A number of movie stars enlisted during the Second World War, but there are also some that chose the calling without a specific war in mind. Who was the highest-ranking actor in military history and was a real superstar? That would be James “Jimmy” Stewart.
Now, let’s take a look at the biggest names in the movie and war (industry)!
James (Jimmy) Stewart
One of Hitchcock's favorite actors, James Stewart, is officially known as the actor with the highest rank. By the time he retired, Stewart was a Brigadier General.
His impressive military career began with World War II, or should we say, it began even earlier with his love for flying. Before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, he had already logged in 400 flight hours (and an Oscar, by the way). Joining the air forces also made Jimmy Stewart the first major Hollywood actor to be enlisted. Jimmy Stewart put his acting career on hold temporarily to join the United States Air Force. The movie background did have an impact on his superiors so until Stewart himself asked to be transferred, he was serving as a flight instructor in New Mexico.
In 1943, he finally got the chance to join in the combat during his service in WWII. Stewart flew B-24 as a Commanding Officer in the 703rd Bomber Squadron, and he did it quite successfully, completing 20 combat missions and eventually rising to the rank of Colonel in 1945.
Following the end of the war, the actor remained in the Army Air Forces Reserve. In 1959, Stewart became the highest-ranking actor in military history and remained so to this day with his Brigadier General rank. Finally, James Stewart officially retired from the Air Force in 1968.
Known for her authoritative and argumentative character in the long-running sitcom “Golden Girls, Bea Arthur was similarly described by her enlistment interviewers long before the TV show.
Bea Arthur or Bernice Frankel, as that was her name at the time, enlisted in 1943 when she was 21 years old. Similarly, to Stewart, she operated a vehicle, but hers was a military truck. One of the first Women’s Reserve members, Bea Arthur was stationed at Marine Corps and Navy air stations in Virginia and North Carolina. The career appealed to her, apparently, as she was promoted from corporal to sergeant and later to staff sergeant throughout the duration of her military service.
In 1945, the future actor was honorably discharged. But if it weren’t for the Marine Corps, the actor may have been known by another name. Namely, she married a fellow Marine (Private Robert Arthur) after leaving the Marine Corps and got a new last name. Two years later, she also changed her name to Bea and joined the Dramatic Workshop.
The King of Hollywood had a WW2 story that could have been turned into a movie.
One month after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, his wife, Carole Lombard, died in an airplane crash while she was promoting war bonds. Gable took this as a sign he should be more involved in the war besides using his fame to encourage Americans to purchase war bonds. Instead, he enlisted as a private at the age of 41 and served in the Army Air Corps.
In time, Gable worked his way up and became an aerial gunner and photographer. He participated in air combat in England and had several close calls during that time. Even though he wasn’t shooting the guns but using a filming camera, the footage he recorded proved invaluable in documenting the reality of war combat and encouraging Americans to support their troops.
Eventually, Gable joined the Reserves in 1944.
The Hangover and Comedy Central’s star was hiding his huge comical talent while serving as a Marine.
Riggle joined the Marines while he was still in college in 1990. He was an active Marine for nine years and served in Liberia, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan, eventually receiving the rank of lieutenant colonel. One of his memorable tasks was being a member of the “Bucket Brigades” shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Another mission included securing and evacuating the American embassy in Liberia.
After leaving active duty after many years of service, Riggle remained in the reserve for an additional 14 years. Despite the fact he no longer wears a uniform, Riggle still visits Marine facilities as a USO entertainer, sometimes visiting troops stationed abroad.
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