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Paul Newman almost died in action and other iconic Hollywood stars who served during WW2

Immediately after the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing nearly 2,500 people and destroying a considerable number of battleships and planes, the entire nation joined the war effort in some way. Actors were no different.


Among the millions of Americans who answered the call to join the armed services were some of the biggest names in film, leaving the comfort of Hollywood to serve their nation. Many of them had been cast in war movies, but this time the screenplay was not in their hands and no stuntmen were available to take on the most dangerous scenes.

Serving their country during the darkest of times was to be their most significant role and many of them deserve to be honored, not simply because they joined the armed forces, but because they inspired many others to do the same. Here are some of the bravest Hollywood actors who risked their lives to serve their nation.

Charles Bronson

Bronson as Dan Shomron in Raid on Entebbe (1977).
Bronson as Dan Shomron in Raid on Entebbe (1977).

Charles Bronson made a name for himself by playing tough guy and antihero roles. But he had proved that he was a real-life tough guy years before he appeared as one on the big screen. The legendary actor, who starred as Henry Fonda’s nemesis in Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West and as the anti-hero in Death Wish, enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in 1943 and served as a tail gunner.

He was only five foot nine inches tall. which made him perfect for arguably the most dangerous combat position: tail gunner. Stuck in the rear end of the aircraft, tail gunners had slim chance of survival and it is no wonder that this assignment in World War II had the highest casualty rates.

However, Bronson managed to survive the “airman’s coffin,” taking part in 25 missions and receiving a Purple Heart when World War II came to an end.

Charlton Heston

Publicity photo of Charlton Heston for the film The President’s Lady.
Publicity photo of Charlton Heston for the film The President’s Lady.

The man who earned the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler’s epic  Ben-Hur and starred as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments reached the rank of staff sergeant during World War II.

Charlton Heston joined the military in 1944 at the age of 21 and served two years as a radio operator and aerial gunner on a B-25 Mitchell.

Although Heston never saw combat because he was stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, after becoming a Hollywood star he was asked by the military to narrate some highly classified military films about nuclear weapons. This task required him to hold the nation’s highest security clearance level, known as “Q clearance,” for six years.

Paul Newman

Newman in his first film, The Silver Chalice (1954)
Newman in his first film, The Silver Chalice (1954)

We’re all aware of Newman’s achievements in acting, auto racing, and philanthropy, but what most people don’t know is that in the years before he rose to stardom in Hollywood, Paul Newman was part of the United States Navy and served during World War II.

His initial plan was to join the Navy’s V-12 program at Yale University and become a pilot, but it was soon discovered that he was color blind and was instead sent to boot camp where he eventually qualified himself as a radioman and gunner.

The iconic actor, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Scorsese’s The Color of Money, nearly lost his life during World War II. His squadron was in Saipan when the pilot of his crew was forced to ground the airplane due to an ear infection. The rest of Newman’s squadron was transferred to the USS Bunker Hill and only two days later they were killed by kamikaze aircraft. He was lucky enough not to be aboard when the incident occurred and managed to survive the war.

Rock Hudson

Hudson c. 1955.
Hudson c. 1955.

In 1982, Rock Hudson appeared as Thomas McKenna, the president of the United States in the miniseries titled World War III. However, in real-life he served in the Philippines as an aircraft mechanic during World War II.

Years before he became known as the leading man of the 1950s and 1960s and a feature of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Rock Hudson enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Upon receiving his training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Hudson was assigned to the SS Lew Wallace, which sailed to an island in the Philippines, where he started his military career. He served as an aircraft mechanic until 1945, when he was transferred to the laundry as there were no more planes to be unloaded from carriers.

Jimmy Stewart

Unlike Hudson, Newman, Heston, and Bronson, Jimmy Stewart had already appeared in a number of movies, including You Can’t Take It With YouMr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Destry Rides Again, before he enlisted in the military.

Coming from a family with a tradition of service in the Army, Stewart was destined to have a fascinating military. He was a flying enthusiast and had already gained his private pilot certificate in 1935, but was turned down for service because he was underweight.

Studio publicity photo of James Stewart.
Studio publicity photo of James Stewart.

However, he was determined to join the Army and spent the following period eating pasta and steaks, hoping to reach the weight needed to enlist. In March 1941, he successfully enlisted with the Air Corps and spent the next nine months at Moffett Field, California, where he received his basic training.

In January 1942, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served as a four-engine instructor at Moffett Field before he was eventually sent overseas. Stewart took part in 20 important combat missions and by the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of colonel. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

Henry Fonda

Fonda in Navy uniform.
Fonda in Navy uniform.

Henry Fonda said that he didn’t like being in a fake war in film studios and decided that it would be best for him to join the military and help his country. Fonda was 37 years old when he joined the Navy in 1942 and began his service as a quartermaster 3rd Class aboard the destroyer USS Satterlee.

Working in operations and air-combat intelligence in the Central Pacific, Fonda was awarded a Bronze Star and Navy Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism during World War II. He had risen to the rank of lieutenant by 1945, when he was discharged.

Jackie Coogan

Jackie Coogan.
Jackie Coogan.

Widely known as Uncle Fester from the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family, Jackie Coogan is also considered the first major child star in American movie history. But what is less well known about him is that he took part in the war effort, enlisting in the Army before the United States had officially entered the war.

Following the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, Coogan requested a transfer to the Army Air Force as he was an experienced civilian pilot. Upon graduation from glider school, he was made a flight officer and soon participated in a very dangerous mission.

In March 1944, Coogan was among the glider pilots who took part in a mission in Burma known as Operation Broadway. On March 5, 1944, he flew some of Orde Wingate’s Chindits into Burma and helped the Allies establish a foothold behind Japanese lines in the country.

Tony Curtis

Publicity photo of Tony Curtis.
Publicity photo of Tony Curtis.

Tony Curtis, the star of The Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like it Hot, Operation Petticoat, and over 100 other movies, was also a U.S. Navy veteran.

He was among the many Americans who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, joining the Pacific submarine force. From 1943 until 1945, Curtis served in the Pacific Theatre as part of the submarine force as a Signalman 3rd class.

On September 2, 1945, Curtis was onboard the USS Proteus and watched the ceremony in Tokyo Bay in which the Japanese surrendered. He was awarded the WWII Victory Medal, the Asia-Pacific Medal, and the American Area Medal.

Clark Gable

Publicity photo of Clark Gable
Publicity photo of Clark Gable

Perhaps the biggest of the Hollywood stars who joined the Armed Forces was “the King of Hollywood”:  Clark Gable.

Emotionally and physically devastated after his beloved wife, Carol Lombard, died in a plane crash, joining the Army seemed to be the only thing that could rally his spirit, so he wrote a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for a role in the war effort.

Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on August 12, 1942, as a gunner, and after completing the 13-week training he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Although Gable was 40 years old when he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Force he participated in many high-profile combat missions during the war.

The Germans considered the famous actor enemy number one and made several unsuccessful attempts to capture him alive. Reportedly, Adolf Hitler, who was one of Gable’s greatest fans, offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could capture Clark Gable and bring him to Germany.

Related story from us: During WWII, famous Hollywood director Frank Capra filmed motivational documentaries for American soldiers

Hitler’s plan to capture Gable proved to be unsuccessful and the actor returned to the United States safe and sound. For his heroic service, he was awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News