Stars who joined and entertained during wartime
Stars who joined and entertained during wartime
From the front-line fighting, to shenanigans back at base, American television, music, stage, and screen stars have a long history of fighting with, and providing entertainment for, enlisted troops in the U.S. military. Throughout world wars, at home and overseas, the stories of those who served our country before, after, or during their time as celebrities provide a valuable backdrop to the longstanding tradition of service in the United States.
Within each branch there were stars who fought alongside other soldiers, many of whom would never receive even a fraction of the notoriety of their famous compatriots. Many were wounded and some came close to death. Some served on the front lines to bring laughter and joy to fighters in the heat of the trenches, while others broadcast their skills through song and dance numbers while the soldiers tried to relax between battles when back at base. All performed their duty, and worked to support the members of the military when they needed it most.
The following is a list of celebrities who battled and entertained during wars in the mid 20th century, from World Ware II to Vietnam. Stacker compiled this list by utilizing government databases and information provided by various historical and military-affiliated organizations.
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As a working actor who had starred in films alongside names such as Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen tried multiple times to try to enlist in the U.S. Navy before being given a role in the U.S. Coast Guard as a lieutenant. Ebson put on shows for his shipmates, writing material and often involving the crew in performances, which was said to have boosted their morale during his time at sea.
Born Isadore Demsky, the actor Kirk Douglas took the name many recognize after graduating from college, and before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Though he studied acting prior to his service, Douglas spent much of his time in World War II as a communications officer aboard Patrol Craft 1139, and rose to stardom after being discharged.
Legendary entertainer Bing Crosby worked to support the United States military in a number of ways, including selling $14 million of war bonds, and traveling over an astounding distance to perform for enlisted soldiers. His Crosby Camp Shows took place in places like England, France, and Germany.
Audie Murphy is known as one of the most decorated American soldier from World War II, where he suffered three wounds and served in multiple military campaigns throughout the European Theater. After his time in battle, Murphy struggled before beginning an illustrious acting career with Universal-International.
After getting her start as a child on the vaudeville circuit, Martha Raye received an invitation to England in 1942 to provide entertainment for the troops through the United Service Organization (USO). Her impact on working service men and women was so impactful that she was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Bragg, North Carolina when she died in 1996.
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Already a successful actor in theater and film, Cesar Romero joined the U.S. Coast Guard in the fall of 1942. Romero’s time was spent on the USS Cavalier, a transport ship that brought him into action, was torpedoed, and eventually brought back to Pearl Harbor. He continued with his acting career after leaving military service.
Serving from 1943-45, Kurt Vonnegut went on to literary fame after the war. After being taken captive, Vonnegut survived the bombing raid at Dresden and was subsequently saved by Allied troops, events which were included in what is perhaps his most famous novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Clark Gable was a successful working actor when he decided to enlist with the United States Army Air Corps as a private. Gable worked his way up to becoming a gunner and photographer, and came very close to death when a 20mm shell ripped through the fuselage of his plane, taking off a piece of his shoe, but leaving the rest of the actor unharmed.
Few entertainers can stake a claim for entertaining as many troops as Bob Hope did. His service for the USO stretched from WWII and Vietnam, all the way to the Gulf War. Hope was known for going to remote outposts under harsh conditions to provide his comedic antics for the good of America’s fighting forces.
Audrey Hepburn was a master at entertaining, and she used those performance skills while working with the Dutch Resistance against the Nazi Party. During what were known as “black evenings,” which were illegal performances during the Nazi occupation, Hepburn danced ballet for secretive audiences in order to raise money to fund the resistance and support those who were sheltering Jewish people during the war.
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Legendary crooner Tony Bennett’s assignment prior to being an entertainer was that of a soldier in the U.S. Army. Bennett fought in the European Theater, remarking later about the horrors he witnessed during his time in battle. As the war ended, Bennett was assigned to stay in the field as a soldier, but after a commanding officer heard him singing in the shower, he was recommended to the Special Service, where he spent the remainder of his military career performing for his fellow soldiers.
Dinah Shore was already on the path to stardom when she started performing for the military in Command Performances. One soldier remembered Shore arriving in France after D-Day to sing to troops working to build bridges. The USO presented Shore an award for her service, and her career as an entertainer continued alongside her work with the troops.
Though many know him as the originator of late night television talk shows, Johnny Carson was a soldier first. Carson served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Pennsylvania and was en route to the Pacific Theater before the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the war.
Paul Newman served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, well before his acting career took off. Though he had aspired to be a pilot, Newman’s colorblindness made him better suited to serve as a torpedo bomber and turret gunner.
Unlike many other performers who dedicated their time to performing for soldiers in battle, Marlene Dietrich was known for her desire to entertain those at the front lines. Her desire to be with the soldiers so near battle meant she slept in tents and had to battle a bout of influenza during her two USO tours.
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Jimmy Stewart had already been a working actor before he was drafted into WWII. Though he was initially denied entry into the service due to being underweight, Stewart did the work necessary to gain weight and become a soldier, and eventually a pilot of B-24 combat bombers.
Mel Brooks was drafted into WWII and wound up working on a team to defuse land mines, amongst many other tasks. Brooks was discharged as a corporal and, after beginning with smaller writing projects and working in stand-up comedy, became an illustrious actor and filmmaker.
Just about everyone knows the songs of Johnny Cash, one of the world’s most celebrated singer-songwriters, but many don’t know that he purchased his first guitar in Germany during WWII while serving as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Air Force. His first band was made up of other soldiers and known as the Landsberg Barbarians.
Mickey Rooney’s acting career began at 17 months old, during his time starring with his mother on the vaudeville circuit. In 1944, the already successful Rooney joined the U.S. Army to work as a broadcaster, while also performing much celebrated song and dance numbers for the troops.
Hall of fame baseball legend Ted Williams served in not one war, but two. After becoming a pilot in WWII, Williams was called back into service during the Korean War. On July 29, 1953, just two days after the war ended, Williams signed his next contract to finish the baseball season back at home with the Boston Red Sox.
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Before his time acting, Clint Eastwood served in the U.S. Army after being drafted during the Korean War. When he was hitching a ride on a Navy plane that went down off the California coast, Eastwood survived by swimming over a mile back to shore. Shortly after his release from the service, Eastwood landed a job at Universal Studios for $75 a week playing bit parts.
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Marilyn Monroe was enjoying the success of her biggest role to date in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and had just married baseball play Joe DiMaggio, when she performed for troops during the Korean War. She was immensely popular with the enlisted men and performed several songs from her films, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Before starring in famous films like “Maverick,” James Garner was a soldier in the Korean War. He was injured by shrapnel on his second day in Korea, and later experienced phosphorous burns and a dislocated shoulder. Garner was awarded two Purple Hearts for injuries he sustained during battle.
After being drafted into the U.S. Army during the peak of stardom, Elvis Presley began his two years of service on March 24, 1958. After his training, Presley served 18 months in Friedberg, Germany along with the rest of the soldiers in Company D, 32nd Tank Battalion, 3rd Armor Division.