WORLD WAR TWO – The stars & their stories – PT13.

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EBSEN, Buddy:                                                                   

It took quite a long while for Buddy to recover from the effects of the toxic aluminum paste he had breathed in as the Tin Man in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, (he had to leave the production). So he took up sailing and became quite proficient in seamanship, so much so that he taught the subject to naval officer candidates for a while. After he applied for naval commissions several times and was repeatedly turned down, Buddy was finally accepted by the US Coast Guard and given the rank of lieutenant junior grade. He served as damage control officer and later as executive officer aboard the Coast Guard-crewed Navy frigate USS Pocatello, which recorded weather at its ‘weather station’ 1,500 miles west of Seattle. Patrols consisted of 30 days at sea, followed by 10 days in port at Seattle. Buddy was honorably discharged as a lieutenant in 1946. In spite of the damage done by the aluminum paste, he lived to the ripe old age of 95 before respiratory failure claimed him in July 2003. Disney fans will no doubt recall him playing Georgie Russell to Fess Parker’s Davy Crocket in a couple of features in the fifties.

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EGAN, Richard:                                                                  

A native of San Francisco, Richard Egan starred in several big movies and appeared to have whatever it took to become a successful movie heart-throb, yet it never quite happened for him. He was studying for a BA in drama at the University of San Francisco when he left to join the US Army in 1943. Egan spent much of the war as a judo and knife fighting instructor, including serving in the Philippines for a year with the rank of captain. He starred opposite Elvis Presley in the singer’s first film, Love Me Tender (1956), and in A Summer Place (1959), but he never really hit it big in spite of his obvious acting ability, masculine looks, beefy frame and impressive voice. In 1987 prostate cancer cut his life short in his 65th year.

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ELLIOTT, Denholm                                                                                                           

The much-loved character actor who played Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones films, served as a radioman and navigator in the Royal Air Force with No 76 Squadron under Leonard Cheshire VC. Elliott served in Bomber Command and, in September 1942, his Handley Page Halifax was taking part in a raid on German U-Boat pens in Flensburg, Germany when it was hit by flak and forced to ditch in the North Sea near Sylt. Only Elliott and two crewmen survived the crash. He spent the remainder of the war in Stalag 8B POW camp in Silesia where he first became interested in amateur dramatics. Privately bisexual, he married twice, first to actress Virginia McKenna for a few months in 1954, and then to actress Susan Robinson in 1962. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and died from AIDS-related tuberculosis five years later at the age of 70.

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ERICKSON, Leif                                                                                                                

He is probably best remembered today for playing rancher Big John Cannon in TV’s High Chaparral (1967-71), and for his tempestuous six-year marriage to Hollywood rebel Frances Farmer (1936-42). Erickson enlisted in the US Navy, rising to the rank of Chief Petty Officer in the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. Serving as a military photographer, shooting film in combat zones in the Pacific theatre, he was twice shot down, earning two Purple Hearts in the process. Over four years he took more than 200,000 feet of film for the Navy, culminating in recording and photographing the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. He died of cancer in 1986 aged 74.

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FAIRBANKS Jr, Douglas:                                                 

He was the first American actor to publicly speak out in an effort to bring the US into the war. Through his friendship with Franklin Roosevelt Junior, he had gotten to know the President quite well. FDR could see the writing on the wall in Europe and was mortified by the distinct possibility that the British, if confronted with complete annihilation by the German Luftwaffe, might be forced into trading the massive Royal Navy for their survival. If that happened, a German Navy bolstered by 3,000 or more ships of all kinds, would seriously threaten the USA. This threat, above and beyond any other factor, drove Roosevelt’s efforts to, somehow, get his country into the war before it was too late.

Fairbanks, therefore, jumped at the chance to make sure his own films contained pro-British messages that supported eventual US intervention on the side of the Brits. Consequently, his films were promptly banned by Hitler’s Italian ally Benito Mussolini. Then, in January 1941, Roosevelt approved the American Undersecretary of State sending Fairbanks on a tour of Latin America, giving him authority to discuss the possible granting of military bases for use by US forces should war become a reality. The actor’s reports were deemed both useful and intelligent. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor solved the problem. It remains debatable today whether or not Roosevelt ‘allowed’ the attack to happen.

Fairbanks boarded the battleship Mississippi in Reykjavik, Iceland as a junior officer. He was resented by his fellow officers at first, and was given inferior quarters and the worst watches. But he was uncomplaining and in time earned their respect. In April ’41, he had received his naval lieutenant’s commission, six months before Pearl Harbor, and would still be in the navy on V-E Day four years later. Early in the war he was transferred to the Office of Naval Intelligence and became an expert on deception tactics, leading some effective commando-like raids on several Mediterranean islands. He also took part in the ill-fated PQ-17 convoy to Murmansk, a disastrous enterprise that saw 24 of the 35 merchant ships failing to reach their intended Russian ports.

Promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, he participated in the planning and execution of amphibious assaults on Italy and went ashore several times during the Anzio operation. By war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star, the Italian War Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honor and the Royal Navy’s Distinguished Service Cross. Hollywood produced a number of genuine heroes of the conflict, none more deserving than Doug Jr. When he passed away from a heart attack at 90 in 2000, Buckingham Palace expressed its condolences.


    • I am currently compiling a book on actors and actresses and the part they played in World War Two. It will be alphabetical and I am about to start on ‘M’ at present and it is already up to 125 pages. The book should be released by around Feb or March next year. Should be interesting, Cat. Quite a few surprises.

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