in the United States Army in March, 1941, well before Pearl Harbor. He is somewhat of an oddity, because he was a fairly famous child actor ("The Kid,") whose career was fairly steady from 1917 onward, but he entered the service (the US Army) before the war anyway. He then had a wildly odd career in the service, engaging in cloak-and-dagger stuff, then afterwards he returned to Hollywood - which he had apparently willfully given up in 1941 - and became a huge television star in numerous productions. His acting resume from the 1960s and 1970s reads like a list of classic shows.
So, he was a huge star as a kid, then basically a nobody in the military, then a huge star again later. Perhaps he just needed a change of scenery midway through his career. He sure got one! Once his wanderlust was cured, Coogan went back to work.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Coogan requested a transfer to United States Army Air Forces as a glider pilot because of prior civilian flying experience. He wound up in the 1st Air Commando Group, which sent him to India in 1943. Coogan volunteered for hazardous duty in March 1944 and flew British troops ("Chindits"), landing them at night in a small jungle clearing 100 miles behind Japanese lines. Yes, Uncle Fester was actually an American hero!
Rod Steiger (1925-2002) USN 1941-45 WW II. Steiger dropped out of high school at 16 and enlisted in the Navy. He served on a destroyer in the Pacific Theater. After discharge, he worked at the VA and joined a theater group. Studied acting at several New York schools on the GI Bill, knew all the legendary figures of the '50s. He is best remembered for roles in “On The Waterfront” (’54), “The Pawnbroker” (’64), and “In The Heat of the Night” (’67), which won him an Oscar. Big Civil Rights crusader. Some considered him the greatest living actor shortly before his passing.
Bobby Troup served in the US Marines during World War 2. He was the Captain in command of the Montford Point Marines. He later became an actor famous for roles in shows such as "Emergency!" as well as being a renowned jazz musician.
Richard Burton entered the Royal Air Force as a navigator at the age of 18 in 1944. He went to Canada for further training, but the war ended before he could gain any combat experience. A frustrated Burton had to endure a further 2 years waiting to be demobilized. He got involved in acting during periods of leave from the RAF and went on to marry Elizabeth Taylor - twice.
Joe DiMaggio served in the Air Force during World War II from 1943-45. He played for the Yankees the seven seasons before and the six seasons after his service time. He set various baseball records, including a 56-game hitting streak that still stands and quite likely will never be broken. His presence transcended baseball, and he became a symbol for the era.
Soupy Sales grew up in North Carolina and served in the Navy during World War 2. He enlisted during the last years of the war and was assigned to the USS Randall (APA-224) in the South Pacific during the latter part of World War II. He was a natural ham and sometimes entertained his shipmates by telling jokes and playing crazy characters over the ship's public address system. One of the characters he created was "White Fang", a large dog that played outrageous practical jokes on the seamen. The sounds for "White Fang" came from a recording of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
Soupy used "White Fang" and other old characters he developed in the Navy when he had his own show during the 1950s and 1960s, "Lunch With Soupy Sales" and "The New Soupy Sales Show." The show brought him fame and controversy. His most notorious stunt was one in which he told the little children listening to his show to grab all the green paper with faces on them in their parents' wallets and send them to him at his studio - and many did! That kind of thing pretty much makes a comic's work immortal. Soupy passed away in 2009.
Ed Koch entered the Army in World War 2 after being drafted in 1943. Koch was an infantryman with the 104th Infantry Division, landing in Cherbourg, France, in September 1944. Koch earned a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two campaign stars, a World War II Victory Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge for service in the European Theater of Operations. After V-E Day, because he could speak German, Koch was sent to Bavaria to help remove tainted public officials from their jobs and find reliable people to take their place. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1946. Thereafter, he studied law, entered politics, and became a member of the House of Representatives from New York City and longtime Mayor of the City of New York.
Charles Durning was in the first wave on D-Day with the 1st Div. He was the only member of his unit to survive. He took out several German machine guns and was wounded about a week later when he stepped on a mine..
Later, he rejoined his unit in December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. He reportedly was bayoneted 8 times in hand-to-hand combat. At The Bulge he survived The Malmedy Massacre, one of only two men left alive in the snow surrounded by machine-gunned friends. He was wounded and repatriated, where he was in military hospitals until discharge in January 1946. He received the Silver Star.
He refused to discuss his service for which he was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. "Too many bad memories," he told an interviewer. "I don't want you to see me crying." A true American hero. He later became known for classic roles in films like "The Sting" and "The Front Page" until his untimely passing on Christmas Eve 2012.
Russell Johnson, best known as "The Professor" on Gilligan's Island, served in the US Army Air Force during WWII. He flew 44 combat missions as a bombardier in B-25 bombers. In March 1945, his and two other B-25s were shot down in the Philippines. He broke both his ankles and the radioman next to him was killed. He really was stranded on a Pacific isle.
Johnson earned a Purple Heart, among other honors. He was honorably discharged and later served in the Army Reserve. He used his GI Bill to fund his acting lessons. He is best remembered as the Professor on '60's television show Gilligan's Island, a comedic turn which he later related was quite different from his usual role as a quiet cowboy. Russell Johnson passed away in early 2014.
|Robert Stack, here with Lana Turner|
Robert Stack (January 13, 1919 – May 14, 2003) was an established Hollywood star when Pearl Harbor was bombed. His breakthrough role was in the war-themed "To Be or Not To Be" (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, released just a month or two after the attack. He disappeared from Hollywood during the war to serve, but resumed his career there afterwards as if nothing had happened.
During World War II, Stack served as a gunnery instructor in the United States Navy. Because of his expertise as an Olympic champion skeet shooter, Stack was assigned to teach anti-aircraft gunnery in the United States Navy. He thus was one of the rare top actors, including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, who performed a useful function in the service that was unrelated to performing.
Stack was multilingual and stayed active in Hollywood as an actor and television host until his passing. He is perhaps best known for starring as Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables" and as the long-time host of "Unsolved Mysteries."
Above, 17 year old Tony Curtis. Navy Reserves 1942-45 WW II. Curtis enlisted in the United States Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Curtis joined the Pacific submarine force, serving aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus. He stayed there until the end of the war. On September 2, 1945, Curtis had the privilege of witnessing the official Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on board the USS Missouri from his own ship's signal bridge about a mile away.
One of the many oddities of Hollywood is that Curtis chose the submarine service in part because of a Cary Grant film, "Destination Tokyo" (Tyrone Power in "Crash Dive" (1943) also influenced his choice of services). Grant and Curtis later starred together in the World War II submarine comedy "Operation Petticoat." Tony Curtis, of course, became one of the true legends of Hollywood, starring in some of the greatest films of all time such as "Spartacus," "The Boston Strangler," "The Great Race" and many others. Tony Curtis passed away in 2010.
|Anthony Benedetto aka Tony Bennett during World War II.|
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was drafted into the US Army in 1944, when he turned 18. After basic training at Fort Robinson and Fort Dix, he served in France and Germany as an infantry rifleman - an ordinary GI. After discharge in 1946, Tony studied at the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill. He changed his stage name to Tony Bennett and became one of the most renowned singers in the world. Tony Bennett continues to perform as of this writing in 2018.
Lawrence Samuel Storch aka Larry Storch served in the US Navy during World War II. He was on the submarine tender USS Proteus with Tony Curtis. The ship was anchored near the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945 when the Japanese Empire formally surrendered to the Allied powers to end World War II.
Larry's friendship with Curtis proved instrumental in his career. Larry did some stage work and impressions after the war, but was looking for more. He made his film debut - unbilled - in Tony's film The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) after Curtis put in a good word for him. That jump-started Larry's film career, but it stalled out in the early '60s. Tony stepped in again and gave Larry some choice film parts, which eventually led to the role for which Larry is best-remembered by many fans: Corporal Agarn in comedy classic "F-Troop." After that, Larry became a true celebrity recognizable to fans around the world.
Larry Storch is still with us as of this writing. He is said to attend some fan conventions and play his saxophone in the local park when he isn't off receiving tributes such as the 2013 Barrymore Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film and TV from the Fort Lee Film Commission.
Tyrone Power was an established movie star when war broke out despite still being only in his late 20s. In fact, Tyrone was the second-best box office star of 1939, behind only Mickey Rooney. Power enlisted in the US Marines in August 1942 and served for the rest of the conflict.
An accomplished pilot before the war, Power became a transport pilot and flew missions in war zones including Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands in February 1945, the Battles of Iwo Jima (Feb-Mar 1945) and Okinawa (Apr-Jun 1945). Power mustered out in January 1946, but stayed in the reserves, reaching the rank of Captain in 1951. Power resumed his acting career and was one of the top film stars of the 1950s. Tyrone Power was the Real Deal during his military service, performing a useful service right at the front lines at a very high level of competence.
John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 and the oldest person to fly in space at age 77 in 1998, left college to enlist in the US Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. After some training, he wound up in the U.S. Marine Corps and saw action in the South Pacific.
He also served two separate tours in Korea and downed some MiGs. He was Ted Williams' wingman for a while. From there, he went to Test Pilot School, which eventually led to NASA, which led to Outer Space, which led to the US Senate, which led to John Glenn becoming a legend.
Kirk Douglas attended Midshipman School at Notre Dame University and was subsequently commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy in 1942. He served as a communications officer on anti-submarine operations in the Pacific, but was wounded in an attack by a Japanese destroyer. Douglas was medically discharged with the rank of Lieutenant in 1944. Douglas, of course, went on to a huge career in Hollywood, and he portrayed a Naval officer in the PTO in "In Harm's Way" with John Wayne. He also lived to be over 100 - no small achievement. In fact, he is still kicking as of this writing in 2018.
|Don Rickles with his father before shipping out for service in WWII. March 1943. You can see the bubbly personality even at that young age.|
Don Rickles (1926- ) was a Seaman 1st Class USN 1941-46 WW II. He enlisted in the Navy after high school graduation. Served on the USS Cyrene, a torpedo boat tender, in the Pacific. He later became a stand-up comic and actor in more than two dozen films, most notably "Kelly's Heroes." He is best remembered as an “insult” comic, frequent guest on the Johnny Carson Show, and in title role of TV’s “C.P.O. Sharkey” 1976-78. Don is still with us and remains active in Hollywood.
|Burgess Meredith on June 10, 1943 (AP Photo).|
Oliver Burgess Meredith, more popularly known by his shortened stage name Burgess Meredith, was 34 when war broke out. He served as a public relations officer with the air transport command of the U.S. Army, at the U.S. Army headquarters in London. He was an accomplished stage and screen actor before the war broke out, being well known for playing George in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" ("Which way did they go, George?"). He reached the rank of Captain before mustering out in 1944 so that he could work on the patriotic flick "The Story of G.I. Joe," in which he starred as the popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Burgess Meredith went on to gain two Academy Award nominations in the '70s for "The Day of the Locust" and "Rocky." The former film was close to reality for Burgess, as it portrayed alienated film stars in Hollywood just before Pearl Harbor. Burgess passed away on 9 September 1997.
Jeff Chandler (December 15, 1918 – June 17, 1961) was interested in acting before the war and spent some time in summer stock. With uncanny foresight, Chandler enlisted in the Cavalry on 18 November 1941, just a few weeks before Pearl Harbour and and around the time when the Japanese attack fleet was planning to set sail. Chandler served in World War II for four years, mostly in the Aleutians, finishing with the rank of lieutenant. Chandler was a solidly built leading man and gave his height as six foot four inches and his weight as 210 pounds. After the war, he immediately began getting film roles, and was one of Hollywood's leading stars throughout the Fifties, with hits such as "Broken Arrow." His last film role was "Merrill's Marauders," which opened after his tragic passing at age 41 from a botched back operation.
James Arness (1923-2011) USA 1943-45 WW II. Arness, who stood 6'7" or 6'8" (references vary), said he wanted to be a fighter pilot. However, the height limit for aviators was 6’2”, so that was not going to work. Instead, he was drafted in ’43, served as a rifleman in the 3rd Infantry Division, and was severely wounded at Anzio, Italy in early 1944. After several surgeries, Arness was discharged but had a lifelong limp.
The Anzio incident encapsulates the experience of many average soldiers, so is worth briefly retelling. Arness was the first American soldier to jump off his boat at the Anzio beachhead. He was ordered to do so by his commanding officer because Arness was the tallest man in his company, and the water’s depth needed to be tested as a safety precaution. Naturally, if it had been too deep, Arness could have drowned given his full pack, or been picked off by a sniper as the first one off and being so visible due to his size. People did what they were told then, however hazardous, and they were chosen simply because they were the right person for whatever reason. That is how it went during the war: you might be lucky to be tall, and you might wind up getting shot or drowned because of it.
Arness earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, and the European-Mideast Campaign Medal. Best remembered for his role as Matt Dillon in the TV series “Gunsmoke” during its 20-year run. He also is the brother of another celebrity on this list, Peter Graves.
Lee Marvin. Great actor, Academy Award winner, scout sniper, war hero.
Marvin enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II and served throughout as a Private First Class. During the battle for Saipan in June 1944, he was part of the assault on Mount Tapochau, which resulted in the death of most of his unit ("I" Company, 24th Marines, 4th Marine Division). Marvin himself was wounded in the buttocks from Japanese machine gun fire, which severed his sciatic nerve. He received a medical discharge.
Marvin participated in seven island campaigns in all.
Lee Marvin later starred as a World War II serviceman in numerous films, including "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Dirty Dozen." The "Caine Mutiny" role is particularly interesting for Marvin fans because he plays a sailor who is called to testify about the numerous island campaigns in which he had participated - basically, reciting Marvin's own real-life experience in a candid moment of cinéma vérité. When asked once his secret for success as an actor by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, Marvin simply cocked his fingers and went "Rat-a-tat-tat."
Marvin died of a heart attack in 1987 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His headstone reads: “Lee Marvin, PFC US Marine Corps, World War II.”
|Lee Van Cleef|
Lee Van Cleef served in the US Navy during World War II. He was on a submarine chaser in the Caribbean Sea. Later, he served in the Black China Sea on a minesweeper. After the war, the rose to prominence as an actor in the 1960s and is remembered for his roles in the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood.
|Laurence Olivier narrating "The World at War" in the 1970s.|
Laurence Olivier, born in 1907, was too young for World War I. By World War II, he was at the far end of normal service range and was perhaps the most renowned actor in England - which, given the country's rich theatrical tradition, is a bit more significant in terms of prestige than being merely a bankable actor in the States. He also had migrated to Hollywood to make films and gotten married to Vivien Leigh, but his heart (and hers, as they were both British) remained home in Britain.
Wishing to contribute despite being in the States, which was not yet at war, Olivier called Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information under Winston Churchill, hoping to get a position in Cooper's department. Cooper politely advised Olivier to continue what he was doing, and make patriotic films. Olivier did that, including "That Hamilton Woman" and "Henry V" among other works that had a tinge of wartime propaganda. In hindsight, it seems just the right decision, maintaining public confidence that the country was still functioning normally despite the hardships of the war.
While in Hollywood, Olivier trained as a pilot. He eventually came back to England in the middle of the war and joined the Fleet Air Arm, stationed at RAF Worthy Down and rooming with fellow pilot and thespian Ralph Richardson. Neither was worth a tinker's damn to the war effort as a pilot (or so they liked to tell their buds over drinks), but they were unique A-grade celebrities who could rouse great enthusiasm amongst the public. Thus, the pair was used by the military to give speeches and making additional propaganda films such as "The Demi-Paradise." Olivier served for two years as a pilot, resigning his commission in 1943 as a Lieutenant-Commander. Olivier went on to become the most respected actor in the world, with all of the accoutrements. Both Ralph Richardson, who served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, and Olivier eventually were knighted.
|Benny Hill early in his career.|
Benny Hill, born Alfred Hawthorne Hill, was drafted in 1942 and served for the balance of World War II. Hill was a mechanic in the British Army, but basically became a jack-of-all-trades. He served as a mechanic, truck driver and searchlight operator in Normandy after September 1944. He later transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war. "I was five years in the army and never got a stripe," he later recalled.
After the war, Hill scratched around for a bit trying to build a career as a performer, and adopted "Benny" as his first name in homage to Jack Benny. As Benny Hill, he got his first gigs on radio, but they did not lead to much. He then tried the new medium of television in 1950, and found that it matched his skill set as a comic. Within a few years, he was named England's entertainer of the year. It is said that he became the first comedian who became famous on television, or at least as a result of television.
After that, Benny Hill's career built over the years. He tried feature films beginning with "Who Done It?" (1956), but television was his bread and butter. By 1962, Hill had his own series, first on BBC, then later (beginning in 1969) on Thames Television. His show lasted until 1989, when Thames unceremoniously refused to renew his contract (he received other offers thereafter which he turned down). The large body of television comedy Benny Hill had created by then was repackaged and shown around the world.
Although he made millions of dollar, Benny Hill spent little of it and lived simply. This apparently was due to his frugal upbringing, many children of the Great Depression were like that. For instance, Hill never bought a car (preferring to walk fairly long distances or take the bus even after he was famous), and always rented a simple apartment. Benny Hill passed away on 20 April 1992 (aged 68) from a heart attack (coronary thrombosis). However, his work continues to be enjoyed around the world.
Jonathan Winters, USMC WW II. Born 1925. At age 17, he quit high school and joined the Marines, serving two and a half years in the Pacific Theater. Winters was a gunner on the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard.
In terms of his subsequent acting career, Winters was a late bloomer, like some of the others on here (e.g., Dick Van Dyke). Winters did not really get his film/television career rolling until the 1960s despite having occasional appearances starting around 1950.
Winters' breakthrough film was the 1963 Stanley Kramer comedy "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" - which was kind of an ironic title, because Winters literally had just been released from an insane asylum (he later claimed for being bipolar, and he had admitted himself to "the funny farm" as he called it voluntarily) days prior to filming. It is easy to speculate that his mental difficulties during that period may have been delayed PTSD from his war duties. Whatever the origin, Winters overcame his issues and went on to become a comedy legend.
|Pvt. Mickey Rooney attends a Hollywood movie premiere with his mother, Nell Pankey, in 1944. The actor is back in Hollywood after completing 3 months of basic training at Fort Riley, KS. (AP Photo)|
|Mickey Rooney receiving the Silver Service Medal at The National WWII Museum in 2009.|
Mickey Rooney (born Joseph Yule, Jr.) served in the U.S. Army during WWII. Actually, it isn't quite that straightforward. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Rooney was 21 and one of the top stars in Hollywood. He decided to give it all up and enlist right away - and the army turned him down due to his high blood pressure. However, the Army relented to the extent of permitting him to become a host of Armed Services Radio. He continued making films, some of which were hugely successful, such as "National Velvet" (1944) and "The Human Comedy" (1943). Incidentally, as a matter of pure trivia, Andy Griffith of later Mayberry fame had an uncredited bit part in the latter film, which became MGM studio boss Louis G. Mayer's favorite film.
Mickey, however, was determined to actually wear the uniform. He tried again in 1944. This time, Rooney entered military service as a Private. He served more than twenty-one months, until shortly after the end of World War II. Both during and after the war he helped entertain the troops in America and Europe, and spent part of the time as a radio personality on the American Forces Network.
Rooney was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for entertaining troops in combat zones. He also received the Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal for his military service.
Rooney was a top box-office champ at the time of his induction, the long-time star of the popular "Andy Hardy" movies. Working with Shirley Temple and Judy Garland was nothing special to him, but after the war, things changed. Rooney, who had been famous for his boyish roles and playing teenagers, had grown up. Like many former child stars (though he was a special case), Rooney endured a long career slump. He worked through it, however, and managed to find work every year. When he took on some television work, it became classic, such as an appearance as a down-on-his-luck jockey in "The Twilight Zone." Mickey Rooney remained a force in Hollywood until his unfortunate passing in April 2014. Among his better Hollywood stories is that during the 1940s he apparently came up with Marilyn Monroe's stage name, though that is highly doubted by some.
|Sammy Davis Jr. performs for members of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in an undisclosed location in Vietnam during February of 1972.|
Sammy Davis Jr. served in a Special Services unit during World War II, entertaining troops. He was a Private at the Quartermaster Corps in 1943 where his last “Primary Military Occupational Specialty” was as Entertainment Specialist. Davis found that entertaining people was a way to blunt their prejudice:
My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking.After the war, of course, Sammy Davis Jr. became a legendary entertainer. He performed with his father and Will Mastin as the Will Mastin Trio. Davis became an "overnight sensation" after a performance in Ciro’s nightclub after the 1951 Academy Awards. He continued entertaining troops through the Vietnam era long after he had become a global celebrity.
|Harry Dean Stanton|
This one comes as a real surprise. This fellow just did not seem old enough to be a World War II Vet - but sure enough, he was.
Harry Dean Stanton (born July 14, 1926) was a US Navy veteran of World War II. Drafted into service, Stanton served as a cook aboard an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) during the Battle of Okinawa.
Harry was acting by the early 1950s on television, and was in the classic 1970 Clint Eastwood World War II film "Kelly's Heroes." However, he did not really start getting noticed until his 1973 part as Homer Van Meter in "Dillinger" with Warren Oates. That got him noticed, and the next year he was in "The Godfather: Part II." Harry Dean Stanton is perhaps best remembered for his lead role as Bud in cult favorite "Repo Man" (1984).
Harry Dean Stanton worked his way up to everything he achieved, grinding it out in total obscurity. He would do three or four films or television projects every year, decade after decade.
Harry passed away at age 91 on September 15, 2017. He was working right up until the end, with his final film, "Frank and Ava" (2017), still awaiting release.
Hattie McDaniel, Oscar winner for "Gone WIth the Wind" the year before the war, was a member of the AWVS during WWII.
Bob Keeshan enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve late in the war and never left the states during the conflict. He became famous when he spent 30 years playing Captain Kangaroo on television. There is a story that Lee Marvin claimed to have served with him, but it is just an urban legend.
Don Adams USMC 1941-45. Adams joined United States Marine Corps at age 16 by lying about his age. Participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was wounded by small-arms fire. Contracted malaria and blackwater fever (there were more casualties on Guadacanal from diseases like those than from actual combat) and spent a year in a Navy hospital in New Zealand. After recovery, Adams served in the US as a Marine drill instructor. Adams went on to comic stardom during the 1960s as Maxwell Smart in "Get Smart." Don Adams, American Hero.
Arthur William Matthew “Art” Carney (November 4, 1918 – November 9, 2003) was an American actor in film, stage, television, and radio. Carney was drafted as an infantryman during World War II. During the Battle of Normandy, he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
After the war, he achieved fame as Ed Norton on the Jackie Gleason television show "The Honeymooners." He won an Academy Award in 1973 for "Harry and Tonto."
While he is not a standard celebrity - not a movie star, not a politician, not an author or entertainer - you almost certainly recognize the name J. D. Tippit even though you may not immediately know why. J.D. - the initials stand for nothing - was an ordinary guy born in 1924 who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. Assigned to the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the US 17th Airborne Division, J.D. participated in Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine River in March 1945. Whatever J.D. did during the operation, it involved a lot of valor, because he earned a Bronze Star. J.D. served honorably and mustered out on 20 June 1946.
After the war, J.D. kicked around for a while. He worked as a store clerk at Sears and tried his hand at ranching. Ultimately, J.D. joined the Dallas, Texas police department as an ordinary patrolman. He was driving a squad car on 22 November 1963 during a routine visit by the President of the United States when the worst possible news came over the radio. Alerted to be on the lookout for a suspect in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 45 minutes earlier, J.D. spotted someone matching the description walking down the street. J.D. stopped, questioned the man, and then got out of his car to question the suspect further. The man was Lee Harvey Oswald, who waited until J.D. was out of his car before drawing his revolver and firing four shots, killing J.D. Now recognized as a national hero, J.D. Tippit is buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas. He was buried on the same day as both President Kennedy and Oswald.
|Henry Fonda in uniform|
|"Lieutenant Henry Fonda, former Hollywood movie star, relaxes in a South Pacific area, July 10, 1944 where he is now on active duty on the staff of Vice Adm. J.H. Hoover, U.S. Navy commander of the forward area, Central Pacific."|
|Lt. jg Henry Fonda (1905 - 1982) during his military service on board the USS Bearss, summer 1945.|
Henry Fonda (1905-1982) Lt. jg U.S. Navy 1943-45 WW II. Fonda was already a movie star when he enlisted, but he asked for no favors from the War Department, saying, "I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio." Fonda joined the navy as an ordinary seaman. Fonda later served for three years as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee as well as other ships. He was later commissioned as a Lieutenant JG in Air Combat Intelligence in the Pacific and was awarded the Bronze Star. He served on an Admiral's staff and in the primary unit of the Secretary of Defense / Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. .
|Navy Lieutenant Henry Fonda with his precocious daughter, Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda (1943).|
After the war, Henry was in 106 films and won an Oscar for "On Golden Pond." One of Fonda's signature roles in the 1950s was as Lt. jg U.S. Navy Douglas A. 'Doug' Roberts during World War II in the 1955 film "Mister Roberts." It was suspiciously similar to his real-life war experience. He was starring in motion pictures within a few years of the war's end and starred in his final film with his equally talented daughter, Jane Fonda.
Col. Ed McMahon, USMC (Ret.) (1923-2009) had as his goal before the war to join the United States Marine Corps as a fighter pilot. Since at that time both the Army and Navy required two years of college for their pilots program, he enrolled at Boston College and studied there during the 1940–41 terms. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the college requirement was dropped, so McMahon dropped out and applied for Marine flight training. His primary flight training was in Dallas, followed by fighter training in Pensacola, where he also earned his carrier landing qualifications. He was a Marine Corps flight instructor there for two years before being ordered to the Pacific fleet in 1945. However, his orders were canceled after Japan surrendered, and he mustered out but stayed in the reserves.
As an officer in the reserves, McMahon was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. This time, he flew the OE-1 (the original Marine designation for the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog), an unarmed single-engine spotter plane. He functioned as an artillery spotter for the Marine batteries on the ground and as a forward controller for the Navy and Marine fighter-bombers. He flew a total of 85 combat missions, earning six Air Medals, including some in an F-9 Panther. After the Korean war, he again stayed with the Marines as a reserve officer, finally retiring in 1966 as a colonel. In 1982, Col. McMahon received a state commission as a brigadier general in the California Air National Guard, an honorific awarded to recognize his support for the National Guard and Reserves.
Ed McMahon, of course, went on to become best known as Johnny Carson's sidekick on "The Tonight Show" and a participant for many years in the Labor Day MD Telethons.
Pat Hingle, US Navy (Served 1941-1945). Pat Hingle was born Martin Patterson Hingle in Miami on July 19, 1924. He had completed one semester at the University of Texas when World War II broke out. He enlisted and joined the Navy, serving as on a destroyer, the USS Marshall, in the Pacific. After the war, he was recalled during the Korean war and served on another destroyer.
After his service, he joined the Actor's Studio in New York, got some Broadway parts, and ultimately became one of the top character actors in Hollywood. Many will remember Hingle from his appearances in such Clint Eastwood (a good friend) films as "Hang 'em High," "The Gauntlet," and "Sudden Impact."
Red Buttons (1919 - 2006) was a successful Broadway actor when he was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces in 1943. He appeared in the Army Air Forces' Broadway show Winged Victory, along with several future stars, including Mario Lanza, John Forsythe, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. A year later, Buttons appeared in Darryl F. Zanuck's movie version of Winged Victory, directed by George Cukor. Buttons also entertained troops in the European Theater in the same unit as Mickey Rooney. Buttons went on to a storied acting career after the war, and my favorite performance was his role as the retiring suitor in "The Poseidon Adventure."
I bet that you have no idea who the pert lass is in the above picture. Well, let's get to that in a moment.
Her first acting gig was on radio in 1930, playing an adopted child. She was a television star when World War II broke out. Yes, before the war. Unfortunately for her, there were only a few thousand television sets in the world at that time, so her exposure on an experimental Los Angeles TV station in 1939 did not translate into the big bucks. But if you're talking "pioneer"... you're looking at one.
After kicking around for a while doing whatever modelling and stage acting gigs she could find, the lady enlisted in the American Women's Voluntary Services (AWVS) right after Pearl Harbor and stayed in for 4 years. She drove a PX truck. In 1945, she married Dick Barker, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, but divorced quickly.
After that, she did a lot of radio, which still was a bigger gig than television. Then, she returned to television as more people bought sets and programming hours grew. It wasn't until 1962 that she got her first film role, but film work really was never her style and Television remained her bread and butter.
The '60s turned into the '70s, and she became a character actress on shows such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." She gained a reputation for being "sickeningly sweet," which turned into some fabulous sitcom bits - and got her the Mary Tyler Moore gig, which fully and knowingly exploited that reputation and made her a household name.
So, it was the mid-70s and she was a World War II Vet, one of the first people ever to appear on television - and she was just now hitting her stride. From that point on, more character parts beckoned. It turned out that television was the right place for her all along. Eventually, she became the second Golden Girl to appear on this page and remains active in the business today - yes, one of the very first people ever to appear on television before World War II is still working as I type this in 2016. In fact, she has multiple TV appearances this year and shows no signs of slowing down, 86 years after getting her start in show biz.
|Do you recognize her now?|
Well, you no doubt know by now that we are talking about the one and only, the truly fabulous, the eternal Betty White.
Christopher Lee was too young to enlist upon the outbreak of war in September 1939. Instead, he volunteered to serve in the Winter War with the Finns. The politics became murky later, but at that time the Finns were still the good guys in the conflict.
In 1941, Lee enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His eyesight prevented him from flying. Undeterred, Lee served as an officer in the RAF’s Intelligence Branch in Africa, which involved selecting targets and planning missions. At one point, he was strafed by a German fighter and wounded in the buttocks. However, it seems Lee may have got much closer to the action with his apparent involvement in secret units such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which was the forerunner to the legendary SAS. The LRDG was later immortalized on television in the series "The Desert Rats," though Lee had nothing to do with that.
Lee gets little public recognition of his war efforts because he never talked about them. He explained it thus:
I’ve been entrusted with many secrets during World War II, and if I spoke, people died. I was in the intelligence service, special ops, and I’m not going to tell much more. I’ve signed the Official Secrets Act, which binds me for life. And what I mean by this is that I’m able to keep a secret, and if I’m asked to say nothing, I say nothing. Never.Lee, of course, went on to become a legendary actor, first in the Hammer horror films and later in such epic series as James Bond ("The Man with the Golden Gun"), Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He was knighted, became Sir Christopher, and passed away, working hard to the end, in 2015.
Robert Ryan-Marines-WW2-served with the OSS in Yugoslavia. This guy was a real war hero. He reached what many consider his peak playing the adversarial General in 'The Dirty Dozen.'
Alex Haley, best known as the author of "Roots" and other best sellers, enlisted in the US Coast Guard in 1939 as a Mess Attendant Third Class (the only ratings in the Navy and Coast Guard open to minorities at that time). When US entered the war in December 1941 he was serving on the cutter Pamlico which sailed the waters of coastal North Carolina. In May 1943 he was transferred to the cargo vessel USS Murzim and saw service in the Pacific; Haley began writing about combat conditions on board, which were published in the US.
Towards the end of the war, Haley was assigned to edit an official Coast Guard periodical. He eventually became the editor of the Coast Guard publication ‘Helmsman‘ in New York City, advancing to the rank of Chief Petty Officer before his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959. He then began to publish novels.
Writer T/4 Rod Serling, US Army (Served 1943-1946). Rod Serling served as a U.S. Army paratrooper and demolition specialist with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division in the Pacific Theater in World War II from January 1943 to January 1945 (Discharged stateside in 1946). Serling was seriously wounded in the wrist and knee during combat and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
After the war, Rod became a top television writer, presenter and producer. Among many other projects, he created the legendary "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" series of the 1950s-1970s. He later joined a college faculty in upstate New York and passed away in June 1975.
Hugh Hefner enlisted in the US Army in 1944, straight out of high school, and served as an infantry clerk for two years. Hefner earned a sharpshooter badge during Basic Training due to his talent with an M1. Hefner also successfully made it past “Killer College” – a training which required troops to go through maneuvers while throwing out live hand grenades. Hefner did not serve overseas but was posted to Camp Adair in Oregon and Camp Pickett in Virginia, where he contributed cartoons for Army newspapers. After his discharge in 1946, he went to college on the GI Bill. He later became interested in magazines and reportedly put the first "Playboy" together in his kitchen.
Benny Hill served five years during the war, but he never considered himself any kind of a hero. He was a Driver/Mechanic in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and served in Normandy and Dunkirk from September 1944. Hill hated the Army, claiming (probably correctly in his case) that there was always someone above you to shout at you. He was eventually transferred to Germany and began entertaining, ending up in the production ‘Stars in Battledress’. He later summed up his military service with, “I was five years in the army and never got a stripe.”
Regardless of his feelings about it (no doubt shared by millions of non-celebrities), Hill was every bit a veteran. He later appeared in movies and as the star of the successful "The Benny Hill Show."
Rock Hudson enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 after graduating from high school, and served in the Philippines as an aircraft mechanic. He was discharged in 1946, and later went on to play heroic military figures such as the submarine Captain in "Ice Station Zebra."
|Lieutenant Gene Kelly and wife Betsy Blair. October 1945|
The first shot above is a portrait of Lieutenant (JG) Gene Kelly (1912 - 1996) of the United States Naval Air Service, August 1945. The photo was probably taken in Washington, DC. Below that is Gene with his wife, Betsy Blair.
Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Service at the end of 1944 and was commissioned as lieutenant junior grade after going through San Diego boot camp. He enlisted after helping to sell war bonds and entertain wounded troops. He did receive some deferments because the Board figured he was more valuable acting than shooting bullets.
This enlistment was particularly laudable because it happened shortly after MGM loaned him out to Columbia to work with Rita Hayworth in "Cover Girl" (1944), which turned out to be Gene Kelly's breakthrough role.
Kelly was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C. He helped to write and direct many documentaries, which encouraged his interest in the production side of film-making. Some of his wartime films included "Combat Fatigue Irritability," "Submarine Warfare. Now It Can Be Told," and "Treasury Salute no. 314. What’s the matter with Steve." Kelly received a certificate on satisfactory completion of active service in 1946.
After the war, Kelly returned to Hollywood and resumed his career as if World War II never happened. Some of Kelly's first post-war films were "Living in a Big Way" (1947) and with Judy Garland in "The Pirate" (1948).
|John Coltrane's enlistment photo.|
John Coltrane enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945. It was an auspicious day, when the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. The war was over within a matter of days, but this list does not differentiate on the amount of time served during the war - Coltrane did, and that is that.
Coltrane trained as an apprentice seaman at Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York before being assigned to Pearl Harbor late in 1945. Coltrane was stationed at Manana Barracks, the largest posting of African-American servicemen. Coltrane joined the Melody Masters, the base swing band. It happened to be an all-white group, but he integrated it as a perpetual "guest performer." Coltrane mustered out as a seaman first class in August 1946. After the war, of course, John Coltrane became a legendary jazz performer. He passed away on July 17, 1967.
|Bill Blass, left, with fellow grunt Bob Tompkins. Credit via Bob Tompkins|
Another name I did not expect on this list is William Ralph "Bill" Blass (June 22, 1922 – June 12, 2002), better known simply as Bill Blass. He enlisted in the US Army in 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor. The Army assigned Blass to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion, and he was in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. This unit employed "creative types" in designing items intended to mislead the enemy. They used recordings, inflatable tanks, and other false materials to create an illusion, such as with the completely phony "First US Army Group" (FUSAG) in Dover prior to D-Day. Blass served along with many other creative celebrities, including artist Ellsworth Kelly, the photographer Art Kane, and the watercolorist Arthur Singer. The unit became the subject of “The Ghost Army,” an hourlong documentary by Rick Beyer shown on PBS some years ago.
Bill Blass, of course, came back to New York in 1945 and began his legendary fashion career. By the 1970s, he was one of the top names in the industry. He also branched out into areas such as automotive design for the Ford Motor Company before retiring to his home in Connecticut shortly before his death.
Nancy Kulp was in graduate school for English and French in Miami when she got the urge to join the military. In 1944, Kulp left the University of Miami and volunteered for service in the US Naval Reserve. She was a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and commissioned as a Lieutenant Jg. Kulp received several decorations, including the American Campaign Medal, before mustering out in 1946.
Kulp became interested in acting when her husband was working at a Hollywood studio. Director George Cukor thought she had the right look and urged her to act, so Kulp began seeking parts and had quick success. She eventually got the plum role of Mr. Drysdale's assistant Miss Jane Hathaway on television series "The Beverly Hillbillies."
George Reeves served in the Army during World War II. He was in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) First Motion Picture Unit during 1943, where he made training films. Reeves already was a big star before the war, having appeared in "Gone With the Wind." Reeves resumed his film career after the war with mixed success, appearing in classic World War II film "From Here To Eternity." Reeves is best known as the title star of television series "The Adventures of Superman," and for the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death by gunshot at his home in 1958.
|George C. Scott|
George Campbell Scott (October 18, 1927 – September 22, 1999) was an American stage and film actor, director and producer. Scott joined the US Marines, serving from 1945-49 during World War II and afterwards. Scott was only 17 and enlisted as early as he could, but missed combat when the war ended before he could be shipped to a combat zone, to his everlasting regret. Of course, but for the atomic bombs, he could have seen quite a bit of action.
Scott, of course, went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor for playing World War II hero General George S. Patton Jr. in 1970 classic "Patton."
Donald Pleasance (1919-1995), born in Nottinghamshire, England. He initially was a conscientious objector, but later changed his stance. Upon entering the military, he was commissioned into the Royal Air Force, serving with No. 166 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. His Avro Lancaster was shot down on 31 August 1944, during a raid on Agenville, France. Pleasance was taken prisoner and placed in a German prisoner-of-war camp, where he produced and acted in plays. Reportedly, he was tortured by the Germans at some point. Pleasance later played the blind intelligence officer Flight Lt. Colin Blythe in "The Great Escape" and became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the 1970s.
|Walter Matthau, showing his rank of Staff Sergeant.|
|Walter Matthau in 1952, publicity photo for Broadway play "Fancy Meeting You Again."|
Walter Matthau (October 1, 1920 – July 1, 2000) served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in England as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner. He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. While Matthau served in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart, there is no record of their ever having met or flown together - though that is as likely as not. Certainly Matthau must have seen Stewart during his service..
There are few photographs of Matthau from the World War II era available. It was not something that he later talked about or publicized. Many veterans were like that. That doesn't mean his service was any less important than that of the others on here, and it may have been very intense for all we know.
Walter always was a bit cagey about his real past on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and during the war. For instance, he allowed a rumor to stand for many years that his real birth name was "Walter Matuschanskayasky," under which he was credited for his bit part as a drunk in "Earthquake." This was accepted as fact for many years, while the reality was that his original last name was Matthow, which does not sound nearly as exotic or colorful. No doubt, Matthau (or Mathow) got quite a kick out of putting that one over as a kind of inside joke about how easy it was to con people about your past, how little people actually knew about stars like him, and how quickly people would swallow some unlikely edifice of a name for someone with a vaguely ethnic look. In this sense, he was a bit like James Doohan (see below). Matthau did not consider himself some big star who put on airs; instead, he liked to come across as just any old Matuschanskayasky you might meet on the street.
Matthau's life changed drastically because of his World War II service. While mildly interested in theater before the war, he became much more interested while stationed in England. He began acting for real afterwards, quickly moved on to Broadway, and eventually became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in such films as "The Odd Couple" and "The Fortune Cookie," his breakthrough role in 1966.
|Jack Hawkins in "The Cruel Sea" (1953).|
Born 14 September 1910, Jack Hawkins already was an established leading man on both the London stage and in films when war broke out. He worked extensively with (Sir) John Gielgud doing Shakespeare and popular works throughout the 1930s. After the outbreak of war, Hawkins joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, eventually becoming a colonel in the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA, later superseded by the Combined Services Entertainment (CSE)). Hawkins served in India and Southeast Asia, getting time off to make "The Next of Kin" (1942).
Hawkins was one of those lucky souls who resumed his career after the war as if he never had been away, appearing onstage in "The Apple Cart" two weeks after mustering out in July 1946. Actually, it is a bit blithe to say that he resumed his career exactly as it had been, because he no longer commanded high wages and had to work his way back up again. That Hawkins did, though, signing with Alexander Korda to pay the rent, but eventually hitting major paydirt in the early 1950s with films such as "Malayan Emergency" (1952) and "The Cruel Sea" (1953).
Hawkins acquired a reputation as a "stiff upper lip" chap, and his memorable role of General Allenby in Richard Attenborough's classic "Lawrence of Arabia" sealed that reputation. Hawkins showed his versatility by playing Quintus Arrius in "Ben-Hur" around the same time, and with those two roles he stole his scenes in two of the greatest films ever made. Hawkins passed away in 1973.
Richard Todd (born 11 June 1919) was of perfect age to fight when World War II broke out, though he already had some stage experience (co-founding the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1939). He enlisted in the British Army and received a commission in 1941. He was in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, then the Parachute Regiment. As a captain, Todd was in Operation Tonga, the glider landings that opened the D-Day invasion. The capture of Pegasus Bridge right behind the invasion beaches was their main target, and Todd and his men carried out their mission perfectly.
After mustering out, Todd resumed acting in his repertory theater. Somebody spotted him, and that got him a screen test and ultimately a contract with Associated British Picture Corporation. Major roles for Alfred Hitchcock (Stage Fright (1950)) and King Vidor (Lightning Strikes Twice (1951)) followed, but his real breakthrough came in "A Man Called Peter" (1955). That year he also played Wing Commander Guy Gibson in classic British war film "The Dam Busters" (1955), which is the film that pretty much everyone (including me) remembers him for. In 1962, Todd played Major Howard in "The Longest Day" - Howard being Todd's real-life commanding officer during the D-Day battle and with whom Todd actually stood on Pegasus Bridge that day. Todd almost snagged the role of James Bond in "Dr. No," but scheduling issues handed the role to Sean Connery (who, incidentally, served in the Royal Navy, but not during the war). Richard Todd became an OBE in 1993 and passed away in 2009.
|George H.W. Bush|
|George Bush rescued by the USS Finback in the Solomon Islands - you can see the island where he would have been killed in the background|
George H.W. Bush, US Navy pilot, WWII. George Bush flew combat missions in several major World War II engagements, including the Battle of the Phillipine Sea. As is well known, George Bush later became a Congressman, CIA Director, Vice President, and President of the United States.
Shot down on a mission over the Bonin Islands (Chichijima), Bush was rescued by a submarine after making it back out to sea (with difficulty) while others in his flight bailed out over land. He only learned well after the war, during his time as the 41st President of the United States, that every other pilot in his flight had been executed by the Japanese when they were captured on the island. He survived his own bail-out (his two fellow crew members did not) by luckily being picked up by a passing submarine (the Finback). By sheer chance, the rescue was filmed and photographed by someone on the submarine.
Lt. Bush flew 58 combat missions in total, including numerous ones after his bail-out. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to his carrier, the San Jacinto. He was honorably discharged in September 1945.
It became somewhat fashionable for certain opponents of President Bush's to call into question or deride his military feats. Lt. Bush was alone, on a small dinghy, in the middle of the ocean. No food, no water, "not a single luxury." He easily could have died there from exposure or dehydration - many others did. The others in his flight weren't so lucky; they did die, by beheading on the nearby island. Future President Bush got lucky when he was rescued by a passing submarine, and he knew it. Many, many other men in similar situations died horrible deaths from exposure, dehydration and starvation - all three at once is not a pretty sight. A small dinghy in the huge ocean is extremely hard to see, especially from the height of a submarine conning tower, even if you know where to look.
There was nothing phony about this incident. Compare this to the similar bail-out not long afterwards of ace Pappy Boyington - Boyington also got picked up by a passing sub, but in his case a Japanese one, and spent the next two years suffering in a POW camp. And that can make all the difference.
|John F. Kennedy on the PT 109 in 1943, Solomon Islands|
John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States of America. His exploits were detailed in an autobiography and a well-received movie. Everybody no doubt knows all about his exploits (his ship was cut in half at night by a Japanese destroyer, and despite his own injuries he swam for help). The pain from his war injuries followed him throughout the remainder of his life and, in an odd, sad and creepy way, may have inadvertently contributed directly to his assassination in Dallas twenty years later. A true American hero.
A word here, too, for his older brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy. Joseph passed away during a secret mission over France, 1944.
John W. "Johnny" Carson (1925-2005). Ensign, U.S. Navy 1943-45 WW II. Carson enlisted in June 1943 as a Seaman Apprentice (apparently he wanted to be a pilot but was switched - the US military didn't particularly care what you wanted to do in those days) and later received a commission after studying at Columbia University. He served as OIC of decoding messages on the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. During his spare time, he fought as an amateur boxer and compiled a 10-0 record. He stayed on for a while after the war and continued decrypting messages. He liked to tell the story about the time he performed magic tricks for US Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal. After mustering out, Carson worked at an Omaha radio station, then hosted a morning television program, then did some bit acting before becoming host of "The Tonight Show" for thirty years.
Cesar Romero, American Actor (February 15, 1907 – January 1, 1994). Cesar is one of the least appreciated of World War II veterans. He was a leading man in the 1930s, starring as The Cisco Kid and as an assortment of foreign counts and Latin lovers. One could say that during that time he was more successful than many legendary peers such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Just like Stewart, though, Cesar gave it all up to face bullets and an uncertain future.
In October 1942, Cesar voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in the Pacific Theater. He reported aboard the Coast Guard-manned assault transport USS Cavalier in November, 1943. He saw action during the invasions of Tinian and Saipan. He resumed his career after the war as if he had never left, and decades later became famous as the Joker on the "Batman" tv series and, again decades later, appeared on popular series such as Falcon Crest. Cesar Romero is at the same time one of the most successful and least remembered actors who served in the war.
|Telly Savalas in "The Twilight Zone."|
Corporal Telly Savalas was in the US Army. He served from 1941-1943. Telly was a member of Company C, 12th Medical Training Battalion, 4th Medical Training Regiment at Camp Pickett, Virginia. Although Telly received a Purple Heart for his service in World War II, little is known about his time with the armed forces.
Telly (full name Aristotelis Savalas) went on to become a top action star in the 1960s in films such as "The Dirty Dozen." He created the iconic television character of "Kojak" in the '70s.
|J.D. Salinger working on something related to Holden Caulfield during World War II, probably in Europe.|
Jerome David "J.D." Salinger (January 1, 1919) was an unsuccessful writer from New York City when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Having attended the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, he was a good catch for the military, and Salinger was duly drafted early in 1942. He wound up serving in the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division. This took JD on a tour of scenic French and German spots such as Utah Beach, the Ardennes, and the Hürtgen Forest, the experiences marred somewhat by the fact that people were shooting at him at all of those places. He wound up a Staff Sergeant.
Salinger had submitted numerous articles for publication, all rejected for one reason or another, before the war. However, as all writers know, if you write, you have to write and keep writing - there is no substitute. Learning from good writers also helps. So, J.D. sought out war correspondent Ernest Hemingway in Paris, who commented, "Jesus, he has a helluva talent." The two began corresponding, which continued after the war as well.
The Hemingway magic rubbed off on Salinger... eventually... and after the war one of his old writing professors at Columbia, Whit Burnett, tried to get some short stories Salinger had written published. One of these was a story, "Slight Rebellion off Madison," which JD had written before the war. It centered on an eccentric/raw character named Holden Caulfield. However, the publisher once again rejected JD's submission.
Eventually, after huge effort and endless rewrites, JD got a story published in the New Yorker several years after the war, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." This got him rolling, and in 1951 he had expanded his story about Holden Caulfield into a novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," which Little, Brown and Company published. It was moderately successful at first, fell out of sight... and then, years later, slowly became a cult classic. Today, it is quite possibly the most well-remembered book of the 1950s and one of the classics of all of American literature. It also has sold millions upon millions upon millions of copies despite having controversial themes.
JD thus became part of a distinguished group of young American writers who served in the war and later wrote the "Great American Novel." Perhaps the other great example of this is Herman Wouk, with "The Caine Mutiny." Personally, I compare Salinger more to another Herman who also became a titan of literature for a spectacular one-off novel: Herman Melville, whose "Moby Dick" was published in 1851, exactly 100 years before "Catcher in the Rye." "Moby Dick" also was not particularly successful at first, and only later became revered as a classic. If you match "Moby Dick" with "A Catcher in the Rye," and throw in a Hemingway tale such as "A Farewell to Arms," you pretty much have the best that American literature has to offer.
No longer needing to work, JD eventually became a notorious and almost mythical recluse (satirized in shows like "Seinfeld,"). He passed away of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire in 2010.
|Ernest Hemingway receiving his Bronze Star for service in World War II in 1947.|
Ernest Hemingway definitely merits a mention here. Hemingway had a very complicated relationship with World War II, but since he received a medal for valor during it, it is impossible to say that he did not serve. He did - just not formally.
Born on 21 July 1899, Hemingway served in World War I as an ambulance driver in Italy and Paris (the army would not take him because he had poor eyesight). After volunteering to make special trips to the front lines in Italy, Hemingway was wounded by artillery fire. So, by the time of World War II, Hemingway had done his time and was well past service age by the time the war broke out. However, Hemingway was a go-for-the-gusto type, and had some very interesting associations with World War II anyway.
While writing his classic novels in the interwar period, which often recounted his own experiences during the war, Hemingway retained his interest in conflict and people fighting against oppression. Among other things, he was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Hemingway engaged in an odd trip to China, which of course already was at war with Japan, in January 1941. There has been speculation that Hemingway and his wife, Martha Gellhorn, went there as US spies (Collier's magazine suddenly hired Martha on assignment, and Ernest sent in contributions from China to New York daily "PM," but neither seemed to merit a trip like that during a time of rising international tensions in the Pacific). In fact, it also has been alleged Hemingway was a Soviet spy during this trip, but everything about this incident is unclear. In any event, the trip was very suspicious for its timing and locale, and it is of some probability that Hemingway was spying for someone. Hemingway returned to the US with Martha in 1941 long before Pearl Harbor, stopping along the way in Manila and providing the military intelligence people there with valuable insights that proved remarkably prophetic.
During the war, Hemingway served as a war correspondent in various European operation zones. Shortly after the US Fifth Army under Mark Clark landing in southern Italy in September 1943, Hemingway and some of his fellow correspondents, on their own initiative, took a jeep on back roads and drove from the southern landing zone to the separate, northern perimeter at Salerno - a route supposedly blocked by the Germans. The Army called Hemingway in and asked how he did it, and apparently, his information helped the army advance to the north and relieve the surrounded forces at Salerno.
Hemingway went to London in May 1944. While there, he got into a car accident, which landed him in a hospital with a concussion. He talked his way out of the hospital just in time so that, while still wearing a head bandage, he could be on a landing craft to Omaha Beach, though the Navy wouldn't let him ashore because of his celebrity. In fact, no war correspondents were allowed ashore on the first day, but Hemingway saw the first wave hit the landing beaches.
Hemingway later was present at the liberation of Paris. Legend has it that he helped "liberate the Ritz," but this appears to be apocryphal (but it sounded great when he told the story at cocktail parties). Hemingway did meet Gertrude Stein and "forgave" her for being a collaborator. Hemingway then followed the troops east and observed the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. Hemingway also was present at the Battle of the Bulge, but quickly was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Now, here's the most interesting part, which is not well known: Hemingway received the Bronze Star for his service in World War II. The citation praised him for being "under fire in combat areas in order to obtain an accurate picture of conditions.... [T]hrough his talent of expression, Mr. Hemingway enabled readers to obtain a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the front-line soldier and their organization in combat." The medal apparently is on display at his home in Key West. Read the wording as one may, the citation could apply just as much to spying as to journalism.
After the war, Hemingway went on to what many consider to be his greatest literary achievement, the novella "The Old Man and The Sea," for which he received the Nobel Prize. After a long, momentous life, Ernest Hemingway passed away in 1961 at his home in Idaho from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
|Eli Wallach playing Hitler during World War II - "Is This the Army?"|
Eli Wallach was drafted into the Army in January 1941 - well before Pearl Harbour. He served as staff sergeant in a military hospital in Hawaii and later sent to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Abilene, Texas to train as a medical administrative officer. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he was ordered to Casablanca. Later, when he was serving in France, a senior officer noticed his acting career and asked him to create a show for the patients. He and his unit wrote a play called Is This the Army?, which was inspired by Irving Berlin's "This Is the Army." In the comedic play, Wallach and the other actors mocked Axis dictators, with Wallach portraying Adolf Hitler. After the war, Wallach was a founding member of the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and Marlon Brando among others, where he met future wife Anne Jackson, became friends with Marilyn Monroe, and went on to a brilliant acting career. Eli Wallach passed away in June 2014.
Fred Gwynne is best known as Herman Munster, but during World War II he served in the United States Navy. Gwynne was a radioman on a submarine chaser. His war service got him a Harvard College education under the G.I. Bill, and that led to an acting career. His most memorable roles were in television series "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "The Munsters." He had a late career success with "My Cousin Vinny." Fred Gwynne passed away in July 1993.
George Harris Kennedy, Jr. (born February 18, 1925) put aside show business during World War II and served under General Patton. He was in the United States Army for a total of 16 years. He saw combat and worked in the Armed Forces radio. He also was involved with the opening of the first Army Information Office.
Kennedy later won an Oscar for "Cool Hand Luke" and starred in several box office blockbusters such as "Airport" and its many sequels and the "Naked Gun" films. Perhaps the best film showing him in the military was "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) with fellow Vet Lee Marvin. Mr. Kennedy passed away early in 2016.