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.