They Were Soldiers: 9 Famous WWII Vets

When World War Two broke out, these 9 famous WWII vets were among the throngs of people who heeded the call and served during the conflict. These people were celebrities but while most known names in the industry served in the armed forces before carving a brand for themselves in it, these 9 notable WWII vets did the opposite. They placed their thriving, budding careers on hold to moonlight as soldiers and even underground resistance fighters.

Get to know these 9 famous WWII vets — from a burlesque performer to a well-known comic well-loved by many.

1. Josephine Baker

One of these 9 notable WWII vets is actually an American born woman but served in France as a resistance spy — sultry performer Josephine Baker.

Baker shot to fame in the 1920s because of her risqué dance performances. There was even one time when she danced while she had on a revealing dress made out of bananas! Becoming a French citizen in 1937, her beauty and lifestyle as a jet setter served as perfect covers during her job as an agent for the French Resistance movement and allowed her to smuggle military intelligence information as well as secret messages in and out of the country by simply tucking them in with her sheet music and even her underwear.

She did not just serve as a French Resistance spy during the second global conflict but also sheltered refugees right in her own home. Throughout the war, however, she did not forget that she was first and foremost and entertainer — she performed for the entertainment of the troops stationed in North Africa and the Middle East.

After WWII ended, Josephine Baker, one of the 9 notable WWII vets, became the recipient of France’s highest military honor – the French Croix de Guerre – because of her bravery and dedication to the French Resistance amidst the troubles brought upon by war.

2. Yogi Berra

next in this list of 9 notable WWII vets is New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra who was well-known for his sluggish prowess in the baseball field as well as his head-scratching one-liners like “it’s deja vu all over again” and most particularly, for being the inspiration – his name that is – of the well-loved picnic basket-stealing brown bear in the Hanna-Barbera family cartoon show.

But unknown to many, Yogi was a D-Day Invasion veteran.

His career had just started when WWII broke out. When June 6, 1944 rolled in, Berra, along with his Navy comrades, were aboard a small Navy support craft. As the Allies stormed the shores of Normandy, their group was responsible for lobbing rockets at the German’s defenses placed on Omaha Beach.

According to accounts, the major leaguer got grazed by a bullet during the Marseilles invasion later on and was supposed to be awarded with a Purple Heart but he declined as he did not want to alarm his mother who was back home in the US.

Nevertheless, Yogi Berra wasn’t the only known baseball star who served during the second global conflict. There was Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson among many others.

3. Sir Alec Guinness

Sir Alec, one of the 9 notable WWII vets in this list, had been a trained thespian but had to put his career in theater on hold just so he could join the army in 1939. As a member of the armed forces, he was an infantry landing craft pilot in the Mediterranean and went on to land about 200 British soldiers on Sicily beaches way back in July of 1943 during the invasion of Italy. His other military accomplishments included ferrying arms to partisan fighters in Yugoslavia.

Sir Alec almost died while in service when his boat got caught in a violent storm off Italy’s coast while he was on assignment. Fortunately, he narrowly escaped death’s fingers when he managed to guide the ship to the harbor before it got thrown on to the rock-laden shoreline breaking it beyond repair.

Sir Alec Guinness, one of the 9 notable WWII vets, went on to star in a number of war-themed films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Tunes of Glory where he used his real wartime experiences as inspiration for the characters he played. he even went on to portray the notorious German dictator in the 1973 movie, Hitler: The Last Ten Days.

4. Marcel Marceau

One of the 9 notable WWII vets in this list is beloved mime Marcel Marceau. The famous mime had been known for his act through and through but before he became known as Blip the Clown and donned on his famous signature face paint, Marcel served in the French Resistance during the Second World War.

He and his brother, Alain, worked hand in hand forging documents and doctoring identity cards to put a stop to French children being conscripted to the labor camps of the Germans.

Additionally, he also helped smuggle Jewish children – numbering to about 780 – by posing as a Boy Scout leader and leading the pack through the wilderness to neutral Switzerland.

Later on, Marcel joined the Free French Forces which was under the leadership of Charles De Guille. He also served as a liaison officer for the men of General George Patton while entertaining Allied troops with his mimes in the sideline.

5. Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks is known for being the writer and director of the laugh-a-minute comedies Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and Young Frankenstein but beyond his comedic expertise, this writer-director also served during the Second World War earning him a spot in this 9 notable WWII vets list.

Born Melvin Kaminsky, Brooks joined the army at the age of 17 and served during the latter part of the war — in 1944. He went on to serve with the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion, a crew who build bridges, cleared blocked roads and deactivated landmines ahead of the advancing Allies all the while braving sniper fire.

But while serving in the army, Mel Brooks never lost his comedic side. One time along the German-French border, he used a bullhorn and serenaded enemy troops who were nearby with the Al Johnson song Toot, Toot, Tootsie.

The enemies applauded his efforts.

In 1968, Mel Brooks directed the Third Reich satire The Producers which included the well-known tune Springtime for Hitler.

6. Jimmy Stewart

One of this list’s 9 notable WWII vets, Jimmy Stewart was already a legitimate movie star before WWII broke out. His face already hit the big screen with film classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story. As a matter of fact, he won an Oscar for his performance in the latter.

But when 1941 rolled in, Jimmy became one of the first Hollywood stars to trade the big screen for the war theater — he signed up in the Army Air Corps and was soon donning on a bomber jacket.

Eventually, this actor in the list of 9 notable WWII vets had to put on additional weight just so he could meet up the weight standard of the army but when he did, he rose up the ranks and became a squadron commander in the 445th Bombardment Group in England, became a B-24 pilot, flew 20 combat missions and went on to become the recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross – among many other military decors – for his being a leader in bombing raids over France and Germany.

Throughout his military career, Jimmy Stewart continued to send ten percent of his skimpy salary in the military to his Hollywood agent.

WWII ended with Jimmy Stewart being a colonel. Even after he got back in front of the cameras, the actor and one of the 9 notable WWII vets remained in the Air Force Reserve. In 1959. he was ultimately promoted to the rank brigadier general.

7. Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett is not only a wonderful crooner who lent to us his wonderful voice and gave us I Left My Heart in San Francisco and Rags to Riches, this legendary singer also earns a spot in this list of 9 notable WWII vets for being a battle-tested soldier during the Second World War.

The singer got drafted into the US Army in 1944 and spent the latter part of the conflict as a member of the 63rd Infantry Division on assignment in Germany and France.

The unit he was a member in was responsible for cleaning up after the Battle of the Bulge. He also participated in fierce combat as he and his comrades searched for Nazi stragglers in German towns bombed out by the Allies.

Additionally, Tony, one of our 9 notable WWII vets, was a firsthand witness to the horrors of the Holocaust when he became one of the Allied soldiers who helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany. Later on, he admitted in writing that the time he spent in the army transformed him into a lifelong pacifist.

But then, it also paved the way for his being a singer when it gave him his first ever opportunity performing as a part of a military band.

8. Medgar Evers

Before Medgar Evers went on to forge an outstanding career as the first field secretary of the NAACP, went on to desegregate the colleges in Mississippi and became a famous civil rights activist fighting for racial equality, he served during the Second World War, thus, earning a spot in this list of 9 notable WWII vets.

Evers left high school and joined the army in 1943. he went on to serve with distinction as part of the 325th Port Company in Europe. This said unit was a segregated unit of black soldiers who delivered important supplies during the invasion of Normandy.

Jim Crow may have limited the involvement of the black troops in the war but this did not stop one of our 9 notable WWII vets from seeing and being involved in front line action as a member of the Red Ball Express which was a well-known supply convoy bringing fuel as well as other important provisions to the tank units of General Patton as they made their way through France.

9. Lenny Bruce

You might be surprised as to why this controversial comedian is included in this list of 9 notable WWII vets.

Lenny Bruce is a countercultural icon and is well-known for his no-holds-barred stand-up comedy shows which most of the time, if not always, pushed the boundaries of entertainment’s free speech.

But before he carved a controversial name for himself, Lenny served in World War Two as a turret gunner in a Allied Navy ship stationed at the Mediterranean. he served honorably throughout the war until he grew tired of living a life as a sailor in 1945. He got himself discharged early when he claimed that he was having homosexual desires for his comrades, the other sailors that was in the vessel he was also in.

After this, he went on to carve a name for himself in the entertainment industry and got arrested a number of times for his satirical performances which were often laced with profanities.

Additional Trivia:

Though not in this list of 9 notable WWII vets, Hollywood star Clark Gable deserves an honorable mention for being a sought after fellow by the German dictator himself, Adolf Hitler. Hitler went as far as offering rewards to German pilots who could capture the screen legend alive as he, the Fuehrer, was a fan and that Gable had a German ancestry.

But in spite of having an amount over his head, Gable went on as a B-17 gunner and even went on to be awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE