A Brief History
On May 22, 1942, Ted Williams, arguably the best baseball player of that time, joined the United States Navy Reserve and later served in the US Marine Corps as a naval aviator. He flew the F4U Corsair but did not fly in actual combat against the Japanese as he was still on Hawaii awaiting assignment when the war ended. Many other big name celebrities have fought for their country, and here we list 10 of them. Some fought and gained fame, allowing them to become celebrities, while others on the list were already famous people at the top of their field.
10. Prince Andrew, Duke of York.
“Randy Andy,” the younger brother of Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, served in the Royal Navy during the Falklands War against Argentina. Although many in Britain were against having him serve in a war zone, with the possibility of the Queen’s son being killed or captured, Queen Elizabeth allowed him to serve as a Sea King helicopter pilot off the aircraft carrier Invincible during the war in the war zone. Normally, persons of royal heritage are under public pressure to serve for appearances sake. The royal family did not leave London during World War II despite the massive bombing campaign and later V-1 and V-2 missile campaigns against that city.
9. Ernest Hemingway, Writer.
“Papa” Hemingway enlisted in the Ambulance Drivers Corps in World War I and was severely wounded in action. He later served as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. During World War II he led a French resistance unit in combat against Germans, which was in violation of the Geneva Convention. Despite being formally charged, his plea that he had only “provided advice” enabled him to be acquitted. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in World War II.
8. Bob Feller, Baseball player.
Bob Feller enlisted in the US Navy 2 days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Unlike most professional athletes that were given jobs teaching physical fitness and such, Feller served on the battleship USS Alabama, earning 8 battle stars and 6 campaign ribbons. Cleveland Indian ace Feller was the greatest pitcher of his era, having achieved incredible feats such as pitching 44 shut outs, 3 no hitters, and 12 one hitters. His record of 348 strikeouts in one season stood from 1946 to 1965. He lost 4 years of his prime to military service, costing him the chance to be the greatest pitcher of all time. Ted Williams and Stan Musial, the greatest hitters in the American and National leagues during Feller’s era both named him the best pitcher of their time.
7. Winston Churchill, Politician and Writer.
Churchill, famous as the British Prime Minister during most of World War II, was a graduate of the British military academy, Sandhurst. During his service in Cuba, India, and Africa he was under fire at least 50 times. During the Boer War in 1899 he was taken as a prisoner of war, but escaped and rejoined British forces. Working as a war correspondent, he rejoined the military in the South African Light Horse (cavalry) and continued to fight, including an incident where he and his cousin captured 52 Boer soldiers. Writing extensively about his war experiences while in and out of the military, Churchill became the First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I until the Gallipoli disaster forced him out in 1915. This brave soul immediately joined the Army and served as a battalion commander continuing to bravely risk his life. When the British people picked Churchill (half-American, by the way) as their leader for World War II they picked a warrior.
6. Pat Tillman, NFL Football Player.
Despite having a great football career, gaining entry to the College Football Hall of Fame and excelling in the NFL, Tillman turned down a 3 year contract for $3.6 million in order to enlist in the US Army in 2002. Tillman and his brother Kevin had both trained as Rangers, a super tough Army elite unit. Apparently from a family of true patriots, Kevin had been signed by the Cleveland Indians to play professional baseball, but chose to defend his country instead, just like Pat. Pat served in extensive combat in Afghanistan until he was killed by friendly fire in 2004. Unfortunately, his death was marred by Army brass engaging in a cover up of his accidental death in an effort to avoid the inevitable embarrassment of having killed such a high profile soldier. The last time a pro football player had been killed in combat was in 1970 when Bob Kalsu was killed in Viet Nam. (The only other pro football player to die in Viet Nam was Cleveland Brown Don Steinbrunner.)
5. John McCain III, Politician.
Unlike many politicians that are draft dodgers and keep their own sons safe at home during wartime, John McCain had a father and grandfather that were both Admirals in the US Navy. He flew attack jets off aircraft carriers during the Viet Nam War and was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, held prisoner until 1973. Not only did he endure torture and provide a fine example to his fellow prisoners, when he was given the opportunity to be released (obviously for communist propaganda purposes) he refused and remained a POW until released with everyone else.
4. Jimmy Stewart, Actor.
The first big movie star to join the military in World War II, Stewart actually had to go on a weight lifting regimen with a noted body builder in order to gain the 5 pounds needed to meet the 148 pound requirement to be a pilot! He became a bomber pilot and flew B-17 missions over Germany, one of the most dangerous assignments of the war. Stewart stayed in the Air Force Reserve, eventually becoming a brigadier general and flying the B-36, B-47 and B-52. Unlike many other movie stars that had symbolic non-combat roles (such as make believe heroes like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan), Stewart was the real deal.
3. George Washington, et al, Presidents.
Many of our presidents have served during time of war, and many of those on combat operations, starting with George Washington. Some of these veterans turned president had been Generals, while others were of lesser rank. William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson achieved fame as fighters, propelling them to the White House, and Teddy Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill was fresh in the mind of voters when he was elected vice president. John F. Kennedy’s adventures on PT-109 during World War II were famous, and most recently, George H.W. Bush was a torpedo bomber pilot in World War II and was shot down in combat. Since then, the 3 presidents we have had since have not been to war.
2. John Glenn, Astronaut and Politician.
The third American in space and first American to orbit the earth, Glenn rode his fame to the US Senate, representing Ohio, and was often considered as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate. Prior to that he served his country as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, flying F$U Corsairs in World War II and then F9F Panther Jets in the Korean War. He also flew the F-86 Sabre on an exchange program with the US Air Force. He managed to shoot down 3 MiG fighter jets in Korea, and Ted Williams flew for a time as his wingman. An accomplished test pilot, Glenn was the first person to make a transcontinental supersonic flight from (California to New York) piloting an F8U Crusader.
1. Ted Williams, Baseball Player.
Williams joined the Naval Reserve in 1942 following the change of his draft status of 1A to 3A upon appeal. Negative publicity encouraged his change of heart, and he went on active duty in 1943 after a 1942 baseball season where he accomplished the very rare feat of the batting triple crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s. Incredibly, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and he flew F9F Panther Jets in combat. His years lost to military service cost him the chance to compile career statistics that would probably have stood for many years.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who else should be on the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Baron, Scott and James E. Wise Jr. International Stars at War: Movie Actors in Service to Their Countries. Naval Institute Press, 2002.
Baron, Scott and William C. Westmoreland. They Also Served: Military Biographies of Uncommon Americans. Military Information Enterprises, 1998.
Wilderson III, Paul W. and James E. Wise. Stars in Khaki: Movie Actors in the Army and the Air Services. Naval Institute Press, 2000.