From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans

Khalid Elhassan - October 5, 2017

We often view celebrities and famous people solely through the lens of what we see on screen, or what we read of them in the news and gossip columns. However, at some point before those famous people actually became famous or celebrities, most of them were just like everybody else: Joe and Jane Schmoes making their way through life as best they knew how, and occasionally facing, confronting, and dealing in their own ways with the larger events surrounding them and shaping their world.

Few events shaped today’s world more than WWII, and many of the Greatest Generation ended up as veterans. Returning to civilian life, some ended up as celebrities, and their public image, whether sunny and funny or grim, often hid the fact that they had participated in the greatest conflict the world had ever known. Even those who were already established celebrities when WWII erupted, had to figure out how to deal with it.

Some took advantage of their connections to avoid military service and the risk to life and limb – their ranks include some of the biggest “tough manly man” icons of the post-WWII era, who became famous for their on-screen portrayals of those who had stepped up to the plate the macho actors had shied away from in real life. Others put on uniform, but used their connections to secure safe postings far from danger. Others yet, although they could easily have stayed out of it, put their celebrity aside, stepped up to the plate, and put their lives on the line.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Clark Gable, WWII B-17 waist gunner. Pintreest

Following are 12 famous figures, celebrities and social activists, whom most people don’t know had also been WWII veterans:

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Johnny Carson in the US Navy and later in life. Pinterest

Johnny Carson

Acclaimed talk show host and comedian Johnny Carson (1925 – 2005) hosted The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, for which he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, won a Peabody Award, as well as six Emmys. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian award. He was also a WWII US Navy veteran.

From early childhood, Carson exhibited a talent for reeling them in. At age 12, he came across a book on magic tricks and decided he would become a magician. He bought a mail-order magician’s kit, and started doing tricks to entertain family and friends. His favorite were card tricks, and he took to following people around with a deck of cards while pestering them to “pick a card. Any card” – which became a signature expression during his TV career.

After graduating high school, 17-year-old Carson joined the US Navy in 1943. He sought to enter a pilot training program but was sent instead to the Navy College Training Program, which put tens of thousands of officer candidates through a course of study in colleges and universities preparatory to their commissioning. Carson was sent to Columbia University, and after completing his course, was commissioned an ensign in 1945.

He was sent to the Pacific and assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania as a communications officer. Carson also took up amateur boxing while in the Navy, and ran up a 10-0 record, with most of the matches taking place aboard Pennsylvania. He had been en route to the combat zone in August of 1945 when the war ended, so saw no combat. However, he did see its aftermath: Pennsylvania had been torpedoed two days before he joined the ship. The damaged vessel sailed to Guam for repairs, and as the newest and most junior officer, Carson was tasked with the removal of 20 dead sailors.

Reminiscing about his naval experience, Carson thought that the highlight of his naval career was performing a card trick for James Forrestal, the notoriously cantankerous Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal was amused, and the realization that he could entertain somebody so crabby boosted Carson’s confidence. After the war, he graduated college then went to work for Red Skelton’s show as a TV writer. Moving to New York City, he became the host of The Tonight Show in 1962, and the rest is history.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Mel Brooks. Deadline

Mel Brooks

Born Melvin James Kaminsky in 1926, the Brooklyn-born funnyman best known for directing side-splitting farcical comedies such as Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is hardly the kind of person you would expect to have once performed life and death type of dangerous work. Yet, that is precisely what Mel Brooks did in WWII.

Mel Brooks was raised in poverty by a single mother after his father’s untimely death during Brooks’ infancy. Growing up small and sickly in the tougher parts of Brooklyn, Brooks developed a sense of humor and a precocious comedic talent early on, which came in handy to diffuse confrontations and avoid getting picked on and beaten up – most of the time.

He enlisted in the US Army in 1944 at age 17, and scoring high in the Army’s aptitude and IQ testing, was shunted into the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and sent to learn important skills such as engineering, and some of dubious value in 1944, such as horseback riding and fencing. He did not get to complete ASTP because the combat arms complained of its absurdity and that it deprived them of the brightest recruits. The program was terminated, and Brooks was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was trained as an artillery observer.

Sent to Europe in 1944, his first assignment was as a forward artillery observer. He was then assigned to a combat engineer unit, where his tasks included defusing land mines. In addition to clearing landmines – a hairy job made even hairier when he had to do it while exposed to enemy fire – he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-1945.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Mel Brooks during WWII. History Channel

He observed that “War isn’t hell. War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing“. He distilled his wartime experience to its essence when asked what he thought during the war about saving Europe and the world: “You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night. How you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without a German sniper taking you out. You didn’t worry about tomorrow“. Aware of the jarring contrast between his funnyman persona and his serious wartime experience, he once mused to reporters: “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering“.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
US Army Air Forces Captain Clark Gable in 1944. Defense Media Network

Clark Gable

Once known as “The King of Hollywood“, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) was one of the silver screen’s greatest legends, starring in over 60 movies. Perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind, he won an Oscar as Best Actor for his lead in It Happened One Night. Other notable films in which he starred and that met both critical and commercial success include Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hucksters, and The Misfits, his last film, as well as that of his co-star, Marilyn Monroe. When America entered WWII, notwithstanding that he was Hollywood’s biggest star at the time and its greatest box office draw, he took a break from acting to fight the Axis.

Gable had quit school at age 16 to work in a tire factory and decided to become an actor after seeing a play. He took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to selling neckties, until 1924, when he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream. He started working as an extra, and after years of bit parts and stints in the theater, he got a contract from MGM in 1930, and garnered notice for a powerful performance in his first starring role in The Painted Desert. He built upon that success, and when MGM paired him with established female stars such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, the combination steamed the screen and he became an insta-star.

By the time America entered WWII, he was MGM’s biggest earner. Following his wife’s death in an air crash while returning from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to OCS, which he completed in October 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, general Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England and tasked with making a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America.

During 1943, to obtain the combat footage needed for his recruitment film, he flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, including a bombing raid into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real: during one mission, his B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by fighters. On another mission over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after being struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head.

When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s brushes with death, it worked its connections to have Gable reassigned to noncombat duty. For his service in Europe, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal, and in late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He hoped for another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without his receiving a combat assignment, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was 43 years old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the Air Forces reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Josephine Baker. CMG Worldwide

Josephine Baker

Dubbed the “Creole Goddess”, “Black Pearl”, and “Bronze Venus”, Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975) was the first person of color to become a globally famous entertainer and star in a major movie. An American-born entertainer, renowned dancer, Jazz Age symbol, 1920s icon, and civil rights activist, she moved to France and made it her home. When her adopted homeland was conquered, Josephine Baker joined the French Resistance.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, she was raised poor and had to work from an early age. By age 13, she was already performing on stage, and became a chorus girl a year later. Injecting comedy into her routines, she became a hit with audiences. Ambitious and confident in her talent, she refused to accept the strictures and ceiling imposed on her career by the color of her skin in America, so she moved to France, where her career took off in post-WWI Paris.

When WWII broke out, Josephine Baker was recruited by French military intelligence. She had initially expressed support for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, so when the Axis defeated and occupied France, they assumed that she was friendly to their cause. She was not. Taking advantage of the occupiers’ trust, she risked her life spying. Her fame opened doors, and rubbing shoulders with high-ranking Axis personnel, she charmed officials she met in social gatherings to collect information.

As an international entertainer, she had an excuse to travel, and she did, within Nazi-occupied Europe, to neutral Portugal, and to South America, She transported coded messages, written in invisible ink on her music sheets, between the Resistance and the Allies, containing information about German troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and defenses, and smuggled them beneath the Nazis’ noses. She also hid fugitives in her home, supplying them with forged identification papers and visas obtained through her contacts. Later in the war, she joined the French Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was commissioned as a lieutenant, and also performed for Allied troops.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Josephine Baker on steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, wearing her WWII medals. Photograph by Irving Williamson, Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection.

In recognition of her wartime exploits and contributions to France, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles De Gaulle, and among the medals awarded her by the French military were the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with Rosette. Upon her death in 1975, she became the first American woman buried with military honors in France, including a twenty-one gun salute.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
David Niven. IMDB

David Niven

David Niven (1910 – 1983) led a rich life as a memoirist and novelist, and most significantly as a perennially popular character actor, winning an Oscar as Best Actor for his role in the 1958 movie Separate Tables. He also won acclaim for his roles as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, as The Phantom in the Pink Panther, and as a squadron leader in A Matter of Life and Death.

Born into a comfortable bourgeoisie family, with antecedents including a lieutenant general in the British army, David lost his father in 1915 when the latter was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign. His mother remarried a knight with whom she had been having an affair before being widowed, and who was probably David’s biological father.

The young Niven exhibited a wicked sense of humor from early on – perhaps too much so, as his propensity for pranks kept earning him corporal punishment at his preparatory school. He took his licks and kept pranking, until administrators expelled him when was 10. That doomed his chances for getting into Eton, the elite private school his parents had hoped to send him to. So they sent him to the era’s dumping ground for unpromising scions of Britain’s elite, the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from which he graduated in 1930.

After two years in the military, Niven resigned his commission and left for Hollywood to pursue an acting career. He got a series of bit parts during the 1930s, but just when he began attracting attention within the film industry and seemed to be on the verge of breaking out, WWII broke out first. Returning home, Niven rejoined the British army as a lieutenant in a motor training battalion. Craving more excitement, he transferred to the elite Commandos and was assigned to the GHQ Liaison Regiment – a special reconnaissance unit known as the Phantom Signals Unit.

Putting his acting experience to use, he was detached to the Army Film Unit, where he acted in two war films. During the 1944 Normandy Campaign, Niven served with his Commando reconnaissance unit to locate and report German positions, and liaise with commanders in the rear to apprise them of frontline conditions. Notwithstanding his reputation as a great storyteller and exceptional raconteur, Niven remained tight-lipped about his wartime experiences until his dying day and was contemptuous of those who glorified their service. He once explained that reluctance thus:

I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Lenny Bruce being processed after arrest for obscenity in San Francisco in 1961. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Lenny Bruce

Leonard Alfred Schneider, stage name Lenny Bruce (1925 -1966), was an edgy standup comedian whose comic routines combined satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. He became a poster boy for freedom of speech after prosecutors persecuted him with obscenity charges, of which he was convicted in 1964. But before his meteoric comic career, Lenny Bruce had served his country in WWII.

Born in Mineloa, NY, to Jewish parents, Lenny lived a chaotic childhood after his parents’ divorce. Raised in the homes of various relatives after the divorce, he saw little of his father, but was strongly influenced by his mother, a stage performer. Early in 1942, soon after the US entered WWII, a 16-year-old Lenny lied about his age to join the US Navy.

He was assigned to the light cruiser USS Brooklyn, aboard which Lenny saw combat in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as the Brooklyn was tasked with convoy escort and fire support for amphibious landings, including the Torch landings in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the Anzio landing, and Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France.

As the war drew to a close, Lenny grew bored with the Navy. Having lied to get in, he lied to get out. A slapstick performance in which he dressed in drag upset his officers, which got him thinking: after 30 months of service, he checked into Brooklyn’s sickbay to report that he was feeling gay. In a handwritten letter, he wrote that he had been normal when he joined the Navy, but his shipmates gave him “abnormal attention”, including feeling his body and kissing him, such that after 15 months aboard ship he became attracted to some of his comrades.

The medical officer reported to the captain that 19-year-old Lenny was suppressing homosexual tendencies, but the desire and temptation kept getting stronger. The Navy sent him for a psychiatric evaluation because he had “a tremendous amount of homosexual drive“. Noting that Lenny was the kind of homosexual who could adjust to heterosexual relations if given the opportunity, evaluators concluded that if he remained aboard a ship filled with men, he would “eventually give way to the performance of homosexual acts“.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
First page of Lenny Bruce’s hand written letter to US Navy medical officers complaining of gay urges. The Smoking Gun

The Brooklyn’s captain concurred and wrote that Lenny might give in to his gay urges at any moment with an explosion of homosexuality, was “potentially dangerous socially” to his ship, and should either be separated from the Navy, or assigned to a shore installment with access to heterosexual relations. He urged prompt action, before Bruce engaged in “scandalous action [causing] discredit to the ship in particular and to the naval service in general“. The Navy quickly gave Bruce a dishonorable discharge, but he successfully appealed to have it altered to a discharge under honorable conditions for unsuitability to serve in the Navy. His ruse to get out of the Navy became the inspiration for TV’s Corporal Klinger, the cross-dressing MASH character desperate to get kicked out of the Army for being gay.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Bea Arthur in scene from The Golden Girls. The Mary Sue

Bea Arthur

Comedian, actress, and singer Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009) had a rich career in entertainment that spanned seven decades, during which she became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Before that, however, she had been a WWII US Marine.

Bea attended a girls’ boarding school where she was the tallest girl in school, and was also voted “wittiest girl” by her classmates. She became an avid participant in drama programs and theatrical productions. Entertaining her friends with imitations of Mae West, she dreamt of a career in show business but did not think her parents would support her dreams.

She downplayed her WWII contributions, denying having served and steering questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more during the war. However, the documentary record shows that in 1943, aged 21, she had enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel, and working as a typist and truck driver, moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant, before her honorable discharge in 1945.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Bea Arthur’s Marine Corps ID photo. Wikimedia

It was while serving in the Marines during the war that she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur, whose last name she took. The marriage was short-lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense characters would probably nod their heads at how apt it is that Maud or Dorothy Zbornak had been a Marine sergeant.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Medgar Evars. Time Magazine

Medgar Evers

A native of Decatur, Mississippi, Medgar Wiley Evers (1925 – 1963) grew up and attended school amidst racism and Jim Crow laws that required him to walk 12 miles every day to attend a dilapidated segregated school for blacks rather than the better-funded school closer to his home that was reserved for white students. After graduating high school, Evers was inducted into the US Army in 1943 and sent to the European Theater of Operations. There, he fought in the Normandy Campaign, and served throughout the remainder of the war in France and Germany, before being honorably discharged at war’s end as a sergeant.

Despite risking his life to free others from a racist tyranny overseas, Evers returned after war’s end to a racial tyranny at home that denied him basic freedom and equality because of the color of his skin. He became a civil rights activist who protested the racism of his era and area by organizing demonstrations and drawing attention to the grave injustices stemming from the Jim Crow laws.

He also organized boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination, sought to end segregation in public places, and strove to integrate state-funded schools. He applied to the segregated University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, and when his application was rejected, he fought in the courts. Helped by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools that year, Evers became the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi’s law school. He also worked to overcome the disenfranchisement of blacks in Mississippi by organizing voter registration drives.

Protesting injustice and rocking the boat never being popular, Medgar Evers was murdered for his troubles, shot to death in his driveway in 1963 by a Klansman. As a World War II veteran, Medgar Evers was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, but he was not honored by the justice system. Despite the Klansman’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, and notwithstanding that he had publicly boasted of the murder, all-white juries twice deadlocked in 1964 and failed to reach a verdict. Evers’ killer remained free until 1994, when a third trial, this time before a racially mixed jury, finally secured a murder conviction.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Colonel James Stewart being awarded the Croix de Guerre With Palm for services during the liberation of France. Defense Media Network

Jimmy Stewart

One of Hollywood’s greatest actors who starred in many movies that became enduring classics, James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997) was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in portraying middle-class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. Notable among the more than 80 movies in which he appeared are his roles in the Christmas standby It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Vertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He was nominated for five Oscars and won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940’s Philadelphia Story, and was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement. When WWII came along, he took a break from acting to bomb Nazis, before resuming his illustrious career.

He got his performing start in shows with a drama group at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, was performing on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood, and the following year, had his first breakthrough as a lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer.

By the time America joined WWII, Stewart was an established Hollywood star. It would have been easy for him, as others from Hollywood had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne – or secure a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform while staying away from danger – cough, cough, Reagan. But Stewart’s grandfather had fought against the South, and his father had fought against both Spain and Germany, so when war came along, it was natural for Stewart to go off to fight.

He had been drafted into the Army in 1940 but was medically rejected for being underweight. However, Stewart was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935 and had accumulated over 400 hours flying by the time WWII began. He managed to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1941, despite being underweight, and after graduating from a pilot training program 1942, was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Higher-ups sought to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances, but Stewart wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders, he managed a transfer into a B-24 heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in autumn of 1943. On December 13, 1943, Stewart flew his first combat mission, piloting the lead B-24 of the group’s high squadron as they bombed U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany, and a few days later, flew lead bomber for the entire group as they bombed Bremen. By February 1944, Stewart had been promoted to major and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The following month, he led an entire Bomb Wing during a raid on Berlin, and by the end of March, was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. Although his assignment meant he was not required to fly combat missions, he sought to inspire and encourage his new unit by personally piloting the lead B-24 on a number of raids deep into the Third Reich, and served as a crewman on other missions. His actions earned him a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and other decorations.

After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood but served with the US Air Force Reserves. Keeping current with new bombers, he was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. He was promoted to colonel in 1953 and given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia, and by 1959, had been promoted to brigadier general, and retired in 1968.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Sir Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi. Business Insider

Sir Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000) was one of Britain’s greatest stage and film actors, whose decades-long career included roles such as his Oscar-winning performance in 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as notable performances in movies ranging from Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s, to perhaps the role for which he is best known today, as Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Star Wars trilogy – which he, ironically, thought was tripe. He was also a Royal Navy WWII veteran.

He began his career in the theater at age 20, while still a drama student, and by age 22 had attracted attention as a Shakespearean actor, and was befriended and mentored by stage legends of his day. After WWII broke out, Guinness enlisted as a seaman in the Royal Navy Reserves in 1941, at age 27, and by 1942, had been commissioned a naval officer.

He was ordered to Boston in 1943 to take charge of his first command, a freshly built landing craft. He sailed his ship and new crew across the Atlantic to North Africa, where they began training for the Allied invasion of Sicily. On July 9, 1943, he took 200 men to land on Passaro, Sicily, but due to a communications breakdown, was not apprised that the landing had been delayed, so his landing craft arrived on the beach alone and disembarked its troops an hour early. Later, he landed troops on the island of Elba, and during the Normandy invasion, and ferried agents and supplies to the Yugoslav partisans.

During the war, he was allowed a leave of absence to appear onstage in the play Flare Path, about the RAF’s Bomber Command. His wartime experiences led him to contemplate becoming a priest, but fortunately for the stage and film and millions of viewers worldwide, he decided to continue his acting career, which he resumed after his demobilization.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Marcel Marceau. Emaze

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau (1923 – 2007), was the world’s most famous mime, and his white-faced character, the melancholy vagabond Bip, became globally famous from TV and stage appearances. Among his accomplishments during a long and eventful career was winning an Emmy Award, getting declared a national treasure in Japan notwithstanding that he was not Japanese, becoming a member of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, and becoming a decades-long friend of Michael Jackson, who borrowed some of Marceau’s moves in his dance routines.

Before becoming world-famous, however, Marceau spent most of WWII in hiding and working for the French Resistance. After the Allies landed in France, he gave his first major performance before an audience of 3000 troops in recently-liberated Paris, after which he joined the Free French army for the remainder of the war. His talent for languages and near fluency in English and German led to his appointment as a liaison officer with Patton’s Third US Army.

His father, a kosher butcher, had to hide the family’s Jewish origins when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and fled with his family to central France, but was captured in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz, where he perished. Marcel moved to Paris with a new name and forged identity papers, and adopting the surname “Marceau” after a French Revolutionary War general, joined the Resistance.

His underground activities included the rescuing of many Jewish children from German clutches, and smuggling them to safety. His talent for miming – a career to which he had aspired ever since he first saw a Charlie Chaplain movie when he was five years old – came in handy to distract and quiet the children as he smuggled them past German guards and across the border to safety in Switzerland.

From the Battlefield to Fame and Celebrity: 12 Famous World War II Veterans
Lee Marvin still from The Dirty Dozen. British Film Institute

Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987) appeared in roughly 70 films between 1951 and 1986, and is best known for his breakout performance in the TV series M Squad, and for his starring roles in the Hollywood blockbusters Hell in the Pacific, The Dirty Dozen, and the Western comedy Cat Ballou, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1965. Before that, he had been a frontline WWII combat leatherneck.

Lee Marvin was born in New York City, and from an early age, became a problem child who went on to become a problematic teenage delinquent. He liked hunting and drinking, often both at the same time and kept getting expelled from various schools for trespasses ranging from smoking to throwing other students out of second-story windows.

When WWII broke out, Marvin dropped out of high school to enlist in the Marine Corps, and stormed beaches throughout the Pacific for a few years. His courage was counterbalanced by orneriness and defiance of authority, so he kept yo-yoing through the ranks, getting promoted to corporal before getting busted back down to private for misconduct. He was gravely injured in the Battle of Saipan, first by Japanese machine-gun fire, then by a Japanese sniper who shot his foot.

It took him a year to recover, and by the time he was discharged, he was a calmer young man. He drifted for a while, before he was talked into a theatrical role, and he took to acting like a fish to water. He moved to Hollywood in 1950, where his combat experience made him a sought-after war consultant, and lent authenticity to his acting. Throughout his career, he excelled in roughneck roles because he had been an actual roughneck and a fighting leatherneck in real life, with a mean streak that made his malevolent and tough-guy characters ring true.