Duty, Honor, Applause: America’s Entertainers in World War II – Book Review
Duty, Honor, Applause: America’s Entertainers in World War II
Gary L. Bloomfield and Stacie L. Shain, with Arlen C. Davidson
The Lyons Press, 2004
Nearly everybody knows that Clark Gable was a commissioned aerial gunner during World War II, but few knew he was not granted the title as a courtesy for being a famous actor and, in fact, if he had not stayed up late at night in the latrines memorizing the manuals, he would have flunked out of Gunners School. Herman Goering placed a bounty on Gable’s head. There were some close calls for Clark Gable and he even had the heel of his flying boot shot off. Another story that most people know is that the actor Jimmy Stewart flew bombers for the Army Air Corps (AAC) and retired from the United States Air Force as a Brigadier General, but very few people knew that the first time he applied to the AAC he was not accepted for being underweight. The recently deceased Eddie Albert was another actor who served his country and did heroic deeds during the war. As a Navy salvage officer, he directed the landing craft he was in to rescue Marines and Sailors in the water from Japanese fire. Duty, Honor, Applause examines these stories and more in a macroscopic look at how American entertainers served the country during World War II.
American entertainers during the war responded much like the rest of the citizenry; and like the ordinary citizens, many paid a high price. The first casualty was, in fact, a woman starlet: Carol Lombard. On one of the first war bond drives, she died when the plane she was in hit the side of a mountain because the navigation safety lights were turned off due to the blackout. Her husband, Clark Gable, honored her by going into the US AAC, and the nation honored her by naming a Liberty ship after her. Leslie Howard, British actor best known for his role in Gone with the Wind, was killed when his airliner was shot down by German fighters. Speculation is that onboard the airliner was another actor who bore a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill, and that the attack was a political assassination. But tragically, for the people on the airliner, it was a case of mistaken identity as Churchill was not aboard.
Not everybody could serve however; some like Jack Benny were too old, and he had already done his service in the Navy during the First World War. Others, like Robert Mitchum, took essential war work in California so they could stay in Hollywood and act. Some, like Van Johnson and John Wayne, were denied military service for medical reasons. One of the more interesting tidbits in Duty, Honor, Applause was that Robert Mitchum helped discover Marilyn Monroe, because she was dating his friend who worked at Lockheed. Another interesting fact is that a lot of the stars we know today got their start after World War II thanks to the GI Bill. Duty, Honor, Applause is full of such tidbits, and makes for some very interesting reading.
The book opens with World War I and the prelude to war; then each subsequent chapter follows, roughly, the course of war, and each theatre of operations is handled separately. Written by Gary L. Bloomfield, Stacie L. Shain with Arlen C. Davidson, the book is generally well written and an easy read. Where the book falls short is when they try to punch up the history and get it wrong. There are references to Nazi Buzz Bombs in 1941, and the incredible notion that it took FDR a long time to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. These flaws are mainly in the introductions of the chapters and comparatively minor, and really one is not reading this book for the history, but for the glimpses into the life of the entertainers during that period. One major flaw, at least in the review copy, was the lack of an index. As there is an index listed in the contents page, it is hoped that this was a printing flaw, and not an editorial decision. The book is extremely well illustrated, using many photos that I have not seen before, but another criticism of the book is that photos for some of the chapters were used as a backdrop to the text. Annoying at best, distracting at worst, this should have not been done. If the authors really liked the pictures that were used as backdrops, then they should have been included as regular illustrations. On a more personal note, I was dismayed by the lack of reference to The Three Stooges besides one small mention. Yet I really can’t fault them for that as they do mention a lot of other stars, singers and other entertainers.
Despite the various flaws that I mentioned; Duty, Honor, Applause: America’s Entertainers in World War II is a very good read. At over 499 pages, and with a list price of $29.95 (US), it is affordable for all. If you are interested in this sidebar story to World War II, then I highly recommend this book. We can not forget that people such as Moe Berg, the baseball player, also volunteered for duty, and he was in the Office of Strategic Services during the war.
But that is another book.