May 11, 1945: Actor Paul Newman Faces Death in the Pacific

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A Brief History

On May 11, 1945, the man that would become the famous actor and philanthropist, Paul Newman, was assigned to the USS Bunker Hill CV-17, an Essex class aircraft carrier off the coast of Okinawa when not one, but two Japanese suicide (Kamikaze) aircraft slammed into the ship, killing nearly 350 men and injuring another 300, with another 43 missing. Newman, a crew member on carrier aircraft torpedo bombers survived the devastating attack when the pilot of his plane was ill, and the crew had to wait for his recovery to report to the ship. He went on to a wonderful career as an actor, race car driver and humanitarian.

Digging Deeper

The stricken ship was able to return to the United States for repairs, and was decommissioned in 1947 after the War, reverting to the Reserve Fleet and never serving on active duty again. She was scrapped in 1972 after efforts to raise enough money to make the ship a floating museum failed. Newman was serving on a smaller aircraft carrier when the dropping of atomic bombs ended the war.

Bunker Hill as a stationary electronics test platform, 1967

Newman was serving as a radio operator/gunner on Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers during World War II and was 20 years old when his ship was hit. He had enlisted in the Navy 4 days before turning 18 years old. Newman had been slated for pilot training but was unable to pass the physical requirements because of his color blindness. He had been born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a well to do Cleveland suburb that had been the richest city in the United States. Born to a Polish-Hungarian Jewish father and a Slovak Catholic mother, Newman himself did not practice any religion. His parents owned a major sporting goods store, providing a good living for their family.

After World War II, Paul went to Kenyon College in Ohio where he graduated with a BA in 1949, and then attended Yale University’s School of Drama to learn acting, having had a lifelong interest in acting going back to elementary school. He then went to New York to further study acting at the Actors’ Studio. (Prior to Kenyon Paul had attended Ohio University.)

The 1950’s saw Newman graduate from the stage to television and movies, becoming a leading man and a star in his own right, adding many major motion pictures to his credit, including The Left Handed Gun, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Long Hot Summer, in which he met his future wife, actress Joanne Woodward. Many major films followed, including Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Harper, The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Newman later directed movies as well as starring in them, and sometimes returned to the stage. He retired from acting in 2007, though his voice was used in animated movies.

Newman in The Hustler (1961)

Like many Hollywood stars, Newman was a liberal and supported the Democratic Party and liberal causes. A humanitarian, Paul started Newman’s Own brand of food products as a non-profit way to raise money for charitable causes. All after tax profits have been donated to charity, around a half billion dollars so far! Newman has supported many other causes and organizations, and even made a $10 million donation to Kenyon College to establish a scholarship fund. So generous was Paul Newman, that in 2008 he was named “Most Generous Celebrity” by Givingback.org.

In 1969, Newman became enamored of auto racing while training for a role in the film, Winning. He became an actual race car driver, competing throughout the 1970’s in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) events, winning 4 national championships within that promotion. He even competed in the 1979 24 Hours at Le Mans and finished an impressive second place. He continued racing and at the age of 70 won the 24 Hours at Daytona race, an event he again competed in in 2005 at the age of 80! In his last race as a driver, Newman won the pole at Watkins Glen in 2007. What an inspiration for senior citizens. Who says old people cannot drive? Paul Newman was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2009, the year after he died.

Paul’s son Scott from his first marriage died in 1978 from a drug overdose, prompting Paul to start The Scott Newman Center for drug abuse victims. Newman divorced his first wife and married Joanne Woodward in 1958, a marriage that lasted a half century until Paul’s death in 2008. They had 3 daughters.

Woodward in 1960

Paul Newman died of lung cancer at the age of 83 in 2008, leaving a marvelous legacy of acting, racing and philanthropy. He had won several awards for acting, the most notable being his Academy Award for The Color of Money in 1986. In spite of his status as Hollywood acting royalty and a Hall of Fame race car driver, it is his philanthropy and humanitarianism that shines the brightest. Paul Newman remains one of my all time favorite actors and people. How about you?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Stille, Mark. US Navy Ships vs Kamikazes 1944–45. Osprey Publishing, 2016.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.