This article was updated on May 25, 2020.
During World War II, some of Hollywood’s top stars went overseas to fight. From Clark Gable, James Stewart and Robert Taylor, each returned home to their careers, though they also were changed people from their war experiences.
But some performers didn’t return home from World War II.
In honor of Memorial Day, I would like to highlight those who were killed during World War II, whether it be on the battlefield, in training camp, helping with the war effort, or surrounded by mysterious circumstances. some of these people were actors who enlisted, while others were taking part in the war effort:
Phillips Holmes (July 22, 1907 – August 12, 1942) Phillips Holmes was an American actor who starred in 48 films from 1928 to 1938, though the bulk of his films were made in the 1930s. Some of his filmography includes An American Tragedy (1931), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Great Expectations. In 1938, Holmes decided to turn his attention to the stage. However, when World War II began, Holmes and his brother Ralph enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 before the United States entered the war. Holmes graduated from Air Ground School in Winnipeg. On Aug. 12, 1942, while flying to another base in Ottawa, their plane collided with another aircraft in Ontario and killed everyone on board. Holmes was 33 years old.
Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (March 29, 1925 – May 17, 1945) From 1927 to 1933, Bobby Hutchins, known to many as Wheezer, starred in Hal Roach “Our Gang” short films. Once Hutchins got too old for the “Our Gang” series, he and his family moved back to Tacoma, Wash. where he went to school. In 1943, Hutchins enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Forces and enrolled in the Aviation Cadet Program with hopes of being a pilot. Only a week before graduation, Hutchins was killed in a midair collision on May 17, 1945. At Merced Army Air Field in California, Hutchins was trying to land a North American AT-6D-NT Texan, of the 3026th Base Unit, and the plane struck an AT-6C-15-NT Texan. The other pilot, Edward Hamel survived. Hutchins’ mother, Olga, had planned to travel to the airfield the following week to see her son graduate. Hutchins was 20 years old.
Arthur B. Woods (Aug. 17, 1904 – Feb. 8, 1944)
Arthur B. Woods was a feature film director with 26 credits to his name. Directing his last film in 1940, Woods joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Woods had already received his aviator’s certificate in the early 1930s. Woods served in the Battle of Britain and was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1942. Woods was killed with his pilot Jan Otto Bugge on Feb. 8, 1944, in a mid-air collision.
James Corner (April 30, 1915 – December 2, 1944) James Corner was an American actor whose film career had barely begun before the war started. Corner was in only three films: Winter Carnival (1939), What a Life (1939) and Scattergood Pulls the Strings (1941). When World War II began, Corner enlisted with the 102nd Infantry Division, 9th Army in 1942, and he reached the rank of a captain. Before going overseas, stage actor Bob Faulk asked Corner, “How does it feel to be a commander.” Corner replied, “Up until now, I’ve felt like an actor who rehearses right up until opening night, but never plays the part. I want to face the critics,” according to his obituary, published Dec. 18, 1944. Corner, 405th infantry was killed in action in Germany. He was 29 years old.
Harold J. Tannenbaum (April 23, 1896 – April 16, 1943)
During World War II, Harold J. Tannenbaum was previously a sound man for RKO and was working as a cinematographer to director William Wyler, who was making war documentaries and was part of the 8AF Combat Film Unit. While working on the technicolor documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” (1944), the plane Tannenbaum was on was shot down on April 16, 1943. Several crew members bailed out of the plane. It was reported that Tannenbaum did bailout but slipped out of his parachute.
Lee Powell (May 15, 1908 – July 30, 1944) Lee Powell was a B-movie western star, best known for his role as the Lone Ranger in 1938. After the war started, Powell enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1942 and served in the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, 18th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division. Powell fought in the South Pacific and reached the rank of sergeant. He fought in the Battle of Tarawa and Battle of Saipan. In July 1944, Powell died in the Tinian Islands. It was originally thought that Powell was killed in action. However, researcher and CBS Correspondent Fred Goerner was interviewing former World War II Marines, it was determined that Powell died from bad homemade sake while celebrating a victory. The same alcohol that killed Powell, temporarily blinded another Marine. Powell was 36 years old.
Jimmy Butler (February 20, 1921 – February 18, 1945) Jimmy Butler was a child actor who started acting in films in 1933 such as “Manhattan Melodrama” (1933), “Stella Dallas” (1937) and “Boys Town” (1938). Butler acted in 35 films until 1943. Pvt. Butler was killed in action in France in February 1945 and was buried in Lorraine, France. He was 23. Thank you to our friends at Wonders in the Dark for sharing about Jimmy Butler.
Walter Leigh (June 22, 1905 – June 12, 1942)
Walter Leigh was an English composer who wrote several stage, orchestral and piano compositions, as well as composing music for film shorts and documentaries. Leigh sent his wife and children to Canada to escape the London Blitz, and joined the British Army; serving in the Royal Armoured Corps, 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. He was killed in action in Libya in 1942.
Eric Knight (April 10, 1897 – Jan. 15, 1943)
English author Eric Knight wrote the novels “This Above All” and “Lassie Come Home,” which both were made into films. Knight also was an uncredited writer on documentaries like “Why We Fight” (1942) and “The Nazis Strike” (1943). During World War II, Knight was serving with the United States Army. Knight died in Jan. 1943 in a C-54 air crash over Dutch Guyana. He was on the plane with 30 other people which included FBI Assistant Director In Charge, Percy Foxworth, S.A. Harold Haberfeld. After Knight’s death, his “Lassie” novel reached success with a multi-film and television franchise.
Richard Fiske (Nov. 20, 1915 – Aug. 10, 1944)
With a film career starting in 1938, actor Richard Fiske was in a total of 89 films in largely uncredited roles. Fiske’s last film was THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942) before he was drafted and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Fiske was killed in action on Aug. 10, 1944, in La Croix-Avranchin, France, while serving within the 9th Infantry Regiment 2nd Infantry Division. Fiske is buried in Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial in France and posthumously honored with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Performers Killed During USO, Bond Tours or in Air Raids:
Al Bowlly (January 7, 1899 – April 17, 1941): Al Bowlly was a crooner who rose to fame in the 1930s with Ray Noble’s orchestra, known for songs like “The Very Thought of You.” By 1937, Bowlly moved to London with his wife where he performed in theaters, recorded songs and performed with various orchestras. The last song Bowlly recorded was Irving Berlin’s song about Hitler, “When That Man is Dead and Gone.” On April 16, 1941, Bowlly performed at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe. He was offered overnight lodgings but decided to return home to London. In the early hours of April 17, 1941, there was an air raid, and Bowlly was asleep in his bed. A parachute bomb dropped around 3:10 a.m. at the corner of Jermyn Street with Duke Street St James. Bowlly was found on the floor by his bed and had died as a result of the blast. The door to his room was blasted in and hit him in the head.
Carole Lombard (October 6, 1908 – January 16, 1942): Though actress Carole Lombard was a civilian, she is considered the first American woman killed in World War II. When the United States entered the war, Lombard became passionate about selling war bonds. Lombard sold war bonds at a rally in her home state of Indiana, where she sold more than $2 million worth of war bonds. Most of her trip to and through Indiana had been by train, but Lombard didn’t want to wait for a train to return home and decided to fly. While returning home to Los Angeles by way of Las Vegas, Lombard, her mother (Elizabeth Peters) and the rest of the crew were killed in plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942. The plane crashed into a cliff off Potosi Mountain. Lombard was 33 years old. Her husband Clark Gable was despondent over her death and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force to fight in World War II. In 1944, a military cargo ship was named SS Carole Lombard in her honor.
Glenn Miller (March 1, 1904 – December 15, 1944): Bandleader and trombone player Glenn Miller led one of the most popular dance bands in the 1940s. Too old to be drafted, Miller decided to volunteer to lead the Army military band during World War II. Miller wanted to modernize traditional military marches and blended jazz songs with marches, such as “St. Louis Blues March.” “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music,” he said. Miller became a major and led the Army Air Force Band. He and his band traveled across England and performed for troops and gave 800 performances. Miller and his band stayed in England, but on Dec. 15, 1944, Miller was set to fly across the English Channel to Paris, France, to perform in a congratulatory performance for American troops that had recently helped to liberate Paris. En route in a single-engine aircraft, a UC-64 Norseman, USAAF serial 44-70285, Miller and the two other passengers Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and the pilot, John Morgan disappeared. Over the years there has been much speculation over what happened, including Allied planes dropping their unused bombs in a designated area and hitting the plane. However, a 2014 Chicago Tribune article, says a defective carburetor in the plane caused the crash. Miller was 40 years old.
Leslie Howard (April 3, 1893 – June 1, 1943): British actor Leslie Howard had a long film career that began in 1917 and lasted until his death in 1943. Of course today, most people know Howard for his role of Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind.” By the time filming for “Gone with the Wind” was complete, the war had begun in Europe. Howard felt it was only right to leave Hollywood and return home to Great Britain, even though that meant forfeiting work in Hollywood. The British government asked Howard to make broadcasts to the then-neutral United States to change their minds and join the war effort. Howard also filmed and starred in several British patriotic films. In 1943, Howard, who was a civilian boarded a civilian flight to England from Lisbon, Portugal, where he was acting as the British cultural ambassador, according to a 2015 article in the Telegraph. Howard’s civilian flight, Flight 777 of the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay, killing all 17 passengers on board. Until June 1, 1943, Luftwaffe had never bothered a civilian flight. There is much speculation on why this particular civilian flight was shot down. Though it has never been confirmed, some have speculated that the Germans thought Winston Churchill was onboard, which Churchill himself believed as the reason for the flight being shot down. Howard was 50 years old.
Please let me know of anyone who is missing so they also can be recognized.
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Jimmy Butler, a brilliant child actor, died in France. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/56371457/jimmy-m-butler
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Thank you! I will work to add him to the list today. I appreciate that, I knew I had forgotten someone I recently looked up and I think it was him (while watching Nurse Edith Cavell)!
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He actually made quite a few films in the 30s and 40s. He and Margaret Sullavan made their film debuts in ONLY YESTERDAY (1933)
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Richard Fiske, an actor at Columbia, was killed in action in France. He was an infantry officer.
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Thank you! I will have to add him to the list!
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Very good… and of course a little sad. Thanks for your work here Comet; very interesting and poignant.
Wonderful!! Very informative and is great tribute to those who paid the highest price for our winning the war. God bless them.