Skip to comments.Celebrities in the Armed Forces? Not These Days
Posted on 04/16/2003 2:11:31 PM PDT by Incorrigible
Celebrities in the Armed Forces? Not These Days
BY MICHELE M. MELENDEZ
Back when Clark Gable's Hollywood charm made girls swoon and Bob Feller's pitching prowess drove boys wild, celebrities became superheroes during wartime.
Having the famous in the armed forces delighted the folks on the home front during World War II.
Experts say the bombing of Pearl Harbor inspired such support for the war that everyone, from children to stars, was expected to contribute. That feeling has not gripped the country in subsequent wars, they say.
The reason lies partly in how government officials have portrayed patriotic duty. The message has been: Go about life, keep working, keep spending.
"In 1941, when America was attacked, people rushed to enlist in the service; in 2001, when America was attacked, they rushed to buy shoes, convinced that that would be how they could do their part in the war against terrorism," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University in New York.
"In 1941, a celebrity might have enlisted," he said. "In 2003, it's doubtful the celebrity would even be sent overseas."
The only well-publicized exception seems to be former NFL safety Pat Tillman, who declined a three-year, $3.6 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army last year. He deployed recently to the Middle East.
During World War II, famous fighters abounded.
"They were heroes, and some of them were quite legitimate," said Roy Hoopes, author of "When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II."
-- Jimmy Stewart, who in 1940, the year he won an Academy Award for his part in "The Philadelphia Story," was drafted into the Army but turned away for being underweight. Wanting to serve, he reportedly gorged himself to reach the threshold. In the Army Air Corps, predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, Stewart flew 20 combat missions. In the Air Force reserves, he was promoted to brigadier general.
-- Feller, a hotshot with the Cleveland Indians who had a draft deferment because he was supporting his dying father, his mother and his sister. But two days after the Pearl Harbor attack, he enlisted in the Navy. Feller led a gun crew on the battleship USS Alabama.
-- Gable, who in 1942 was 41 and exempt from the draft. That year, the "Gone with the Wind" leading man lost his wife, actress Carole Lombard, in a plane crash, while she was on a war-bond promotional tour. Gable enlisted in the Army Air Corps, later heading to Europe to produce a recruitment film for aerial gunnery. He flew in several bombing missions and left the corps as a major.
-- Band leader Glenn Miller, who at age 38 also was draft-exempt. Even so, in 1942 he approached the Navy, which turned him down. Miller eventually joined the Army Air Corps as a captain and performed for troops overseas. He died on active duty, when his Paris-bound plane crashed.
Sharing the war experience with their favorite stars thrilled the fans, said James E. Wise Jr., a retired Navy captain and co-author of several books about famous military personnel, including "Stars in Khaki: Movie Actors in the Army and the Air Services," with Paul W. Wilderson III.
The modern-day equivalent might be actor Tom Cruise as a real top gun, or New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as a genuine Bronx bomber.
But the times don't align.
World War II "has been called America's last popular war, in the sense that it enjoyed widespread support; there were very few people who argued that we shouldn't be in that war," said Bill Gilbert, author of "The Seasons: Ten Memorable Years in Baseball, and in America."
Moreover, there was a cultural mandate to contribute during 1940s wartime.
"The state of the military in 2003 is so vastly different than it was in 1942 that it makes the model of Jimmy Stewart joining the armed services an almost completely archaic one," Thompson said.
"When World War II broke out, a force was necessary that included nearly the entire adult population," he said. "If you weren't off fighting the war, you were getting new jobs in the factories, taking the place of people who were."
Plus, experts point out that not every star bolted to the armed forces.
"There are many athletes that we see in World War II who were indeed draftees or coerced, who didn't want to serve," said Wanda Ellen Wakefield, author of "Playing to Win: Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945" and history professor at the State University of New York College at Brockport.
"The story often is told that these guys dropped everything and went off to war: not true," she said, adding that nostalgia keeps that myth alive.
Kevin Hagopian, lecturer in media at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, explained: "During World War II, popular culture stars used various evasions to avoid serving while still appearing patriotic; thus was born the notion of `soldiers in greasepaint,' in which actors and singers entertained the troops as their contribution to the war effort."
And enlistment did not necessarily equate with dedication.
"Some figures in popular culture went reluctantly," Hagopian said. "Joe DiMaggio's service career was spent playing in baseball games to entertain troops at various bases."
But even some of the hesitant proved themselves, like Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. He had requested a deferment from the draft, but fans and sportswriters berated him for being unpatriotic. He joined the Navy, became a pilot and rose to captain, never leaving stateside during World War II.
Williams saw action during the Korean War, when he was recalled as a member of the Marine reserves. He flew 39 missions, many of them with future astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn.
By the Vietnam era, social pressure to contribute to the war effort had vanished.
"In the 1960s, there were a whole variety of ways you could avoid combat by finding yourself a safe billet," Wakefield said, adding that professional athletes often secured slots in the reserves and National Guard, which were not slated for deployment.
"I can't think of any ballplayer who was criticized for this," she said.
And now, without a draft or nationwide support for war, celebrities are unlikely to visit a recruiter.
"You've got a very `me' type of environment with the stars today: their contracts, their commitments," said Wise, the "Stars in Khaki" author. "It's an entirely different way of thinking."
(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Absolutely amazing. Kudos to Pat Tillman. When/If he comes back to play again, I may go root for that team. (Unless it's the Raidas...Boo!)
Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis calls him courageous.
"This was truly a decision made with honor, with integrity, with dignity, with a lot of thought and with a lot of sacrifice," McGinnis said this weekend.
Tillman enlisted in the Army after four NFL seasons that included a team-record 224 tackles in 2000. Tillman and his brother, Kevin, a former baseball player in the Cleveland Indians organization, have been deployed, presumably to the Middle East.
"I think he's the quintessential definition of a patriot," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday. "He gave up a lucrative and exciting career to serve his country."
Pat Tillman is believed to be the first NFL regular to leave the game voluntarily for military service since World War II, when 600 players served and 19 were killed. The Tillmans are part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, comprising three battalions and 2,200 men. They had been stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash. Even family and close friends don't know for sure where they are now.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, who has remained in touch with Tillman, last heard from him three weeks ago.
"He was upbeat," Marmie said. "You could sense an enthusiasm coming through the phone. He had completed a lot of the steps that you have to take to become a Ranger and reach that stage. He was feeling good about it."
The Tillmans have never publicly discussed their decisions to join the Army's elite infantry unit, declining all interview requests. Family and friends have respected their privacy, helping both to maintain a low profile.
"They don't want recognition separate from their peers," Patrick Tillman said of his sons. "It's a pretty elite crowd they're running with. All of those guys are stand-up guys. I don't think you can pick one out and say one's better than another."
Pat Tillman, now 26, had been considering enlisting before 9-11. (The Rangers will not accept a recruit over age 28.) The terrorist attacks only confirmed his decision to put his NFL career on hold for at least three years.
"He told me he thought he had had a pretty darn good life and things had been fairly easy for him, and he felt the need to give something back," Marmie said.
Tillman informed the team in May after returning home from his honeymoon with his high school sweetheart, Marie. It came as little surprise to anyone who knew him.
While at Arizona State, Tillman would meditate atop a 200-foot light tower above Sun Devil Stadium. He ran a marathon one offseason because he was bored; in another offseason he competed in a 70.2-mile triathlon to prove he could do it.
Tillman, who earns from $1,022 to $1,443 a month as a soldier, completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program in December. At graduation, he was chosen flagbearer for his unit, B Company of the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.
Only 35 percent of candidates earn the right to wear the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab.
John Devlin, who met Tillman through his brother, Mike Devlin, is a former Army Ranger. He figures the Tillmans are right in the middle of the action. That is exactly the reason Tillman took a hiatus from the NFL.
"He's not nuts," John Devlin said. "He's a rare, rare individual he and his brother both. I'm proud to know them; I wish them luck; and I pray that they and the rest of our guys come home all in one piece, but I know that's not going to be the case."
You're not going to find anything like that. Pat Tillman is the only thing remotely close, and the majority of people you ask won't even know who he is.
N.B. I was most impressed to realize that Greg Kelly, the intrepid FNC reporter embedded with the 3ID during the Iraq campaign, is a Major in the USMCR.
Which is also the basis for our modern cellular phone systems too, right?
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