Mall Rats

From the very beginning, Hollywood has corrupted the history of World War II. Did you know that? There’s a not-so-subtle fiction in the war pictures that started coming out of the studios from 1942 on, and as late as Saving Private Ryan the warping continued.

I’m talking about the ages of the actors playing soldiers in that war. I grew up thinking that WWII was fought by middle-aged men. My favorite war movie of all is Battleground, the 1949 MGM blockbuster about the Battle of the Bulge starring 33-year-old Van Johnson, 35-year-old John Hodiak, and a couple handfuls of other MGM contract players. Granted you saw a few younger guys like Marshall Thompson (age 24), Ricardo Montalban (age 29), and Richard Jaeckel (age 23). But co-starring was 47-year-old George Murphy playing a character named “Pop” and aged-well-beyond-his-years Douglas Fowley as a G.I. with dentures. None of these guys represent the real fighting men of the Ardennes Forest.

I stumbled upon another MGM war picture the other week, The Men of the Fighting Lady, about a Korean-era aircraft carrier and landing there were the supposed hotshot pilots, Van Johnson (again, now 38), Keenan Wynn (38), and Frank Lovejoy (42).

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Battleground, starring Van Johnson and John Hodiak. Great cast, great picture. But the guys in it are too old.

I’m smack-dab in the middle of the real WWII these days writing about the Eighth Air Force, and I am astonished about how young these pilots under Jim Stewart were. He was an “old man” of 35 when he commanded a bomber squadron operating out of England, and all his pilots, and I mean all his pilots, were 22 or 23 or at the oldest 24 years of age, guys right out of college. The technical sergeants serving as radio men and gunners were 19 and 20. If you go to the mall and look at the kids hanging out there giggling and trying to look adult, or visit your local high school or college campus, that’s who fought World War II. That’s representative of the 400,000 Americans who died and whose names are carved in honor rolls in every town in the United States. Among the front-line personnel, the privates were 18 or 19, the sergeants were 20, lieutenants 22, and captains and majors 24. Stewart had a hell of a time getting off the ground when he earned his wings at an advanced age of +30. They were reluctant to let a man that old and slow behind the controls of a four-engine bomber—he didn’t have a prayer of operating a fighter plane, which all the pilots wanted to do.

There are stories of guys who landed at Normandy Beach and didn’t take their boots off for the next six weeks; at the end of it they didn’t have to peel off their socks because they had liquefied. These guys didn’t eat or sleep for days and they were digging foxholes everywhere they went. Facing life-or-death situations at every turn. It was survival of the fittest and the fittest were 18, not 40.

When Tom Hanks played Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, he was 42 years old. In the real war, someone the age of his son would have been Capt. Miller.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Alan Hale, a hard-lived 51 at the time of Destination Tokyo.

The actors go where there’s work, like they always have. During the war, studios churned out war pictures because that’s what people wanted to see, and who could play in their product but the men they had under contract, those not off to war themselves, and this talent pool was what it was. It only became burlesque occasionally, like when Alan Hale played a flier in Desperate Journey at age 50 or a submariner in Destination Tokyo at 51. For Hale it was a living and he was a fine character actor, and it’s always nice to see him. Just keep in mind you are looking at Bizarro World War II when it’s being fought by Alan Hale. We’d be speaking German right now if the war had been fought by Alan Hale. Or Harry Carey (a whopping 65 at the time he made Air Force) or George Tobias (43 in Air Force).

What’s another benchmark of World War II pictures? The Longest Day, I guess. You might as well call it The Longest of Tooth Day, with John Wayne the 55-year-old paratrooper leading Red Buttons the 43-year-old paratrooper. I guess this is one of the reasons my friend Clem, who fought in World War II and bailed out of two crippled planes in two months (a technical sergeant not yet 20) and lived out the war in a German prison camp, doesn’t care for war pictures. He sat through Unbroken increasingly disgusted, muttering as he is wont to do, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood.” The reality of it was that when 19-year-old Clem hit the earth after his first bail-out he broke a leg; in the second he was looking out for his still-broken leg and broke some ribs. So you think Red Buttons at 43 could have been a real paratrooper?

Next time you see a veteran of World War II, think how young he was when he saw what he saw and did what he did. Think how fast he grew up. Think how many years he has lived with the memories of his friends dying around him during training or on the ground, in the air, or at sea. It’s an incredible story of the most brutal war in history fought by kids who these days might not be entrusted to do their own laundry or take out the trash.

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, "Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny's up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now."

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, “Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny’s up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now.”


  1. My gallant, gentle father was fighting in The Battle of the Coral Sea at the ripe old age of 22. As in TWENTY-TWO. He had left his mom and dad and brothers in the middle of Wyoming and been unceremoniously plopped into a world he’d never known; a world in which everything he’d ever been taught about The Golden Rule was tossed on its ear.

    It’s enough to give one the bends.

    God bless you, Sir.

    1. Let’s assume for a moment that I was the sir you were blessing………….Thanks!

      All those millions of young people drop-shipped half a world away into the greatest cataclysm of all time. There just aren’t words for it.

  2. Hollywood has always taken liberties with history. I am always amazed when I watch movies like Bonnie and Clyde or Splendor in the Grass and see 1960’s hair and cat’s eye makeup on Faye Dunaway and Natalie Wood… And please don’t get me started on television—Hogan’s Heroes and Big Valley showed almost no regard for the fashion of the times being portrayed. Hollywood has improved in costume and make-up decisions. In regard to WWII I believe Robert that you are correct. Studios worked with their in house heroes and contract players. People were afraid and they wanted to see their idols save the day. On a personal note, my grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was twenty-four and the self-proclaimed old guy. He always said after that battle he could never get warm-ever. His shovel was his best friend. It was the difference between life and death. I still have that shovel and use it for gardening. Whenever I garden I always think about grandpa and the freezing cold Ardennes.

    1. The issue of having to use that puny little shovel to dig a hole big enough for a full-grown man in frozen ground is something they don’t address in Battleground, and another reason to admire the survivors of the Bulge.

  3. “Bizarro World War II.” That’s good!

    “Commando” Kelly of Pittsburgh was 23 when he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

    My neighbor, paratrooper Leonard “Bucky” Funk was 28 when he earned his.

      1. From Wikipedia: First Sergeant Funk’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:

        Medal of Honor
        He distinguished himself by gallant, intrepid actions against the enemy. After advancing 15 miles in a driving snowstorm, the American force prepared to attack through waist-deep drifts. The company executive officer became a casualty, and 1st Sgt. Funk immediately assumed his duties, forming headquarters soldiers into a combat unit for an assault in the face of direct artillery shelling and harassing fire from the right flank. Under his skillful and courageous leadership, this miscellaneous group and the 3d Platoon attacked 15 houses, cleared them, and took 30 prisoners without suffering a casualty. The fierce drive of Company C quickly overran Holzheim, netting some 80 prisoners, who were placed under a 4-man guard, all that could be spared, while the rest of the understrength unit went about mopping up isolated points of resistance. An enemy patrol, by means of a ruse, succeeded in capturing the guards and freeing the prisoners, and had begun preparations to attack Company C from the rear when 1st Sgt. Funk walked around the building and into their midst. He was ordered to surrender by a German officer who pushed a machine pistol into his stomach. Although overwhelmingly outnumbered and facing almost certain death, 1st Sgt. Funk, pretending to comply with the order, began slowly to unsling his submachine gun from his shoulder and then, with lightning motion, brought the muzzle into line and riddled the German officer. He turned upon the other Germans, firing and shouting to the other Americans to seize the enemy’s weapons. In the ensuing fight 21 Germans were killed, many wounded, and the remainder captured. 1st Sgt. Funk’s bold action and heroic disregard for his own safety were directly responsible for the recapture of a vastly superior enemy force, which, if allowed to remain free, could have taken the widespread units of Company C by surprise and endangered the entire attack plan.

        When Truman hung the medal around his neck, he told Bucky: “I’d rather have one of these, than this job.”

        For various other things, he also got:
        Distinguished Service Cross
        Silver Star
        Bronze Star
        Purple Heart (3)
        Combat Infantryman Badge
        Croix de guerre w/ palm (Belgium)

      2. The thing you don’t often see is a Medal of Honor winner living to have the decoration hung around his or her neck, and the photo with Truman presenting is spectacular. Did Sgt. Funk ever talk about his war experiences with you, Tom? I see that he died in 1992 as “one of the most decorated soldiers and paratroopers of World War II.” What a guy to have for a neighbor!

  4. Spot on Robert! I assume that your WWII friend Clem affirmed the age issue, but what other
    observations did he have that disgusted him? I can guess only one: when people got shot or injured in this era of films (which went well into the 60s), there was very little or no screaming and groaning in pain. That changed dramatically in Private Ryan, to Spielberg’s credit.

    1. Christopher, Clem rattled off several things he didn’t like about Unbroken. That’s the one we talked about. I know I asked him about other World War II aviation pictures over the span of time and he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. The fliers were dismissive of all the aviation pictures about World War II except Twelve O’Clock High, which accurately presented the briefings, missions at altitude, and debrief. Specifically about Unbroken he had two big beefs and many sub-beefs in each of the two categories. First, there was nothing authentic to him about the depiction of life inside a B-24. Basically that’s the job of the producer, making sure the history is right. Second, he scoffed at the test of wills between the commandant and Louie. He said if 30 guys hit you in the face in succession, you wouldn’t have a face left. And you’d have brain damage. He said if you’ve been starved in a prison camp (which Clem was), there is no way you can hold a heavy board over your head for a minute, let alone indefinitely. Not when you’re eating nothing to nourish your muscles. Very soon, your muscles are mush. Clem did enjoy the book Unbroken, and says it’s possible that Louie “really remembered it that way.”

      You should hear Clem laugh. He has this chuckle when he thinks about Hollywood’s depiction of war and bravery. It has a beautiful ring to it like the peal of a bell, and unless you knew his story you wouldn’t even guess that it was echoing off memories and nightmares that none of us could even imagine.

  5. Perhaps so many of the war heroes in the movies were older because the younger actors all had to serve. In any case, very few movies depict how young and vulnerable these men really were. My dad served in WWII. He was barely 18 when drafted toward the end of the war, when the youngest were being taken, and he described boys crying for their mothers when they were going to sleep at night. He describes going to a Judy Garland movie and weeping throughout because she reminded him of home and the “girl next door.” While it’s incredible that soldiers loved some of the sentimental and rather simple musicals and other less sophisticated fare that would be intolerable to modern audiences, he said that these men craved these wholesome reminders of home. He was in the amphibious campaign that was planned for Japan, a Normandy style invasion that never happened because the war ended. He also said that when movies were shown on the carrier, the soldiers would become very upset if the flick was interrupted by an air raid. At that point, they were more concerned about missing the movie than about the risk to their lives!

    Except for All Quiet on the Western Front and the later scenes in The Dawn Patrol, where the very young fliers are being sent out, I’ve never seen a war film depicting the extreme youth of many soldiers. Certainly no WWII films.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear from you, Rosemarie. Your dad was just 18! Isn’t it crazy how young they were? Brokaw calls them the Greatest Generation but that almost does them a disservice. They were just kids who were called upon. I think today’s kids could be called upon and they would rise to the occasion–at least I hope they would, but it’s touching they remained “just kids,” and had the freedom to bawl their eyes out as needed.

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