In his lifetime, James Doohan fought with Klingons, Romulans, Greek gods, and a deep space probe named Nomad.
He struggled with interstellar engines, transporters, tribbles and William Shatner, but all of these fights paled in comparison to what he endured during WWII.
James “Jimmy” Doohan played the resourceful, hard-drinking and loyal “Scotty” on the original Star Trek series, a number of movies and reprised his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation. What many people outside the world of Star Trek fandom don’t know is that Doohan landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — “D-Day”.
Doohan was Canadian, not Scottish, and his family came from Ireland. He was born in Vancouver in 1920 to Irish immigrants.
Doohan’s father was a sort of medical jack of all trades – a dentist, veterinarian, and a pharmacist. He was also an alcoholic who made life very difficult for his family. When Jimmy was 19, he enlisted in the Canadian Army – just before the outbreak of WWII.
In 1940, Doohan had worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant and was in England with the 14th Field Artillery of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
Initially tasked with helping in the defense of England should the Germans invade, his first taste of combat came some four years later when they 3rd Canadian landed at Juno Beach – the beach designated for the mass of Canadian troops.
Juno Beach was the Canadians’ “Omaha.” Though less bloody than the American landing beach, Juno was no cakewalk, and Doohan’s unit faced the strength of two German battalions in their landing area.
Making life more difficult was the mass of equipment that accompanied them, making movement in the water and sand exceedingly difficult going.
During the monumental day, James Doohan single-handedly took out two German snipers who were holding up the men of his company.
Doohan’s unit, along with the majority of the Canadian forces that landed on Juno Beach that day, pushed inland and secured their first day’s objective.
It seemed like D-Day had gone as well as could be expected for the future Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, but at around 11pm, as Doohan was making the rounds of his men, a nervous sentry opened fire, mistaking the lieutenant for a German.
Jimmy was hit six times: once in his right hand (which took off his middle finger – look hard and you can spot the wound, but Doohan tried hard to hide it during his acting career), four times in the left knee and once in the chest.
Luckily, Doohan was a smoker – the metal cigarette case he kept in his breast pocket deflected the bullet, avoiding his heart. Later in life, Jimmy would joke that “Smoking had saved his life.”
When he recovered from his wounds, he returned to the artillery, but this time he trained as an observation pilot, spotting German positions and directing/correcting Canadian artillery fire.
The plane he flew was a Taylorcraft Auster – a slow moving, wooden and canvas plane that afforded its pilots little protection.
Though Doohan was not in the Canadian Air Force, some dubbed him the “Craziest Pilot in the Canadian Air Force” because he often flew in a daredevil, haphazard way – most notably when he flew between two closely placed telephone poles, “just to prove that he could.”
When WWII ended, Doohan returned to Canada and was listening to the radio during the holiday season of 1945-46 when he listened to “the worst drama he ever heard” on the local radio station. On a whim, he went down to the station and did a recording of his own.
Doohan had a knack for voices and accents. The station manager recommended that he enroll at a drama school in Toronto, and eventually he won a scholarship to attend the well-known Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
From there, it was “onward and upward”…he got roles on Bonanza, Bewitched, and a number of roles for the stage and radio. In 1966, he auditioned for the role of the ship’s engineer.
There is a long history of Scotsmen being engineers in the Royal Navy and in the cruise lines of the early 20th century, and Doohan told Gene Roddenberry (the series’ originator) that if his character was going to be an engineer, he should be Scottish. The rest is television history.
James Doohan passed away in 2005. Fittingly, his ashes were taken into orbit and scattered in space.