After war swept across the globe in 1939, more than 30 nations and upwards of 100 million people ended up taking part in the worldwide conflict. In countries across North America, Europe, and Asia, men were drafted into the conflict. At the same time, women filled their roles in factories and on baseball fields (and sometimes, especially in the USSR, on battlefields) - few were left unaffected, even in places far from the front lines.
Entertainers and celebrities weren't left on the sidelines either; many found themselves drafted into the ongoing conflict, while others volunteered or became involved as victims of circumstance. Whatever their cause or reason for taking part, many of the world's most beloved entertainers of the 1930s and '40s became engaged in WWII. Others wouldn't begin their careers until after the war, or had to put their dreams on hold until it ended.
Some fought directly, some helped Jews and other affected minorities escape Nazi-occupied Europe, and others continued to entertain but in venues close to the conflict. The famous entertainers listed below were hardly the only creative types who took part in WWII, but they stand as some of the most famous. Their experiences are so varied that they can serve as a cross section of WWII itself.
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Mel Brooks has made a name for himself over the past 75 years as one of the greatest creators of farces and parodies, with some of his best-known examples being The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World, Part I, and Spaceballs. He's one of the few celebrities to EGOT, meaning he's won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
In 1944, Brooks was 18. Like many young men of his generation, he was drafted and shipped off to the European theater. Because he scored well on his aptitude test, he trained as a combat engineer. In November 1944, he arrived in France, and a short time later, made his way into Belgium. He was then transferred to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, which took part in the Battle of the Bulge. During the month-long campaign, Brooks's unit worked to clear land mines to ensure the Allied troops' safety as they pushed through the Ardennes to blunt the surprise German offensive.
Brooks's unit was forced into several firefights during this time, and suffered heavy losses. Once they made it into Germany, Brooks and his comrades built the first bridge across the Roer River. Later, they built bridges over the Rhine. When WWII ended, Brooks was given an honorable discharge.
Since then, the comedian hasn't spoken much about his experiences, though he has talked about seeing starving Jewish refugees who escaped concentration camps in the spring of 1945. Being Jewish himself, Brooks said this left an indelible impression on him, making him feel lucky to be an American. Two years after WWII ended, Brooks began his comedy career.
When Brooks has spoken about his time in WWII, he always makes sure to add a touch of humor. "War isn't hell... War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing." When his son asked him about what he thought about rebuilding Europe after WWII, he said,
You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn't worry about tomorrow.
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Denholm Elliott was a prolific English actor, perhaps best known to younger generations for playing Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He also played Coleman in Trading Places and Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actor. While he didn't win that award, he did win the BAFTA for best actor in a supporting role for three consecutive years, becoming the only actor ever to do so.
On his 18th birthday, Elliott joined the Royal Air Force, where he was trained as an air gunner and wireless operator. In September 1942, his plane was shot down over Denmark. He was quickly captured and imprisoned in the POW camp, Stalag VIIIb, in Poland. He remained a POW for three years.
While imprisoned, Elliott passed the time by forming a theater group with his fellow prisoners. They put on various shows to entertain the prisoners, performing Shakespeare other classic plays brought to them by the Red Cross. When WWII ended and Elliott was freed, he pursued his dreams of becoming an actor. He first appeared in 1949's Dear Mr. Prohack and continued to act, playing all manner of characters for the next 43 years.
From 1938-1958, Hedy Lamarr was one of the most successful and sought-after actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She first got into acting in her native Czechoslovakia but fled the country (and her husband) to finally settle in Hollywood, where she quickly became a star. She's best known for her work in films like Lady of the Tropics, Samson and Delilah, and Boom Town. Throughout WWII, Lamarr continued to act, but that's not all she was doing.
Though she had no formal training, Lamarr was an inventor. Her earliest efforts didn't achieve much success, but after she started dating Howard Hughes, she gained access to seemingly unlimited resources. Lamarr continued to tinker between acting jobs. During WWII, she learned that radio-controlled torpedoes were susceptible to jamming. RC technology was new at the time, and it intrigued her.
She theorized that one of the ways to prevent this type of jamming was to create a device that changed the torpedoes' frequency, and the idea of frequency-hopping was born. Working with her friend, George Antheil, she developed such a device, which they patented in August 1942. While the concept was sound, it was difficult to implement, and the US Navy wasn't interested in accepting tech from outside the military. Instead, she was asked to help sell war bonds, which she happily did to great success. Despite the Navy's lack of interest in her technology during WWII, her designs were implemented 20 years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
These days, frequency-hopping technology is ubiquitous in military communications, and it helps to prevent jamming. It also makes it difficult for an enemy actor to intercept communications. More than that, Lamarr's invention can be found in cellphones and other civilian wireless technologies. Though it took decades, Lamarr and Antheil were recognized in 1994 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Lamarr was awarded a special Pioneer Award and became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention's BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award. She passed in 2000.
Though he may not be well known to younger generations, the mime Marcel Marceau was once known across the globe as a master of silence. He was 16 when war broke out across Europe, so his time in the spotlight had to wait until the Allied powers defeated the Germans. Marceau was living in Strasbourg, France, when Paris fell; he fled with his family to Limoges, where he joined his cousin in the fight against the occupiers.
Marceau was Jewish, so he was forced to spend much of his time in hiding, but that didn't mean he didn't find a way to help the cause. At his cousin's urging, Marceau joined the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children's Relief Network of the French Jewish resistance), which worked to rescue and smuggle as many Jewish children (many of whom were hiding in orphanages) out of occupied France as possible. By the end of WWII, thousands of French Jews had been saved as a result of their actions.
Marceau's cousin, Georges Loinger, spoke with the Jewish Telegraph Agency after Marcel's passing, explaining that his training as a mime helped them accomplish their mission:
The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him. He had already begun doing performances in the orphanage, where he had met a mime instructor earlier on. The kids had to appear like they were simply going on vacation to a home near the Swiss border, and Marcel really put them at ease.
Marceau's mime training helped demonstrate to the children how to remain quiet and look unsuspicious to any authorities. He once posed as a Boy Scout leader and "took 24 Jewish kids, also in scout uniforms, through the forests to the border, where someone else would take them into Switzerland."
As the conflict waned, Marceau continued his work, and he helped rescue hundreds more children. Towards the end of the war, he once ran into a group of German soldiers, so he used his acting training once more to pretend he was a member of the French Army. He demanded the Germans surrender, and all 30 of them did. After WWII, Marceau began working professionally as a mime, and he continued doing so for 60 years.
One of the greatest Old Hollywood stars, Audrey Hepburn headlined a string of hits including Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany's, My Fair Lady, and Charade. Over the course of her career, she won numerous awards, including an Oscar for best actress. While she's well known for her work in the entertainment industry, to many, she was also a hero of WWII.
When Britain declared war on Germany, Hepburn's mother moved the family to the Netherlands, hoping it would be spared by the Germans as it had in WWI. Unfortunately, the Germans invaded in 1940, and they remained for five years. Hepburn once said of the occupation,
Had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week... six months... next year... that's how we got through.
During the occupation, her uncle was executed in retaliation for a resistance attack he had nothing to do with, illustrating the peril of her family's position.
Hepburn took part in the Dutch resistance by performing underground concerts to help raise money for the cause. She carried messages to Allied pilots. She also spent time volunteering at a hospital, where she supported the resistance as much as possible. Additionally, there are accounts of Hepburn and her family hiding and protecting a British soldier.
After the Allied invasion of Normandy, the situation for Hepburn worsened. She suffered malnutrition and had numerous medical problems as a result. Her family lost nearly all of its wealth and belongings due to the war, and it would take several years before she began working in the entertainment industry. Years later, she turned down a part in A Bridge Too Far because it hit too close to home, as it depicted some of the battles she and her family had survived and suffered through.
James Stewart is probably best known for his performances in classic films, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, Harvey, Vertigo, and many more. Stewart began acting in 1932 and continued right up until the United States entered WWII in 1941. Stewart was a licensed amateur pilot at the time, so he put his career on hold and enlisted in the US Army Air Forces to take part in the conflict. It wasn't his first attempt, as he had tried to join in 1940 but was deferred for medical reasons.
When he was accepted in '41, Stewart became the first movie star to enlist. He came from a military family (going back to the Civil War), and he was eager to fight. Unfortunately, his status as a celebrity kept him from the front lines for a year, which he spent training pilots. Stewart also spent this time recording propaganda reels for the Army - a documentary he appeared in was nominated for an Academy Award.
Not wanting to sit on the sidelines, Stewart appealed to his commanding officer and was sent to England, where he took command piloting a B-24 Liberator. Stewart took part in numerous bombing campaigns and was promoted through the ranks. He was promoted to major in January 1944 and earned several medals for his accomplishments.
In March 1945, Stewart was promoted to colonel, becoming one of a select handful of Americans to rise to that rank from private in only four years. He commanded numerous bombing missions, during which he oversaw as many as 150 aircraft. After WWII, though he had resumed his acting career, he entered the reserves, and by 1959, he was promoted to brigadier general. That promotion made him the highest-ranking professional actor in US military history, a distinction he holds to this day.
When he retired at 60 (the mandatory retirement age at the time), Stewart was awarded the US Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, but he had one more promotion in 1986 when he was promoted to major general on the USAF retired list.