By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served “Dispatches”
For decades there were urban legends floating around that Jerry Mathers, who played the title character on ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ died in Vietnam and that Fred Rogers from the PBS show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was either a Navy SEAL or a U.S. Marine Sniper.
Neither of those legends is true, but they serve a purpose of leaving people unable to tell fact from fiction. It’s still a mystery as to why someone would make them up.
But in many cases, it might be said that truth is stranger than an urban legend, and real life stories of celebrities who wore combat boots are much more interesting. You could never make this stuff up!
Take, for example, the case of, an accomplished classical musician who was also a television and stage actor. Werner Klemperer, a native-born German, was forced to leave Germany in 1935 with his family, shortly after Hitler’s Nazi Party took power because Klemperer’s father was Jewish.
After immigrating to the U.S., Klemperer fell in love with his new home and upon the nation’s entry into World War II, he quickly joined the U.S. Army to fight for his country. Many people may not know the name Werner Klemperer, but if someone were to say Col. Wilhelm Klink, you would recognize him as the bumbling, cowardly and self-serving Kommandant of Stalag 13 on “Hogan’s Heroes,” which aired from 1965-1971.
Another actor who served his country during World War II and ended up with an interesting tale that could rank up there with an urban legend was Jimmy Stewart. His real-life story reads like a legend but it’s all true.
Stewart enlisted in the Army as a Private in 1941 but applied for an Air Corps commission as a Second Lieutenant which he received on January 1, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as Operations Officer of the 703d Bombardment Squadron. As a pilot on a B-24 Liberator, Stewart flew 20 successful combat missions over Europe during the war, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. By the time the war was over, he had gone from a Private to a Colonel in just four years.
Stewart continued serving in the Air Force Reserves, eventually retiring in 1968 after attaining the rank of Brigadier General becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history. A lot of people act pretty amazed when they find that out, but it’s one of those true facts that seems stranger than fiction only because of who Stewart was as an actor.
In August 1942, Tyron Power enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He attended boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, then Officer’s Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on June 2, 1943. As he had already logged 180 solo hours as a pilot before enlisting, he was able to do a short, intense flight training program at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. The pass earned him his wings and a promotion to First Lieutenant. Since the Marine Corps considered Power over the age limit for active combat flying, he volunteered for piloting cargo planes that Power felt would get him into active combat zones.
In July 1944, Tyron Power was assigned to Marine Transport Squadron (VMR)-352 as a transport co-pilot at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. The squadron moved to Marine Corps Air Station El Centro in California in December 1944. Power was later reassigned to VMR-353, joining them on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in February 1945. From there, he flew missions carrying cargo in and wounded Marines out during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Power returned to the United States in November 1945 and was released from active duty in January 1946. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in the Reserves on May 8, 1951. He remained in the Reserves the rest of his life and reached the rank of major in 1957.
Hedy Lamarr lived the glamorous life of a Golden Age Hollywood actress, starring alongside legends like Clark Gable and Judy Garland in over 18 films during the 1940s. But the Austrian star – widely hailed during her time as the most beautiful woman alive – also had a secret second life: She was a successful wartime inventor.
During World War II, she and composer George Antheil realized that radio-controlled torpedoes, which could be important in the naval war, could easily be jammed, thereby causing the torpedo to go off course. With the knowledge she had gained about torpedoes from her first husband and using a method similar to the way piano rolls work, they drafted designs for a new frequency hopping, a spread-spectrum technology that they later patented.
Their invention was granted a patent on August 11, 1942, filed using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey. However, it was technologically difficult to implement, and at that time the U.S. Navy was not receptive to considering inventions coming from outside the military. Only in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis did an updated version of their design appear on Navy ships. The design is one of the important elements behind today’s spread-spectrum communication technology, such as modern CDMA, Wi-Fi networks, and Bluetooth technology.
Lamarr’s earliest inventions included an improved traffic stoplight and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink. The beverage was unsuccessful; Lamarr herself said it tasted like Alka-Seltzer.
Their concept lies behind the principal anti-jamming device used today in the U.S. government’s Milstar defense communication satellite system. Ms. Lamarr also demonstrated her loyalty to the U.S. by raising seven million dollars in a single evening selling war bonds.
And then, there’s Rocky Blier, who after completing his first year as a rookie in the NFL, was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and received a Purple Heart. Blier was seriously wounded in an ambush by a bullet to the thigh and a hand grenade to the lower right leg. Military doctors told Blier that he would never play football again.
When Rocky returned from the war, he went back to training camp with the Steelers after just one year – weighing only 180 pounds and in incredible pain from his war wounds. Many people might not have been able to do what Blier did; working through the pain and pushing himself hard every day even with the knowledge that he might never be able to play on the active Steeler roster.
It wasn’t until 1974, after years of hard work getting his weight back to well over 200 pounds, that he was put in as a starting running back. Millions of people still remember Blier as a running back who played for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that won four Super Bowls, but they might not remember the important sacrifices he made for his country. Even so, today Rocky’s story continues to inspire others – and it’s just another example of true life events that are much more interesting than fictionalized accounts or made-up rumors.
These were not the only working movie stars and others who would end up in Hollywood as actors fighting in World War II. Among them were Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, George C. Scott, Audrey Hepburn, Art Carney, Charles Bronson, and Charlton Heston.
Although most Americans find tales about celebrities who served in boots interesting, there are many legends about their daring in the military that never happened, like the Beaver killing 7,000 Viet Cong before biting the dust.
There’s nothing that can replace the spirit or sacrifices of real unsung heroes-those who fought and died to keep the U.S. free.
They’re the ones who aren’t famous, they’re the ones who don’t have urban legends told about them, they’re the ones who have never actually heard a word of thanks for their ultimate sacrifice, and they’re the ones who the famous celebrity veterans, along with the rest of us, look up to.