Many film talents enlisted and served their country during the Second World War, the 77th anniversary of the armistice being commemorated on this day. And some were genuine war heroes.
“The Second World War is something I think about almost every day. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life” will say the great actor James Stewart, shortly before his death in 1997. Stewart who was an authentic war hero, bomber pilot, ending his career with the rank of colonel. He was also the very first Hollywood star to enlist under the flags of the United States.
In a context of general mobilization when the country entered the war, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he was quickly imitated by many of his fellow actors and actresses, to varying degrees, moreover. Because if some spent the war behind a desk, far from enemy fire, others, on the other hand, did not really spare themselves…
On this day of the 77th anniversary of the commemoration of the armistice, May 8, 1945, here are eight fine examples of American movie stars who served in World War II.
James Stewart (1908-1997)
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Actor adored by the American public who will become a star in the film You won’t take it with you of Frank Capra in 1938 and the immense success Mr Smith in the Senate the next year, James Stewart was a true war hero. Passionate about aviation, he had obtained his pilot’s license in 1935, and even that of airline pilot in 1938. Passed under the flag during the war (he even became the very first US movie star to wear the uniform), he began as an instructor pilot at an air base in Glendale, Arizona. Promoted to lieutenant in July 1942, he spent August through December of that year training to fly B-17 bombers.
Promoted to captain in July 1943 with the rank of squadron leader, he carried out his first bombing mission, on the German U-Boat naval base located in Kiel, in November 1943. In total, until the end of the war, he will carry out 20 missions. Decorated many times, including the French Military Cross with palm (photo opposite), his commitment was such that he continued to be very involved in the US Air Force even after the war. Ending his military career at the rank of colonel, he was even promoted, on July 23, 1959, to the rank of brigadier general in the US Air Force.
Sterling Hayden (1916-1986)
Paranoid General Ripper in Doctor Strangelovean unlucky robber in The ultimate raidalways at Kubrickwonderful Johnny Guitar at the house of Nicholas Rayextraordinary in When the city sleeps of John Huston… Great Sterling Hayden left a legacy of unforgettable compositions to the cinema. What is less known is that he was also a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, the ancestor of the CIA.
At least we did not know until the American government decided in 2008 to lift the secrecy of the archives over thousands of people, including the actor. The actor was notably assigned to the delivery of weapons in Yugoslavia for the partisans who fought against the Nazis, and was even parachuted into Croatia. He was decorated for his service, notably by the future Marshal Tito, at the head of Yugoslavia after the war. This also earned him a summons in 1951 to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUACC), the famous Parliamentary Committee on Un-American Activities, which at the time was hunting down communist sympathizers and activists…
Clark Gable (1901 – 1960)
The reasons which led Clark Gable to engage are painful. His wife, the actress carol lombardwho died in a plane crash on January 16, 1942, was declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first woman killed in the line of duty in wartime, and posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Considered too old to serve in the army (he was 40 at the time), Gable sent a telegram to the president to assign him a position in support of the war effort. Roosevelt answered him: “stay where you are”. Gable overstepped the presidential order and joined the US Air Force. Trained in aerial photography and as a gunner, he was sent to England with his six crew members in the 351st Air Unit. He carried out 5 missions, including an air raid in Germany, where one of his teammates succumbed while a bullet passed through the actor’s boot, brushing his head. MGM, the studio with which he was under contract, will arrange to have him reassigned to a less exposed position… Promoted to Major in 1944, he was relieved of his obligations on June 12 of the same year. It is said that, a great admirer of the actor, Adolf Hitler offered a large reward for whoever would bring the star captive to Berlin.
Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
Icon of German cinema first (unforgettable Lola Lola in The blue angel of Sternberg in 1930) before leaving to pursue a career in the United States where she was naturalized in 1939, Marlene Dietrich was an actress particularly committed against Nazism and her country during the war, not hesitating to put her celebrity at the service of the war effort after the entry into the war of the United States in the world conflict in December 1941.
She notably participated in the Hollywood Canteen, a club offering both entertainment and food to soldiers returning from missions during the Second World War, while collecting treasury bonds with Orson Welles. Joining the United Service Organizations (USO), a non-profit organization that provides recreational services and moral support to members of the American army, Dietrich left for the European front in April 1944 to support the morale of the troops.
Although showing an unfailing commitment, the all-powerful boss of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover had no confidence in her, however, to the point of having her mail opened and having her every move spied on to try to confuse her. According to FBI archives declassified in 2002, the actress-singer was particularly scrutinized between 1942 and 1944 at the request of Hoover. But the services of his agency found nothing that could incriminate him. Dietrich buried all suspicion when she applied to join the Office of Strategic Services in February 1944. Her assigned task was to gather information on subversive activities in Europe, as she toured the front lines. If the title of her mission is vague and we do not know the exact nature of the information she reported, it is now impossible to know more. The archives concerning his file were indeed partially burned in 1980, 12 years before his death.
Charles Bronson (1921-2003)
A real cinema face with the famous weathered face, Charles Bronson left an inimitable mark on cinema. Son of Lithuanian immigrants, living in extreme poverty (he was the 11th child of a family of 15), the future actor even worked in the coal mines at the age of 10, and was the first of his family to graduate. Enlisted in the US Air Force in 1943, he trained as a machine gunner with the 760th Air Gunner Training Squadron. In 1945, he was part of a crew of a B-29, a flying fortress, whose squadron was on the island of Guam, in the Pacific. He and his crew flew 25 bombing missions over Japan. He received a Purple Heart for wounds in action, and was discharged from military service in 1946.
Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982)
Henry Fonda was an actor already well established in the Hollywood landscape before the entry into the war of the United States, playing in particular at Fritz Lang (I have the right to live), or at John Ford in the superb Towards his destiny and On the trail of the Mohawks. Unlike many colleagues who left to join the ranks of the US Air Force, Fonda joined the Navy. “I don’t want to be in a studio war” blurted out the interested party, eager not to spend the war slipping behind a desk. For three years, he served as Quartermaster 3rd Class aboard the destroyer USS Satterlee. Promoted to lieutenant and fighting in the Pacific, he was awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Bronze Star.
Tony Curtis (1925 – 2010)
As Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis was drafted into the Navy during the war, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor which triggered the United States’ entry into the war. Sent to the theater of operations in the Pacific aboard a submarine supply ship, the USS Proteus, he remained there until the end of the war. On September 2, 1945, he witnessed the surrender of the Imperial Japanese troops in Tokyo Bay, while he was on the lookout of his ship, located just over a km away. Very proud of his military commitment, the actor will even bury with his medals.
Charlton Heston (1923 – 2008)
In 1944, Charlton Heston enlisted in the US Air Force. He served two years as a radio operator and air gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell stationed in the Aleutian Islands off southwestern Alaska with the 77th Bomber Squadron, 11th Air Force. He was then promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He will also participate in the campaign of Aleutian Islands.
Demobilized in March 1946, he will also lend his voice to military educational films under the supervision of the Ministry of Energy. Films on top secret subjects, since some of them concerned the development of nuclear weapons. For six years, the actor thus held thanks to this the highest level of security clearance in the government authorities of the country.