American Entertainers That Served in World War II

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Charles Durning and Jack Klugman, both veteran character actors of television and movies, recently passed away, on Christmas Eve. They were quite possibly the last Hollywood movie stars that also served in World War II.

Some of Durning’s time in combat is shrouded in mystery. Just like so many from his generation, he rarely spoke about his experiences during the war. He apparently served with the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One), and was in one of the first waves into Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He was wounded severely while in Normandy and supposedly fought during the Battle of the Bulge, apparently being taken prisoner by the Germans. Some accounts say he was a survivor of the Malmedy Massacre, in which SS troops gunned down several American POWs in December 1944, but his name is not on any lists of survivors. Most of the men murdered by the SS in Malmedy were from a field artillery battalion.

Regardless of whether Durning was a survivor of Malmedy or not, he was an American hero that also was once nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on the TV series ‘NCIS,’ in which he played a Marine Medal of Honor recipient that turned himself in for murdering his best friend during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Durning no doubt drew upon his own feelings of survivor guilt and PTSD for portraying the character.

With the passing of Durning and Klugman, and also recently of fellow thespian and World War II veteran Ernest Borgnine, I was wondering if we could perhaps remember our favorite actors of both small and large screen that served during the war and helped saved the world? Among my favorites are Lee Marvin (Marine wounded on Saipan), Charles Bronson (Army Air Force tailgunner), Jimmy Stewart (AAF pilot), Clark Gable (AAF gunner), and of course, Audie Murphy. Most played tough guys with that edge of sensitivity that made them seem vulnerable, but never unmanly. And whether they were already movie stars before the war (as Stewart and Gable were), or became famous after, all did their duty for their country.

20 comments on “American Entertainers That Served in World War II

  1. spchumley says:

    James Arness, star of Gunsmoke from 1955-1975. Served in the US Army in WW II as an infantryman. Landed on Anzio Beach and was severely wounded in the leg a few weeks later (German machine gun nest) while on night patrol. The injury sent him home and left him with a limp due to the injured leg being shorter than the other. See his interview on Biography Channel for information.

  2. The National Archives provides general access to the military files of “Persons of Exceptional Prominence” (PEP) and have a listing of who’s on that list (last updated December 2011) at
    http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/public/persons-of-prominence.html
    Arthur Godfrey served in the Air Force, Coast Guard *and* Navy!

  3. George J. Herget says:

    Lawrence Peter Berra (AKA Yogi) was a young coxswain on an LCVP, that transported a group of the US Army Rangers, that scaled the cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc, France on D-Day, June 6th 1944. It was quite an eye-opener for a kid who enlisted at 17! Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, served two stints in the military, as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, flying Corsairs in the Pacific and jets in Korea.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thanks George, I had forgotten about those from the world of sports. There were several baseball, football, and hockey players that served in WWII also. I didn’t know that Yogi was involved in the invasion of Normandy! He is still with us, so that’s really great. What a life they’ve all had!

  4. Paul Stockford says:

    Let’s not forget my all-time favorite cowboy, Gene Autry. Left a blossoming career to join the Army Air Corps. Was threatened by his bosses at Republic Pictures that he would be replaced and his career would be over if he left. Gene went anyway and Republic hired Leonard Sly (Roy Rogers) to be the new singing cowboy while Gene served. Gene served until the end of the war then resumed his career, despite his bosses’ threat.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      I think Clark Gable had a similar problem to Autry’s. Gable flew five missions as a gunner and was nearly killed on one of them until the studio he was signed with somehow got him pulled off the duty roster. But hey, Gable was already at least 40 years-old and served as an enlisted man, so at least he did his part!

  5. George J. Herget says:

    Lest we also forget, James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original Star Trek, landed on the beaches of Normandy with the Canadians. He was wounded in the hand and lost a finger. He then transferred into the RCAF, where he became an airborne artillery spotter. RIP Scotty.

  6. Steve Warren says:

    Ann Sheridan toured the South Pacific entertaining the troops. My film professor in college (Ned Hockman) was a sergeant at the time in Ronald Reagan’s film command. He met Ann in Burma and said she put on a show in the middle of the jungle using a couple of boards as a stage and the lights from a jeep.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      That’s really cool! If only more Hollywood stars would get out and get uncomfortable for a few hours to visit the soldiers and sailors. We had some WWE wrestling people come out once, but I was TAD somewhere else. Definitely not the same as an Ann Sheridan or someone of that calibre, but we would have probably taken anyone at that point.

  7. Rich Vapnar says:

    Bob Feller served in the Pacific on the USS Alabama. Charlton Heston was a radio operator on B-25 bombers with the Eleventh Army Air Force. Moe Berg, former major league catcher, became a spy for the OSS a precurser to the CIA. Bob Hope began entertaining troops during World War II.

  8. I have a great 3-hour recording from June 5, 1945 that was recorded at the Paramount, here in NYC (where the Hard Rock Cafe now resides) that is a memorial tribute to Major Glenn Miller, who had been missing for some time. At the time of this recording, which included Tex Beneke and the original Glenn Miller Orchestra, as well as comedians and service personnel, it was still believed that Major Millier would be found. At the top of each hour is the NY Daily News reports. Baseball scores and the mention of the first anniversary of the Normandy Invasion are some highlights.

  9. Dave Speck says:

    One name that still causes some discussion among veterans is John Wayne. His reputation as a gung ho soldier and marine belied the fact that he spent little or no time in the military, and apparently managed to avoid any serious service. Not sure of my facts on this, but raising his name among veterans will sometimes evoke a similar response as if you mentioned Jane Fonda.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Yeah, the Duke has taken some criticism, but he was already somewhat kind of old even during the war wasn’t he? I don’t know the story there, so I’ll refrain from piling on Wayne.

  10. Susan Pryor says:

    Neville Brand, seen often in old westerns, was a highly decorated WWII veteran who fought in the Pacific theater

  11. For many years I have been searching for an out of print pictorial book that was published during WWII. It included stories and pictures of movie stars who entertained the troops during WWII and also those stars who served in the War. it was an oversized book with a medium brown cover. I recall photos of Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable in uniform. Bob hope entertaining the troops in the tropics on a makeshift stage. Joe E Brown on stage. A movie actress (Ann Sheridan) playing cards with wounded troops. Does anyone know the title of this book and whether there are any available through interlibrary loan or purchase? I need the title and publisher. From the comments I’ve read from WWII entusiasts, I am hoping that some of you you may have used this book as a reference.

  12. Bill Lorenzo says:

    Jack Palance also served. A B-17 pilot, got burned when his bomber crash landed.

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