See that guy in the middle? That's Colonel James Stewart, returning to America in 1945, four years after he enlisted as a private and became the first Hollywood star to join the military during World War II. Others became actors after serving overseas. Here are the moving war stories of 16 veterans better known for their roles in movies and TV.
In 1941, Stewart gave up a $12,000-a-week salary in Hollywood for an Army paycheck of $21 a month—minus the 10 percent that he routinely mailed to his agent. The actor flew dozens of combats missions deep in Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1944, his B-24 was hit by German anti-aircraft fire, but Stewart, as command pilot, managed to fly back to his base. Although the plane cracked open when it landed, he and his crew walked out unharmed. Stewart was promoted to colonel before his discharge in 1945.
A military bugler played "Taps" in his honor at the National Memorial Day Concert in 2013, not long after he died. That may have surprised some who remembered Charles Durning as a character actor in movies like "The Sting" and "Tootsie," but he was also a decorated veteran. Durning landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and was later shot in the hip. Captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he was one of the few survivors of the Maimedy massacre. His medals include the Purple Heart and, for valor, the Silver Star.
Robards was a radioman on the USS Northampton when it was hit by two Japanese torpedoes on November 30, 1942. He treaded water nearly all night before he was rescued. Two years later, he was on the USS Nashville when a kamikaze plane crashed into the ship, killing 133 sailors and wounding 190. It was aboard the Nashville that Robards first came across a play by Eugene O'Neill, which inspired him to become an actor.
Douglas, who joined the Navy in 1941, served on a warship in the Pacific. Recalling the experience in a 2009 blog post, he wrote, "Everything was quiet except for the constant ping, ping, ping of our underwater radar device searching for submarines. If an echo came back, bouncing off of a submarine, we would try to lower explosives and destroy the submarine and all the young Japanese sailors." Honorably discharged in 1944 because of war injuries, he said that memory "still haunts me."
As a bombardier in the Army Air Force during Word War II, the future Professor on "Gilligan's Island" flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific. In 1945, his plane was shot down in the Phillippines, and Johnson broke both ankles when his B-25 hit the ground. Awarded a Purple Heart, he attended the Actors' Lab in Hollywood on the GI Bill.
Already a Hollywood star, he was the only high-profile British actor to return home after the outbreak of World War II. Niven led a commando unit known as "the Phantom," which operated behind enemy lines after the Normandy invasion. During the Battle of the Bulge, sentries suspicious of his accent asked him which team had won the 1943 Wolrd Series. "Haven't the foggiest," Niven is said to have replied. "But I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in 'Bachelor Mother.'"
As a flight officer in the Army Air Forces, he volunteered for hazardous duty and, in December 1943, was sent to India to participate in the Burma Campaign. There, the former child star now best remembered as Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family" flew British troops after dark to a small jungle clearing about 100 miles behind enemy lines.
Because of his height (6 feet, 7 inches), Arness was ordered to get off his landing craft first to gauge the depth of the water during the 1944 invasion of Anzio, Italy. (It came up to his waist.) Shot by a German machine gun, he earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, but spent more than a year in military hospitals before being sent home. For the rest of his life, he suffered leg pain, especially when mounting a horse as Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke."
Machine gun bullets severed his sciatic nerve and a Japanese sniper shot him in the foot during the 1944 Battle of Saipan, in which most of the Marines in Marvin's unit were killed. Awarded a Purple Heart, the future Oscar winner spent more than a year in Naval hospitals, after which he received an honorable discharge. There's a widely repeated rumor that Marvin was in Iwo Jima with fellow Marine Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo. It's false.
His big break in Hollywood came when he was cast as a sadistic sergeant in 1953's "From Here to Eternity," which ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In real life, Borgnine joined the U.S. Navy right after high school and received an honorable discharge in October 1941. Two months later, after the December 7 attack, Borgnine reenlisted and served another four years, aboard a ship that patrolled for German U-boats in the Atlantic.
You know him as Scotty on "Star Trek." As a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery, Doohan landed at Juno Beach on D-Day. After shooting two snipers and leading his men through a minefield, he was hit by six rounds of friendly fire. One of his fingers had to be amputated, but a silver cigarette case prevented a bullet to the chest from killing him. Because of his daredevil spirit, Doohan was called "the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force," though he didn't actually belong to that branch of the military.
"I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio," Fonda said when he left Hollywood to join the U.S. Navy in 1942. The "Grapes of Wrath" star served for three years, first on a destroyer and later as a lieutenant in naval intelligence, and was awarded a Bronze Star. He seldom talked about his wartime experience. Asked by a reporter where he kept his combat medal, Fonda said, "Peter lost it." Did that upset Peter's dad? "No, it meant nothing to me."
Later known for tough-guy roles in movies like "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Dirty Dozen," Bronson joined the Army Air Forces in 1943 and flew 25 combat missions as an aerial gunner based in Guam. He was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.
Inspired by the movies "Destination Tokyo" and "Crash Dive," Bernard Schwartz joined the U.S. Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served aboard a submarine tender until September 1945, when he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. He later attended City College on the GI Bill, moved to Hollywood and, as Tony Curtis, starred in films ranging from "Sweet Smell of Success" to "Some Like It Hot."
Photo by Frank Worth
The great Mel Brooks—then known as Melvin Kaminsky—was just 17 when he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. As part of his duties, he went ahead of advancing troops to defuse land mines. After the Battle of the Bulge, Germans soldiers took to blasting Nazi propaganda through loudspeakers. Brooks reportedly set up speakers and countered with his impression of Al Jolson singing "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goodbye)."
An elementary school dropout who was initially turned down by three branches of the military because he was underweight and underage, Audie Murphy went on to earn every medal the Army had to give. (For his Medal of Honor citation, click here.) Hollywood took interest when he appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and after his discharge Murphy starred in more than 40 movies, including the 1955 war picture "To Hell and Back," in which he played himself. Murphy was the single most decorated soldier in World War II.
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