James Doohan saw action during World War II and in outer space. His exploits inspired many to become an engineer, and one individual even followed him to the moon. He spoke with a Scottish accent, even though he wasn’t from Scotland. All in all, he was among the most famous military veterans to transition to the small screen.
James Doohan’s entry into the Canadian Army
James Montgomery “Jimmy” Doohan was born to Irish immigrants on March 3, 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father, William, was a pharmacist who may have invented a form of high-octane gas in 1923. Whether or not that’s true, Doohan grew up familiar with science and creative invention.
When his family moved to Ontario, Doohan enrolled at the Collegiate Institute and Technical School in Sarnia, where he showed an aptitude for mathematics and science. In 1938, he enlisted with the 102nd Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps, after which he joined the Royal Canadian Artillery, 14th (Midland) Field Battery, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
Doohan did so well he was commissioned a lieutenant with the 22nd Field Battery, 13th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and sent to England for training.
Preparing to land at Juno Beach
Fast forward to D-Day on June 6, 1944. The British, American and Canadian forces were each assigned a portion of Normandy’s beaches for their amphibious assaults. The Canadians were allocated Juno Beach, the codename for the area from the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, all the way to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.
The mission for James Doohan’s division was to travel west of Caen. It wouldn’t be easy. Facing them were two battalions of the German 716. Infanterie-Division. There were also troops from the 21st Panzer Division holed up near Caen. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, the Germans had strewn the beaches with anti-tank mines.
The night before, Allied aircraft blasted German positions. As the landings were to happen before dawn, the Canadians wouldn’t be visible, as they landed in the dark – or so the thinking went. That did not happen. The preemptive aerial bombardment hadn’t been as effective as the Allies had hoped, due to lousy weather and poor visibility. As such, the coastal defenses along Juno Beach were almost unscathed.
James Doohan took out two German snipers on D-Day
It got worse. Rough weather and high waves delayed the landings until well after the sun had risen on June 6, 1944. Out at sea, James Doohan felt queasy, but it wasn’t because of what lay ahead. He later told the Associated Press, “We were more afraid of drowning than [we were of] the Germans.”
Once the risk of drowning was behind them, what lay ahead for the Canadians proved to be much worse. The first group reached Juno Beach at 7:35 AM and were quickly cut down.
Fortunately for them, the light cruiser HMS Ajax (22) had bombarded Juno Beach earlier, doing more damage to the coastal defenses than the aircraft had. After two hours, the Canadians had swept aside most of the Germans along their stretch of the beach. Doohan led his men across the sands and got lucky, as none of the anti-tank mines went off, as the men weren’t heavy enough to activate them.
As they made their way to higher ground, Doohan shot two German snipers – his first kills of the war. By noon, they’d secured their positions. However, they now had a new problem. The beach was so thick with Canadians that the later arrivals couldn’t advance. As darkness fell, there was a risk they’d mistake comrades for the enemy and end up shooting at each other.
This was exactly what happened, not only at Juno Beach, but at the other landing beaches.
James Doohan suffered six bullet wounds
At around 11:20 PM, James Doohan finished a cigarette and patted the case he kept in his shirt pocket. It had been given to him by his brother as a good luck charm – and a good thing, too. Some 10 minutes later, he was walking back to his command post when he was shot six times with a Bren light machine gun. The first four bullets slammed into his leg, the fifth struck him in the chest and the sixth took off his right middle finger.
The shooter was not a German sniper. In fact, Doohan had been shot by a nervous, trigger-happy Canadian sentry. Fortunately, the cigarette case had stopped the bullet that hit his chest. Doohan later joked it was the only time being a smoker saved his life.
‘Craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force’
After recovering from his injuries, James Doohan learned to fly a Taylorcraft Auster Mark IV for the No. 666 Squadron RAF. By this point, he was an officer in the Royal Canadian Artillery, supporting the 1st Army Group Royal Artillery at RAF Andover, Hampshire.
In early 1945, Doohan flew his aircraft between two telegraph poles, just to prove it could be done. He got in trouble for that, and everyone called him the “craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force.”
James Doohan goes from the Canadian Army to outer space
After the Second World War, James Doohan returned to Canada. Upon hearing a radio drama, he believed he could do a better job than the voice actors featured and switched his focus of study from technical schooling to drama. His first job was with CBC radio. He ultimately went on to do 4,000 shows on radio and 450 on television, earning a reputation as the most versatile voice actor in the business.
In 1965, Doohan was assured of a place in film history when he landed – and helped develop – the role of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in Star Trek. In addition to playing the role of chief engineer for the starship Enterprise, Doohan also helped create the Klingon and Vulcan languages for the show.
Doohan became so iconic that fans credited him with their interest in engineering, astronomy and other technical fields. Among these was the engineer-turned-astronaut Neil Armstrong, who personally thanked Doohan in 2004.
Doohan died in 2005. To honor him, a Falcon 9 launch vehicle took some of his ashes into space. Two years later, the Scottish town of Linlithgow claimed him as one of their own with a predictive commemorative plaque. “Predictive” because it claims he will be born there on 2222.