For decades there were urban legends floating around that Jerry Mathers, who played the title character on Leave It to Beaver, died in Vietnam and that Fred Rogers from the PBS show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was either a Navy SEAL or a U.S. Marine sniper.
None of those legends are true, but they serve a purpose of leaving people unable to tell fact from fiction. It’s still a mystery as to why someone would make them up.
But in many cases, it might be said that truth is stranger than urban legend, and real life stories of celebrities who wore combat boots are much more interesting. You could never make this stuff up!
Take for example, the case of Werner Klemperer, an accomplished classical musician who was also a television and stage actor. Klemperer, a native-born German, was forced to leave Germany in 1935 with his family, shortly after Hitler’s Nazi Party took power, due to Klemperer’s father being Jewish.
After immigrating to the U.S., Klemperer fell in love with his new home and upon the nation’s entry into World War II, he quickly joined the U.S. Army to fight for his country. Many people may not know the name Werner Klemperer, but if someone were to say Col. Klink of Hogan’s Heroes, you would know exactly who Klemperer is.
Another actor who served his country during World War II and ended up with an interesting tale that could rank up there with urban legend, was Jimmy Stewart. His real-life story reads like a legend-but it’s all true.
Stewart joined the Army in 1941. Beginning his service as an enlisted Soldier, he quickly received a commission after completing 400 hours of flying time. He rose from the rank of private to the rank of colonel in just four years. As a pilot on a B-24 Liberator, Stewart flew 20 successful combat missions over Europe during the war, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Stewart continued serving in the Air Force Reserves, eventually retiring in 1968 after attaining the rank of brigadier general. A lot of people act pretty amazed when they find that out, but it’s one of those true facts that seems stranger than fiction only because of who Stewart was as an actor.
And then, there’s Rocky Blier, who after completing his first year as a rookie in the NFL, was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and received a Purple Heart. Blier was seriously wounded in an ambush by both small arms fire and shrapnel from a grenade. Military doctors told Blier that he would never play football again.
When Rocky returned from the war, he went back to training camp with the Steelers after just one year – weighing only 180 pounds and in incredible pain from his war wounds. Many people might not have been able to do what Blier did; working through the pain and pushing himself hard everyday even with the knowledge that he might never be able to play on the active Steeler roster.
It wasn’t until 1974, after years of hard work getting his weight back to well-over 200 pounds, that he was put in as a starting running back. Millions of people still remember Blier as a running back who played for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that won four Super Bowls, but they might not remember the important sacrifices he made for his country. Even so, today Rocky’s story continues to inspire others-and it’s just another example of true life events that are much more interesting than fictionalized accounts or made-up rumors.
Along with Blier, some other famous people whose true-life exploits read like an action novel include; Academy Award-winning actor Charles Durning, a survivor of the June 6 D-Day invasion who received a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, and Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame who earned a Bronze Star for rescuing Marines during the Battle of Tarawa.
Although most Americans find tales about celebrities who served in boots interesting, there are many legends about their daring in the military that never happened-like the Beaver killing 7,000 Viet Cong before biting the dust.
There’s nothing that can replace the spirit or sacrifices of real unsung heroes-those who fought and died to keep the U.S. free.
They’re the ones who aren’t famous, they’re the ones who don’t have urban legends told about them, they’re the ones who have never actually heard a word of thanks for their ultimate sacrifice, and they’re the ones who the famous celebrity veterans, along with the rest of us, look up to.
By Army Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp (This article was originally published by the Army in March of 2009)