Before they were big-name celebrities, these nine men served as pilots and aircrewmen in the U.S. military.
In 1942, at age 19, Joseph Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier.
Heller later remembered the war as “fun in the beginning … You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it.” After his military service Heller went on to write Catch-22, which to many represents the standard of American military sarcasm. (Source: CNN)
Before Jimmy Stewart starred in classic American films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Rear Window” he was an Army Air Corps pilot. On March 31, 1944 he was appointed Operations Officer of the 453rd Bomb Group. Subsequent billets included that of Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat wing, 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force. Stewart ended the war with 20 combat missions. He remained in the USAF Reserve and was eventually promoted to brigadier general. (Source: Military.com)
Clark Gable may have frankly not given a damn when dissin’ Scarlett in the movie “Gone With The Wind,” but he most likely did when he served as an bomber crewman in World War II.
Gable flew five combat missions as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses, which earned him the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. During one of the missions, Gable’s aircraft was damaged by flak and attacked by fighters, which knocked out one of the engines and shot up the stabilizer. In another raid on Germany, one crewman was killed and two others were wounded, and flak went through his boot and narrowly missed his head. (Source: Wikipedia)
Charles Bronson‘s steely-eyed glaze as seen in “The Dirty Dozen” was certainly perfected while staring down Japanese air defenses in the Pacific during World War II.
In 1943, Bronson enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served as an aerial gunner in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron. In 1945, as a B-29 Superfortress crewman with the 39th Bombardment Group, Bronson flew 25 missions and received a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle. (Military.com)
Dallas Cowboys’ iconic fedora-wearing coach Tom Landry earned his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant at Lubbock Army Air Field, and was assigned to the 493d Bombardment Group at RAF Debach, England, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress.
From November 1944 to April 1945 he flew 30 combat missions. During that period he also survived a crash landing in Belgium after his bomber ran out of fuel. (Source: Tom Landry: An Autobiography)
Before Norman Lear created groundbreaking TV shows like “All in the Family” and “Maude” he was a B-17 radio operator/gunner with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, 463rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 15th Air Force.
He flew 52 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal. (Source: WNYC)
Paul Newman is best known for his salad dressing and the characters he played in movies like “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid,” but he was also a sailor during World War II in the Pacific theater. He had hoped to be accepted for pilot training but was dropped when docs discovered he was color blind.
He was redirected to boot camp and eventually flew from aircraft carriers as a turret gunner in the Avenger torpedo bomber. He was aboard USS Bunker Hill during the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. He missed one mission when his pilot developed an ear infection, and all of those who wound up going were killed in action.
The same eyesight that made Ted Williams a legendary slugger for the Boston Red Sox made him a great fighter pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Williams had earned his Wings of Gold at the tail end of World War II and was called back to active duty six games into the 1952 baseball season because the Corps needed pilots for the Korean War effort. Williams flew 39 combat missions, and his plane was hit by enemy gunfire on at least three occasions. He was awarded three Air Medals before being sent home with a severe ear infection and recurring viruses. (Source: Wikipedia)
Before he dominated the challenges and finished third on the hit TV series Survivor in 2005, Terry Dietz attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with the Class of 1982. He earned his Wings of Gold and served on the USS Carl Vinson with VF-51 flying the F-14 Tomcat.
He also served as an instructor at VF-124, the Tomcat training squadron on the west coast. Deitz left active service in 1992 and continued flying in the Navy Reserves on logistics missions around the world. He retired in 2001 at the rank of commander. In recent years Dietz has kept his hand in the TV game by hosting military-themed shows on a variety of networks.
Originally published 2017.