Most of us knew him as Agent 86 on TV's Get Smart. Don Adams was 16 when he enlisted in the Marines by lying about his age. He was wounded on Guadalcanal and later hospitalized for more than a year with a particularly nasty form of malaria. He later served as a Marine drill instructor.
Eddie Albert had quite an interesting military career. He actually worked with Army Intelligence prior to the war, photographing German U-boats in Mexico. He later enlisted in the Navy and then was commissioned as an officer in the Naval Reserves.
He is most noted for piloting a landing craft during the invasion of Tarawa in the Pacific. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for rescuing 30 marines that were stranded on a coral reef while under enemy fire.
Most known for playing Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, James Arness wanted to be an aviator in WWII. At six foot seven he was ruled too tall for flight training. If you've seen how small the cockpit of some WWII aircraft were this actually makes sense.
Not one to let something like that stop him he enlisted in the Army and served as a rifleman with the 3rd Infantry. Wounded at Anzio Italy he was medically discharged. His wounds would cause him chronic pain for the rest of his life.
Famous for being the "singing cowboy" in radio, television and film he was much more than that. He enlisted in the Army during WWII but because he had a private pilot's license he was able to become Service Pilot.
I had to look that one up. A Service Pilot flew missions that were technically non-combat like transport or ferrying aircraft. That didn't stop many of them from being killed. He held the rank of Flight Officer which is similar to a Warrant Officer, a rank still used by the Army for helicopter pilots.
Autrey flew supplies across "the hump" from India to China. This was very hazardous duty due to the weather and terrain. Autrey flew the C-109, a cargo version of the B-24.
I had to look that one up too. I always thought the cargo version of the Liberator was a C-87, but the C-109 was a special version made to haul fuel.
It's almost enough to make me forgive him for writing those Christmas songs that have me cursing his name every year starting sometime in September. Sorry, that's just how I feel.
Singer, dancer, actress and all-around hottie Josephine Baker was far more popular in France than in her native United States. She eventually married a Frenchmen and took French citizenship.
She worked as a spy for French Intelligence prior to the war and later as a courier for the French Resistance. As a performer she was able to travel freely and she carried messages written in invisible ink on the back of her sheet music.
Like I need a reason to post a picture of Josephine Baker.
Most of us remember him from 60s TV show McHale's Navy but Borgnine served in the real Navy during WWII.
He actually enlisted in 1935 and did a stint on a minesweeper. His tour was up in 1941 but he re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor.
He served on a sub-hunter PY-12 during WWII. Never heard of a "PY"? Me neither. It stood for "Patrol Yacht". Apparently during the war the Navy converted yachts to sub chasers. The things I learn from doing these.
Famous for playing tough guys in the movies, Bronson was a tough guy in real life too. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 and served as a gunner on B-29s. He flew 25 missions from Guam and was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.
His real name was Buchinsky by the way. He changed it to Bronson during the Red Scare because his agent thought it was too Eastern European sounding.
Before becoming one of the funniest people to ever live, Mel Brooks was clearing German mines as a combat engineer with the 78th Infantry Division. I guess you'd need a good sense of humor for that job.
Note that combat engineering units often advanced ahead of the infantry and at times had to fight as infantry.
As Brooks summed it up:
"I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.”
I've been a fan of Michael Caine since the first time I watched Zulu with my dad when I was around 12 years old.
Michael Caine was drafted at age 18 and saw combat in the Korean War with the Royal Fusiliers.
Note: "Fusilier" is an archaic term for a infantryman. A "Fusil" was an early term for a flintlock musket.
On his Korean War service:
"Whenever I killed someone there was no guilt, no remorse - it didn't feel real. It was during the Korean War and I was just trying to stay alive. It was self-defense. It was always done at night and we never had any idea who we had killed. I didn't even think about it - we had machine guns and we just did it. I never did anything close up or hand-to-hand. It didn't give me nightmares, because the Army brutalizes you. It was like the World War I trenches - half a mile apart - and we were just firing backwards and forwards, so we never knew who any of our victims were as individuals. You never saw the whites of a man's eyes when you killed him."
According to Caine he could smell the Chinese soldiers approaching because they ate so much garlic. The smell of garlic would upset him for years after.
Famous for playing Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, Carney was drafted into the Army during WWII. He was sent to France as an infantryman in August of 1944, which would have been during the breakout from Normandy.
Wounded in his leg by shrapnel he was sent home to recover. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Art Carney. I can find no verifiable picture of him in uniform.
Carson joined the Navy in 1943 and was ultimately commissioned as an ensign (equivalent to an Army or Air Force 2nd Lieutenant). He served on the battleship USS Pennsylvania and as a communications officer. He was on his way to take part in the invasion of Japan when the war ended.
He once quipped that the high point of his military career was performing a magic trick for Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. Once an entertainer always an entertainer.
Sean Connery joined the Royal Navy in 1946 at the age of 16. Very little information exists about his short military service. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and was medically discharged in 1949 due to a stomach ulcer.
Jackie Coogan joined the Army as a medic just prior to World War II and later transferred to the glider corps because he had a pilot's license.
Glider pilots had a "G" in the middle of their wings which it is said stood for "Guts". I believe it. Coogan landed troops behind Japanese lines in Burma. At one point he was in a glider the crashed. The Japanese killed all survivors except for Coogan, who was hidden under a pile of bodies. "Guts" doesn't quite do it justice.
Who knew that he was once married to Betty Grable? I sure didn't. I only knew him as Uncle Fester on The Adams Family.
Tony Curtis enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He served on a submarine tender, the USS Proteus. There's not a lot of information about his naval service. The Proteus spent several months in Japan on occupation duty after the surrender so presumably he was there with it. Oddly enough Larry Storch of F-Troop fame was on the same ship.
Star Trek's "Scotty" stormed the beaches at Normandy with the 3rd Canadian Infantry. On the same day he shot two German snipers, he was badly wounded by friendly fire.
He was hit by six bullets from a Bren gun (a light machine gun). In one of those cliches that you thought only happened in the movies - the bullet to his chest was stopped by a metal cigarette case in his pocket. He lost a finger on his right hand, which he was careful to conceal during his acting career.
He later went to pilot training and flew light aircraft as an artillery observer.
Best known for his portrayal of John F. Kennedy in the indie horror film Bubba Ho-Tep. Well, not really but I do love that movie.
Davis served in the then-segregated US Army from 1942 to 1945. He spent most of his time as a surgical technician in an Army hospital in Liberia.
After the war he became well known as a civil rights activist. When asked about his military service he once said:
“I realized that the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima not only killed 220,000 people over there, but part of it fell on me, too. And I recognized that something cataclysmic had happened. … It called on me to make a choice … to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. I come together to say, I choose to live for brotherhood, and not for folly. I choose peace and not war. I choose life, and not death.”
Kirk Douglas, like many others, enlisted in the US Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor. He originally tried to get into the Army Air Corps but didn't pass their psychological screening (presumably he was too sane).
He served on anti submarine patrols in the Pacific although I can't find what ship he was on. Presumably a destroyer. He suffered internal injuries when a depth charge exploded too close to his ship. He was medically discharged in 1944 and was apparently haunted by his wartime experience for years after.
The picture at right is from Paths of Glory. If you have never seen it you should.
Durning is an interesting case. Most sources maintain that he landed at Normandy as part of the initial invasion, was wounded several times, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and narrowly escaped that massacre at Malmedy.
There are those out there who claim his record was exaggerated. I'm not sure how credible they are.
His official record shows him having been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the French Legion of Honor. They don't give those out for nothin'
We all knew him as Jed Clampett but Buddy Ebsen served on a Coast Guard frigate during WWII. He attained the rank of Lieutenant (O-3) , which is equivalent to a Captain in the Army or Air Force.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
He played a lot of swashbucklers on screen but Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was quite the real life swashbuckler.
As an officer in the US Naval Reserve he worked as a liaison to the British commandos. It almost sounds like something out of a movie.
He was so impressed with the British commando tactics that he proposed something similar for the US Navy. This was the start of the Navy's "Beach Jumpers".
I didn't know what a Beach Jumper was either, but they were like Navy SEALs before we had SEALs. Their main job was to stage diversionary attacks. In other words, make the enemy think we were attacking somewhere else. Or as Murphy's Laws of War states - "The enemy diversion you're ignoring is actually their main attack".
His list of decorations is impressive to say the least and includes the Legion of Merit and the Silver Star. Oh, and the British made him a Knight. How cool is that?
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Henry Fonda enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and served as a Quartermaster on a Destroyer. There's not a lot of information concerning his service but his ship, the USS Satterlee performed escort duty in the Atlantic and supported the Normandy invasion.
Fonda ultimately received a commission and finished the war as an intelligence officer.
Famous director John Ford was a Commander (O-5) in the US Naval Reserve during World War II. He filmed documentaries for the Navy and headed up the photography unit of the OSS. The OSS was the predecessor of the CIA.
He was wounded while filming at the Battle of Midway and also went ashore with the Normandy invasion.
He returned to service during the Korean War and retired as a Read Admiral.
It's actually hard to find information about Ford's war service because so much of it is tied to the controversy surround John Wayne's absence of military service. Don't worry, we'll talk about him later.
Here's a real tough guy. Oh, and John Wayne too.
After his wife, actress Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash (TWA DC-3), Clark Gable sought enlistment in the Army Air Corps.
MGM Studios managed to work a deal with the Army for Gable to train as an aerial gunner and make a film about it. Gable flew five combat missions as a gunner on B-17s. Five doesn't sound like much but one was enough to get you killed back then. On one mission Gable's B-17 was shot up pretty badly, killing one crew member and wounding two others. Gable narrowly missed being killed when a piece of shrapnel almost hit his head.
Afraid of losing one of their biggest stars, MGM pulled some strings and got him transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit back in Hollywood.
Legend has it that Hitler liked Gable as an actor and had offered a reward for his capture.
Gable was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his wartime service.
Maverick was a little before my time so I first knew him from The Rockford Files.
Before his acting career James Garner served with the National Guard in Korea. He was wounded twice, once by friendly fire. He was shot in the butt by a US fighter jet while diving into a foxhole. Not nearly as funny as it sounds. Ouch.
He actually did a brief stint in the Merchant Marine towards the end of World War II but was seasick most of the time.
Garner on his military service:
"Do I have fond memories? I guess if you get together with some buddies it's fond. But it really wasn't. It was cold and hard. I was one of the lucky ones."
Depending on your age you probably remember him as Ben Cartwright on Bonanza or Commander Adama on the original Battlestar Galactica.
Precious little information seems to exist concerning his World War II service. He apparently served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with the rank of Flying Officer (1st Lieutenant).
From 1939 to 1942 he was the top newscaster for CBC Radio and was nicknamed "The Voice of Doom" because the news was so bad at the time. Note that pretty much anything sounds cooler if you add "of Doom" to it.
I grew up watching him as Herman Munster, but when he was a yout' (yeah I went there) Fred Gwynne enlisted in the US Navy.
There's not a lot of information out there concerning his WWII service. All I can find is he served as a radio operator on a submarine chaser.
I had to look up what a "sub chaser" was. They were small ships, maybe 110 feet long, with wooden hulls. Maybe "gunboat" would be a better term. In addition to hunting submarines they were used to support amphibious landings.
General Ripper himself actually left his acting career just as it was getting started and enlisted in the Marines under an assumed name. He must have shown promise during basic training because they immediately sent him to Officer Candidate School.
OCS existed to quickly train officers in wartime. They were sometimes derided as "90-day wonders" because that's how long it took to train them.
After being commissioned he served with the OSS, which later became the CIA. He parachuted behind enemy lines and worked with partisans (guerrilla fighters) in Yugoslavia. Sounds dangerous? It was. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry.
After the war it gets even more interesting. He briefly joined the Communist Party, "named names" during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and later claimed to regret having done so.
I think this makes his portrayal of rabidly anti-communist "Jack D. Ripper" that much more interesting.
Let's just say I'm a fan of his movies and not his politics and leave it at that. Oddly enough he was a liberal in the 1960s but made a sharp right turn somewhere along the way.
Prior to getting started in Hollywood, Heston enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Some sources list 1941 and others say 1944. Most say 1944 and I think that's more credible since he was discharged in 1947.
He served as a radio operator and gunner on B-25s in the Aleutian Islands but never saw actual combat.
Why is Bob Keeshan in here? Mainly because he's the subject of so many urban legends.
"Captain Kangaroo" enlisted in the Marine Reserves in 1945 but the war ended while he was still in training. That's the extent of his military service.
The urban legend that he saw combat on Iwo Jima is patently false. Likewise Fred Rogers and John Denver were never military snipers and Don Knotts was never a Marine Drill Instructor. Who comes up with this stuff?
Brian Keith served with the Marines as a rear gunner on SBD Dauntless dive bombers during WWII.
He flew ground attack missions against Rabaul and other Japanese held islands in the Pacific.
One story has his plane badly damaged by ground fire. Unable to keep up with the formation, they came under attack by two Japanese Zeros. When his guns jammed, Keith supposedly emptied his pistol at the Zeros and then fired his flare gun at them, which caused them to pull up to figure out what it was. What the heck, at that point you might as well throw your lunch box at them.
I loved him as Teddy Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion, which is also my favorite Sean Connery film.
Lee Marvin served with the 4th Marine Division in the Pacific. He was wounded in action but contrary to urban legend this happened during the invasion of Saipan. He was never at Iwo Jima. Most of his unit was killed during the attack on Saipan.
He and Bob Keeshan never served together so urban legends about Lee Marvin paying tribute to Keeshan's bravery are not true.
Walter Matthau served as a gunner on B-24s in the European theater. He was actually in the same bomb group as Jimmy Stewart. It's doubtful that they ever flew together but anything's possible.
I very much liked his performance as the neo-conservative Professor Groeteschele in Fail Safe.
Precious little information seems to exist concerning his wartime service. All I can find is that he served in the Army Air Corps and achieved the rank of Captain (O-3).
None of his pictures from the time show any kind of aircrew insignia on his uniform so I assume it was a staff position.
He was discharged in 1944 so that he could work on war documentaries.
Possibly the biggest badass who ever lived, Audie Murphy stood a mere 5 foot 5 and weighed maybe 130 pounds. Turned away by the Marines for being too small he enlisted in the Army and became the most highly decorated soldier in US history. Medals? Let's just say one of everything plus a couple of extras. Most notably the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and two (count 'em) Silver Stars.
He received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off an entire Company of Germans. Standing on top of a burning tank destroyer and firing the .50 caliber machine gun he held off the German armored assault for an hour. Wounded and out of ammunition he then led a successful counterattack.
When asked why he said "They were killing my friends".
His start in acting came when James Cagney saw his picture on the cover of Life magazine and invited him to come to Hollywood.
Leslie Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the age of 17. He was trained as an aerial gunner but the war ended before he could be sent overseas.
It's a movie cliche but every unit seems to have one "smart ass" and I suspect that in his case it was Nielsen.
Leslie Nielsen wearing some unique camouflage.
All that I can confirm is that Jack Palance served in the Air Corps during WWII and at least trained on B-24s. Just about everything else is urban legend.
There is a popular legend that he had to bail out of a burning B-24 while on a training flight and required reconstructive surgery to his face.
Palance himself disputed that story. In his own words: "If it is a bionic face, why didn't they do a better job of it?"
I couldn't find a picture of Jack Palance in uniform so the one at left is from one of his war movies.
Tyrone Power flew the Curtiss R5C as a Marine aviator during WWII. I had to look that one up, it's basically a C-46. He reportedly flew supplies into (and wounded out of) Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
He was also reportedly the best swordsmen in Hollywood.
British actor Donald Pleasance was a pacifist and initially claimed conscientious objector status. He changed his mind at some point and took a commission in the Royal Air Force.
One source says it was because he noted that German bombs hitting London didn't distinguish between pacifists and non-pacifists.
He served as a crew member on Lancaster bombers and was shot down after 60 missions in August of 1944. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.
Here's where it gets spotty. Some sources claim that he was tortured by "sadistic Nazi guards". While there was certainly no shortage of sadistic Nazis, the POW camps were run by the Luftwaffe and treated American and British prisoners reasonably well. Russian prisoners not so much. It wasn't "Hogans Heroes" but it wasn't "Unbroken" either.
Other sources have Pleasance directing and acting in plays with his fellow prisoners and even have pictures to back up the claim.
Mind you both could be true. Still I'd say that the torture story is possible but iffy.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry actually signed up for the Army Air Corps prior to Pearl Harbor. He piloted B-17s in the Pacific logging 89 combat missions by his own estimate. Note that B-17s in the Pacific generally flew without fighter escort and he had several encounters with Japanese fighters. He crashed one B-17 that ran off the runway due to brake failure.
After returning from the Pacific he served the Army as a crash investigator. Ironically he was a passenger on a military flight that crashed and managed to pull several people to safety.
I guess I'm not enough of a Trekkie to know that he flew for Pan Am after his military career. A Lockheed Constellation he was riding on lost two engines and crashed in the Syrian desert (I'm noticing a trend with this guy). He entered the burning wreckage multiple times to rescue passengers and then organized the rescue effort.
After a later near-crash in a Constellation he decided that maybe flying wasn't for him and left Pan Am. He got his start in Hollywood by writing scripts while he was an officer in the LAPD. Yet another thing I never knew about Gene Roddenberry.
Interesting guy. Just glad I never got on a plane with him.
George C. Scott
While best known for his portrayal of General Patton, George C. Scott actually enlisted in the Marines towards the end of WWII. The war ended before he could see combat, which upset George greatly.
A Marine who shared a barracks with him reports that a drunken Scott once told him:
"You know, Mo, someday I'm gonna be a goddamned great actor."
Note that George S. Patton in reality had a rather high, squeaky voice and sounded nothing like George C. Scott.
George C. Scott
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was trained as an Army paratrooper and served in the Pacific during WWII.
He apparently wasn't a very good soldier or maybe had an "attitude" because he was still a Private after three years in service. At one point he was transferred to the demolitions platoon, which was known as the "Death Squad" for the high casualty rate.
He didn't lack bravery, however. He was wounded a total of three times during combat in the Philippines. During the assault on Manila his unit took 50 percent casualties.
After the war he earned extra money for college by testing parachutes for the Army. There are no mediocre parachute testers. You're either a great parachute tester or you're......well it's not good. Think Wile E. Coyote but messier.
Like I said, attitude or not he didn't lack courage.
I make no bones about it. I love Jimmy Stewart. He was both a great actor and a great airman. He strikes me as one of those quiet, competent types who get the job done without a fuss.
He was initially turned away from the Army for being under weight. We don't have that problem much today. With the help of a Hollywood fitness trainer he was able to "bulk up" just enough to be accepted.
Since he already had a pilot's license and a college degree he was able to gain a commission in the Army Air Corps. Since he was already a famous actor, he was posted stateside as an instructor pilot on B-17s rather than being sent into combat.
Stewart was worried that his fame (and age of 35) would relegate him to non-combat roles for the duration and lobbied heavily for a transfer to a combat unit. He got his wish and was sent to England as Squadron Commander of a B-24 unit.
He is credited with 20 combat missions but actually flew more than that unofficially. As a staff officer he had no quota of missions. He was in "for the duration". These were no milk runs either. He was right in the thick of it over targets like Berlin and Bremen.
B-24s were notably less survivable than the sturdier B-17s. They had a bad tendency to burn when hit.
Stewart ended the war as a full Colonel and commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing (my old unit). He returned to acting after the war but stayed active in the Air Force Reserve. He got to fly the B-36, B-47 and the B-52 prior to retiring in 1968 as a Brigadier General. He received a promotion to Major General (2 star) after his retirement.
I never realized that his son was killed in the Vietnam War while serving as a Marine.
Stewart was politically rather conservative, to the point of once getting into a fistfight with Henry Fonda over politics. They stayed best friends after that but decided to keep politics out of the conversation. I can relate.
Lee Van Cleef
Lee Van Cleef enlisted in the Navy in 1942 at the age of 17. He served as a sonar operator on a sub chaser and later on a minesweeper.
What I found most interesting is that his minesweeper at one point was stationed in the Black Sea and operated out of a Soviet naval base in the Crimea. I never realized we had that level of naval cooperation with the Soviets during WWII.
Lee Van Cleef
Legendary funny man Johnathan Winters quit High School during his senior year to join the Marine Corps.
He served as a gunner on the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard in the Pacific. That's about all I could find in reference to his military service.
"I've always been proud of being a Marine. I won't hesitate to defend the Corps."
John Wayne never served in the military. So why is here? Because he later set himself up as a "super patriot" and somehow came to be considered the symbol of all-American manhood.
Now I won't take the easy path and call him a "draft dodger". It's a little more nuanced than that.
He would have been 35 years old in 1942 which was pushing the age limit. Some sources claim he was worried about what long stint in the military would do to his acting career, which was just taking off at the time. He was also reportedly in an affair with Marlene Dietrich at the time.
"Hmmmm, I can stay here, make money and date a famous actress or go get killed on some island......."
Dietrich previously had a thing with Jimmy Stewart. She kept busy.
Some claim that Wayne later asked John Ford to get him into the Navy but I can't confirm it. He certainly regretted his lack of service later in life and this may have contributed to his self proclaimed status as a "super patriot".
To this day there are those who will rabidly defend him and others who are just as quick to condemn. I'll just say I like his movies but I'm not a big fan of the man himself.
Yet somehow John Wayne gets to be the symbol of American patriotism over Jimmy Stewart. Says something about our preference for style over substance.
A true American hero - and John Wayne
Someone pointed this out to me once and I think it's good enough to end with.
In the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: the cowardly outlaw was played by a man who was wounded on Saipan, the scared bookish lawyer was played by a man who flew B-24s over Germany and the tough macho gunslinger was played by a guy who stayed in Hollywood and made movies.