Hollywood goes to war

World War II-era veterans:

  • Paul Newman’s color-blindedness kept him from being a Naval aviator, but he served as a radioman/gunner for a torpedo bomber squadron on the USS Bunker Hill.
  • Singer Tony Bennett fought on the front lines in France and Germany as a rifleman in the Army.
  • Don Adams, who played Maxwell Smart from Get Smart, served at Guadalcanal in the Marines, and went on to become a drill instructor.
  • Get Smart creator Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminski) served as a forward artillery observer and combat engineer during the Battle of the Bulge.
  • Theodore Geisel – “Dr. Seuss” – was a cartoonist for the Army
  • “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Shulz operated a machine gun during World War II. Shulz stated that the only chance he had to fire his weapon in combat, he forgot to load his weapon. The only German he saw willingly surrendered.
  • Jimmy Stewart enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, earning a commission as a B-17 pilot. He split time as a flight instructor and an Air Corps motion picture unit. In 1943, Stewart requested a combat assignment, and was sent to the European Theater to a B-24 squadron. Stewart flew 20 combat missions, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, and the Croix de Guerre. He also flew as and observer on a B-52 Arc Light mission during the Vietnam War. Stewart retired from the Reserves as a Brigadier General.
  • Eddie Albert of Green Acres spied on German U-Boats in Mexico for Army intelligence before joining the Naval Reserve where he rescued dozens of Marines stranded offshore at Tarawa under heavy enemy fire while piloting a landing craft.
  • Johnny Carson enlisted in the Navy in 1943, hoping to become a pilot. Instead the Navy commissioned him and sent him to the battleship USS Pennsylvania. The war ended the day Carson arrived. Afterward, he served as a communications officer, decoding encrypted messages.
  • Fellow Tonight Show icon Ed McMahon became a Marine aviator during World War II, but the war ended before he could participate in combat. He flew 85 combat missions during the Korean War as a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog pilot, earning six air medals. McMahon later flew as a test pilot and instructor. He retired from the Reserves as a colonel, and later received a commission as a brigadier general in the California National Guard.
  • Henry Fonda served as a quartermaster on the USS Satterlee before becoming a commissioned officer in a air combat intelligence unit.
  • Lee Marvin enlisted in the Marine Corps and was wounded by enemy machine gun fire in the assault on Saipan’s Mount Tapochau.
  • Bob Keeshan, better known as “Captain Kangaroo,” enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve, but World War II ended while he was still in the U.S.
  • George C. Scott served in the Marines at the end of World War II, teaching at the Marine Corps Institute.
  • Don Knotts joined the Army and entertained troops in the Pacific Theater.
  • Pres. Ronald Reagan enlisted in the cavalry in 1937, and earned his commission that same year. During the war, he served in motion picture units, making hundreds of training films for the military.

Korean War-era and later:

  • Steve McQueen joined the Marines in 1947. McQueen was demoted to private seven times and enjoyed an extended stay in the brig. During an exercise in the Arctic, the “King of Cool” saved the lives of five crewmembers of a tank from drowning in a training exercise. He also served as a member of the honor guard that protected Pres. Harry Truman’s yacht. Upon leaving the Marines in 1950, McQueen studied acting on his G.I. Bill.
  • Gene Hackman joined the Marines at sixteen years old, and also studied acting after his service as a radio operator in China.
  • Harvey Keitel also joined the Marines at sixteen and was deployed to Lebanon in 1958, where he served as a fire team leader.
  • Two castmembers of M*A*S*H served in the Army: Alan Alda (Hawkeye) joined ROTC while in college and served a six-month tour in Korea as a gunnery officer in the Army Reserve after graduating, and Jamie Farr (Cpl. Klinger) was drafted by the Army and served two years in Japan.
  • Larry Hagman (J.R. in Dallas) joined the Air Force during the Korean war.
  • Clint Eastwood was an Army swimming instructor at Fort Ord, Calif. during the Korean War. After his discharge, Eastwood used his G.I. bill to study acting.
  • Morgan Freeman joined the Air Force in 1955 and served as a radio technician.
  • Comedian George Carlin served as a radar technician in the Air Force.
  • Chuck Norris became an MP in the Air Force in 1958 and served in Korea (where he began studying martial arts).
  • Elvis Presley served in the 3rd Armored Division in Germany.
  • Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak served as an Army disk jockey for Armed Forces Radio in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
  • Bill Cosby served as a hospital corpsman in the Navy.
  • Tom Selleck served as an infantryman in the California National Guard and reached the rank of sergeant.
  • Drew Carey joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1980
  • Actor and rapper Ice-T (Tracy Marrow) served as a squad leader in the 25th Infantry Division.
  • Comedian and actor Rob Riggle recently retired from the Marine Corps after serving over 20 years, including deployments to Kosovo, Liberia, and Afghanistan.

World War I-era veterans:

  • Humphrey Bogart served as Chief Quartermaster aboard the SS Leviathan, a troop transport during and after the war.
  • Walt Disney dropped out of school to join the Army, but they would not allow the 16-year-old to enlist. Instead, he joined the Red Cross, and was sent to France where he drove an ambulance for a year – but by then, the Armistice had been signed.

Lots of great comments from readers can be found below. I will incorporate names as I come across them and as time allows. Athletes are found in this post.

Author: Chris Carter

18 thoughts on “Hollywood goes to war

  1. James Doohan, Star Trek’s “Scotty,” landed in Normandy on D-Day, but as a sergeant in the Canadian (not US) Army.

  2. @SSG Medzyk,

    From military.com: “Alda joined the Army Reserve after graduating from Fordham [University]. He completed the minimum six-month tour of duty as a gunnery officer during the Korean War.”

    The sources I used stated that he served during the Korean War, and there was no indication whether he served in theater. But the armistice was signed three years before Alda graduated, and he did his six months after graduation.

    Thanks for your service and comment.

  3. Charles Durning was not a Ranger. His accomplishments in serving at Normandy and during the Battle of the Bulge are enough, and require no embellishment. He *may* have served with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry which earned the moniker “Rangers” for fighting with the same tenacity and ferocity as the Ranger battalions whose Eastern flank they secured. It’s also possible he served in the 29th Ranger Battalion, but there is no indication of that. As a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, he fought in some of the most pivotal battles of World War II, so Mr. Durning is a warrior deserving of recognition. Of that, there is no question.

  4. Alan Alda would have been 16 years old in 1953. No way he was in Korea on a gun.

    However: (from Wiki) “During college, he was a member of the ROTC, and after graduation, he served for a year at Fort Benning, Georgia, then joined the U.S. Army Reserve, and served for six-months as a gunnery officer”. Alda graduated College in 1956.

    While still an honorable stint—even for such a blazing leftist boob as him—he never served in a combat zone.

  5. Larry Wilcox, from C.H.I.P.S. USMC, Vietnam and love him or hate him, Oliver Stone, 25th ID, Vietnam, BSM recipient.

  6. Let’s not forget Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – World War II; Operation Husky (invasion of Sicily), Operation Dragoon (Southern France); Awards – Legion of Merit, Italian War Cross, Legion d’Honneur, French Croix de Guerre, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Honorary).

  7. And more (Notice how a lot of them were subsequently in war movies, westerns, and cop movies?):
    Richard Boone – WWII, US Navy, Aviation Ordnanceman
    Peter Graves – WWII, US Army Air Corps
    Larry Hagman – post WWII, US Air Force
    Glenn Ford – WWII, USMC Reserve, post WWII US Navy Reserve, briefly in Vietnam ’67, retired as Captain (O-6)
    Ralph Waite – post WWII, USMC
    Frank Sutton – WWII, US Army, took part in 14 assault landings in S. Pacific, discharged as Sergeant, later “promoted” to Gunnery Sergeant in “Gomer Pyle, USMC”
    Tim Conway – post WWII, US Army
    Harvey Korman – WWII, US Navy
    Bob Newhart – Korean War, US Army (served stateside)
    Art Carney – WWII, US Army, wounded in Normandy
    Rod Serling – WWII, US Army, 11th Airborne Division, Battle of Leyte and liberation of Manila, Bronze Star and Purple Heart
    Steve McQueen – post WWII, USMC
    James Garner – Korean War, US Army, 24th ID, 2 Purple Hearts
    Karl Malden – WWII, US Army Air Corps
    Gene Autry – WWII, US Army Air Corps

  8. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Austrian Army, tanker

    Jesse Ventura – U.S. Navy SEAL, Vietnam service

    Larry Hagman – U.S. Air Force draftee, Korean War

  9. I guess the reason we can call the WWII era “The Greatest Generation” is most everyone had a sense of duty – even Actors. But today’s crop seem to have a different sense of duty, one that is often at odds with the roles they play in some of their movies. How many actors have played heroic roles in movies yet have the opposite belief system. Then there are actors like Gary Sinise – someone we can all be proud of for his support of the military. There are more of course but not enough. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s list – remembering these actors has been fun.

  10. Richard Todd – During the Second World War, Todd joined the British Army, receiving a commission in 1941. Initially, he served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry before joining the Parachute Regiment and being assigned to the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion as part of the British 6th Airborne Division.

    On 6 June 1944, as a captain, he participated in the British Airborne Operation Tonga during the D-Day landings.[4] Todd was among the first British officers to land in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord. His battalion were reinforcements that parachuted in after glider forces had landed and completed the main assault against Pegasus Bridge near Caen.[4] He later met up with Major John Howard on Pegasus Bridge and helped repel several German counter attacks.[5]

    As an actor, Todd would later play Howard in the 1962 film The Longest Day, while Todd himself was played by another actor.

  11. Though not an actor, famous jazz musician Dave Brubeck was in Patton’s 3rd Army, met his famous saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1944.

    James Arness (Gunsmoke) was in 3rd ID in World War II, was the first ashore at Anzio. Earned Bronze Star, Purple Heart.

  12. Not to be left out:
    Alan Hale – WWII, US Coast Guard
    George Kennedy – WWII, US Army (served 16 years)
    Walter Matthau – WWII, US Army Air Corps, B-24 gunner
    James Coburn – post WWII, US Army, truck driver
    Pernell Roberts – post WWII, USMC, band member
    Fred Gwynne – WWII, US Navy
    Joe E. Ross – WWII, US Army Air Corps
    Buddy Ebsen – WWII, US Coast Guard
    Jack Palance – WWII, US Army Air Corps
    Richard Crenna – WWII, US Army, Radioman, participated in Battle of the Bulge and S. Pacific theater
    Burt Lancaster – WWII, US Army
    Jackie Cooper – WWII, US Navy, retired as Captain (O-6), buried at Arlington National Cemetary
    Willie Nelson – post WWII, short stint in US Air Force (medical discharge)
    Sid Caesar – WWII, US Coast Guard
    Don Rickles – WWII, US Navy, Seaman on a torpedo boat tender in S. Pacific

    Not to forget Allied actors who served:
    Michael Caine – Korean War, British Army
    Sean Connery – post WWII, Royal Navy
    David McCallum – post WWII British Army
    David Niven (already mentioned) – WWII, British Army, Commando, participated in Battle of the Bulge
    Peter Ustinov – WWII, British Army
    Maurice Chevalier – WWI, French Army, POW for 2 years
    Marcel Marceau – WWII, French Resistance, Liaison Officer to Patton’s Third Army

  13. James Earl Jones was commissioned a 2nd LT mid 1953 and reported to Fort Benning to attend Basic Infantry Officers School. He then attended through Ranger School and received his Ranger Tab (although he stated during an interview on the BBC’s The One Show screened on November 11, 2009 that he “washed out” of Ranger training). He was initially to report to Fort Leonard Wood, but his unit was instead sent to establish a cold weather training command at the Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado. His battalion became a training unit in the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. Jones was promoted to first lieutenant prior to his discharge

    Jamie Farr – Mash – served in the armed forces in Korea; Farr’s tour of duty came in the years after the war.

    Dennis Franz NYPD et a; is a graduate of Proviso East High School (in Maywood) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.After graduating from college, Franz was drafted into the United States Army. He served eleven months with the 82nd Airborne Division in Vietnam

    Mel Brooks Army

    Robert Duvall – Army

    Moses Gunn – Army

    Tracy Marrow (Ice-T) – US Army

    Steve Kanaly – Army Vietnam

    Robert Loggia – Army

    Bob Newhart – Army

    Tom Selleck – Selleck served as a soldier in the 160th Infantry Regiment of the California Army National Guard[8] and his unit was activated for the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

    Terry Salvalas – Army WWII

    Laurence Tureaud (Mr T) Army

    Gene Wilder – Army

  14. James Garner – joined the National Guard serving seven months in the United States. He then went to Korea for 14 months in the United States Army, serving in the 24th Infantry Division in the Korean War. He was wounded twice, first in the face and hand from shrapnel fire from a mortar round, and second on April 23, 1951 in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dived headfirst into a foxhole. Garner was awarded the Purple Heart in Korea for the first injury. For the second wound, he received a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: “As the result of friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy”), although Garner received the medal in 1983, 32 years after his injury. Garner was a self-described “scrounger” for his company in Korea, a role he later played in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily.

    William Holden – served as a 2nd lieutenant in the United Stares Army Air Corps during World War II, where he acted in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit.

  15. Some of these are repeats so if you want to copy them from one post it’s eaiser.

    Audie Murphy – Need I say more (see below)

    Alec Guinness (Star Wars) operated a British Royal Navy landing craft on D-Day.

    James Doohan (“Scotty”! on Star Trek) landed in Normandy with the U. S. Army on D-Day.

    Donald Pleasance (The Great Escape) really was an R. A. F. pilot who was shot down, held prisoner and tortured by the Germans

    David Niven was a Sandhurst graduate and Lt. Colonel of the British Commandos in Normandy

    James Stewart Entered the Army Air Force as a private and worked his way to the rank of Colonel.

    During World War II, Stewart served as a bomber pilot, his service record crediting him with leading more than 20 missions over Germany, and taking part in hundreds of air strikes during his tour of duty.

    Stewart earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross! , France’s Croix de Guerre, and 7 Battle Stars during World War II.

    In peace time, Stewart continued to be an active member of the Air Force as a reservist, reaching the rank of Brigadier General before retiring in the late 1950s.

    Clark Gable (Mega-Movie Star when war broke out) Although he was beyond the draft age at the time the U.S. entered WW II,

    Clark Gable enlisted as a private in the AAF on Aug. 12, 1942 at Los Angeles.

    He attended the Officers’ Candidate School at Miami Beach, Fla. and graduated as a second lieutenant on Oct. 28, 1942.

    He then attended aerial gunnery school and in Feb. 1943 he was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook where flew operational missions over Europe in B-17s.

    Capt. Gable returned to the U.S. in Oct. 1943 and was relieved from active duty as a major on Jun. 12, 1944 at his own request, since he was over-age for combat

    Charlton Heston was an Army Air Corps Sergeant in Kodiak.

    Earnest Borgnine was a U. S. Navy Gunners Mate 1935-1945.

    Charles Durning was a U. S. Army Ranger at Normandy earning a Silver Star and awarded the Purple Heart.

    Charles Bronson was a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps, more specifically on B-29s in the 20th Air Force out of Guam, Tinian, and Saipan

    George C. Scott was a decorated U. S. Marine

    Eddie Albert (Green Acres TV) was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroic action as a U. S. Naval officer aiding Marines at the horrific battle on the island of Tarawa in the Pacific Nov. 1943.

    Brian Keith served as a U.S. Marine rear gunner in several actions against the Japanese on Rabal in the Pacific.

    Lee Marvin was a U.S. Marine on Saipan during the Marianas campaign when he was wounded earning the Purple Heart.

    John Russell: In 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps where he received a battlefield commission and was wounded and highly decorated for valor at Guadalcanal.

    Robert Ryan was a U. S. Marine who served with the O. S. S. in Yugoslavia.

    Tyrone Power (an established movie star when Pearl Harbor was bombed) joined the U.S. Marines, was a pilot flying supplies into, and wounded Marines out of, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

    Audie Murphy, little 5’5″ tall 110 pound guy from Texas who played cowboy parts?

    Most Decorated serviceman of WWII and earned: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, 2 Silver Star Medals, Legion of Merit, 2 Bronze Star Medals with “V”, 2 Purple Hearts, U.S. Army Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, 2 Distinguished Unit Emblems, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with One Silver Star, Four Bronze Service Stars (representing nine campaigns) and one Bronze Arrowhead (representing assault landing at Sicily and Southern France) World War II Victory Medal Army of Occupation Medal with Germany Clasp, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, Marksman Badge with Rifle Bar, Expert Badge with Bayonet Bar, French Fourragere in Colors of the Croix de Guerre, French Legion of Honor, Grade of Chevalier, French Croix de Guerre With Silver Star, French Croix de Guerre with Palm, Medal of

    Liberated France, Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 Palm.

    Neville Brand in World War II seeing action with the 331st Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division (Thunderbolt Division) in the Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central European campaigns. Brand, a Sergeant and platoon leader, was wounded in action along the Weser River on April 7, 1945.- Silver Star

    Larry Wilcox – Actor on Chips – joined the Marines in May 1967 and served 13 months in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant in 1973

  16. Chuck Connors – US Army, WWII, Tank Instructor Fort Knox/Campbell
    Clark Gable – US Army Air Corps, WWII, 5 combat missions in Europe, Air Medal and DFC, discharged in 1944 as Major (discharge papers signed by Captain Ronald Reagan)
    Ronald Reagan – US Army, WWII, Initially Cavalry Officer then later Army Air Corps Motion Picture Unit; no overseas service
    Fess Parker – US Navy & Marine Corps, WWII, Radio Operator in South Pacific before end of war
    Charles Bronson – US Army Air Corps, WWII, Aerial Gunner, Purple Heart recipient for action in Pacific Theater

Leave a Reply