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.

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On Pearl Harbor Day

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Some men are so legendary that they seem to defy the word itself, seeming almost superhuman, even mythological. The sailors of World War II have become such in our military history. Seen as rough, but ready men, tattooed, using salty language with reputations as hard-drinking brawlers, is the usual stereotype. As a young sailor, I wanted to emulate those men from the 1940s, wearing my sailor hat at a jaunty angle on my head, or going off to get a tattoo or drink in some dive somewhere. However, Navy policies and standards made sure that I wore my cover properly, and I discovered that liberty wasn’t always about going out to get drunk or rowdy. I quickly realized that these weren’t the things I should have been emulating anyways. The sailors of World War II had survived the deadly clashes of ships and aircraft at Guadalcanal and Coral Sea; they ran to their GQ stations while kamikaze planes dived in for the kill. Others were fighter or torpedo bomber pilots, putting their Dauntless aircraft into steep dives to rain down revenge on the Japanese at Midway; still other sailors served as Seabees, constructing much-needed runways for airfields on small, jungle-choked islands, or as Corpsmen saving the lives of Marines on places like Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. They cursed, loved, fought, bled, and died, more often than not, for one another. These men lived hard lives, and what I soon learned was that it was better to try and live up to the honor, courage, and integrity that they possessed. So many of these sailors were very good men, god-fearing and just, whom in reality were no more than boys, many having lied about their ages to join up after the December 7, 1941, sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy, 71 years ago today.

Many of these boys are now old men, most in their late 80s and early 90s. They are leaving us daily, passing through that final stage of mortality and on into legend. I hope that this country never forgets men like these, or that we NEED men like these. Sadly, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was disbanded last year. It is inevitable, because the cruel trick of time is that it will run out for us all someday. Not all of the survivors are gone, however; not yet. But when they are, we will all be the worse off for it.

Please click the link below to view the nicely-written obituary of one of our recently departed Pearl Harbor survivors:

Pearl Harbor Survivor Sam Maynor Passes