Between 1941 and 1942 America’s military went from approximately 1.8 million to almost four million, and by the end of the war around twelve million Americans were in the Armed Forces. The popular myth about the United States in the period immediately following Pearl Harbor is that recruitment offices were jammed with volunteers, but according to research by the National World War Two Museum, only 38.8% percent of military personnel joined voluntarily while 61.2% were draftees, and the average length of service was thirty-three months.
Hollywood may have accounted for a good chunk of these servicepeople, as dozens of big and not-so-big names stepped into uniform. Here are just a few of them now (see a more complete list here):
James Stewart (Army Air Force)
Stewart joined the Air Force as soon as America entered the war, and according to The Veteran’s Site, piloted a B-24 through 24 missions in Europe, reaching the rank of colonel. His career in the military continued even after peace was declared; Stewart not only joined the Air Force Reserve, but flew combat missions in Vietnam.
Robert Montgomery (Navy)
Robert Montgomery’s service was two-fold. Before Pearl Harbor, he drove an ambulance for the American Field Service, working in that capacity until Dunkirk. After Pearl Harbor Montgomery enlisted in the United States Navy, and like John F. Kennedy, was the commanding officer of a PT boat. He was also the Assistant Naval Attache at the American Embassy in London.
Tyrone Power (Marines)
When Power joined the Marine Corps in 1942 20th Century Fox offered to get him an officer’s commission, but he refused and started out where almost everyone else did…at the bottom. Power became a transport pilot flying supplies to islands in the Pacific and carrying wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Like Stewart, Power stayed in the Reserve following the war, continuing his military career into the nineteen-fifties.
Jackie Cooper (Navy)
Cooper spent the war drumming in a band originally formed with the Navy’s permission by Artie Shaw. Cooper was asked by the band’s then-current leader Claude Thornhill to join, and the band played for countless Navy personnel, many of them wounded, in various locales. Cooper and his bandmates always wondered if they could be doing more, and while the obvious answer was yes, the band must have encouraged many, many exhausted and distraught men during the war.
Ronald Reagan (Army)
Reagan enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1937, but due to vision problems never served overseas. Instead, the Army quickly realized that Reagan was a great motivational speaker, so he became a Public Relations officer, working War Loan drives and giving speeches all over the United States. He also continued to act, of course, providing voiceover work for short films such as Beyond the Line of Duty and starring in films such as This Is the Army.
Lew Ayres (Army Medical Corps)
A devout Christian and a pacifist, Ayres was looked on with suspicion by the public, which cost him both his role as Dr. Kildare and his MGM contract, and he was sent to an internment camp for conscientious objectors in Wyeth, Oregon in 1942. He didn’t stay long, though. After the war, it was revealed that Ayres had honorably served in the Army Medical Corps, participating in several major beach landings in the Pacific Islands.
Glenn Ford (Marines)
Ford, who had previously done a stint in the Coast Guard, joined the Marine Corps on a whim in 1943 during the production of Destroyer with Edward G. Robinson, and according to Pure History, a shocked Columbia Pictures had to beg for a delay so Ford could finish shooting. The Marine Corps not only said yes, but the delay was so long Ford had time to film an uncredited bit part in Guaducanal Diary. Ford never saw combat, however, as he was assigned to a photographic unit and then honorably discharged after being diagnosed with duodenal ulcers.
Cesar Romero (Coast Guard)
Romero joined the Coast Guard in 1942, serving aboard the USS Cavalier, where he was an excellent winch operator and powderman on the forward gun. According to Military.com, among his other jobs Romero had to move 18,000-pound barges into the water from the transport ship and his crewmates had nothing but respect for him. They must have appreciated Romero entertaining them during their free time as well.
Henry Fonda (Navy)
Joining the Navy after the United States entered the war, Fonda started out as a Quartermaster on a destroyer and then became a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence, working to plan airborne attacks on the Japanese in the Pacific. Fonda was awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts and stayed in the Navy until 1946.
Robert Stack (Navy)
Stack, who was enjoying a healthy career as a supporting player when the war started, joined the Navy in 1942. Since Stack was an expert skeet shooter, the Navy assigned him to the jobs of aerial gunner officer and gunnery instructor. Stack retained this skill for the rest of his life, giving demonstrations in skeet shooting to interested onlookers and willing participants such as Arthur Ashe.
Gene Kelly (Navy)
Another Navy man, Kelly decided to enlist in the Navy in 1944 because, according to his daughter, Kerry, “his number was up.” Kelly was assigned to the Photographic Unit in Washington, D.C., where he made training films, as well as a notable short about PTSD called Combat Fatigue Irritability. Characteristically, Kelly threw himself into preparing for the film, going undercover in a hospital for soldiers suffering battle fatigue and sharing the routines of the patients (Watch the film here).
Mickey Rooney (Army)
Mickey Rooney was one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws at the time the war broke out, so MGM probably breathed a sigh of relief when Rooney’s early Selective Service exams classified him as 4-F due to high blood pressure. Hope was dashed in 1944, however, when Rooney retook the test and was rebranded 1-A. Rooney served in the 6817th Special Services Battalion, which entertained the troops while living in very rough conditions and eating mostly C-rations.
Many, many thanks to all who served. God bless you.
Got a little housekeeping post coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, everyone…
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