Norman Lear Flew 52 Combat Missions with the US Army Air Forces During WWII

Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for BAFTA LA
Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for BAFTA LA

Norman Lear was one of the most important individuals in the history of the small screen. Active in the industry since the mid-20th century, he created such shows as All in the Family (1971-79), The Jeffersons (1975-85), Sanford and Son (1972-77) and One Day at a Time (1975-84). Before entering the television business, he was a decorated pilot who served in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Norman Lear’s upbringing

Portrait of Norman Lear
Normal Lear. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Norman Lear was born in New Haven, Connecticut on July 27, 1922. His world was turned upside down at just nine years old, when his father, a traveling salesman, was arrested and imprisoned for selling fake bonds. Calling the man a “rascal,” Lear later said that the character of Archie Bunker in All in the Family was partially inspired by him.

Around this time, he also became familiar with the fiercely anti-Semitic priest, Charles Coughlin, who hosted a popular radio show. In October 2022, the 100-year-old Lear shared in a series of tweets:

“Alone in bed one night, my father away, I was playing with a crystal set radio and came across the vicious antisemitic voice of Father Coughlin railing against American Jews. I’m confident that that horrifying moment resulted in my early enlistment in WWII and the 52 combat missions over Germany that followed.”

Enlistment in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF)

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in flight
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. (Photo Credit: Airwolfhound / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Norman Lear graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut in 1940, after which he attended Emerson College. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the military, going on to serve with the US Army Air Forces. This upset his mother, who told him that as long as he stayed in school, he wouldn’t have to go off to war.

The future television executive attended basic training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, before being stationed at a pilot training camp in Buffalo, New York. He failed to pass the math portion of his exams and was, instead, given training to become a radio operator and gunner.

Soon after, Lear was assigned to the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment (Heavy) Group, Fifteenth Air Force. Primarily serving in the Mediterranean Theater, he also participated in bombing missions over Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt and Stuttgart) and even flew alongside the Tuskegee Airmen.

During his time overseas, Lear flew 52 combat missions aboard Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. Toward the end of World War II, he volunteered to deliver supplies and men, as he was interested in traveling to Cairo, Egypt. Upon his discharge in 1945, he had reached the rank of technical sergeant. For his service, he received an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters.

Norman Lear returns home from the Second World War

Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor as Edith and Archie Bunker in 'All in the Family'
All in the Family, 1971-79. (Photo Credit: Ron Eisenberg / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Upon his return to the United States following the Second World War, Norman Lear became a public relations professional. He had an uncle who’d taken the same career path and wanted to follow in his footsteps. This took him to Los Angeles, California, where he broke into show business by selling jokes with his writing partner, Ed Simmons, to Dan Rowan and Richard Martin, as well as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

After years of writing and working as a film director, Lear finally saw one of his television projects get picked up. All in the Family was based on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75), as well as his own experiences with his parents growing up. As aforementioned, Archie Bunker was partially inspired by Lear’s father, while Edith was based on his mother.

A big-time Hollywood executive

Norman Lear sitting at his desk
Norman Lear. (Photo Credit: Bob Riha, Jr. / Getty Images)

Most creators would have been thrilled to create a show like All in the Family. Norman Lear, however, wasn’t satisfied with just one of his ideas hitting television; he had plenty more up his sleeve. In 1972, he helped replicate the British series Steptoe and Son (1962-74) for an American audience, resulting in the runaway hit Sanford and Son with Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson.

In 1975, Lear developed The Jeffersons. The show, about an upper-middle-class African-American couple, saw several firsts, including the introduction of the first interracial couple to appear on American TV, Tom and Helen Willis.

Over time, the TV executive had a hand in creating many more small-screen hits, such as Maude (1972-78) and Good Times (1974-79). For his contributions to the entertainment industry, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Norman Lear’s legacy and activism

Norman Lear wearing a suit
Norman Lear was a recipient of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. (Photo Credit: US State Department / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Despite his continued success in television, Norman Lear largely stepped away from show business later in life and became active in a number of causes. In 1980, he formed People for the American Way, an organization focused on countering the actions of the Religious Right. Six years after its creation, it was credited with stopping the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.

In 2001, Lear purchased an early copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8.1 million. He and his wife, Lyn, toured the US with the document, allowing several citizens to see it. Beginning in 2004, he was involved with Declare Yourself, a non-partisan focused on encouraging young people between the ages of 18-29 to vote. Since its inception, it’s helped more than four million individuals register.

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On December 5, 2023, Norman Lear passed away. The 101-year-old’s death was said to be the result of natural causes. Tweeting about his passing, Rob Reiner, who portrayed Michael Stivic on All in the Family, said, “I loved Norman Lear with all my heart. He was my second father.”

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in,, and He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.