Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime

Khalid Elhassan - April 15, 2024

Uncle Fester from The Addams Family was “creepy”, “kooky”, and “altogether ooky” – and also a World War II veteran who conducted hazardous missions deep behind enemy lines. Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was a WWII intelligence officer who worked alongside various clandestine organizations. After the war, he helped track down Nazi war criminals. Below are some fascinating facts about those and other celebrities who served in WWII.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Uncle Fester. K-Pics

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Air Commando

Comedian and actor Jackie Coogan (1914 – 1984), best known as Uncle Fester from the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family, was a WWII veteran. Born John Leslie Coogan in Los Angeles, he got his start as an actor at an early age, and his parents had him perform in movies and vaudeville while still an infant. He caught Charlie Chaplin’s eye while dancing on stage, and the legendary comedian signed up the young Coogan. His role alongside Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 hit movie The Kid made Coogan one of Hollywood’s first ever child stars. The following year, his role in 1922’s Oliver Twist catapulted him to even greater fame. Unfortunately for Coogan, his parents squandered his earnings, and left him broke when he reached adulthood. The scandal led to the California Child Actors Bill, commonly known as “The Coogan Act”, to legally protect child performer earnings.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Jackie Coogan in WWII. History of Sorts

An adult Coogan enlisted in the US Army in 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the country into WWII, Coogan, who had prewar civilian flying experience, requested and was granted a transfer to the US Army Air Forces. He was trained as a glider pilot, and graduated with the rank of flight officer. Coogan volunteered for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group, and was sent to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. There, he flew and inserted members of the Long Range Penetration Group, a specialized unit of the British and Indian armies better known as the Chindits, for special operations behind enemy lines. In one particularly hairy mission during the Burma Campaign, Coogan landed a glider full of Chindits at night, in the jungles of Burma one hundred miles deep into Japanese-controlled territory.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Some of Sir Christopher Lee’s villain characters. PBS

Saruman From Lord of the Rings Was a WWII Intelligence Operative

Sir Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015) had a long and accomplished acting career that spanned seven decades. Best known for his villain roles, Lee’s baddie characters, which ranged from Dracula to Count Dooku to Saruman, often horrified, revolted, and sent chills down audience spines. The son of a British Army officer and an Italian countess, a teenaged Lee volunteered to fight for Finland against Soviet invaders in the 1939-1940 Winter War. He and other British volunteers were employed in guard duty, but kept away from the front lines. Lee returned to Britain, and in 1941, volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. He trained as a pilot, but before he got his wings, Lee began to suffer from blurred vision and severe headaches. Medical tests eventually revealed problems with his optic nerve, and he was yanked out of flight school and told he could never fly.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Christopher Lee in WWII. Forces Network

As Lee recalled years later, washing out of pilot training was one of the most devastating experiences of his life. He cast about for something else to do, and eventually ended up in RAF intelligence. There, he was attached at times and worked with some of the war’s most elite outfits, such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Special Air Service (SAS), and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). He narrowly escaped death on numerous occasions. Lee was almost killed when his squadron’s airfield was bombed during the North African Campaign. In the Italian Campaign, he was attached to the Gurkhas during the Battle of Monte Cassino when a plane crashed, and he tripped over one of its live bombs. After the war, he was seconded to the Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, and helped track down Nazi war criminals.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
James Doohan as Scotty. K-Pics

Star Trek’s Scotty Had a Finger Shot Off in WWII

Star Trek’s most iconic phrase is “Beam me up, Scotty“. It instantly conjures up the Enterprise’s miracle worker engineer, who commanded the spaceship and recorded its log when the captain and first officer were absent. The franchise’s second most memorable phrase is probably “I’m giving it all she’s got, captain! She can’nae take any more!“, delivered in a thick Scottish burr by the Enterprise’s engineer. In real life, James Montgomery Doohan (1920 – 2005), the actor who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, was not even from Scotland. Instead, Doohan was a Canadian who had earned a reputation as the most versatile voice actor in the business before he was cast for his defining role in Star Trek. Before that, Doohan had been a real life WWII badass who personally killed Nazis in combat, was struck by bullets multiple times on D-Day, and had a middle finger shot off.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
James Doohan in WWII. History of Sorts

Doohan enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1939. Shipped to England in 1940, he spent the next four years garrisoning Britain and training for an invasion of Europe. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Doohan finally saw combat. As his unit fought its way from Juno Beach to higher ground inland, he came across and personally killed two German snipers. He escaped harm from the enemy that day, but not from his own side. Late that night, as Doohan made his way to a command post, a nervous Canadian sentry opened up on him with a burst from a Bren gun. He was struck by six bullets, four of them hitting his legs, one striking his chest, and one shooting off the middle finger of his right hand. Upon recovery, he trained to fly an artillery observer aircraft, and became an aerial observer for the rest of the war.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Yogi Berra. Encyclopedia Britannica

Before He Became a Baseball Legend, Yogi Bera Lobbed Rockets at the Nazis

18-time All Star Yogi Berra won 10 World Series, more than any other player in MLB history. He is one of only five players to have ever won the American League MVP three times. After his playing days were over, Berra became a coach and manager. Between 1947 and 1981, Berra was a player, coach, or manager, in every New York team that made it to the World Series. All in all, Berra appeared in 22 World Series, and won 13 of them. Less known is that he took a break from baseball to fight in WWII. Signed up by the Yankees in 1942, Berra interrupted his career to serve in the US Navy. He became a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Bayfield, an attack transport. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Berra served on detached duty aboard a Navy rocket boat that lobbed missiles and fired machine guns at Nazis on Omaha Beach. He was also sent to Utah Beach, to support the GIs there. Berra’s craft came under enemy fire, but luckily for him and for baseball, he escaped injury. He was nineteen, and relished the adventure. As he described it decades later:

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Yogi Berra’s rocket boat. Yogi Berra Museum

Being a young guy, you didn’t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went off 300 yards off beach. We protect the troops. If they ran into any trouble, we would fire the rockets over. We had a lead boat that would fire one rocket. If it hits the beach, then everybody opens up. We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 or them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion. Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing. Our boat could go anywhere, though. We were pretty good, flat bottom, 36-footer“. Berra’s craft lingered off Normandy after D-Day, and further supported the Allied beachhead there. The Luftwaffe could do little to disrupt the Allied effort, but what little it did was enough to make people jumpy. Naval vessels off the beachhead were instructed to fire on any airplane that flew below a certain height. Accordingly, Berra and his crew mates shot down a plane that appeared suddenly below the clouds. Unfortunately, it turned out to be American. Luckily for the pilot, he bailed out, and was fished out of the water by Berra’s boat.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Kirk Douglas. Biography

A Heartthrob at War

By the time he passed away in 2020, actor, producer, writer, and philanthropist Kirk Douglas (1916 – 2020) was one of the last surviving Hollywood Golden Age stars. He made his film debut in 1946’s Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and became a breakout star in 1949 with Champion. Douglas cemented his place in movie history with 1960’s Spartacus, which he produced and starred in. Along the way he accumulated three Oscar nominations, won an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before the fame, however, Douglas had fought in the US Navy during WWII. Born Issur Danielovitch, the future star caught the acting bug in kindergarten, when he recited a poem, and reveled in the audience’s applause.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Kirk Douglas in WWII and after. US Naval Institute

Unable to afford college, Douglas convinced a dean to let him attend St. Lawrence University’s drama program, in exchange for janitor and gardener work on campus. After graduation, he got into stage acting, and had barely began to get established in the theater, when WWII broke out. He tried to join the Army Air Forces, but when the airmen turned him down, Douglas joined the Navy in late 1941. He attended the US Navy’s midshipman school in Notre Dame, and upon graduation, was commissioned an ensign. He was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served as a communications officer aboard USS PC-1137, a submarine chaser. Douglas spent most of 1942 and 1943 hunting Japanese submarines. While doing that, he suffered severe internal injuries when a depth charge exploded prematurely. He spent months in a hospital, before he was medically discharged in 1944.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Josephine Baker. Town and Country Magazine

The Black Pearl Who Spied on the Nazis

Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975), dubbed the “Creole Goddess”, “Black Pearl”, and “Bronze Venus”, 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, 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 thirteen, she was already performing on stage, and became a chorus girl a year later. Baker injected comedy into her routines, and 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, 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 Nazi occupiers’ trust, Baker risked her life to spy on them. Her fame opened doors. Baker rubbed shoulders with prominent Axis personnel, and 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.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Josephine Baker in her WWII uniform. Pinterest

Baker transported coded messages, written in invisible ink on her music sheets, between the Resistance and the Allies, and smuggled them beneath the Nazis’ noses. They contained information about German troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and defenses. Baker also hid fugitives in her home, and supplied 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. She also performed for Allied troops. In recognition of her wartime exploits and contributions to France, Baker was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles De Gaulle. 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, Josephine Baker became the first American woman buried with military honors in France, including a twenty one gun salute.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Alec Guinness in WWII and on screen. WWII Uncovered

Before He Took on the Galactic Empire, Obi Wan Kenobi Took on the Third Reich

Sir Alec Guinness (1914 – 2000), one of Britain’s greatest actors, began his career in the theater at age twenty, while still a drama student. He swiftly attracted attention as a Shakespearean actor. In subsequent decades, Guinness won an Oscar for his performance in 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai. He also had notable performances in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the 1940s, and Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s. Today, Guinness is perhaps best known as Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars – which he, ironically, thought was tripe. Less known is that he was a British Royal Navy WWII veteran. In 1941, Guinness enlisted in the Royal Navy Reserves, and was commissioned a naval officer the following year. He was ordered to Boston in 1943 to take charge of his first command, a freshly built landing craft.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Alec Guinness in WWII. Imgur

Guinness sailed his ship and new crew across the Atlantic to North Africa, where they trained for the Allied invasion of Sicily. On July 9th, 1943 he took 200 men to land on Passaro, Sicily, but due to a communications breakdown, was not informed that the landing had been postponed. So Guinness arrived on the beach alone, and disembarked his troops an hour early. After the invasion of Sicily, he landed troops on the island of Elba, and Normandy. He also ferried British agents and supplies to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. During the war, Guinness was granted leave to appear onstage in the play Flare Path, about RAF Bomber Command. Guinness’ wartime experiences led him to contemplate becoming a priest. Fortunately for the stage and film and millions of fans, he decided to resume acting.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
David Niven. Adorable Times

A Star at War

British movie star David Niven (1910 – 1983) led a rich life as a memoirist and novelist, and most significantly as a perennially popular character actor. He won an Oscar for his role in 1958’s 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. Niven was born into a comfortable bourgeoisie family, whose antecedents included a lieutenant general in the British Army. His was killed in 1915 in the Gallipoli Campaign. His mother remarried a knight with whom she had an affair before she was widowed, and who was probably David’s biological father. The young Niven exhibited a wicked sense of humor from early on. Too wicked, as his pranks often earned him corporal punishment at his preparatory school.

Niven continued his pranks, until he was finally expelled at age ten. That wrecked his chances to get into Eton, the elite private school his parents had hoped to send him to. So Niven’s parents sent him to the dumping ground for the 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 become an actor. He got a series of bit parts in the 1930s. However, just when he began to attract attention as a potential star and was about to break through, WWII broke out first. Niven returned home, and rejoined the British Army as a lieutenant in a motor training battalion. He craved more excitement, however, so he transferred to the elite Commandos. There, he was assigned to the GHQ Liaison Regiment – a special reconnaissance unit known as the Phantom Signals Unit.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
David Niven during WWII and after. WWII Uncovered

Along the way, Niven was temporarily detached to the Army Film Unit, where he acted in two war films. He returned to the Commandos for the 1944 Normandy Campaign. There, he located German positions, and liaised with commanders in the rear to apprise them of frontline conditions. Despite his reputation as a great storyteller and exceptional raconteur, Niven was always tight-lipped about his wartime experiences, and despised 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.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Clark Gable. Prime Video

“The King of Hollywood” Became a B-17 Waist Gunner

Clark Gable, once known as “The King of Hollywood”, quit school at age sixteen to work in a tire factory. He tired of that, and decided to become an actor after seeing a play. Gable starred in over 60 movies, and is perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. He also won an Oscar for his lead in It Happened One Night. When America entered WWII, Gable was Hollywood’s biggest star, as well as it biggest box office draw. He took a break from acting to fight the Axis. After 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 go its most profitable star, he joined the Army Air Forces in 1942, hoping to become an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England and directed to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Clark Gable flew combat missions as a B-17 waist gunner in WWII. K-Pics

To obtain footage, Gable flew five combat missions as a B-17 gunner in 1943, including a bombing raid into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers were real. During one mission, Gable’s B-17 lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire and was attacked by fighters. Over Germany, two of his B-17’s crew were wounded, another was killed after being struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head. Gable’s brushes with death alarmed the folk at MGM, who had no wish to lose their most valuable actor. So the studio worked its connections and got Gable reassigned to noncombat duty. The star actor 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. Gable hoped for another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, he finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty. He stayed in the Air Forces reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Bea Arthur. People Who Served

This Golden Girl Was a WWII US Marine Sergeant

Comedian, actress, and singer Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009) had a rich career in entertainment that spanned seven decades. 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, Arthur had been a WWII US Marine. She attended a girls’ boarding school where she was the tallest girl in school, and was also voted “wittiest girl” by her classmates. Arthur 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.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Bea Arthur’s US Marines ID photo. Imgur

Bea Arthur downplayed her WWII contributions, denied having served, and steered questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more. However, records show that in 1943, aged twenty one, she had enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. She worked as a typist and truck driver, and moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant before her honorable discharge in 1945. While serving in the Marines, 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 Dorothy Zbornak had been a Marine sergeant.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Lee Marvin. Amazon

The Leader of The Dirty Dozen Was a Real Life Marine Combat Veteran

Between 1951 and 1986, Lee Marvin appeared in about seventy films. He won an Oscar in 1965 for his role in the Western comedy Cat Ballou. He is 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, 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 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.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Lee Marvin during WWII and after. WWII Uncovered

After WWII, Marvin 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.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Ernest Borgnine. Encyclopedia Britannica

Before McHale’s Navy, Ernest Borgnine Served in the Real US Navy

Ernest Borgnine, one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors, had an endearing gap toothed smile that earned him a place in the hearts of millions. He had notable supporting roles in movies such as From Here to Eternity, China Corsair, and The Wild Bunch, and won an Oscar for his lead in 1955’s Marty. He also had TV success in the 1980s’ series Airwolf, and the 1960s’ McHale’s Navy. His success playing US Navy Commander McHale in the TV series was owed in no small part to the fact that, in real life, Borgnine had spent a decade in the US Navy.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Ernest Borgnine during WWII. US Naval Institute

After he graduated high school in 1935, Borgnine sold vegetables on the street. He saw a Navy recruitment poster, and decided that being a sailor beat his current occupation. He enlisted, and ended up aboard the destroyer/ minesweeper USS Lamberton, until his honorable discharge in October, 1941. A few months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Borgnine reenlisted. He spent the war patrolling the Atlantic coast aboard the USS Sylph, on antisubmarine duty, until his discharge in 1945 as a Gunner’s Mate, 1st Class.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Mel Brooks cleared mines in WWII. War History Online

A Comedian at War

Mel Brooks was born Melvin James Kaminsky in 1926. The Brooklyn-born funnyman is best known for directing side splitting farcical comedies such as Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He is not somebody people expect to have once performed life and death type of dangerous work. Yet, Brooks did just that in WWII. Brooks was raised in poverty by a single mother after his father’s untimely death. Growing up small and sickly in Brooklyn’s tougher parts, Brooks developed a sense of humor and a precocious comedic talent early on. His sense of humor 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, aged seventeen, and like many American Jews, was eager to fight the Nazis. He knew the extra risks faced by Jews if captured by the Germans.

Brooks scored high in the Army’s aptitude and IQ testing. As a result, he 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. Brooks’ outfit used demolitions to blast a path clear for the main forces, repaired bridges destroyed by the Germans in a bid to slow the Allied advance, and built bridges from scratch.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Mel Brooks in the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion. History Net

Brooks’ unit also helped lay out and construct field fortifications, and otherwise offered whatever support they could. The combat engineers often worked under the enemy’s noses, while artillery shells rained down on them, and German snipers tried to pick them off. Brooks’ unit was the first to throw a bridge across the Roer River, and later on, it built bridges across the Rhine. His tasks included minefield clearance and landmine diffusion. Brooks also fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-1945. 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“.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
Audrey Hepburn. InStyle

A Fashion Icon in the Resistance

Audrey Hepburn was an icon of both fashion and the silver screen. Before she rose to fame and fortune, a teenaged Hepburn had helped the Dutch Resistance in WWII. She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels, to a British father and a Dutch aristocratic mother. Her parents divorced, and in 1939, ten-year-old Audrey, her siblings, and her mother, moved to Arnhem, in the Netherlands. Hepburn was enrolled in a conservatory, where she learned ballet. Unfortunately, the Germans invaded on May 10th, 1940, and forced the Netherlands to surrender within four days. Like the rest of the Dutch, Hepburn and her family suffered great privations under Nazi occupation. In 1942, the Germans executed her uncle in retaliation for sabotage by the resistance, even though he had not been involved.

Hepburn’s half-brother was deported to Germany to toil for the Nazis as a slave worker, and another sibling had to hide to avoid the same fate. Hepburn had trained as a ballerina and dancer from a young age, and she put those talents to use to help the Dutch Resistance. She danced and performed in illegal underground recitals known as zwarte avonden (“black evenings”), and donated her earnings to the resistance. This despite her enfeebled physical condition, after the Nazis squeezed the Netherlands hard for resources to fuel their war effort. Hepburn, like many other Dutch, suffered from malnutrition. She still danced, however. As she put it: “it was some way in which I could make some kind of contribution“. She also became a child courier, used because her youth made her less suspicious in German eyes. She carried documents, coded messages, and other items between various resistance groups.

Uncle Fester Was a WWII Aerial Commando, and Other Celebrities in Wartime
A young Audrey Hepburn. Everything Audrey Hepburn

On one occasion, Hepburn recalled: “I had to step in and deliver our tiny underground newspaper, I stuffed them in my woollen socks and my wooden shoes, I got on my bike, and delivered them“. Late in the war, a German blockade of food to the Netherlands led to a famine known as the Hunger Winter. Hepburn and her family subsisted on miniscule food amounts, including tulip bulbs. By the time the Netherlands were liberated, she and her family were close to starvation. As she put it: “We lost everything, of course… but we didn’t give a hoot. We got through with our lives, which was all that mattered“. Soon after the war, she moved to Britain, got her first film role in 1948, and went on to star in dozens more movies. Audrey Hepburn never forgot her wartime childhood experience, and eventually became a special ambassador for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading


American Air Museum in Britain – Clark Gable

Arlington National Cemetery – Lee Marvin, Private First Class, United States Marine Corps, Movie Actor

Bronx Pinstripes – On This Day in History: Yogi Berra Takes Part in D-Day

Defense Media Network – Actor Clark Gable Served in Uniform, Flew Combat Missions in WWII

Doohan, James – Beam Me Up Scotty: Star Trek’s ‘Scotty’ in His Own Words (1996)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Josephine Baker

Grunge – The Truth About Mel Brooks’ Time in World War II

History Collection – 18 Salacious Scandals From the Golden Age of Hollywood

Jones, Sherry – Josephine Baker’s Last Dance (2018)

Los Angeles Times, October 8th, 1987 – Lee Marvin is Buried With Military Honors

Military Dot Com – Famous Veterans: Ernest Borgnine

National WWII Museum – Bea Arthur, US Marine

Niven, David – The Moon’s a Balloon: Reminisces (1986)

Paris, Barry – Audrey Hepburn (1996)

Star Trek – Doohan, James

Time Magazine, May 3rd, 2019 – How a Young Audrey Hepburn Helped the Dutch Resistance During World War II

United States Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum – Uncle Fester of the Addams Family Was “Creepy”, “Kooky”, “Altogether Ooky”, and an Army Veteran

US Department of Defense – Before Stage and Screen, Bea Arthur Shined as a Marine

US Department of Defense – Sports Heroes Who Served: From D-Day Vet to Baseball Legend

Vintage News – Jackie Coogan, From Child Start to WWII Flight Officer to Uncle Fester

Vintage News – More Than 30 Years Before ‘Star Wars’, Sir Alec Guinness Was a WWII Landing Craft Hero

War History Online – Before Becoming Hollywood’s Leading Man, Kirk Douglas Was Chasing Japanese Subs in the Pacific