CHARLOTTE, N.C. Conservatives often give celebrities a sell-deserved hard time for their generally mindless liberal thoughts, reactions and comments. Yet America has honored many patriotic Hollywood celebrities with one of our greatest military honors, the Purple Heart. “The Purple Heart, notes Wikipedia, “is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those wounded or killed while serving, on or after April 5, 1917, with the U.S. military.” These celebrity Purple Hearts show that some well-known individuals in the entertainment industry served their country with honor and valor in wartime.
Stories of America’s celebrity Purple Hearts
Whether they are, or were, liberal or conservative is not the real subject of today’s Myth Trivia column. The goal instead is simply to create some awareness of what these famous awardees accomplished during their time in the military. With a hat tip to Mental Floss, here are nine celebrities and personalities who paid homage to “the color purple” by earning a Purple Heart.
For many years, Charles Durning served as Chairman of the U.S. National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans. The first of our celebrity Purple Hearts, for 17 years, he became an honored guest speakers at the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C.
Drafted into the Army at the age of 20, Durning participated in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. Only a private when discharged in 1946, Durning was awarded a Silver Star, the third highest personal decoration for valor in combat. He also earned a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
A veteran of more than 200 films, Durning died on Christmas Eve 2012.
You can perhaps imagine Charles Bronson proudly wearing his Purple Heart. But can you imagine Charles Bronson proudly wearing a dress to school? As a child whose last name was Buchinsky back then, Bronson was so poor that he once had to wear his sister’s dress to school because there were no other clothes available in the house.
Enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1943, Bronson eventually became a B-29 tail gunner. America awarded him with a Purple Heart after the war was over for an injury he received in combat.
Without bootstrapping himself through his time in the service of our country, the popular macho star of Death Wish, The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven to mention a few, might never have graced the silver screen. Bronson used the GI Bill to pursue his acting career and the rest is history. He died of lung cancer and COPD in August, 2003.
Perhaps best known as Marshall Dillon on TV’s long-running version of Gunsmoke from 1955 to 1975, the tallest of our celebrity Purple Hearts also starred in five made-for-TV movies in the 80s and 90s. Few know, however, that the young James Arness enlisted in the Army in 1943 to fight for his country in the Second World War.
At 6-feet, 7-inches tall, his hopes of becoming a figher pilot were quickly dashed. The reason was simple: 6′ 2″ was the maximum height permissible for pilots.
Consequently, Arness became a rifleman. But that ended up dealing him another serious blow. Being so tall, Arness was always the first solidier off the boat, serving as a “water tester” for his comrades-in-arms who would follow. As an inevitable result, Arness was shot in the right leg during the invasion on Azio, Italy less than a year into his tour of duty.
During his rehabilitation, Arness’ nurses encouraged him to go into radio after the war, given his strong, authoritative voice. Luckily, he followed up on their suggestion. That post-war career path ultimately led to his discovery, to television and eventually to that starring role on Gunsmoke, even though his old war injury often caused him intense pain on the set of the long-running TV Western during filming.
And we all thought Chester (Dennis Weaver) was the guy with the gimpy leg on that show.
Star of numerous movies as well as The Rockford Files and Maverick (both the TV series and the later film), this popular, handsome actor first joined the U.S. Merchant Marine but had to muster out due to persistet seasickness. He later did a stint in the National Guard for 7 months before entering the Army where he served during the Korean War.
Though it’s difficult to believe, Garner’s good looks were not marred by mortar round shrapnel that struck him in the face and hand. A second injury was a bit less dignified. He took a shot in the rear end due to “friendly fire” from American jets that hit him while he was diving into a foxhole. It would be 32 years after this incident that he received his second Purple Heart, no “butts” about it.
Look up the name James Jones on Google and you’ll find several well known people with that name, including James Earl Jones.
Myth Trivia’s James Jones however, was the author of From Here to Eternity, part of his “war trilogy” of novels. According to critics and readers alike, they interwined World War II fact with fiction so well that readers find it practically impossibe to distinguish real life events from Jones’ fictional narratives.
What is also true however, is that Jones, who died in 1977, enlisted in the Army in 1939 where he served in the 25th Infantry. He was awarded his Purple Heart for injuries sustained at the Battle of Guadelcanal.
It’s hard to believe that Oliver Stone served in the military, becoming another of our celebrity Purple Hearts awardees. But he did. The often-controversial film director actually dropped out of Yale to voluntarily serve in Vietnam where he earned both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. The Purple Heart was awarded after Stone was shot in the neck.
Little wonder, then, that Stone’s 1986 picture Platoon was heavily based on his wartime experiences in southeast Asia.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural line “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Ron Kovic signed up for the Marines in 1965 and re-upped in 1967.
Leading his squad through an open area in Vietnam, enemy forces opened fire. They shot Kovic first in the right foot and then through the right shoulder. That second shot left him paralyzed from the chest down. He received a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor. The “V” on that award symbolizes heroism beyond meritorious service. Kovic also received a Purple Heart.
Collaborating with Oliver Stone, Kovic wrote his autobiographical script for Born on the Fourth of July in 1974.
Followers of author Kurt Vonnegut know that his novel Slaughterhouse Five vividly recalls events occurring after he became a German POW. Those events involved the notorious firebombing of the German industrial city of Dresden. During that sustained allied air attack, an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 individuals perished.
The novelist remained one of few survivors on the ground after allied forces leveled Dresden in 1945 with incendiary bombs. Vonnegut often lamented that received his Purple Heart for frostbite, not for participating in the attacks raining down upon Dresden.
One final and unusual war story. The famed writer and creator of The Twilight Zone never sustained serious injuries during World War II. But he returned stateside severely traumatized, due to his participation in a so-called “Death Squad.” That unit was reputedly one of the most hazardous platoons in the Philippines.
Serling did sustain minor injuries on several occasions during battle. But after the war, what we now call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) frequently tormented him. Nightmares and sometimes vivid flashbacks of horrific war scenes haunted him for the rest of his tragically short life.
These events, however, inspired many of the best known episodes of The Twilight Zone. Art indeed imitates life. And sometimes memorializes it.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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