Skip to comments.Celebrities in the Armed Forces? Not These Days
Posted on 04/16/2003 2:11:31 PM PDT by Incorrigible
Celebrities in the Armed Forces? Not These Days
BY MICHELE M. MELENDEZ
Back when Clark Gable's Hollywood charm made girls swoon and Bob Feller's pitching prowess drove boys wild, celebrities became superheroes during wartime.
Having the famous in the armed forces delighted the folks on the home front during World War II.
Experts say the bombing of Pearl Harbor inspired such support for the war that everyone, from children to stars, was expected to contribute. That feeling has not gripped the country in subsequent wars, they say.
The reason lies partly in how government officials have portrayed patriotic duty. The message has been: Go about life, keep working, keep spending.
"In 1941, when America was attacked, people rushed to enlist in the service; in 2001, when America was attacked, they rushed to buy shoes, convinced that that would be how they could do their part in the war against terrorism," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University in New York.
"In 1941, a celebrity might have enlisted," he said. "In 2003, it's doubtful the celebrity would even be sent overseas."
The only well-publicized exception seems to be former NFL safety Pat Tillman, who declined a three-year, $3.6 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army last year. He deployed recently to the Middle East.
During World War II, famous fighters abounded.
"They were heroes, and some of them were quite legitimate," said Roy Hoopes, author of "When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II."
-- Jimmy Stewart, who in 1940, the year he won an Academy Award for his part in "The Philadelphia Story," was drafted into the Army but turned away for being underweight. Wanting to serve, he reportedly gorged himself to reach the threshold. In the Army Air Corps, predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, Stewart flew 20 combat missions. In the Air Force reserves, he was promoted to brigadier general.
-- Feller, a hotshot with the Cleveland Indians who had a draft deferment because he was supporting his dying father, his mother and his sister. But two days after the Pearl Harbor attack, he enlisted in the Navy. Feller led a gun crew on the battleship USS Alabama.
-- Gable, who in 1942 was 41 and exempt from the draft. That year, the "Gone with the Wind" leading man lost his wife, actress Carole Lombard, in a plane crash, while she was on a war-bond promotional tour. Gable enlisted in the Army Air Corps, later heading to Europe to produce a recruitment film for aerial gunnery. He flew in several bombing missions and left the corps as a major.
-- Band leader Glenn Miller, who at age 38 also was draft-exempt. Even so, in 1942 he approached the Navy, which turned him down. Miller eventually joined the Army Air Corps as a captain and performed for troops overseas. He died on active duty, when his Paris-bound plane crashed.
Sharing the war experience with their favorite stars thrilled the fans, said James E. Wise Jr., a retired Navy captain and co-author of several books about famous military personnel, including "Stars in Khaki: Movie Actors in the Army and the Air Services," with Paul W. Wilderson III.
The modern-day equivalent might be actor Tom Cruise as a real top gun, or New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as a genuine Bronx bomber.
But the times don't align.
World War II "has been called America's last popular war, in the sense that it enjoyed widespread support; there were very few people who argued that we shouldn't be in that war," said Bill Gilbert, author of "The Seasons: Ten Memorable Years in Baseball, and in America."
Moreover, there was a cultural mandate to contribute during 1940s wartime.
"The state of the military in 2003 is so vastly different than it was in 1942 that it makes the model of Jimmy Stewart joining the armed services an almost completely archaic one," Thompson said.
"When World War II broke out, a force was necessary that included nearly the entire adult population," he said. "If you weren't off fighting the war, you were getting new jobs in the factories, taking the place of people who were."
Plus, experts point out that not every star bolted to the armed forces.
"There are many athletes that we see in World War II who were indeed draftees or coerced, who didn't want to serve," said Wanda Ellen Wakefield, author of "Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945" and history professor at the State University of New York College at Brockport.
"The story often is told that these guys dropped everything and went off to war: not true," she said, adding that nostalgia keeps that myth alive.
Kevin Hagopian, lecturer in media at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, explained: "During World War II, popular culture stars used various evasions to avoid serving while still appearing patriotic; thus was born the notion of `soldiers in greasepaint,' in which actors and singers entertained the troops as their contribution to the war effort."
And enlistment did not necessarily equate with dedication.
"Some figures in popular culture went reluctantly," Hagopian said. "Joe DiMaggio's service career was spent playing in baseball games to entertain troops at various bases."
But even some of the hesitant proved themselves, like Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. He had requested a deferment from the draft, but fans and sportswriters berated him for being unpatriotic. He joined the Navy, became a pilot and rose to captain, never leaving stateside during World War II.
Williams saw action during the Korean War, when he was recalled as a member of the Marine reserves. He flew 39 missions, many of them with future astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn.
By the Vietnam era, social pressure to contribute to the war effort had vanished.
"In the 1960s, there were a whole variety of ways you could avoid combat by finding yourself a safe billet," Wakefield said, adding that professional athletes often secured slots in the reserves and National Guard, which were not slated for deployment.
"I can't think of any ballplayer who was criticized for this," she said.
And now, without a draft or nationwide support for war, celebrities are unlikely to visit a recruiter.
"You've got a very `me' type of environment with the stars today: their contracts, their commitments," said Wise, the "Stars in Khaki" author. "It's an entirely different way of thinking."
(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Love to watch the race planes...only seen 'em on TV. I want to go to watch them live one day. Also want to go to Bonneville Salt Flats for the speed trials. Love anything fast, especially cars and airplanes!
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