35 Celebrities Who Served Our Country
While we honor all of the men and women who have served the United States in uniform, here are a few famous faces who also defended the red, white, and blue.
1. JIMMY STEWART
Jimmy Stewart was born to a family of military men—both of his grandfathers were in the Civil War and his dad served in the Spanish-American War and WWI. He was an accomplished pilot before the war even broke out, so when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 (after first being rejected for being underweight), it was no surprise that he began pilot training immediately.
Stewart ended up going from private to colonel in only four years, something only a handful of Americans have ever done. In 1959, he was named Brigadier General. His honors included the Distinguished Service Medal, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, six battle stars, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. In 1968, he retired from the Reserves as a brigadier general, making him the highest-ranked entertainer in the American military.
2. ELVIS PRESLEY
Elvis Presley was drafted for a two year stint on December 20, 1957, completed basic training on September 17, 1958, and then served in Friedberg, Germany (where he met Colin Powell) from October 1, 1958 through March 2, 1960. He was eligible for the "Special Services," which basically would have allowed him to receive special treatment because he was Elvis. But he preferred to serve just like everyone else, and the guys who served with him have said that he just wanted to be one of the guys. He was honorably discharged as Sergeant Elvis Presley.
3. BEA ARTHUR
Before her days as a Golden Girl, Bea Arthur served as a truck driver and typist for the U.S. Marine Corps for two-and-a-half years. When she enlisted in 1943 at the age of 21, she was among the first members of the Women's Reserve. Remarks from her enlistment interviews described her as "argumentative," "over aggressive," and "officious—but probably a good worker—if she has her own way!"
4. PAUL NEWMAN
Paul Newman joined the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot—until his color blindness was discovered in training. Instead, he took on the job of aviation radioman and aerial gunner. The future leading man and his aircrew were assigned to be at Okinawa, but his pilot developed an ear infection and they were delayed.
It was an ear infection that changed cinematic history: had Newman and his pilot gone when they should have, they likely would have been killed—the rest of their detail was. In 1946, he was discharged with a number of honors including the Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Area Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
5. PETE ROSE
Pete Rose was in the Ohio Army National Guard. He served at Fort Knox for six months, where he was a platoon guide. Then he spent parts of the next six years balancing his burgeoning baseball career with time as part of a Reserve Unit at Fort Thomas, where he was a company cook.
6. CLARK GABLE
After his third wife, Carole Lombard, died in a 1942 plane crash while returning from a war bond rally in Indiana, Gable insisted on enlisting and ended up serving in five high-profile combat missions. He was honorably discharged as Captain Clark Gable after D-Day and awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
7. KURT VONNEGUT
The novelist enlisted in the Army in 1942 and was sent to study engineering at what is now Carnegie Mellon University a year later. After the Battle of the Bulge, Private Vonnegut was captured as a prisoner of war. In fact, he survived only because he was part of a group of Americans held captive in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). Because they were underground when the city of Dresden was airbombed, they were saved.
8. STEVE MCQUEEN
Steve McQueen became a tank driver for the Marine Corps in 1947. But the film star had a rebellious streak during his tour. After he was promoted to Private First Class in the Marine Corps, he was reportedly demoted back to Private seven times, including once when he stayed out long after a weekend pass had expired and had to be hauled back by the shore patrol. But he was also heroic—he saved the lives of five Marines when he pulled them out of a tank just before it broke through ice and fell into the ocean. He was discharged in 1950.
9. ROD SERLING
If you’re a big fan of The Twilight Zone, then you might be interested to know that it might never have been created if Rod Serling was never injured in WWII. The future writer was eager to enroll in the war to help fight the Nazis, but he was instead sent to the Philippines to fight the Japanese. He was put into one of the most dangerous platoons in the area, nicknamed “the death squad” for the high number of casualties suffered in the group. Serling was lucky enough not to be killed in combat, but he hardly came out unscathed. He was injured a few times in battle, but more dramatic was the severe trauma he experienced by serving in such a violent area. As a result, he was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks for the rest of his life.
The events he experienced reshaped his world view, and with them he was inspired to create The Twilight Zone and write many of the show’s most famous episodes.
10. TED WILLIAMS
Ted Williams not only served in WWII, he was also involved in combat in the Korean War. The baseball player's first stint saw him as a fighter pilot and a flight instructor at the Naval Air Station Pensacola. Although he was no longer on active duty after WWII, he did stay in the reserves and was called back to duty in 1952 and served in the same unit as John Glenn. And don't think that his celebrity status let him sit back at a cushy desk job—Ted flew a total of 39 combat missions and even received an Air Medal for bringing his damaged plane back to base. In fact he was so revered by Army higher-ups that when he turned 40, General MacArthur sent him an oil painting and personalized it with this: "To Ted Williams - not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country. Your friend, Doug MacArthur. General U.S. Army."
11. GENE AUTRY
During a live broadcast of his radio show on July 26, 1942, the musician was inducted into the Army Air Forces as a technical sergeant. While running the radio show remained a part of his Army duties, he also set out to upgrade his private pilot's license to Flight Officer credentials. He succeeded on June 21, 1944. His chief duty as a pilot was to haul fuel and other necessities, and he eventually worked with the USO. He was honorably discharged in 1946. His awards included the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the WWII Victory Medal.
12. HENRY FONDA
The actor famously enlisted in the Navy with the quote, "I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio." He served for three years, first as a seaman and then rising to a Lieutenant. He received a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star.
13. DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR.
As a lieutenant, junior grade in the Navy Reserves during World War II, Fairbanks was assigned to Lord Mountbatten's staff in England. It was an appointment that gave him access most reserve officers didn't have. As a result, he came extremely proficient in military deception skills. So, he used those skills to form the Beach Jumpers.
The mission of the Beach Jumpers was to land on beaches and lure the enemy into believing there were the force to be worried about, when in fact the real attacking unit was landing elsewhere. For his ingenuity, Fairbanks was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Legion of Merit, the Croix Guerre with Palm, the Legion D'Honneuer, the Italian War Cross for Military Valor, and was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire.
14. GENE RODDENBERRY
It's fitting that the creator of Star Trek was a combat pilot on 89 mission for the U.S. Army Air Corps, starting in 1941. He was part of the 394th Bomb Squadron that referred to themselves as the Bomber Barons. Like Ted Williams, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart, he also received the Air Medal. And, also like Stewart and Gable, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as well.
15. BOB KEESHAN
The Captain Kangaroo star enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1945, but never saw combat. There's long been a story floating around that Lee Marvin once said he and Bob Keeshan served together at Iwo Jima, but much like the Mr. Rogers myth, this one is false—World War II ended before either could take part.
16. CLINT EASTWOOD
This actor may have the Army to thank for his movie career. Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Army in 1950 during the Korean War, stationed at Fort Ord in California. An Army friend, Chuck Hill, had contacts in Hollywood and thought that he might do well in the movies. Before then, though, Eastwood narrowly escaped death when a military plane he was flying in crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to use an inflatable raft to swim to shore, and testifying at a hearing about the incident prevented him from serving overseas in Korea.
17. ED MCMAHON
Johnny Carson's Tonight Show sidekick was a Marine Corps flight instructor for two years before finally getting his orders to fly in combat in 1945. They were canceled, however, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pushing Japan to surrender. He did end up flying 85 combat missions during the Korean War, earning six Air Medals and retiring as a Colonel.
17. JOHNNY CARSON
Speaking of Ed: there's a rumor that McMahon was Johnny's commanding officer in the military, but there's no truth to it. The pair met for the first time in 1958. Johnny enrolled in the Navy in 1943, also hoping to be a pilot; he was assigned to be a midshipman instead. He reported for duty in 1945, the same year that Japan accepted surrender terms, marking the end of the war. As you might imagine, Carson's military career was pretty quiet after that—he has said the highlight of the whole thing was getting to perform a magic trick for James Forrestal, then-Secretary of the Navy.
19. DREW CAREY
He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years and has said it’s where he first acquired his signature black glasses and buzz cut look.
20. MONTEL WILLIAMS
You'll never think of Montel Williams as a mere daytime talk show host again. He's actually an incredibly accomplished veteran, serving 22 years in the military before leaving as a Lieutenant Commander. He started his career in the Marines, then was discharged when he was accepted to the Naval Academy. After earning a degree in General Engineering there, he spent years as a cryptology officer, notably during the invasion of Grenada. He has a slew of awards and medals under his belt.
21. GLENN MILLER
Miller really wanted to serve his country. Because he was too old (age 38 at the time), the Navy turned down his services. The noted band leader and composer actually had to convince the Army Air Forces to accept him, by saying he wanted to lead a "modernized army band." And it worked. He and his band would go on to do a weekly radio broadcast that was so successful, he was upgraded to a special 50-piece band that traveled all over the world playing for troops. In England alone, he and his group gave 800 performances. On December 15, 1944, Major Glenn Miller was on his way to Paris when his plane disappeared. Neither Miller or the plane have ever been found.
22. CHARLES BRONSON
You know Charles Bronson for his roles in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Death Wish (1974), but did you know he probably never would have become an actor if it weren’t for the military? Bronson, whose last name was Buchinsky before he changed it during the Red Scare of the 1950s, grew up in poverty—so much so that as a child, he once had to wear his sister’s dress to school because there were no other clothes for him in the house.
In 1943, Bronson was drafted into the Army Air Corps, where he started out working as a truck driver, but eventually became a tail gunner in a B-29. After the war was over, he was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury he received in the service and used the GI Bill to study acting, which eventually helped him become the action hero we are all familiar with.
23. SUNNY ANDERSON
Future Food Network personality Sunny Anderson got her start in broadcasting in the U.S. Air Force. After growing up an Army brat, Anderson decided to continue her family's military tradition and enlisted in 1993. She traveled the world working as a radio broadcaster and journalist for the Air Force, and her experience there paved the way for her to host her own cooking shows like Cooking for Real.
24. DON ADAMS
Don Adams was best known for his portrayal of the bumbling Agent 86 in the classic '60s sitcom Get Smart. However, his stint as a Marine wasn’t quite as fun: After fighting in WWII’s Battle of Guadalcanal, Adams contracted a case of blackwater fever (a severe strain of malaria with a 90 percent mortality rate). He made a full recovery, and spent the rest of his military career rectifying the bumbling of others—as a drill instructor.
25. C.J. RAMONE
When forced to replace founding bassist and legendary drug addict Dee Dee Ramone, The Ramones turned to an unlikely source: Christopher James Ward, a young Long Islander who was AWOL from the Marines at the time. Seeking a discharge from the Corps, he was first imprisoned for five weeks before serving a nearly seven year tour of duty with the seminal punk band.
The dance-hall superstar also known as Orville Burrell partially credits his stint in the Marines for his successful music career. "Being in the Marines didn't influence my musical career artistically. I think it did it as far as discipline, as far as preparing me for the rigorous schedules that was gonna come with doing music because I had no clue," he said in an interview for the Grammys in 2011. He served in Desert Storm and though he has called himself "a skater" and "not your model Marine," he would eventually serve as a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman.
27. ED WOOD JR.
The B-movie legend signed up for the Marines in 1942, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He claimed that he participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal, and later claimed he was terrified not of death, but of being injured—because he didn’t want anyone to know he was wearing a bra and panties underneath his military fatigues.
28. AND 29. THE EVERLY BROTHERS
The legendary rock duo enlisted in the Marines reserves in 1961 (they even went to basic training together). During their six-month stint with the Corps, two of their songs—“Crying in the Rain” and “That’s Old Fashioned (That's The Way Love Should Be)”—cracked the Top 10, but they were unable to tour or otherwise capitalize on their success, due to their military commitments. Though Don and Phil had racked up 12 Top 10 hits by that time, they would never crack the Top 10 again.
30. JAMES ARNESS
James Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke over five decades, as the show spanned from 1955 to 1975 and then there were five more made-for-TV movie follow-ups shot in the eighties and nineties.
Arness (or Aurness before he started acting) enrolled in the US Army in 1942. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but with a height of 6’7”, there was no way that was going to happen – the maximum height of pilots at the time was 6’2”. So instead he served as a rifleman. Unfortunately, his height made him a good candidate for one of the most dangerous jobs, walking point. He was one of the first off the boat to test the water depth for the other men and look out for enemies, leaving him to be the first target. As a result, Arness was injured less than a year into his service during an invasion on Anzio, Italy, when he was shot in the right leg.
On the upside, his time in the hospital led to his work in television… eventually. While he recovering, his brother came to visit him and encouraged him to study radio drama. After he returned home from service with a Good Conduct Medal, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star, he got a job as a disc jockey in Minneapolis, which is where he finally decided to try his luck as an actor in Hollywood.
31. EILEEN COLLINS
Eileen Collins is famous for being the first woman astronaut to pilot and command a space shuttle. But before entering NASA, Collins served as a member of the U.S. Air Force. She joined the military with dreams of serving as a pilot at a time when opportunities for women to do so were just starting to open up. At the age of 23, she became the Air Force's first female flight instructor and went on to fly C-141 cargo planes overseas.
32. GEORGE CARLIN
The comedian dropped out of high school in 1954 and joined the Air Force. He was stationed in Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and became a radar technician. Carlin later used the GI Bill to cover the cost of broadcasting school.
33. JIMI HENDRIX
Hendrix joined the Army in 1961, but it wasn't necessarily by choice. After being caught stealing cars in Seattle, the police gave him a choice: Join the Army or go to jail. He joined the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he served for one year before being discharged. The musician claimed he parted ways with the organization after a parachuting accident, but decades later, biography Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R. Cross claimed that he was dismissed for "homosexual tendencies," a lie the star concocted to get out of his service and focus on his career.
34. NATE DOGG
Best known for his guest appearances on pretty much every G-funk track known to man, the West Coast rapper, otherwise known as Nathaniel Hale, had one life to give to his country. Which he did, dropping out of high school at age 16 for a three-year stint in the Corps before he went AWOL and was dishonorably discharged.
35. HUGH HEFNER
Before becoming a publishing titan, Hefner enlisted in the Army in 1944 as a writer for the military newspaper. He was stationed at Camp Adair in Salem, Oregon, and Camp Pickett in Virginia, where Hefner would draw comics for the Army newspaper. It wasn't all desk work though—during his two-year tour, Hefner won a sharpshooter badge in basic training.
BONUS: BUGS BUNNY
Really. Warner Brothers produced a cartoon called “Super-Rabbit” where Bugs says, “This looks like a job for a real Superman!” then jumps into a phone booth to presumably change into his Superman costume. When he emerges, though, he’s in a Marines uniform singing the Marines' Hymn. The Marine Corps loved the homage so much they officially inducted the fictional rabbit as a private, even producing real dog tags for him. He was officially discharged at the end of WWII as a Master Sergeant.
An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.