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Memorial Day tribute to REAL Hollywood Heroes


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I'd like to call attention to some individuals who left the luxurious trappings of Hollywood to either fight/serve in the Second World War or support the war effort.  They never came back.


Joe McMichael, one of the Merry Macs, was killed in 1944 while fighting in World War II, according to the Los Angeles Times 2001 obituary for his brother Ted, the last surviving original Merry Mac (brother Judd, another founding member of the big band-era vocal group, passed in 1989).  While with the Merry Macs, Joe McMichael appeared in the Hollywood comedies Love Thy Neighbor (1940) and Ride 'Em, Cowboy (1942).


Glenn Miller, possibly the most famous of the big band-era bandleaders, went missing in action on Dec. 15, 1944, when his plane disappeared over the English Channel.  The most prevalent theory regarding the disappearance alleges that Miller's plane was hit by incendiary bombs jettisoned by high-flying bomber planes over the Channel following an aborted bombing raid.  Miller and his band appeared in the 20th Century Fox musicals Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942).  Miller was at the peak of his civilian career when, in 1942, he accepted a commission in the U. S. Army Air Force as a captain (he was later promoted to major).  Miller's Army Air Force Band performed for Allied troops stateside and throughout England for two years before his ill-fated flight to Paris, which Miller took in preparation for a series of concerts in newly-conquered territory in Europe (Miller wanted to be closer to the fighting men).  In summarizing Miller's military career, General Jimmy Doolittle said, “Next to a letter from home, (Miller's band) was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations."


Richard Fiske, famous for his performances in the Three Stooges two-reelers You Nazty Spy! (1940), Boobs in Arms (1940), All the World's a Stooge (1941), and In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941), was killed in action on August 10, 1944, at La Croix-Avranchin, France, while serving within the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Fiske was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, and several other military honors. He is buried at Brittany American Cemetery in France.  He was 28 at the time of his death.  Before being drafted into the U. S. Army in 1942, Fiske was a Columbia contract player who also appeared in the Blondie, Lone Wolf, and Boston B l a c k i e series, as well as in short subjects starring Andy Clyde and Charley Chase.


Willard Bowsky, Fleischer Studios animator/director, was killed in action on November 27, 1944, in a nighttime firefight with German forces east of Paris. Bowsky was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart and was buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-Avold, France.  In the 1930's, Willard Bowsky directed numerous classic Popeye cartoons, including the 1936 color two-reeler Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor.  He also worked on the Betty Boop series and (in the 1940's) the color Superman cartoons.  Although he was often credited as "head animator," Bowsky actually served the function of director. (Dave Fleischer, the credited director of all of the Fleischer output, actually served as creative producer and head storyman -- author Shamus Culhane.)  Bowsky also directed sequences for two Fleischer animated features -- Gulliver's Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941).  Shortly after Fleischer Studios was reorganized into Famous Studios in 1942, Bowsky enlisted in the U.S. Army.  He served with the 14th Armored Division and was a platoon leader with 50 men under his command.


Phillips Holmes got his start in Hollywood as a juvenile lead in silent films in the late '20s.  Later, he was promoted to leading man status and stayed busy throughout the early '30s in films such as The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) [the first Sherlock Holmes sound film], The Criminal Code (1931), Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1931) [later remade as A Place in the Sun (1951) with Montgomery Clift recreating Holmes's role], Dinner at Eight (1933), Great Expectations (1934), and General Spanky (1936).  When his film career went into decline in the late '30s, Holmes headed east to Broadway.  He and his brother Ralph joined the Royal Canadian Air Force toward the end of 1941. Phillips attended the Air Ground School at Winnipeg. Following graduation, he and six of his aircraftsmen classmates were transferred....but on August 12, 1942, the plane carrying the men en route to their new destination (Ottawa) collided with another in Ontario killing all aboard.


Leslie Howard, best remembered today as the "long-suffering" Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), was killed on June 1, 1943, when the civilian airliner in which he was flying (bound for Lisbon, Portugal) was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by Luftwaffe Junkers maritime fighter aircraft.  Sixteen others onboard perished along with Howard.  Today, conspiracy theories swirl around the downing of Flight 777, including one put forth by Howard's son Ronald which claims that the actor was specifically targeted by German intelligence agents because of his activities as an anti-Nazi propagandist.  Ronald even has claimed that the attack on his father's plane was directly ordered by Joseph Goebbels.  (Another hypothesis states that the Nazis believed that Winston Churchill himself was onboard the flight.  And yet another theory from Estel Eforgan's biography Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor corroborates German claims that the shootdown of the commercial airliner was an accident.)  Although technically a civilian travelling on a goodwill tour, Leslie Howard's intelligence-gathering activities for the Allies qualify him for inclusion here.  Howard was 50 at the time of his death.  He enlisted in the British Army at the start of World War I but resigned his commission in 1916 due to shell shock.  His other Hollywood credits include Of Human Bondage (1934), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), and Pygmalion (1938).


Carole Lombard, famous for her screwball comedies Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), and the wartime farce To Be or Not to Be (1942), was killed on January 16, 1942, when the commercial airliner in which she was flying crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas.  Although she was a civilian flying far from a war zone on a civilian flight, Lombard was returning to Hollywood after a successful war bond rally in her home state of Indiana (she helped raise $2 million in defense bonds).  The Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard was launched in 1944, two years after her death.  Lombard's mother, her press agent, 15 servicemen, and four others also perished in the crash.


Bobby Hutchins, best known as "Wheezer" in the Our Gang series of one-reel comedies in the late '20s/early '30s, was killed on May 17, 1945, in a mid-air collision at Merced Army Air Field in Merced, California.  Air Cadet Hutchins was attempting to land his "Texan" aircraft during a training exercise when he struck another "Texan" from the same unit (the other pilot survived).  Hutchins' mother was to have travelled to Merced for Bobby's graduation from flying school the week after his death.  Bobby joined the U.S. Army in 1943 after graduating high school, served in World War II, and in 1945 enrolled to become an air cadet.  He was 20 years old at the time of his death.  As "Wheezer," Bobby appeared in 58 Our Gang films between 1927 and 1933, including Pups Is Pups (1930), the only Our Gang/Little Rascals film (so far) to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  Other notable "Wheezer" appearances include Bouncing Babies (1929), Teacher's Pet (1930), Fly My Kite (1931), and Readin' and Writin' (1932).


Donald Haines, another alumnus of the Our Gang series, was killed in action on February 20, 1943 (location unknown).  Haines appeared in Our Gang comedies from 1930 to 1933, the early sound era, alongside Jackie Cooper, Norman "Chubby" Chaney, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, and Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins.  Haines' more notable appearances in the series include Shivering Shakespeare (1930), The First Seven Years (1930), Teacher's Pet (1930), Helping Grandma (1931), Love Business (1931), and Readin' and Writin' (1932).  Away from Hal Roach Studios, Haines again appeared alongside Jackie Cooper in his Oscar-nominated performance in Skippy (1931) at Paramount. As a young adult actor, Haines found work at Monogram as "Pee Wee" (then as "Skinny") in the East Side Kids series from 1940-1941.  His East Side Kids credits include Boys of the City (1940), Pride of the Bowery (1941), Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941), and Spooks Run Wild (1941).  Haines enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U. S. Army Air Force on December 10, 1941, immediately after Pearl Harbor.  At the time of his death, he was 23 years old, with the rank of First Lieutenant.


Child actor Jimmy Butler was killed in action somewhere in France at the tender age of 23 during the final months of WWII (February 18, 1945).  Jimmy was an in-demand juvenile actor during the '30s and '40s, receiving critical acclaim for his performances in Only Yesterday (1933), No Greater Glory (1934), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934).  He went on to appear in several Hollywood classics, such as Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), The Shopworn Angel (1938), Boys Town (1938), Nurse Edith Cavell (1939), The Hard Way (1943), This Is the Army (1943), Corvette K-225 (1943), and Girl Crazy (1943).


Juvenile actor Kent Rogers played bits in Boys Town (1938), Northwest Passage (1940), and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941) before beginning a successful career as a voice actor for numerous animated shorts.  Rogers was one of the first actors to voice Woody Woodpecker (in 5 shorts) for Walter Lantz at Universal.  At Warner Bros., Rogers imitated the voices of Clark Gable, James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, Kay Kyser, Mickey Rooney, and Groucho Marx in the Tex Avery classic Hollywood Steps Out (1941).  Rogers also worked for Avery at MGM, providing the voice of the Wolf in another classic -- Red Hot Riding Hood (1943).  Back at Warner Bros., he was the original voice of Henery Hawk in The Squawkin' Hawk (1942); Junyer Bear (the dimwitted son) in Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944), the first entry in Chuck Jones' Three Bears series; and Beaky Buzzard in Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942) and The Bashful Buzzard (1945).  Rogers also was the voice of Horton in Horton Hatches the Egg, a 1942 Merrie Melodies short, and the male camel in the Hope-Crosby feature Road to Morocco (1942).  Like Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Kent Rogers never saw action overseas but was instead killed in a stateside flight training crash.  He was killed on July 9, 1944, in Pensacola, Fla., and is buried in the National Memorial Cemetary of the Pacific in Honolulu.  Rogers was an Ensign in the U. S. Navy.

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  • 11 months later...

Charles Durning counted himself lucky to survive WWII.  He survived the Normandy D-Day landings and unlike many other Americans that were captured in the Ardennes and murdered by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, Durning managed to escape.

Previously he had been wounded in Normandy.  He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Here are some imdb quotes:


I can't count how many of my friends are in the cemetery at Normandy, the heroes are still there, the real heroes.

[about arriving at Omaha Beach on D-Day] It's hard to describe what we all went through that day, but those of us who were there will understand. We were frightened all the time. My sergeant said 'are you scared, son?' and I said 'yes, I am', and he said 'that's good, it's good to be scared', he said 'we all are'. This guy in the boat, he turned to me and he threw up all over me, and I got seasick. He was scared. You're not thinking about anything, you're just thinking about you hope that shell that just went off isn't going to hit this boat. Even the guys who had seen a lot of action before, and this was my first time, they were just as ashen as I was, and I was frightened to death. I was the second man off my barge and the first and third men got killed. First guy the ramp went down, the guy fell and I tried to leap over him and I stumbled and we both slipped into the water. We were supposed to be able to walk into shore but they didn't bring us far enough. And I was in 60 feet of water with a 60 pound pack on, so I let it all go.
[on reaching Omaha Beach after falling in the water] I came up and I didn't have a helmet, a rifle, nothing. I hit the beach, the guys pulled me in who were already there, I'd lost everything; but they said 'you'll find plenty of them on the beach, rifles, helmets, that belong to nobody'. Nobody knew where we were supposed to go, there was nobody in charge, you were on your own. All around me people were being shot at, I saw bodies all over the place; but you didn't know if they were alive or dead, they were just lying there.
[about D-Day] We got behind this tank to protect ourselves; we're holding our own when they called us over to them. I asked the sergeant 'you want me to go first or you go first?' He said 'you go first, I'll be right behind you'. I heard an explosion, and I turned around, and his torso was here, and his body was over there.



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For anyone interested in more information about the movie industry in wartime, there are four very good books on the subject issued by Naval Institute Press, all with extensive details about the war records of the many men and women from Hollywood and overseas studios who served in and out of uniform.  All are relatively inexpensive on Amazon and abebooks.



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