The list of Hollywood stars who stepped away from their lucrative careers to serve their country during the greatest global conflict of all time is quite extensive. Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart were among those who placed duty above all else, potentially ending their time as entertainers as they put themselves in harm’s way, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice: your life for the good of the free world (via Cinema Scholars). Not all of the famous names would return from the perils of World War II. Legendary band leader Glenn Miller, former “Our Gang” child actor Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, and others weren’t so lucky — they gave their lives for a greater cause (per Comet Over Hollywood).
Out of the millions who served their respective nations during this global conflict, some would enter it as relative nobodies, only to gain fame on the big screen years after their commendable service. One such actor began a career in the film several years after being honorably discharged from the service, slowly making himself a familiar face for fans of westerns and action films during the 1950s and ’60s.
While Lee Van Cleef might be remembered for his more villainous roles, fans might be surprised to know that the late star was a real-life war hero during World War II. He and fellow U.S. Navy personnel not only served their beloved country during the war, but came out of it as decorated heroes.
VAN CLEEF ENLISTED IN THE U.S. NAVY AT 17
The dreaded German U-boats were the terror of the high seas during WWII. The Nazis constructed nearly 1,200 of these undersea menaces, sending them into shipping lanes along the eastern coast of the United States and Canada, wreaking havoc on merchant vessels (via Britannica). According to History, a fleet of only 16 U-boats sank nearly 80 ships off the eastern seaboard in 1942, killing more than 1,000 merchant marines. Such devastation required a swift response from Allied forces. Bombing raids began over the seas, taking out as many as eight of these submerged boats in a single day. Allied ships began to escort merchant vessels so that these attacks would cease. This prompted the Germans to change their strategy, focusing some of their sea warfare on ships that dared to traverse dangerous waters alone.
Van Cleef joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 at 17 years old. He was assigned to one of the units designated as a “submarine hunter” (via Navsource). A 40mm gun mount that was flanked by twin 20mm artillery made this a lethal weapon for those who stalked the ocean beneath its waves. Van Cleef served on this ship for 10 months (per War History Online) before being reassigned to the U.S.S. Incredible.
It was on the Incredible that Van Cleef and other crew members faced almost certain death as they began to participate in landings in the south of France. While off the shore of the German-occupied country, Van Cleef’s ship came under attack by a German U-boat.
THE ATTACK ON THE INCREDIBLE
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Naval History and Heritage Command tells of how the Incredible was performing its duties on September 10, 1944, sweeping mines from the sea to aid in future landings of Allied ships. An attack was launched by a nearby German ship, using human torpedoes — submerged vessels that carry one to two persons. An explosive device was attached, which would ideally be secured to an enemy ship unnoticed. After the explosive charge was placed on the underside of the target ship, the “torpedo” would move away from its mark and back to safety.
Van Cleef and the rest of the crew saw that they were under attack by these manned torpedoes and went into action. Of the dozen human torpedoes that were deployed, the Incredible was able to destroy 10 of them. The remaining two attached and were able to detonate their payload. The Incredible survived the attack and was soon back in action, where it served out the remainder of the war. Van Cleef received a Bronze Star medal for bravery for his service (via War History Online).
After the war, he pursued a career in acting. He worked in live theater before his first screen role in the western “High Noon” in 1952 (via AP News). After dozens of roles in film and on TV, he caught the eye of legendary director Sergio Leone, who cast him in “For a Few Dollars More” in 1965. His portrayal as the wicked Sentenza the following year in Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” cemented his fame as one of the genre’s most marketable bad guys. He died in 1989.