This Month in New Bern History – Aug 2023

Celebrities Who Served
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

A number of men and women who have served in the military in North Carolina became famous for their careers in film, sports, and NASA. How many of these stories do you know?

Old-time movie aficionados will remember the matinee idol Tyrone Power, the handsome leading man in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) and "From Here to Eternity" (1951). In 1939 he was the 2nd largest box office star, surpassed only by Mickey Rooney. He had a movie career that included forty-eight feature length motion pictures.

Power is also remembered for his career in the Marine Corps. Eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tyrone Power graduated from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. He attended Officer’s Candidate School at Quantico and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant on June 2, 1943. He loved to fly, and after undergoing short, intense flight training at several courses, was awarded his Marine Corps aviator wings and a promotion to 1st lieutenant. During July 1944, Power was assigned as a transport co-pilot at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point. The squadron was equipped with C-46 transport aircraft. The squadron moved, and Power took part in the air supply and evacuation of wounded Marines from the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was released from the active-duty Marines in January 1946.

Tyrone Power continued making movies and was also active in the Marine Corps reserve until his death. In November 1958 while filming a sword fighting scene for a movie, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 44. Power held the rank of Colonel and was buried with military honors.

Many of you grew up watching the TV series Maude and later the Golden Girls in which Bea Arthur was a star. But did you know that Bea Arthur had a military career and attained the rank of staff sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II?

During February 1943, a call to action went out to women across America, “Be a Marine…Free a Man to Fight.” The US Marine Corps had established the Women’s Reservists, the last service branch to allow women in their ranks. The idea was to fill as many positions as possible with women to allow men to join Marine combat units. By the end of WWII, 20,000 women served as Marines.

On February 18, 1943, five days after the Marine Corps started recruiting, Bernice Frankel enlisted. She had graduated high school in Cambridge, Maryland and attended one year of college, but returned to her hometown where she worked as a food analyst for Phillips Packing Company, testing products for mold and bacteria. She moved briefly to New York working a variety of jobs which included volunteering as an air-raid warden. Just two months shy of her 21st birthday, she joined the Marine Corps as Private Frankel, though she had to obtain her parents’ approval to do so.

In March 1943 Frankel attended the first Women Reservist School, the US Naval Training School, at Hunter College in the Bronx. After basic training, Arthur served as a typist at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington DC and was promoted to private first class on May 1, 1943. Bea had enlisted in the Marine Corps to be a truck driver, and in June 1943 requested a transfer to the Motor Transportation School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. She was one of two women promoted to corporal from the Specialist Schools Detachment, Women’s Reserve Schools.

Arthur became a member of the Aviation Women’s Reserve Squadron 17, MCAS Cherry Point. During that time, she married fellow Marine Robert Aurthur and changed her name to Bernice Aurthur. In December 1943 she received a promotion to sergeant. In January 1945, she was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant and honorably discharged on Sept 26, 1945. Bea was divorced three years later and changed her last name to Arthur.

Bea Arthur became an actress, receiving fifteen Emmy nominations and awards for her work on "Maude" and "Golden Girls". She never spoke about her time in the military. She died at the age of eighty-six at her home in Los Angeles on April 25, 2009.

Several sports stars were also stationed at Cherry Point. One of the most famous was Ted Williams, famed Boston Red Sox baseball player, who played left field for nineteen years with the Boston Red Sox and is regarded as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He was a 19 time All Star, two-time recipient of the American League Most Valuable Player award, six-time American League Batting Champion and two-time Triple Crown Winner and Hall of Fame member. This is even more impressive when you learn that Williams served three years in the United States Navy and Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War. Williams was drafted in January 1942 and discharged by the Marine Corps on January 28, 1946. He returned to baseball, setting many records. In 1952 at the age of 33, Ted Williams was called to duty from the inactive reserves and was sent to the Korean War.

Williams had eight weeks of refresher flight training and qualification in the F9F Panther jet at MCAS Cherry Point. As a member of the first Marine Air Wing, Williams landed in Korea in February of 1953. Serving with Ted Williams was future astronaut John Glenn. The two became good friends and were paired together on missions with Williams as Glenn’s wingman, flying F-9 Panther jets. Ted Williams flew thirty-nine missions in the Korean War, over half of them with John Glenn.

Ted Williams returned to baseball after his military service and continued his stellar career. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. An avid fisherman, he was also inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame. He became involved in the Jimmy Fund, raising money for cancer care and research. In 1991 he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush. He died on July 5, 2002 at age 83.

Most of us know that John Glenn, on February 5, 1962, was the first American to orbit the earth. However, prior to that he had a distinguished career in the United States Marine Corps. He was designated a naval aviator on March 31, 1943, and served in the Pacific Theater from February 1944 to February 1945, flying 59 combat missions. He then served with VMF-113 at MCAS Cherry Point and in many capacities as an instructor pilot. He returned for a brief stint at MCAS Cherry Point in 1952 to complete the jet refresher course and was assigned to VMF-311. He flew F-9 Panthers during the Korean War, flying 63 combat missions.

Glenn met baseball slugger Ted Williams in Korea, and they flew many missions together. It would be impossible to list all of his accomplishments and awards, but John Glenn later became a United States Senator from Ohio and became the oldest man to go into space when he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998. Glenn died on December 8, 2016, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Another baseball notable had an outstanding career as a naval pilot. Jerry Coleman played with the New York Yankees and later became an announcer for them before moving to San Diego and becoming the announcer for the San Diego Padres for over 40 years. He also had a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, serving in combat in WWII and Korea. He first enlisted in the Navy as an aviation cadet and earned his pilot wings on April 1, 1944. He transferred to the Marine Corps and became a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific. Coleman was stationed at the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, flying 57 combat missions. By the time he returned to the U.S. he had been awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals.

When the war ended, Coleman was at MCAS Cherry Point, learning to fly the carrier-based dive bomber Curtiss SB2C Helldiver - the replacement for the Dauntless which Coleman had flown in World War II.

Coleman missed three seasons of baseball due to his military service and was only 21 when he returned to the New York Yankees in 1946. He made his Major League debut in 1949 and he was an All-star and World Series Most Valuable Player in 1950. Coleman then missed the next two years of baseball as he was recalled to military service during the Korean War. Captain Coleman received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, thirteen Air Medals and three Navy citations which were in addition to the medals he earned in World War II. Jerry Coleman was the only Major League Baseball Player to see combat in two wars (Ted Williams served during both World War II and Korea but flew combat missions only in the Korean War). Coleman died at the age of 89 and is buried at the Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego.

In his career with the Yankees, Coleman received four World Series rings. But he once said, “To me the height of my life, the best thing I ever knew, was not the Yankees, it wasn’t baseball or broadcasting. It was the Marine Corps.”

For more stories like this from New Bern’s past, be sure to visit the Duffy Gallery at the North Carolina History Center to see our free centennial exhibit, “Through the Looking Glass, A Journey with the Storytellers.”

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