By Alex Berger
May 18 is Armed Forces Day, the annual salute to America’s past and present servicemen and servicewomen. They deserve this honor, especially now when we find ourselves once again at war. This time our enemies are worldwide terrorists who think nothing of smashing planes into buildings, spreading infectious diseases and sacrificing their youth to kill innocent men, women and children. During the current crisis Americans, with voices high, shout their approval of the war effort. And that is how it should be. However, the same cannot be said about many TV and Hollywood personalities who, contrarily, are denigrating the war and the men and women who are risking their lives defending the country and them.
This was not always the case. One proud time for Hollywood in wartime was during World War II, when its patriotism shone brightly. A large number of actors joined the military and served with valor and distinction. They were just as heroic as the characters they portrayed.
For example, Robert Montgomery won a Bronze Star for heroism during the Normandy invasion of France and was a PT-boat commander long before he played one in “They Were Expendable” in 1945, while Henry Fonda forecast his l955 role as “Mr. Roberts” by earning a Bronze Star during combat in the Pacific Ocean.
A 1943 enlistment gave 19-year-old Aviation Radioman 3rd Class Paul Newman two years in the Pacific War as a radioman and rear gunner in aircraft carrier-based torpedo bomber airplanes (along with the TV star, Richard Boone). Newman’s plane was grounded on the day his squadron was transferred to an aircraft carrier off Japan, where many of his shipmates died in a kamikaze airplane attack. He was as lucky during the war as he was later to be on the silver screen.
For Lt. Eddie Heimberger, Nov. 21, 1943 will forever be engraved in his memory. The 35-year-old Navy man was assigned to an amphibious attack transport for the Marine landings on Tawara, a small island in the Pacific. Under brutal fire, the Marines were being cut down and Heimberger spotted a group of men pinned down on a reef. Taking over a landing craft, he braved withering fire time and time again as he picked the survivors off the reef and delivered them to safety. When his own boat was damaged, he commandeered another to continue his mission. After the war, Heimberger returned to his acting career as Eddie Albert, and appeared in many films, earning an Oscar nomination for “Roman Holiday” in 1953.
Ernest Borgnino, later to become Ernest Borgine, joined the Navy in 1935 and rose to the rank of gunner’s mate 1st class by the time he was discharged in 1945. Most of his duty was spent aboard minesweepers and antisubmarine ships along the East Coast, which was a far cry from his role as a PT-boat commander in “McHale’s Navy” in 1954.
Inspired by Cary Grant’s film, “Destination Tokyo” in 1944, 18-year-old Bernie Schwartz joined the Navy as a signalman on a submarine tender, a role that would be repeated when, as Tony Curtis, he co-starred with Grant in the submarine comedy “Operation Petticoat” in 1959. Though he volunteered for submarines, he spent the war above water and ended up on one of the many U.S. ships anchored in Tokyo Bay, where he watched the signing of the peace treaty with Japan through binoculars. After the war, he went to New York City’s Dramatic Workshop with students Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger, Bea Arthur and my sister, Anna to learn acting.
Later to star in tough-guy films, Aldo Ray already was a tough guy at 18. A member of the crack Underwater Demolition Team, Ray was a frogman who swam ashore before the Okinawa Island landings in the Pacific, blowing up obstacles and preparing for the main invasion. After the war, Ray went to college and was talked into a movie audition that would change his life.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 25-year-old Issur Danielovitch enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned an ensign, but it wasn’t until after the war ended that Kirk Douglas would become a film celebrity. For three years, he served aboard a sub-hunter in the Pacific. Sent to a hospital with injuries suffered during a depth-charge attack, he opened all his back-up mail and discovered that he had fathered a son, Michael, who would follow in his footsteps.
Long before he portrayed G-man Eliot Ness in the long running “The Untouchables,” Robert Stack was familiar with guns. Before the war he was a playboy who enjoyed skeet shooting, but after enlisting in the Navy with hopes of a flying career, he failed a depth-perception test. Sent to Pensacola, Fla., for training as a gunnery officer, he promptly broke the Navy machine-gun record and became one of the leading gunnery officers for aerial gunners.
Rod Steiger was a torpedoman aboard a Pacific destroyer, where he survived a ferocious typhoon that sank several Navy ships, as well as the invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. Years later, he was to play in “The Longest Day” in 1962, and win an Oscar as the redneck sheriff in “The Heat of the Night” in 1967. Along with these Hollywood heroes, I include Harold Russell, who lost both hands in battle and won an academy award in 1946, playing a disabled veteran in “The Best Years Of Our Lives” and Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated serviceman of the war, who later starred in “To Hell And Back,” the story of his life. The kings of the screen also did their part. Tyrone Power was a naval officer, Clark Gable, a tail gunner, and James Stewart, one of the very few who rose from a private to a general.
Lest I forget the distaff side, despite the fact that women weren’t allowed to serve in combat, they contributed to the war effort in other ways. Hedy Lamarr, a successful actress before World War II, as well as being extraordinarily beautiful (she was voted the most beautiful woman in the world), also had a brilliant mind. Hearing that the military was having problems with torpedo accuracy, she and composer/pianist George Antheil invented a system by which radio-controlled torpedoes would be immune to jamming by the enemy. The patented system was used as late as 1962 during the Navy blockage of Cuba.
Then there was the famous “Hollywood Canteen” where the stars shone. A majority did its bit by entertaining or hosting the servicemen. Edward G. Robinson even offered his house to soldiers who did not have a hotel room for the night.
And not to be forgotten were the standouts who went abroad to entertain our troops, such as Bob Hope, comedienne Martha Raye, and Marlene Dietrich who entertained our troops despite being scorned by Germany, the country of her birth. Following the war, she was barred from ever returning to her former homeland.
Hollywood stars lifted morale and helped us win World War II. Sadly, very few Hollywood and TV entertainers of today are as patriotic. James Stewart, where are you?
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 229-3000, ext. 140.