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Hollywood Goes to War

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When the United States entered WWII, life changed for Hollywood actors, on and off the screen. Studios shifted to making movies to bolster patriotism and morale, while actors often supported the war effort differently. Some led recruitment and bond drives, and others entertained troops. A few left Hollywood altogether and joined the United States Armed Forces. Here are a few Hollywood actors who played a part in WWII.

Major James M. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 3 May 1944

Jimmy Stewart was an Academy Award-winning actor when he traded tuxedos for military fatigues at the height of his career. In March 1941, Stewart enlisted in the US Army and went from a $12,000/month job as a Hollywood A-lister to a $21/month job as a private in the US Army. Military officials were hesitant to send someone so famous overseas, but Stewart refused preferential treatment. He served in the 8th Air Force and flew more than 20 combat missions over Europe. Stewart received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre. By the time the war ended, he had achieved the rank of brigadier general, making him the highest-ranked Hollywood actor.

Paul Newman during WWII

Paul Newman was a radioman/gunner in torpedo bombers in the United States Navy during WWII. He enlisted in 1943 at age 18, hoping to become a pilot, but he was rejected because he was color blind. Newman spent three years in the Pacific Theater. Following the war, Newman studied drama and made his Broadway debut in 1953, where he met his future wife, Joanne Woodward. They married in 1958. His breakout role occurred in 1956 in Somebody Up There Likes Me.

Charlton Heston received a scholarship to Northwestern University, where he studied drama. In 1944, before his film career took off, Heston enlisted in the US Army. He was a radio gunner in the 77th Bomb Squad of the 11th Air Force and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. While there, he flew combat missions to the Kuril Islands north of Japan. Heston achieved the rank of staff sergeant. Following the war, Heston’s Hollywood debut occurred in 1950 when he starred in Dark City. He is also known for his iconic performance of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Charlton Heston WWII Draft Registration Card

Clark Gable was already an established movie star in 1942 when he joined the US Army. Gable was married to actress Carole Lombard, but in January 1942, Lombard was killed in a plane crash while returning from a war bond tour. Mourning her loss, Gable joined the Army that August. He flew combat missions as a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps, serving in the 359th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group. Among his fans was Adolf Hitler, who offered a reward to German troops if they could capture Gable alive. They were never successful, and Gable was discharged in 1944.

Clark Gable encourages Americans to buy War Bonds on a broadcast from England during WWII

Henry Fonda made a name for himself in Hollywood in 1940 when he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Grapes of Wrath. He was a good friend and former roommate of Jimmy Stewart, and the two had raised money for the defense of Britain. When war broke out, Fonda said, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” He enlisted in the US Navy and served three years as a quartermaster on the USS Satterlee, later qualifying as an air combat intelligence officer. He was discharged in 1945 and returned to Hollywood to pick up his career in film.

Henry Fonda

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76 Comments

  1. Dozens served from a time when Hollywood supported 2A, both on screen and off.

    Johnny Carson, Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert, Charles Bronson, Charles Durning… and many more. Even Bea Arthur.

    Please also remember many pro baseball players served – Ted Williams twice.

  2. Syble Cranford says:

    I knew some of Hollywood’s stars had served in WW11, but didn’t know all of these mentioned here. Awesome records of brave guys serving their country. I salute you Fold3.

  3. Kathleen Swallow says:

    Lee Marvin served in the 4th Marine Division during the invasion of Saipan, injured on June 18, 1944. My father sustained a more serious injury, but I assume they both rode together on the USS Solace en route to the Navy Hospital in New Caledonia.

  4. Kristen Reilly says:

    Audie Murphy!

    • Max McMillon says:

      Audie Murphy was actually an actor after WWll.

    • Gwen Hilton says:

      Audie Murphy became famous because of his heroism in WW II. He was just a poor kid from Texas who was a really amazing soldier. He received more medals as one of the “Marne Men” than any other soldier.
      He had some roles in Hollywood upon returning from the war.

  5. You forgot one ! Robert Taylor was in the Navy ! My dad served under him !

  6. Butch colby says:

    How could you forget Audie Murphy

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      Audie Murphy would have been a great one to highlight. Maybe we’ll have to do a part 2!

  7. Joe Spears says:

    Audie Murphy was unknown before his military service.

  8. Bill P says:

    Let’s not forget about Glen Miller (Big Band era)

  9. Jeff says:

    ….and then there was John Wayne who wore every uniform except the real one…

    • Bob Anderson says:

      John Wayne tried to enlist in the military, but was rejected. I believe it had something to do with his leg.

    • Joann Hankemeyer says:

      I agree can’t stand watching his phony war movie

  10. Lannie Bartlett says:

    He was drafted, but Desi Arnaz was a SSGT in the US Army from 1942-1948. And yes, he was already in show business.

  11. T.Cameron says:

    DAVID NIVEN left Hollywood at the outbreak of war and re enlisted in the British Army
    It wasn’t long after being commissioned that Niven was drafted into the Commandos and given command of “A” Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment. Better known as “Phantom,” they were anything but a liaison group. The men served all over Europe, and most notably saw action on D-Day and during Operation Market Garden.

    During the former, some of the Commandos landed alongside the first wave of airborne troops; their mission was to report intelligence on the location of Allied forces the day following the initial landings. Niven and his men then traveled with the US 1st Infantry Division as they moved toward the Rhine.

    On top of this, he also played a large role in the creation of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force’s (SHAEF) efforts to entertain troops via radio. In 1944, he worked with the BBC to expand these efforts, and even worked alongside Glenn Miller, who disappeared while flying over the English Channel in December 1944.

    For his service, Niven was awarded the American Legion of Merit and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel

    • John Stubbs says:

      And unlike many mentioned here, Niven afterwards refused to talk about his wartime service or even mention the brave and vital role he played.

    • David Keser says:

      David Niven’s bat-man was Peter Ustinov. In the British military officers had orderlies. After the war he helped Ustinov begin an acting career.

  12. Richard Whiting Jr says:

    Stewart left active duty for the reserves in 1947. He was promoted to brigadier general on July 23, 1959. That’s quite a few years after the war ended.

  13. Barb Kucharcyk, Lt Colonel, USAF, retired says:

    A number of women also served !! Some in military uniform (Bea Arthur, USMC; Martha Raye, USAR-two Purple Hearts) others in the American Volunteer Services (Betty White)…

    Why are women NOT represented in this article?

    • Jenny Ashcraft says:

      You are right! Let’s do a followup and highlight heroic women!

    • Suzanne Bowman Thompson says:

      Even today, in 2024, few acknowledge that women served or are serving in the armed forces.
      Suzanne Bowman, Cpt. USANC-RC

  14. Larry Ogden says:

    Jimmy Stewart wasn’t promoted to Brigadier General until 1959, 14 years after the war ended.

  15. Marianne Hudar says:

    Another great article Jenny!
    I’d like to add Josephine Baker to your list.
    I just finished reading a book about her.
    The book highlights the role she played during World War II.

  16. Mark Sampogna says:

    My father went through Navy basic training with Gene Kelly at Great Lakes

  17. Curt Campbell says:

    My hat is off to all of them! Seems Hollywood had a good showing as part of the “Greatest Generation”.

  18. MARIA DICHOV says:

    Douglas Fairbanks Jr. served, I believe.

  19. Dale Holley says:

    All who served, no matter what branches of
    Military campaigns, deserves the respect!!!
    We all raised our hands, to serve and the women
    Too!!! They don’t get much as of an acknowledgement, but some died while serving
    Like Baatan death march, Corregidor, many ships
    Wasp female aviator, but never the less served.
    Desert Storm proved that? P.O.W captured and
    Later rescued Jessica Lynch, but no matter for
    All who served standing on the shoulder of
    Former soldiers and Ancestors.
    Be extremely proud of your service
    Dale Holley DSV 90-91

  20. Wayne Bonnett says:

    Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather) joined the marines during the war and served with OSS, parahcuting behind enemy lines in Greece and Yugoslavia.

  21. Greg says:

    I met Jimmy Stewart’s son Mike in BlackHawk, Colorado in 2005. He said he is the Commander of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and was to report there the next day. He was far over-celebrating the moment haha because he did not think he may survive what was to come!! What a treat to meet him!!

  22. Michael Davis says:

    Can you imagine today’s action film stars serving? I can’t imagine it?

    • Dale Holley says:

      Like, Chuck Norris, George Peppard,Pat Tillman and probably a few more

    • Dale Holley says:

      Michael,

      Granted some that have served, has been awhile
      Back but served all the same.
      Chuck Norris, George Peppard, Mr T, Hal Smith,
      Adam Driver, MC Hammer, Ice T, Pat Tillman,
      Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood, Jesse Ventura,
      Drew Carey, Morgan Freeman,

  23. Hillary Wilson says:

    Yul Brynner also served as a translator during wwII.

    • Joann Hankemeyer says:

      Dale Holly Clint Eastwood was drafted during Korea and ended up being a swim instructor. Really !

  24. Bill P says:

    Don’t forget Captain Kangaroo!

  25. Bill P says:

    Don’t forget about Captain Kangaroo!

  26. Michael Henderson says:

    I’d like to make note of two MLB catchers who served: HOF Yogi Berra, USN D-Day (rocket ship, I believe) and Moe Berg (U.S. Army/OSS).

    • Dale Holley says:

      Michael,

      As far , as athletic people many served in past
      And current service as well,but to add to your
      Point?

      Ted Williams USMC, Joe DiMaggio USA, Bob Feller Usn, Roger Staubach Usn, David Robinson Usn,
      Pat Tillman USA/Kia
      And many other athletes in all Sports venues

      But most, prolific is the Military Olympics Teams
      And Paralyzed veterans of America

    • Bill Hahn says:

      Excellent movie about Berg, ‘The Catcher Was A Spy’. Journeyman ballplayer, but a polyglot genius who picked up the basics of nuclear physics for a mission. Princeton grad if I’m not mistaken.

    • James Horn says:

      In the first year of the war, athletes were subject to the draft unlike actors, who were sometimes considered worth more for their propaganda and training filme value. Hence “A Leaguer of Their Own”. The women’s league was started because so many male athletes were overseas. As for those who remained, one team had a one armed outfielder who caught flies, tossed the ball in the air, shucked off his glove, and caught the ball again to throw in to the infielders.
      Afterward, FDR declared that baseball was an important morale boost for the public and the pressure on athletes eased a bit.
      After the war, my father played in a church based fast pitch softball team in DC. They were unbeatable because they had the championship pitcher/catcher duo from the Pacific Fleet.

  27. Joseph Slomka says:

    Jason Robards was an radio operator on a Navy ship some where near
    Pearl Harbor, but not in the attack. He heard the radio message that
    Pearl was under attack. He even narrated a DVD about the attack.

  28. Lew England says:

    How about Irish actor Richard Todd who enlisted in the British Army in 1939. In the film THE LONGEST DAY he played Major John Howard the Commander of the British paratroopers who, landing by gliders, were probably the first unit into Normandy. They captured the key Pegasus Bridge with orders to “Hold until relieved”. Young Lt. Richard Todd was actually an officer, in the relief column, of paratroopers, who helped defend the bridge against several German assaults. Another actor played Richard Todd in THE LONGEST DAY.

  29. Alexander R Blasenheim says:

    From: Wikipedia: When the United States joined World War II, [Hank]Greenberg was the first major leaguer to join the armed forces; he spent 47 months in military service, more than any other major league player, all of which took place during what would have been prime years in his major league career. Like many players who served in WWII, his career statistics suffered because of the war and would have certainly been higher had he not served in the armed services during wartime.

    • Lana Temple says:

      I’ve read about him and that he was Jewish and fought against the nazis, the very criminals that were trying to annihilate all the Jewish ppl OKin their path

  30. Catherine Davidson says:

    I believe the USO should also be recognized. They rallied the troops with entertainment and brought treats to the men and women who were serving. Bob Hope, The Andrews Sisters and many more. They were just as much in harms way while they were on a base.

  31. Dennis says:

    Mel Brooks and Ronald Reagan.

    Someone above mentioned Charles Durning — what a story.

  32. Bob Murray says:

    Wiliam Holden served as a second and then a first lieutenant in the United States Army Air Force during World War II, where he acted in training films for the First Motion Picture Unit, including Reconnaissance Pilot (1943). He also starred in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

  33. Lew England says:

    My uncle, Fred Clifford, joined the Merchant Marine at age 16. Served in the South pacific during WWII. His ship supplied troops in New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The ship was under air attack on a number of occasions. He and his shipmate stayed in the Merchant Marine after the war and only parted ways when his buddy announced he was giving up the sea for acting class in NY. His buddy, Cliff Robertson, went on to star in movies and win an Academy Award. They remained lifelong friends.

  34. Marilyn says:

    And let’s not forget William Wyler who directed ‘The Story of a Flying Fortress; The Memphis Belle’

  35. George says:

    I think Donald O’Connor may also have served in WWII.

  36. George Brose says:

    Dennis Weaver was a pilot. Don’t know which branch

  37. Robin says:

    William Windom became an actor after he was discharged, having gotten a taste in some plays while in service. He told me that they made costumes out of captured Nazi flags. He was a paratrooper who jumped in Belgium and I believe in the Battle of the Bulge. In later years, he developed two one-man shows based on the wartime writings of war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

  38. TB says:

    Dan Blocker (Hoss on Bonanza) was with my father on the frontline in the Korean War with the 45th Division

  39. Norman Delaney says:

    I didn’t see Tyrone Power on the list or Mr. Rogers

  40. Maggie Rhodes says:

    Ed McMahon served as well. He was a USMC aviator in the Pacific. My dad was in airfield security and mentioned him quite often in stories.

  41. Cindra Weber says:

    Tyrone Power was a Marine pilot

  42. Barbara Carroll says:

    And then there was Dorothy Lamore.

  43. Mary K O'Donnell says:

    Ernest Borgnine: found online this information.
    Ernest Borgnine was an American actor. Prior to his entry into Hollywood, Borgnine served in the US Navy throughout the course of the Second World War. He joined the United States Navy in 1935, after graduation from James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut. He was discharged in 1941, but re-enlisted when the United States entered World War II, and served until 1945, reaching the rate of Gunner’s Mate 1st Class2.

    • Mary K O'Donnell says:

      Sorry – realized he served prior to acting – still an impressive service

  44. Robert Rowland says:

    George Peppard was in the US Marine Corps.
    https://www.facebook.com/share/2D3YY2FhkNswuCyH/?mibextid=WC7FNe

  45. James Horn says:

    Re: Heston’s service in the Aleutians.
    The Aleutians were basically a sideshow, but for aviators, they were no joke. My Uncle trained as a fighter pilot. When his class graduated, he was held back to become an instructor, and another pilot, a college football player, was held back for the post commander’s team. The rest of the class shipped out to the Aleutians. By the end of a month, my uncle and the football player were the sole survivors of the class. The rest were mostly victims of packed clouds, or lost when they ran out of fuel over open ocean. The weather was horrendous, and the bases were often snugged up against the bases of volcanos.
    Heavy bombers were a bit safer with much larger fuel reserves, but the landing fields were still often dangerous, even in good weather.

  46. Gregory McCarthy says:

    I read that John Wayne wanted to enlist during WWII, but the movie bosses threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he did.

  47. Tiff says:

    The men listed here who flew bombers kind of shook me a little for a special, personal reason. Last year, I got a right wrist tattoo for my late grandfather. He was a 1st Lt. in WW2. His position was as a bombadier pilot, and part of their attire right down to their military picture frame was a pair of wings with a propellar in the middle! Grandpa had it multiple times on his clothing and hat. Clark Gabel and Jimmy Stewart have this pin on them if you look at both sides of their collars. Their had would most likely have the same. I wear my tat for grandpa, but it is also for the brave hero’s and the bravery if those left in the states! This was the greatest generation and I will live my entire life since proud of all they gave! Giving up fame for your nation’s cause, as well as the cause of thise in need globally is selfless and brave. Hero’s, if there could be a greater word to decribe them, I would use that instead

  48. Tiff says:

    The men listed here who flew bombers kind of shook me a little for a special, personal reason. Last year, I got a right wrist tattoo for my late grandfather. He was a 1st Lt. in WW2. His position was as a bombadier pilot, and part of their attire right down to their military picture frame was a pair of wings with a propellar in the middle! Grandpa had it multiple times on his clothing and hat. Clark Gabel and Jimmy Stewart have this pin on them if you look at both sides of their collars. Their hat would most likely have the same (depending on rank). I wear my tat for grandpa, but it is also for the brave hero’s as a whole, and for the bravery of those left in the states who built weapons, clothing, ammo, aircraft and machines! This was the greatest generation and I will live my entire life since proud of all they gave! Giving up fame for your nation’s cause, as well as being a solution to the enemy’s cause and saving those in need globally is selfless and brave. Heroes, if there could be a greater word to decribe them, I would use that instead

  49. Nancy Shows says:

    If anyone is interested, I have two boards on Pinterest devoted to celebrity and famous veterans. There are 1534 veterans so far.

  50. Thanks for sharing these stories.
    Jimmy Stewart was a pilot with the 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force who flew from Norfolk, England. You can find out about the groups he flew with -the 445th Bomb Group at Old Tibenham and the 453rd at Old Buckenham on the 2nd Air Division Archive https://digitalarchive.2ndair.org.uk/ and at americanlibrary.uk . He also spent time at 2nd Air HQ at Ketteringham Hall. He is fondly remembered here and took part in many commemorations and reunions in the years after the war.

  51. Norman Delaney says:

    George Gobel actor and comedian during the 1960s served in the Army Air Corps

  52. kippie rohulich says:

    Miss Ashcroft,
    I enjoy your article—–I have never served but my husband was in the Air Force. I would enjoy if you would follow up with another article—-mention the women . If I see someone in uniform or a hat saying they have served —-I always say thank you.

  53. Murph says:

    Daniel Hale Rowan (of Rowan and Martin) was a fighter pilot in the Pacific. I believe he received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Purple Heart.

  54. Marianne Hudar says:

    Let’s not forget the Hollywood Canteen girls!
    I remember seeing a picture with Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake and Deanna Durbin entertaining WWII troops at a Hollywood Canteen.
    My father personally met Olivia DeHaviland at a Hollywood Canteen, while he was serving in the Army Corp of Engineers.

  55. Detlev-Lothar Werk St. says:

    Highly interesting data on all those men and women who served their country; patriotism and sense of duty were still “in”, made their hearts glad, and in some cases because of it, it propelled them to higher careers once back home, then they might otherwise have had! All in all, it was a great generation of men and women to fight for their country and families at home.
    I’ll quickly add, even the “other side” had devoted duty-bound soldiers, who died for their country without hate in their heart for their “opposites”. Many too had wives and children at home, waiting for their dad to return after that duty was done.
    War is misery – no matter what side you’re on – may we have learned to avoid it !!
    Mr. Detlev-Lothar Werk Sr.
    former ‘Blue Spader’, 7A/1D/26Inf/1BG

  56. Norman Delaney says:

    Odd that no one has mentioned Alan Ladd (“Shane”). He was very sensitive about his height, only 5′ 6″. He was in the army but mainly involved with producing army training films. He had a close friend, William Bendix but the friendship ended abruptly when Bendix jokingly commented how easy he had it.

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