By Danielle DeSimone
Before they were Academy Award winners and heroes on the silver screen, they were heroes in uniform and on the battlefield. From World War II to modern-day conflicts, these actors proved their mettle and served the American people well before they became household names.
Here are nine actors who were war heroes:
1. James “Jimmy” Stewart: The Highest-Ranking Actor in Military History
James “Jimmy” Stewart was already an Academy Award-winning actor and civilian pilot with 400 logged flight hours when he first enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. Known for his roles in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many other classic films, Stewart became the first major Hollywood actor to enlist in the military at the onset of the United States’ entry into World War II.
Stewart initially served as a flight instructor. However, concerned that his celebrity status would hold him back from truly serving, the actor appealed directly to his superiors and was eventually deployed to England, where he served as the commanding officer of the 703d Bomb Squadron. He would later transfer to the 453rd Bombardment Group and flew a total of 20 dangerous combat missions in the B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft; for his actions, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Cross medals and the French honor of the Croix de Guerre.
After WWII, even as he resumed his acting career, Stewart continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, even deploying to Vietnam, and would retire at the rank of brigadier general, making him the highest-ranking actor in American military history.
2. Paul Newman: In the Navy and Aboard the USS Bunker Hill
Paul Newman may be known for his starring roles in iconic films such as “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Hustler” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but the actor also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Enlisting in 1943, Newman initially enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 pilot training program but was disqualified upon the discovery that he was colorblind.
Instead, Newman served as a radioman and rear gunner for torpedo bombers. He was deployed to the Pacific Theatre where he was stationed aboard the USS Bunker Hill. In a stroke of luck, Newman’s pilot developed an ear infection just before his unit was set to leave for the Okinawa campaign, holding them back from flying and, ultimately, sparing them the fate of the rest of the ship, which was destroyed in the battle, killing many sailors on board.
Newman was discharged from the Navy in 1946, leaving service with the American Area Campaign medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
3. Marlene Dietrich: O.S.S. Spy and USO Entertainer
Although Marlene Dietrich did not serve directly in the U.S. Armed Forces, her actions during WWII certainly place her among the ranks of actors who were war heroes. Originally a German citizen, the actress was an outspoken opponent of Germany’s Nazi regime and eventually renounced her citizenship to become an American citizen.
She would go on to serve in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the predecessor of today’s CIA, in efforts to undermine Nazi morale, as well as sold war bonds and helped Jewish refugees escape to the United States.
Dietrich was also a USO entertainer, traveling straight to the front lines to perform, often risking her life to do so. Dietrich went on two USO tours during World War II, traveling first to North Africa and Italy, where she was the first entertainer to reach rescued Allied soldiers in Anzio, and then later to France and Germany, with this second tour lasting 11 months, beginning just on the heels of D-Day.
Her performances in the now-famous USO Camp Shows involved singing, dancing and a comedy routine with a musical saw, and she usually left Allied troops in fits of laughter. These moments of levity were crucial to boosting morale and keeping spirits high among American troops fighting a dangerous and grueling war, giving them a brief respite so that they could be ready to carry out the mission at hand.
4. Morgan Freeman: A Young Air Force Radar Technician
Known for his roles in “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and many more, Morgan Freeman actually turned down a scholarship for drama at Jackson State University to pursue his dream of flying in the U.S. Air Force.
Freeman joined the Air Force in 1955 with the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot, but instead served as a radar technician. The actor served for four years before deciding to change course and pursue his acting career.
5. Clark Gable: Capturing World War II Aerial Combat on Film
Clark Gable, an actor who was once known as “The King of Hollywood,” had already established a significant acting career, starring in films such as “It Happened One Night,” and “Gone with the Wind;” then, he decided to enlist in the military during World War II. Supposedly, two events factored into Gable’s decision to enlist: the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and one month later, Gable’s wife Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash as she was returning from a war bonds-selling tour.
Consumed with grief, Gable decided that his role in the war effort up to that point – leveraging his fame to encourage Americans to buy war bonds – was not enough. He decided to put his acting career on hold and join the military.
Despite his fame, Gable chose to enlist in the Army Air Corps as a private at the age of 41 and work his way up the ranks. After graduating from Officer Candidate School (OCS), he obtained further training as an aerial gunner and photographer. He was soon deployed to England, where he was assigned to film aerial gunners in action.
Although Gable’s main purpose was filmmaking and wartime photography on behalf of the U.S. military and government, he flew in several operational missions in the B-17G Flying Fortress bomber to film service members in aerial combat. Not only did the ensuing footage help galvanize the American people in support of the troops, it also stands today as a firsthand record of the realities of aerial combat during the war.
Gable had several close calls during these missions, including one particular moment in combat in which a 20mm shell crashed through the flight deck of the plane. Luckily, the shell only took off part of his shoe and passed by without exploding.
The actor was relieved from active duty in 1944 and joined the Reserves, but resigned his commission soon after in 1947 and continued his acting career.
6. Rob Riggle: From a Marine in Combat to Big-Time Comedian
Rob Riggle is best known for his comedy roles in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “The Hangover” and in Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” but before he was a big-screen actor, he was a Marine.
Riggle joined the Marine Corps in 1990 when he was in college and served as active duty for nine years before joining the Marine Corps Reserve, where he would serve an additional 14 years. During his time in service, he deployed to Liberia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan, obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Riggle recalled in a Task & Purpose interview that some of his most rewarding moments as a Marine included working in the “Bucket Brigades” at ground zero immediately following the 9/11 attacks, in which a line of volunteers passed five-gallon buckets full of debris down a line to investigators, who sifted through the debris in search of evidence and human remains. He also recalled helping evacuate and secure the American embassy in Liberia, assisting Albanian refugees, enforcing peace in Kosovo and being a part of the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban rule.
Even now that he is no longer in uniform, Riggle continues to serve by giving back to today’s service members as a USO entertainer, visiting troops stationed overseas.
7. Bea Arthur: A Trailblazing Female Marine in World War II
Bea Arthur charmed audiences for decades in her roles in “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “The Golden Girls.” But before she was winning Emmy Awards for sitcoms, Arthur was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Arthur joined many other American women who were inspired to serve in the military during World War II, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in 1943, just two months shy of her 21st birthday.
Throughout her military career, Arthur worked as a typist at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as truck driver and dispatcher at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Cherry Point, North Carolina. She was honorably discharged in 1945 at the rank of staff sergeant.
8. Elvis Presley: Six Years in the Army
In 1958, the King of Rock and Roll gave up his sequins and pompadour hairdo for a uniform and a buzzcut. Elvis Presley had been drafted into the U.S. Army, much to the dismay of his thousands of fawning fans.
Almost every branch of the military offered Presley so-called “cushy jobs” that would have allowed him to simply serve as a recruiting model, or play music for the troops. However, Presley insisted on enlisting as a regular soldier.
He would go on to serve in two different armor battalions throughout his two years of service and during that time was also deployed to Germany. Upon his return to the U.S., he would serve four more years in the Army Reserve before being officially discharged – and in the meantime, continued to star in movies and create iconic music that he is still known for today.
9. Adam Driver: From Marine to Big Screen
Adam Driver may play a villain in the “Star Wars” films, but he served as a hero in uniform before he began his acting career when he was a member of the Marine Corps. Driver was 18 years old on September 11, 2001, and the attacks on American soil inspired him to join the military.
Driver served as an 81mm mortarman assigned to the weapons platoon with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines at Camp Pendleton, California. He served for more than two and a half years however, just as his unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, Driver was unexpectedly injured in a motor vehicle accident. Driver would not only be unable to deploy – he was forced to leave the Marines as well.
“Being told I wasn’t going to deploy was very devastating,” Driver said.
Soon enough, Driver traded his rifle for a lightsaber and has starred in numerous “Star Wars” films, but still often discusses his time in the Marine Corps and gives back to the military community through nonprofit organizations.
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