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At the start of WWII, countless people took up arms to fight against the Axis powers, from the rich to the poor, all for the good cause – and, yes, there were even celebrities that served in WWII. I don't know why I wrote that as though it should come as a surprise. WWII proved the greatest threat to that generation, and countless individuals had to take up arms to fight against the injustice of the Nazis.
There are countless celebrities that served in WWII, and each did their damn hardest to protect the freedom of all people throughout the world. And a few did some pretty insanely bad-ass things, too.
We can't talk about celebrities that served in the military without bringing up Sir Christopher Lee. Before being Saurumon, a Sith Lord, or, hell, even Dracula, Christopher Lee served in WWII for the British Royal Airforce.
And not only did he serve, but he did a damn good job at it. Fighting primarily in Africa, liberating it from Italian rule, Lee spent most of his time shooting down fascists and Nazis alike, climbing up Mount Vesuvius before it erupted, and, toward the end of the war, rising up the ranks until he took a position behind the scenes of the war.
Until near the end, where he was recruited for an operation to liberate the concentration camps – covert operations that led to him stabbing Nazis in the back (an experience he would later share with Peter Jackson to add realism to a certain back stabbing scene in Return of the King).
He retired at the rank of flight lieutenant, and, almost a decade later, played Dracula. It was here that he truly joined the celebrities that served in WWII by getting around to being famous.
When you think of beloved Hollywood actors, Jimmy Stewart comes to mind pretty early on. It's a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, Vertigo, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, to name a few. James Stewart is, for very good reason, one of the most beloved actors of all time.
He also, it turns out, is a badass.
Stewart was considered a competent pilot long before the War broke out. When the war started, he enlisted in the Air Force. He wanted to serve, and found himself distressed when the military put him in roles behind the scenes of the military. He wanted to serve his country, and persisted.
Until he had his chance.
He led flight formations through Nazi Germany, shooting down a multitude of Nazis. He was promoted to the rank of Major, winning countless awards in the process.
He was made Group Operations Officer of the 453rd Operations Group. James Stewart embarked on countless sorties deep in Nazi territory, playing an essential role in defeating the Nazi menace.
After that, he went on to star in It's a Wonderful Life. Because Jimmy Stewart, one of the most badass celebrities that served in WWII, is here to destroy Nazis and holiday gloom.
John Wayne never served in WWII, but Walter Matthau, one of the great character actors of the 20th Century, did. Somehow, the visual of Matthau being in the war while Wayne – the man's man – stayed home is sort of reassuring, as though saying you don't have to have to be a "manly man" in order to do the right thing.
Matthau served in the US Air Force in the 453rd Operations Group – working alongside fellow actor James Stewart. Matthau served as a gunner, and took part in several military operations against the Nazis. Matthau helped blow away Nazi communication lines, crippling the German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. Matthau rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant before he decided to pursue a career in acting.
I'd like to just repeat this: Jimmy Stewart and Walter Matthau, guys who always played the nice guys in movies, were war heroes, while John Wayne – America's tough guy – stayed home.
Mel Brooks has spent most of his career destroying Nazis. Be it in his films, where he demolished Hitler by making him and the Nazis look ridiculous, or in real life, where he killed Nazis.
He also found a chance to troll Nazis. Because Mel Brooks, being a Jewish man, has many reasons to hate those Nazis.
Mel Brooks was drafted into the military, where he served as a combat engineer. His duty? Defuse land mines. He fought during the war, fighting most notably in the Battle of the Bulge.
But the best thing Mel Brooks did during the war? Reportedly, when Nazis would blast war propaganda on speakers, Brooks hooked up his own sound system to spread the singing talents of Al Jolson – a Jewish singer. One can only imagine how cathartic it was to drown out the Nazi anti-Semitism with the talents of a Jewish artist.
Which would only be more cathartic when, as one of the many celebrities that served in WWII, he continued to expose Nazis and anti-Semites for the ridiculous, hateful things they are in his brilliant comedies.
Remember that scene in Happy Gilmore where Bob Barker, beloved host of The Price is Right, beats the crap out of Adam Sandler? It's funny, right? Because Barker's old and Sandler's young and Sandler is clearly tougher looking than Barker?
But don't you laugh too hard. The guy served in WWII.
Barker had earned a basketball scholarship, and was well on his way to shooting some crazy hoops when the US Government came calling. Barker became a fighter pilot, training night and day to kill some Nazis.
But the moment he set out on his first mission, the Nazis surrendered. It would be easy to say that Barker, standing apart from the other celebrities who served in WWII, was so intimidating that the Nazis just gave up as he arrived.
But it's more likely that Barker simply wasn't fast enough in his training. Either way, he went on to finish his college career, become a successful game show host, and beat up Adam Sandler. So he went on to accomplish something, I guess.
Late night television host Johnny Carson may not be who you would expect to be one of those celebrities who served in WWII, but he did. At the time the war broke out, he had been working as a movie theater usher, which gives all past movie theater ushers hope that one day, we will do something incredible.
Carson enlisted in the Navy, where he was placed on the USS Pennsylvania. He performed magic tricks and worked as an amateur boxer with a flawless record. He would have fought in Japan, but, as the Pennsylvania drew toward the combat zone, the Atomic Bombs fell.
On the last day of the war, the Pennsylvania was torpedoed, and Carson had to help remove 20 corpses from the hull of the ship.
Henry Fonda followed his lifelong friend Jimmy Stewart into WWII, refusing "to be in a fake war in a studio." Before joining, he and Jimmy Stewart had tried to raise funds to aid the British military against the Nazis, but raising money proved to not be enough.
Some things take a more personal touch.
Fonda joined the US Navy and was stationed on the USS Satterlee as a Quartermaster third Class. The ship would perform several missions over the course of the war, most notably offering heavy fire on the beaches of Normandy against German gunning stations. Fonda would be commissioned as Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific.
On the whole, he did quite well for himself in the war, leaving with several medals and awards, distinguishing his services in the fight against Nazis and the Japanese.
Don't recognize that name? Well, ever see Star Trek? It's Scotty. Yes, Scotty from Star Trek served in WWII, and, not only that, but he almost died there. I can only presume he survived thanks to sheer manly spirit and badassery.
James Doohan enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery near the war's start. But, for awhile, he never really saw action.
His first mission? Juno Beach. D-Day.
What a day to start fighting a war, huh?
James Doohan charged on the beaches of Juno, leading his troops through mine-ridden beaches and anti-tank rounds. Doohan himself shot dead two different German snipers.
That night, Doohan was taking a stroll when he was shot six times – one shot blowing off his middle finger. He would have died, if one bullet hadn't hit a silver cigarette case his brother bought him. That bullet would have plowed through his lungs, killing him.
So, in this case, smoking saved his life.
I should probably mention that the person who shot him was a Canadian sentry, who freaked out, thinking he was a Nazi.
He also earned the moniker "The craziest pilot who ever lived," for pulling insane, dangerous stunts just to prove he could do it.
Yes, you read that correctly. Famous horror and erotica writer Roald Dahl did indeed serve in WWII (oh, yeah, and he wrote a few kids books, too, I guess). Before determining gruesome and nightmarish ways to kill children in his books, Dahl served in the Royal Air Force, hoping to riddle holes in Nazi soldiers.
Sadly, his military career was cut short when he crashed his plane, which resulted in severe injuries that he never recovered from. The good news here is that, once he was grounded, he started to write, publishing short fiction that led to him eventually publishing some book you may have heard of called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or something.
Death Wish star Charles Bronson was a bad-ass on and off screen. Working in a coal mine all his life, Bronson saw a chance to go the distance when WWII started up. He enlisted in the US Air Force, and set out to carve a record of bad-assary few celebrity soldiers could attest to.
Charles Bronson served as an aerial gunner, where he mowed down enemies in Japan. He partook in 25 missions where he offered air support to the ground troops, fighting countless Japanese pilots over the Pacific war front.
Bronson was given a Purple Heart after he was shot in combat, but that hardly stopped him from fighting the good fight.
Bronson would spend his postwar career becoming known as one of the coolest action heroes before the 80s kicked off the action movie genre.
Yes. That Audrey Hepburn.
But wait, you say. Audrey Hepburn was too young to serve in WWII – and she was a woman. Women back in WWII were relegated to roles as nurses and the like. How could she possibly serve in the American military?
Well, she didn't. She fought with Holland.
She served as a courier for the Holland resistance against the Nazis as a child, relaying messages across Nazi occupied territory. She was, in essence, a real life spy – and all before turning sixteen.
Her experiences watching her world burn around her left her incredibly motivated to help children devastated by war. In the years following the war, Hepburn would use her fame to promote humanitarian efforts to protect those less fortunate than herself. Of all the celebrities who served in WWII, how many had to fight this sort of horror as a little girl?
Audrey Hepburn. That's who.
Yes. You're reading that right. The guy who wrote Captain America, created Spider-Man and The Avengers, served in WWII.
Well, sort of.
After spending a few years writing Captain America stories, Stan Lee entered the US Army. His mission? Repair communication towers. It's an important duty to the country. Even though he never saw active combat, he played a vital role: morale.
Stan Lee was sent to the Training Film Division, where his writing talents were employed to help write and create training videos to help soldiers, as well as write training manuals and, interestingly enough, comic books for soldiers.
Following the war, Stan Lee would return to writing comic books full time, which led, eventually, to create some of the greatest fictional heroes of the 20th century.