Along with millions of other men and women, many of the world’s most recognizable names and faces answered the call to serve during World War II. Most of these celebrity troops cut their teeth in the armed forces prior to stepping into the spotlight, but a few put their lucrative careers on hold to moonlight as soldiers and underground resistance fighters. From a beloved comic to an exotic burlesque performer, get the lowdown on the military careers of nine notable World War II vets.
Some 35 years before he counseled Luke Skywalker to “use the Force” as Obi Wan Kenobi, Sir Alec Guinness was piloting infantry landing craft in the Mediterranean. A trained thespian, Guinness put his theater career on hold in 1939 to join the Royal Navy. He landed some 200 British soldiers on the beaches of Sicily during the July 1943 invasion of Italy, and went on to ferry arms to partisan fighters in Yugoslavia. During one such voyage in 1944, Guinness’s boat was caught in a violent hurricane off the coast of Italy, and he only narrowly managed to guide the ship into a harbor before it was thrown onto a rocky shoreline and damaged beyond repair. Guinness would later put his wartime experience to use portraying military officers in such films as “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Tunes of Glory,” and even played Adolf Hitler in 1973’s “Hitler: The Last Ten Days.”
Mel Brooks is best known as the writer-director behind the laugh-a-minute comedies “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Spaceballs.” But along with writing killer one-liners, he is also an old hand at defusing German mines. Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, Brooks enlisted in the army in 1944 at the age of 17. He later served in 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion, a unit that braved sniper fire and shelling to build bridges, clear blocked roads and deactivate landmines ahead of advancing Allied forces. Ever the comedian, Brooks once used a bullhorn to serenade nearby enemy troops along the German-French border with the Al Jolson song “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”—and received a round of applause in return. He would go on to lampoon the Third Reich in 1968’s “The Producers,” which includes the famous tune, “Springtime for Hitler.”
Before he became a countercultural icon with his no holds barred stand-up comedy, the man who pushed the limits of free speech in entertainment was serving as a turret gunner aboard a Navy vessel in the Mediterranean. Born in Mineola, New York, Lenny Bruce dropped out of high school at age sixteen and enlisted shortly after the United States entered World War II. He spent the next several years working as a shell passer aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn, a light cruiser that acted as a fire support vessel in North Africa and in Italy during the Allied invasions of Sicily and Anzio. Bruce served honorably for most of the war, but by 1945 he had grown tired of life at sea, and he eventually secured an early discharge after he falsely claimed to have homosexual desires for his fellow sailors. Bruce got his start in stand up shortly after returning stateside, and later won widespread acclaim—and frequent arrests on obscenity charges—for his satirical and profanity-laced stage performances.
Prior to his assassination in 1963, famed civil rights activist Medgar Evers forged a remarkable career as the NAACP’s first field secretary by working to desegregate colleges in Mississippi. Still, the fight for racial equality was not the first time he put his life on the line for a higher cause. Evers had left high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, and served with distinction in Europe as part of the 325th Port Company, a segregated unit of black soldiers who delivered vital supplies during the Normandy invasion. Though Jim Crow limited black troops’ involvement in combat, Evers saw front line action as part of the “Red Ball Express,” a famous supply convoy that trucked fuel and other provisions to General George Patton’s tank units as they cut their way through France.
Renowned for his slugging prowess and such head-scratching quips as, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra played in 14 World Series and enjoyed a successful career as a big league manager. The man who inspired the name of a famous picnic-stealing cartoon bear was also a veteran of the D-Day invasion. On June 6, 1944, as Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, Berra and his fellow sailors manned a small Navy support craft that lobbed rockets at German defenses on Omaha Beach. The future all-star was later grazed by a German bullet during the invasion of Marseilles, but supposedly declined the Purple Heart because he didn’t want to alarm his mother back in the states. Berra’s career was just getting started when the war broke out, but he wasn’t the only major leaguer to serve. Among many others, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson were all veterans of World War II.
Long before he donned his famous face paint and toured the world as “Bip the Clown,” beloved mime Marcel Marceau was serving as a member of the French Resistance during World War II. Along with his brother Alain, Marceau forged documents and doctored identity cards to help prevent French children from being conscripted into German labor camps. He also smuggled some 70 Jewish children out of the country by posing as a Boy Scout leader and leading them through the wilderness to safety in neutral Switzerland. The silent performer later joined the Free French Forces under Charles De Gaulle, and served as a liaison offer to General George Patton’s army while entertaining Allied troops with his miming.
The crooner responsible for “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “Rags to Riches” is also a battle-tested World War II vet. Tony Bennett was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, and spent the later stages of the war in the 63rd Infantry Division in France and Germany. Bennett’s unit was responsible for mopping up after the Battle of the Bulge, and he participated in intense urban combat while searching for Nazi stragglers in bombed-out German towns. The singer also witnessed the horror of the Holocaust firsthand when he helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany. Bennett would later write that his army service transformed him into an lifelong pacifist, but it also whetted his appetite for show business by giving him his first ever chance to perform as part of a military band.
An American by birth, sultry stage performer Josephine Baker first won fame in 1920s Paris for her risqué dance routines—including one in which she wore a revealing dress made entirely of bananas. Baker became a French citizen in 1937, and went on to serve her adopted country during World War II as an agent in the French Resistance. Her good looks and jet setting lifestyle served as a perfect cover, allowing her to shuttle military intelligence and secret messages in and out of the country by hiding them with her sheet music or tucking them away in her underwear. Baker also sheltered refugees in her home, and spent time entertaining troops in North Africa and the Middle East. The unlikely spy later received the French Croix de guerre for her high-risk work with the Resistance.
Jimmy Stewart was a bona fide movie star before World War II, having starred in such big screen hits as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Philadelphia Story,” for which he won an Academy Award. In early 1941, Stewart became one of the first Hollywood stars to enter the armed forces when he traded his tailored suits for a bomber jacket and joined the Army Air Corps. He had to pack a few pounds onto his lanky frame to meet the Army’s minimum weight requirement, but Stewart eventually became a squadron commander in the 445th Bombardment Group in England. He flew 20 combat missions as a B-24 pilot and won a Distinguished Flying Cross and several other honors for leading bombing raids over Germany and France. All the while, the everyman actor continued to send his Hollywood agent ten percent of his meager military salary. Stewart ended the war as a colonel, and remained in the Air Force Reserve even after jumping back in front of the camera. He was later promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1959.