A Man Who Played Hero on the Silver Screen and Was a WWII Hero in Real Life
James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997), one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, starred in many movies that became beloved classics. He was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in the depiction of middle class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. He appeared in more than eighty movies, with notable 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. Stewart was nominated for five Oscars, won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement.
Jimmy Stewart kicked off his thespian career in shows with a drama group in Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, he had secured roles on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood. A year later, he had his first breakthrough as lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer. From there, Stewart quickly established himself as one of Tinseltown’s premier actors. When WWII came along, Stewart took a break from Hollywood to go bomb the Nazis, then came back home and resumed his illustrious career.
The Star Who Left a Life of Luxury to Fight the Nazis
When America joined WWII, Jimmy Stewart was an established star. It would have been easy for him, as others from Hollywood had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne. Alternatively, he could have readily secured a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform, yet stay 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 in Stewart’s generation, it was natural that he would go off to fight. However, to get into uniform was a problem. He had been drafted by the Army in 1940, but was medically rejected because he was underweight.
However, Stewart was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935. He had accumulated over 400 hours in the cockpit by the time America got into WWII. He managed to get around the underweight bit, and enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1941. Upon his graduation from a pilot training program in 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Higher ups wanted to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances. However, Stewart wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders, he managed a transfer into a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in the autumn of 1943.
On December 13th, 1943, Jimmy Stewart flew his first combat mission. He piloted the lead B-24 of his group’s high squadron as they bombed a U-boat base in Kiel, Germany. A few days later, he flew the 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. A month later, he led an entire bomb wing on a raid that targeted Berlin. In late March, 1944, he was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. That assignment meant that Stewart was not required to fly combat missions. However, he wanted to inspire and encourage his new unit. So he personally piloted the lead B-24 on numerous raids deep into Germany, and served as a crewman on other missions.
Such conduct earned Stewart a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and other decorations. When WWII ended, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his career as an actor, but continued to serve in the US Air Force Reserves. He kept current with new bombers as they entered service, and was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. He was promoted to colonel in 1953, and was given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia. By 1959, Stewart had reached the rank of brigadier general. He retired in from the military in 1968.
This Tough Character From Dirty Bastards Was Actually a Tough WWII Veteran in Real Life
Lee Marvin was a prolific actor who appeared in about seventy films between 1951 and 1986. He won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1965 for his role in the Western comedy Cat Ballou. However, he is probably better known for his roles in The Dirty Dozen and Hell in the Pacific, as well as the NBC television series M Squad. Born in New York City in 1924, Lee Marvin was a problem child and teenage delinquent who liked to hunt and drink – sometimes both simultaneously. He was expelled from numerous schools for misconduct: he smoked cigarettes, and on one occasion, threw a schoolmate out of second story windows.
Marvin eventually dropped out of high school to become a US Marine when American joined WWII, and stormed beaches in the Pacific for a few years. He was promoted to corporal at some point, only to get busted back down to private for misconduct. He was seriously injured in the Battle of Saipan, first when he got hit by machine gun fire, then when a sniper shot him in the foot. It took Marvin a year to recover from his wounds, in which time he did some self reflection. He came out of WWII a calmer young man.
After WWII, Lee Marvin was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, and he drifted for a while, before he eventually got a job as a plumber’s assistant. One day he was in the midst of a pipe repair job in a theater, when an actor got sick. Marvin was recruited on the spot to step into the role, which fit his personality – a big and boisterous drunk. He took to the stage like a fish to water. After a few years in off-Broadway productions, followed by a small role in a Broadway piece, he moved to Hollywood in 1950.
There, Marvin got started with bit parts in war movies, where his real life combat experience lent authenticity to his performances. That experience also made him a sought after consultant by directors and actors who wanted to get a feel for authentic infantry behavior. Throughout his career, Marvin excelled in roughneck roles, mainly because he actually was a roughneck in real life, with a violent streak that made his malevolent and tough guy characters ring true. Lee Marvin died in 1987 at age sixty three, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
No spy had a greater impact on WWII than Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988). An eccentric Spaniard, Juan Pujol hoaxed the Germans with fictional espionage out of a sheer desire for adventure and excitement. That hoax grew into the greatest double cross operation of the conflict, and played a significant role in the Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign. Pujol Garcia hated fascists, so when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as a Nazi sympathizing Spanish government official, and offered his services to Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr.
The Nazis accepted, and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network. Pujol Garcia had neither the means nor the desire to do any such thing. So he simply faked it. Rather than go to Britain as instructed by the Abwehr, he went to Lisbon. From there, he simply fabricated reports about Britain. He used information gathered from public sources, embellished and seasoned with his own active imagination. He then sent it to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans, whose entire spy network in Britain had been arrested in the war’s opening days, were desperate for information. So they eagerly swallowed Pujol Garcia’s fake reports, and begged for more.
Juan Pujol Garcia obliged the Abwehr, and invented a network of fictional sub-agents, whom he used as sources for more fabricated reports. The British, who frequently intercepted and decoded secret German messages, realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans. When they discovered that it was Pujol Garcia acting on his own, they belatedly accepted his offer of services, and whisked him to Britain. There, he was given the codename GARBO, and directed to build up his imaginary network for the benefit of his German handlers. The original hoax was transformed into an elaborate double cross operation.
Through Pujol Garcia, the British carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities. The flood of reports from Pujol Garcia and his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents transformed him, in German eyes, into their most successful spy in Britain. The moment to cash in on that trust came in the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign. The ultimate aim was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were just the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger one planned against the Pas de Calais.
Years of Careful Deceptions Built Up to This One Moment
British intelligence wanted to cement Juan Pujol Garcia’s credibility with the Abwehr. So they had him send a message that alerted the Germans to the invasion a few hours before it began. It was a carefully calculated risk. Pujol Garcia’s handlers figured that by the time the alert worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place. Thus the message would have done the Germans no actual good on the ground, but it would still enhance Pujol Garcia’s reputation with his German handlers. They then went in for the kill. Building upon the years of trust, Pujol Garcia told the Abwehr that the Normandy landings were diversions.
The real blow, Pujol Garcia informed the Germans, would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. The Spaniard’s carefully crafted lies were coupled with other Allied deception measures. Key among them was a fictional First US Army Group. Commanded by General George S. Patton, it was supposedly massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais. The deceptions worked. The Germans were convinced throughout the crucial weeks of June, 1944, to keep powerful formations in the Pas de Calais, rather than rush them to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead.
By the time the German Pas de Calais formations were finally released for use in Normandy, it was too late. The Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to not only defeat German counterattacks, but to then go on the offensive, break out of the beachhead, and sweep across and liberate France within a few months. Juan Pujol Garcia ended up decorated by both sides. He earned an Iron Cross from a grateful Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from an even more grateful Britain.
After WWII, Pujol Garcia feared reprisals from the Nazis. So he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and book store. He led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO. When the story of his deeds finally came out, he was received at Buckingham Palace, and was lionized in Britain. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he travelled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas, four years later.
The ‘King of Hollywood’ Left His Realm to Go Fight the Nazis
Once known as “The King of Hollywood”, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) was one of the silver screen’s greatest legends. He starred in over 60 movies, and is probably 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, Gable was Hollywood’s biggest star at the time and its greatest box office draw. He gave it all up, and took a break from the silver screen to go and fight the Axis.
Gable had quit school at age sixteen to work in a tire factory, and decided to become an actor after he saw a play. As he nursed his dream, he took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to necktie salesman. In 1924, he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream. He began his Hollywood career as an extra. 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.
Clark Gable built on his success in The Painted Desert. When MGM paired him with established female stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the combination steamed the screen and he instantly became a star. By the time America entered WWII, he was MGM’s biggest earner. When his wife died in an air crash as she returned from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, he joined the US Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner.
The Hollywood star was sent instead to Officer Candidate School. He graduated in October, 1942, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, with orders to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America. In 1943, to obtain the combat footage needed for his recruitment film, Gable flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner, including a bombing raid into Germany.
Clark Gable Wanted to Fly More WWII Combat Missions, but MGM Wouldn’t Allow It
Clark Gable’s presence in the WWII bomb missions was for propaganda and PR purposes. However, the dangers he ran were all too real. In one mission, his B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by enemy fighters. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after the airplane was hit by flak. 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 – despite his objections – to have him reassigned to noncombat duty.
For his service in Europe, Gable was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal. In late 1943, he was ordered back to the US to edit the film. He tried to get another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading