Op-Ed: Remembering A Time When All Americans Served, Even Movie Stars

By Scott Feinberg

hollywoodnews.com: As America celebrates its 234th birthday, it seems only appropriate for this Web site, which focuses on Hollywood, to highlight the role that movie stars have played in preserving our freedom during times of war.

For the generations of Americans that came of age during the Vietnam, Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars, the previous sentence may read like a typo, but it’s not one. Indeed, during World War II, all able-bodied American men were asked to serve their country by enlisting in the military, and virtually all answered that call—even movie stars. On Saturday, I had a lunch date with one of the last surviving Hollywood greats who donned a uniform as more than just a costume, Mickey Rooney, and we chatted about this very subject.

Rooney, who is now 89, was America’s top box-office attraction from 1938 through 1941, just as war was breaking out in Europe and the Pacific. He had only recently turned 21—and returned from a publicity tour in Honolulu—when Pearl Harbor was attacked, which led to his desire to enlist.

When M-G-M, the studio to which he was under contract, learned of Rooney’s intentions, they “hit the roof.” He was their chief breadwinner—his “Andy Hardy” films alone accounted for 55 percent of their gross income at the time—and they were desperate to keep him working. He remembers one studio employee even told him, “We’re gonna give you a shot and your blood pressure will be a little too high,” to which he replied, “Not with me you won’t.”

The studio still managed to keep Rooney out of the war for two-and-a-half years, thanks to numerous letters to the Local Draft Board 245 in which they argued that he should receive a 2-A occupational deferment because he was a “necessary man, within the meaning of the selective service regulations, to an industry.” (They also suggested that he could be more helpful to the war effort by continuing to appear in flag-waving films.) But, out of a desire to do his part, he eventually enlisted on his own initiative in June 1944; did his basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, under head commandant George S. Patton; and served through March 1946.

Over the course of his 21 months overseas, PFC Rooney didn’t see combat on the front lines, but he risked his safety nonetheless as part of the Army’s 6817th Special Services Battalion. He was part of a three-man jeep unit that traveled across the continent and entertained the troops. Many of them would later note that the same good-natured cheekiness, manic energy, and youthful optimism that Rooney had employed to lift the nation’s spirits in the wake of the Great Depression had also boosted their morale “over there.”

Rooney is the first to say that he wasn’t the only movie star to do his part, and that many others did much more. After stating, “I’m no hero,” he went on to ask me, “Did you know that Jimmy Stewart was a two-star general in the Air Force? Did you know that Clark Gable had thirty-eight missions in a B-47? And that Tyrone Power was a naval pilot? Did you know that the most decorated soldier in the world—never will be topped—was an actor, Audie Murphy?” As it turns out, those names represent just the tip of the iceberg.

When the war came to an end, Hollywood—like the rest of the world—had changed dramatically. Movie stars who had avoided the war—including Errol Flynn, John Garfield, Van Johnson, Gregory Peck, and Frank Sinatra (each of whom had excuses of varying degrees of legitimacy)—had become the new fan favorites. Many of those who had served, meanwhile, returned to find that their moment in the sun had passed. Rooney, of course, continued—and continues—to act, but he was too old to continue playing Andy Hardy or a “babe” in arms, on Broadway, or in any other capacity, and his career was never really the same.

And yet, if you were to ask Rooney what he’s proudest of in his life—aside from his marriage to Jan Chamberlain, which has lasted for 37 years, longer than his previous seven marriages combined—he wouldn’t hesitate for a minute before citing his service to his nation. I know, because I did.

If any of today’s movie stars are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, neither Rooney nor I have heard about them. Sure, some comedians and musicians fly in and out for a day or two as part of USO tours and the like, but their role is just not the same. Granted, these wars are just not the same, since only a small number of Americans are bearing any of the burden at all. When I asked Rooney about those who are, he told me solemnly, “I think about them all the time.”

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