By DREW HOWARD
Documentary directors Al and Dave Eicher shared the forgotten tales of 93 Hollywood celebrities enlisted in World War II at a Rochester Hills Public Library lecture on Tuesday, February 20.
Al and Dave, who are father and son, respectively, make a living producing visual history documentaries and educational lectures. Their latest lecture, “When Hollywood Went To War,” detailed how celebrities like James Stewart, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Mickey Rooney and many others contributed to the war effort.
But some of the more fascinating stories came from less recognizable names — for example, actress Hedy Lamarr. Before making it big in Hollywood, Hedy lived in Germany where she was married to the wealthy weapons manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, whose business happened to service Adolf Hitler.
“Hedy’s husband many times in 1936 had her attend business meetings and dinners with Adolf Hitler, Mussolini and their scientists,” Al told the audience. “At these meetings they discussed radio signal guided weapons, namely torpedo guidance.”
Al explained that Hedy was imprisoned by her husband in 1937 for expressing opposition to the nazi movement. She later escaped with “only the jewelry and clothes on her back,” making her way to France where she met Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Her story only begins here, though, as Hedy went on to develop a frequency hopping guidance system used by the Navy. Today, the invention is used in GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth technology.
Al also touched on one of the few African American celebrities to enlist in World War II: Jesse Owens. A star track athlete at Ohio State University, Owens left college after Pearl Harbor to worked for the government on special assignments.
Despite later serving his country, Al said Owens was rumored to have shaken Adolf Hitler’s hand at the 1936 Olympics. A doctored image of him and Hitler standing shoulder to shoulder was proven false, with an accompanying quote from Owens that shed light on race relations in America. Al paraphrased Owen’s quote: “No, I didn’t shake his hand. I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake President Roosevelt’s hand either.”
The presentation also touched on comedian Bob Hope, who took his USO shows to war zones around the world for 50 years. In a video interview, Hope said the most emotional show he ever performed was during World War II for the 1st Marine Division. Hope entertained the group just a day before they entered the now famous Battle of Peleliu.
“You knew when you walked out there that you’re playing for 15,000 kids, and a lot of these guys you’ll never see again,” Hope said. “As it worked about, about 60 percent of those kids were knocked off in this invasion of Peleliu.”
“When Hollywood Went To War” also touched on notable war efforts from Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, and the Andrews Sisters, among others. For more details about Al and Dave’s lecture series and services, visit michiganhistorylectures.com.