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Hollywood at War: Stars Who Served

September 2, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day, the day on which the Empire of Japan finally signed the surrender document, officially ending World War II in Asia. Future film star Tony Curtis, then a sailor in the United States Navy, actually witnessed much of the formal surrender activities in Tokyo Bay from his ship's signal bridge about a mile away. But Tony Curtis was not the only Hollywood celebrity who took up arms against the Axis Powers. Here is a list of 10 stars of the silver screen who served during World War II, either before or after they were famous.

1. James Stewart

Stewart enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Forces in February 1941. After receiving his basic training at Moffett Field, California, he served as flight instructor at Kirtland Army Air Field in Albuquerque, New Mexico and at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho. In July 1943, he reported to the Army Air Base in Sioux City, Iowa and was appointed commander of the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group. In November of that year, he led his 24 B-24H Liberators to England, where they became part of the 2nd Air Division, Eighth Air Force. Stewart's first mission was to bomb U-Boat facilities in Kiel, Germany, after which he was promoted to Major. He flew several other combat missions over Nazi-occuppied Europe, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. By the end of the war, Stewart had risen to the rank of Colonel.
LEFT: Major James Stewart with crew members of a B-24 Liberator nicknamed «Male Call» on their return from a raid (England, April 1944). RIGHT: Col. James Stewart receiving the Croix de Guerre from Lt. Gen. Henri Valin, Chief of Staff, French Air Forces (May 1945).

2. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Fairbanks joined the United States Navy in 1940. He participated in a few sea tours across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, before being attached to the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, a Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy and Chief of Combined Operations. Fairbanks worked closely with the British Commandos and then used his knowledge in military deception to organize a special warfare unit called the Beach Jumpers. Their first combat duty was Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, between July and August 1943. They also took part in Operation Dragoon, an amphibious assault on Southern France, between August and September 1944. For his service during the war, Fairbanks was awarded the Navy's Legion of Merit with bronze V (for valor), the French Légion d'honneur and the Croix de Guerre with palm, the Italian War Cross for Military Valor and the British Distinguished Service Cross.
LEFT: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his U.S. Navy uniform (c. 1945). RIGHT: Lt. Cmdr. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. with Cpt. Henry C. Johnson and Lt. Cmdr. John D. Bulkeley during operations off the coast of France following D-Day (August 1944).

3. Eddie Albert

Albert enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in September 1942, but was later discharged to accept a commission as a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. He served aboard the USS Sheridan and participated in the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. He fought in the first wave of combat and, while under heavy machine gun fire, rescued 47 Marines who were stranded offshore (he also supervised the rescue of 30 others). Due the noise of the battle, he lost portion of his hearing. For his actions in the Pacific Theatre of War, he was awared the Bronze Star Medal.
LEFT: Eddie Albert in his U.S. Naval Reserve uniform. RIGHT: The scene on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati, three days after battle. The lagoon beyond is where Lt. Edward Heimberger (Albert's given name) saved all those Marines.

4. David Niven

Niven was already a Lieutenant in the British Army when he rejoined the service in September 1939, right after Britain declared war on Germany. He worked with a motor training battalion in the Rifle Brigade, before being transferred into the Commandos. In June 1944, he participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord), although he was sent to France several days after D-Day. He served as the commander of A Squadron in the GHQ Liaison Regiment, a special reconnaissance unit known as «Phantom», which located and reported enemy positions and kept rear officers informed on changing battle lines. He also took part in Operation Market Garden, a failed mission to liberate the Netherlands in September 1944, and in the Battle of the Bulge, between December 1944 and January 1945. By the end of the war, Niven had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and was presented with the Legion of Merit Medal by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, upon his return to the United States.
LEFT: Major David Niven inspecting a vehicle at GHQ Liaison Regiment («Phantom») in Richmond Park (October 1942). RIGHT: Lt. Col. David Niven with a Royal Engineers officer during his service with «Phantom» in France (c. 1944-1945).

5. Charles Bronson

Bronson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943. He was sent to the Kingman Army Airfield in Arizona as an aircraft gunner in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron, although his initial assignment involved maintenance and operations of the base messes. In 1945, he was attached to the 61st Bombardment Squadron of the 39th Bombardment Group, based in Guam, and flew 25 combat missions against the Japanese home islands abroad a B-29 Superfortress. He received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in battle.
LEFT: Charles Bronson in his U.S. Army Air Forces uniform. RIGHT: A squadron of Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers at the Northwest Field in Guam, where Cpl. Charles D. Buchinsky (Bronson's given name) was stationed in the summer of 1945.

6. Tyrone Power

Power enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in August 1942. He went through boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in California, then Officer's Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, where he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in June 1943. Because he was already an experienced pilot, he was subsequently assigned to an accelerated flight training program at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas. He trained as a multiengine transport pilot and was promoted to First Lieutenant in April 1944. He served as a R5C co-pilot with the Marine Transport Squadron VMR-352, before being reassigned to VMR-353 and shipped out to combat in the Pacific in January 1945. The squadron was briefly based at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and then moved on to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. From there, Power flew numerous missions carrying supplies in and wounded Marines out during the Battles of Iwo Jima (February-March 1945) and Okinawa (April-June 1945).
LEFT: Lt. Tyrone Power and Major Marvin Schacher overseeing the building of the «Roosevelt Memorial Theatre» by squadron pilots and crewmen in the Mariana Islands (April 1945). RIGHT: Lt. Power in a chow line at the Omura Air Station in Japan (1945).

7. Richard Todd

Todd joined in the British Army soon after the outbreak of World War II. He was commissioned into the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1941, before joining the Parachute Regiment and the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion as part of the British 6th Airborne Division. On June 6, 1944, as a Captain, he participated in Operation Tonga, the overall British airborne landings in Normandy. He was one of the first British soldiers to land on D-Day as part of Operation Overlord. His battalion parachuted in to reinforce Major John Howard's glider-borne forces in the capture of Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. After fighting in Normandy for three months, the 6th Airborne Division reported back to England, but was later sent back to the continent as emergency reinforcements to halt the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. As the motor transport officer, Todd was responsible for gathering the much-needed vehicles to advance the Allied troops into Germany.
LEFT: Richard Todd is his British Army uniform. RIGHT: Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal, which Cpt. Richard Todd and his battalion helped to capture.

8. Jason Robards

Robards joined the U.S. Navy in 1940. After training, he was assigned to the USS Northampton as a radioman 3rd class. He took part in the Guadalcanal Campaign and saw action in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942 and in the Battle of Tassafaronga a month later. When the Northampton was sunk by Japanese torpedoes during the second battle, Robards was in the water for hours before being rescued by an American destroyer. In December 1944, he served aboard the USS Nashville during the invasion of Mindoro in the Philippines. After being struck by a Kamikaze aircraft, the Nashville was forced to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
LEFT: USS Northampton entering Pearl Harbor a day after the Japanese raid (December 8, 1941). RIGHT: Crewmen cleaning the USS Nashville's port after the Kamikaze hit.

9. Henry Fonda

Fonda joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He served a Quartermaster 3rd Class aboard the USS Satterlee, before being commissioned as a Lieutenant in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific. He assisted in the planning and execution of air operations for the Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign (July-November 1944) and the American invasion of Iwo Jima (February-March 1945). For his services in the Pacific Theatre of War, Fonda was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.
LEFT: Henry Fonda in his U.S. Navy uniform. RIGHT: USS Saterlee and other destroyers in Belfast Lough, Northern Ireland, while preparing for the invasion of Normandy (May 1944).

10. Mel Brooks

Brooks enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944. He attended the Army Specialized Training Program at the Virginia Military Institute and then was shipped off to Europe as a Corporal in the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division. He landed in Normandy after D-Day and advanced with the Allied troops through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and, finally, Germany. His unit was tasked with building bridges, clearing roads of debris and deactivating land mines, the last of which was Brooks' main responsibility. He also took part in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-1945, although he was not near the worst of the action.
LEFT: Students of the Army Specialized Training Program studying electrical engineering. RIGHT: Cpl. Melvin Kaminsky (Brooks' given name) in Europe during World War II.



  1. Had no idea about Mel Brooks! Have you read Robert Matzen’s book on Stewart’s war years? It’s really good.

    1. I didn't know about Mel Brooks either. I found out he served while doing research for this post and decided to include him too.

      I have read bits of that book, but I really want to read the whole thing.


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