11 Actors Who Served in the Second World War
Photos courtesy Wikipedia Commons
In honour of Nov. 11, we salute the world-famous entertainers who represented their countries during the Second World War.
During an interview shortly before his death in 1997, Jimmy Stewart revealed that the Second World War was “something I think about almost every day—[it was] one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
While Stewart, a highly decorated war veteran, retained a lifelong career with the military and spoke openly of his experiences, this was not the case for every member of the Hollywood elite who got involved—of which there were many. Mickey Rooney, Henry Fonda, Johnny Carson, author Roald Dahl, Charlton Heston and Humphrey Bogart all played a role in the war effort.
Some readily enlisted under their own volition, while others were inspired to take action after tragic events in their lives. Meanwhile, the roles others played in the war effort, like Gone with the Wind actor Leslie Howard, remain firmly entrenched in wild conspiracy theories and speculation.
Here, we look at some of their stories.
Mr. Stewart goes to war: Jimmy Stewart was the first of the Hollywood elite to enlist in the war effort. Perhaps it was his family’s rich military history that inspired him to take the leap—both grandfathers fought in the Civil War and his own father served during the First World War.
He signed up in 1941 with the US Army Air Corps—but was almost denied because he was deemed too skinny (at six-foot-three Stewart weighed a mere 138 pounds). Stewart vowed to bulk up his lanky frame before the second physical exam, gorging on a steady diet of spaghetti, steak and milkshakes. He eventually passed the test. Stewart was stationed in California for training, but wanted to do more than just drills and desk duty.
He was ordered to report to Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho, and the 29th Bombardment Group, where he became a flight instructor on B-17 Flying Fortresses. By March 1943, Stewart was the operations officer of the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group, in Sioux City, Iowa, and was named the squadron’s commander a mere three weeks later.
On November 11 that same year, Stewart led his 24 B-24H Liberators to England where they became part of the 2nd Air Division, Eighth Air Force. Stewart’s first mission was to bomb U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany. Following this and another 1944 mission, Stewart was promoted to major. In total, he flew more than 20 combat missions.
Stewart was later the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Oak Cluster, the Croix de Guerre with Palm and seven Battle Stars. But for Stewart, his passion for serving his country didn’t end when the war did: He continued to play an active role in the Army Air Forces Reserve after he returned to acting. On July 23, 1959, Stewart—always a wildly popular leader with his troops—was promoted to brigadier general.
Sir Alec Guinness
The highly-lauded British thespian put his lucrative theatre career on hold in 1939 when he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Yes, the man who would later caution Luke Skywalker to “use the Force” was, himself, a force to be reckoned with.
He played a pivotal role in the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Codenamed Operation Husky, it was one of the largest amphibian campaigns of the war. For his part, Guinness commanded a landing craft filled with more than 200 British soldiers onto the beaches of Sicily. He also later ferried arms and supplies to Yugoslavian partisans in the eastern Mediterranean.
Guinness would later draw on his wartime experiences to inform his roles in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Tunes of Glory (1960).
Born Marcel Mangel to Jewish parents in 1920s France, the world-renowned mime changed his last name to “Marceau” at the age of 16 after fleeing to the city of Limoges during the Second World War. His father, Charles, would later die in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He and his younger brother, Alain, joined the French Resistance while in Limoges, keeping busy by forging documents and identity cards to help prevent French children from being forced into German labour camps. He was later reported to have saved the lives of more than 70 Jewish children by posing as a Boy Scout leader and walking them into the relative safety of Switzerland.
After the liberation of France, Marceau joined the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle and, due to his fluency with the French, English and German languages, he worked as a liaison officer with the US General George Patton’s army. He also entertained French troops with mime routines, which he later morphed into his famous Bip the Mime.
Right up until her death in 2009, Bea Arthur denied having any involvement with the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during the Second World War. However, as the Smoking Gun and TIME revealed in 2010, military records prove that Arthur did, in fact, serve a 30-month stint as a typist and truck driver.
Documents revealed that Bernice Frankel (the Golden Girls stars’ birth name) enlisted in 1943 at the age of 21. During her time as a typist and truck driver she quickly moved up the ranks, going from private to corporal to staff sergeant in quick succession. She was stationed at Marine Corps and Navy air stations in both North Carolina and Virginia.
As part of the initial enlistment process, Arthur took part in a series of interviews for the required “personality appraisal” sheets. She was described as “argumentative” and “over-aggressive.” In one particular handwritten note, the Marine interviewer wrote, “Officious—but probably a good worker—if she has her own way!”
Alas, in September 1945, Arthur was honourably discharged—but not for her alleged “aggressive” behaviour. According to a single “misconduct report” in her file, Arthur contracted a venereal disease which had left her “incapacitated for duty” for five weeks in the tail-end of 1944.
It would appear that this marked the end of Arthur’s brief military stint—a stint she vehemently denied in interviews, right up until her passing.
Born Melvin Kaminsky, the future Mel Brooks, comedian extraordinaire, enlisted straight out of high school in 1944 at the age of 17.
Ranking high in intelligence testing, Brooks was placed in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to be taught military engineering, horsemanship and saber-wielding. He was shipped to Europe in June of that year with the 1104th Engineer Combat Group and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. (He would later tell reporters he was not near the worst of the action.)
He landed in Normandy and advanced with the Allied forces through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Brooks’ unit erected the first bridge over the Roer River and constructed others over the Rhine and Weser rivers.
Brooks and his unit braved heavy shelling and sniper fire to build bridges, clear roads of debris and deactivate land mines—the last of which was Brooks’ main responsibility. While always in advance of the Allied front lines, he was always in the line of fire and, on occasion, had to fight as infantry.
He was discharged as a corporal after the war and found a career in comedy, which included his 1967 smash hit The Producers—and the film’s memorable main song, “Springtime for Hitler.”
He later joked. “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.”
After graduating high school in 1944, Hugh Hefner enlisted in the war effort as an infantry clerk. During basic training he was awarded a sharpshooting badge for his excellent marksmanship in using an M1 rifle and graduated from “killer college” by dodging real grenades.
While stationed at Camp Adair in Salem, Oregon, and Camp Pickett in Virginia, Hefner took to drawing cartoons for the army newspapers, putting his journalistic tendencies to work.
He served a total of two years in the US Army as a noncombatant and was relieved of his duties in 1946.
Although Hefner never saw any action, his gig as a writer and cartoonist for the newspaper cemented his passion for pursuing journalism as a career. He graduated in 1949 from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a double minor in creative writing and art.
The legendary crooner was called up for the Army in 1944 and assigned to the 63rd Infantry Division stationed in France and Germany. It was here that Tony Bennett saw urban combat as his unit (nicknamed the “Blood and Fire Division”) were ordered to seek out—and round up—Nazi stragglers in bombed out German towns.
Bennett rose within the ranks to corporal, a title he was later stripped of after his demotion back to private. The reason? Bennett used some “salty language” when defending a black friend in his unit from a bigot in the group. As punishment, he was briefly assigned to disinterring mass graves to prepare the bodies of Allied soldiers for shipment back home. It was not an enviable task.
After this run-in with racism, and his assistance in liberating a Jewish concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany, Bennett became a lifelong pacifist.
However, it was during this stint in the army that Bennett got his first real opportunity to sing and perform for an audience as a member of the military band. Near the end of the war he was transferred to special services and finished the war touring the rest of Europe.
We often forget that British actor Leslie Howard died only a few short years after the giant success of 1939’s Oscar-winning Gone with the Wind. After playing Ashley Wilkes, the object of both Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Melanie Wilkes’ (Olivia de Havilland) affections, Howard’s career was on an upward swing.
But tragically, Howard died on June 1, 1943, at age 50, while aboard the doomed BOAC Flight 777, a civilian airline flight traveling from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England. It was shot down by eight German Junkers Ju 88s and plummeted into the Bay of Biscay. It resulted in the deaths of all 17 people on board.
Conspiracy theories abound to this day as to why this specific Douglas DC-3 plane was targeted and gunned out of the sky. Some posit the Germans believed British prime minister Winston Churchill was aboard (he was scheduled to return from Lisbon that same day, but on a different flight). Others think several passengers, including Howard, were actually British spies.
Prior to his death, Howard had been active in anti-German propaganda and produced films in support of the war effort. In fact, he’d been giving lectures in Spain and Portugal to promote his war film, The Lamp Still Burns. It was long whispered that he was involved in British Intelligence.
According to Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave A Damn, a 2016 documentary on Howard’s life and tragic death, the Foreign Office files relating to BOAC Flight 777 are still marked as classified. This has led many to speculate that Bletchley Park (which produced secret intelligence during the war) may have intercepted German plans to attack the aircraft, but chose not to let on that they knew lest they arouse German suspicions and reveal that their Enigma coding machines had been cracked.
Novelist and broadcaster JB Priestley broke the news of Howard’s death on the BBC: “The war has claimed another casualty. The stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into the war. More than one month later, on January 16, 1942, Gable’s wife, actress Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash while returning home from a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana. Gable flew to Las Vegas to claim the bodies of his wife and mother-in-law, Bess Peters.
These two tragedies, back-to-back, shook Gable to the core and he decided to enlist in the army to keep busy as a coping mechanism. However, at 40, Gable was considered too old for military service. He sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for an assignment to help in the war effort. Roosevelt’s response: “Stay where you are.”
Gable ignored the president’s orders and volunteered for the Army Air Forces, attended a 13-week officer candidate school program and was trained as a photographer and aerial gunner.
The actor reported to Biggs Army Air Base in Texas on January 27, 1943, to accompany the 351st Bomb Unit to England. He was to head a six-person motion picture unit. Gable spent the majority of the year in England, flying five combat missions as an observer-gunner—he would later earned the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross for these assignments.
As 1943 came to a close, Gable returned to the States to edit his film, Combat America. The following year he was promoted to major and was eventually relieved of active duty on June 12, 1944, due to his age.
It was rumoured that Adolf Hitler was a huge Clark Gable fan and had offered a sizable reward for anyone who could capture the suave, mustachioed actor alive and bring him to Berlin.
According to his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) failed his psychological test and was denied the chance to join the US Air Force. Not one to take the news sitting down, Douglas promptly enlisted for the US Navy and he was accepted—despite his poor eyesight.
He was assigned to the anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific where he acted as the communications officer. He was medically discharged in 1944 for an unspecified injury.
Did you know that Paul “Blue Eyes” Newman was actually colour blind? It was because of this that he was turned down for his long-desired role as pilot with the US Air Force.
After graduating from high school in 1943, Newman was instead shipped off to basic training where he qualified as a rear-seat radioman and gunner for torpedo bombers. It was in 1944 when Newman was sent to Barbers Point in Hawaii where he was trained as a replacement pilot for torpedo bomber squadrons.
Newman was later ordered aboard the ill-fated USS Bunker Hill which took part in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. In a twist of fate, Newman’s pilot had an ear infection and they were taken off the campaign. Had it not been for this, they would have been part of the massive casualties.
In 1946, Newman was honourably discharged and was awarded the American Area Campaign medal, the Good Conduct medal and the World War II Victory medal.