By Jessica Pickens
After World War II, several servicemen went to Hollywood for their post-war careers. However, some actors left Hollywood to serve during the war—some as civilians and others in the military.
Some returned to Hollywood changed, not as fresh-faced and lighthearted as they were before their war experiences. And some were killed, unable to return at all. Here are just a few of Hollywood’s top stars who served in World War II:
Henry Fonda said he didn’t want to be part of a fake studio war and enlisted in the Navy in August 1942. Fonda became a quartermaster third class on the destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) and then went to officer’s school and was commissioned as a lieutenant junior grade.
As a lieutenant j.g., Fonda was an assistant air combat information officer and air operations watch officer in the Pacific theater, where he assisted to plan and execute the air operations for several campaigns, including Iwo Jima.
Fonda was recognized with a Bronze Star and left active duty in November 1945. Returning to work in 1946, Fonda was in the 1948 play, “Mister Roberts,” where he plays a lieutenant on a naval ship in the last days of World War II. Fonda reprised this role in the 1955 film version.
Clark Gable was one of Hollywood’s top stars and was dubbed the King of Hollywood. But after his wife Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash in 1942, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a private in August 1942. In February 1943, Gable was sent to England and assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook. Gable through at least five combat missions and was recognized with Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.
Clark Gable returned to films in 1945. One of his post-war roles was the World War II drama Command Decision (1948). Based on a play by William Wister Haines, the story takes place in 1943 London. Gable is a bomb division commander but loses several men with each bombing mission. It was Clark Gable who urged MGM to buy the film rights to the play.
New York Times critic Boslely Crowther wrote of Gable: "...it is the performance of Clark Gable in this scene of a soldier's momentary grieving that tests his competence in the leading role. For this is not only the least likely but it is the most sentimental moment in the film, and the fact that Mr. Gable takes it with dignity and restraint bespeaks his worth.”
Robert Montgomery enlisted in World War II in 1939 before the United States had entered the war. He enlisted in London and drove ambulances in France until the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Montgomery did return to Hollywood in 1940, acting in six films in 1941, before returning to the war after the United States entered the war in December 1941.
Montgomery then joined the United States Navy, becoming a Lt. Commander for the PT-107. Montgomery was also on board the destroyer USS Barton (DD-722) during the D-Day invasion.
After serving five years of active duty, Montgomery was awarded a Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Ribbon, the European Theater Ribbon with two Battle Stars, one Overseas Service Bar, and promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander. (1904-1981)
When he returned to Hollywood in 1945, his first film was the war drama The Were Expendable (1945), about PT boats in the Pacific. When John Ford became ill, Montgomery took over direction of the film.
Wayne Morris may not be a name you are readily familiar with, but he was one of Warner Bros. top fresh-faced stars in the 1930s and 1940s, usually playing an affable young man who may not be very bright.
But Morris’s war record was more impressive than his film career. He was one of World War II’s first flying aces. He joined the Naval Reserve and began a Naval flier in 1942 on the USS Essex.
During World War II, Morris flew 56 missions and helped sink five enemy ships. He was honored was honored with four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals.
When Morris returned to Hollywood, his career waned and he was mainly cast in westerns. One of his last film roles was in Paths of Glory (1957), a World War I film where Morris plays a weak and immoral soldier, which is a stark contrast to his actual war record.
David Niven returned home from Hollywood to join the British Army in 1939 after Britain declared war on Germany. He became a Lt. Colonel of the British Commandos. He also worked in the intelligence branch and was later assigned to the U.S. First Infantry.
Niven took part in the D-Day Allied Invasion of Normandy in June 1944. He later was one of 25 British soldiers to be recognized with the U.S. Legion of Merit Medal, according to a 1983 book by Don McCombs and Fred Worth.
David Niven’s first film after the war ended was Michel Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a fantasy-romance film that takes place during the war. Niven plays an RAF flyer who falls out of a plane and lives. He has to go before an otherworldly court to determine if he can continue to live or not, since he escaped death.
Tyrone Power was one of 20th Century Fox’s top stars when he enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps in August 1942. After boot camp and Officer Training School, Power was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in June 1943. In February 1945, Power joined a squadron in Kwajalein, which went to Saipan. Power assisted with the air supply and evacuation of wounded men and women from Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Powers returned to the United States in 1945 and was discharged in 1946. He was recognized with American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Prior to the war, many of Power’s role was romantic or swashbuckling, but his first roles after the war were darker and moodier. His first project was the Somerset Maugham’s story The Razor’s Edge (1946), followed by the noir Nightmare Alley (1947) where Power plays an uncharacteristically shifty and oily carnival mentalist.
Prior to World War II, many of Stewart’s roles were most “oh well, golly gee” type roles with his famous bashful stuttering. But when Stewart returned to Hollywood, his roles were much different—including many hardened characters in Alfred Hitchcock films.
Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Corps in March 1941. After war was declared, he was worried that he wouldn’t be allowed to see combat, which partially came true when he was assigned as a flight instructor in the United States. He finally was sent overseas in 1943 and began flying combat missions.
By the end of the war, Stewart had flown 20 combat missions, more than many of his actor peers. For his work, Stewart was recognized with awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals, as well as the French Croix de Guerre with bronze palm. Stewart remained in the Air Force until 1968.
His first film after the war was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). His character in It’s A Wonderful Life becomes bitter as his life doesn’t work out as he hopes, and he is forced to make sacrifices for those he loves. A man forced to look at his life before committing suicide is a far cry from his early bashful roles.
Leslie Howard is best known today by most people for his role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. By the time filming for Gone With the Wind was complete, World War II had begun in Europe. Howard felt it was time to leave Hollywood and return home to Great Britain, even though that meant forfeiting work in Hollywood. The British government asked Howard to make broadcasts to the then-neutral United States to change their minds and join the war effort. Howard also filmed and starred in several British patriotic films.
In 1943, Howard was a civilian boarded a civilian flight to England from Lisbon, Portugal, where he was acting as the British cultural ambassador, according to a 2015 article in the Telegraph. Howard’s civilian flight, Flight 777 of the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay, killing all 17 passengers on board. Until June 1, 1943, Luftwaffe had never bothered a civilian flight. There is much speculation on why this particular civilian flight was shot down. Though it has never been confirmed, some have speculated that the Germans thought Winston Churchill was onboard, which Churchill himself believed as the reason for the flight being shot down. Howard was 50 years old.
One of Howard’s last films was 49th Parallel (1941), a drama dealing with Nazis crossing from Canada and trying to get into the United States. Howard is one of the many people they come across as they try to get to the U.S.
Though actress Carole Lombard was a civilian, she is considered the first American woman killed in World War II. Lombard was selling war bonds at a rally in Indiana, raising more than $2 million worth of war bonds.
Most of her trip to and through Indiana had been by train, but Lombard chose to return home by plane. On the flight to Los Angeles, Lombard, her mother (Elizabeth Peters), and the rest of the crew were killed in a plane crash on January 16, 1942, when the plane hit a cliff on Potosi Mountain because the safety beacons meant to direct night flights had been shut off as a precaution against enemy bomber aircraft. Her husband Clark Gable enlisted in World War II after her death. In 1944, a military cargo ship was named SS Carole Lombard in her honor.
Lombard’s last film was To Be or Not To Be (1942), a black comedy directed by Ernest Lubitsch about an acting troupe working in Poland when the Nazis invaded.
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.