Paul Newman Was Kicked Out Of Pilot School In WWII, But Then A Twist Of Fate Saved His Life

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Famous actor Paul Newman lived a quite extraordinary life, and some of it involved military action. When World War II broke out he wanted to fight despite his young age, but he faced obstacles. Eventually he ended up on the USS Bunker Hill. And there, he might have become another fallen soldier, if not for a piece of extraordinary luck.

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Newman’s acting career is still the stuff of legend today, even after his passing. He was a major movie star and appeared in many films which became iconic – among them The Hustler and The Towering Inferno. And, unsurprisingly considering the era, he also appeared in films about World War II.

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Newman also provided the narration for a World War II film in 1965. He lent his voice to the movie Tried by Fire, which was about the famous Battle of the Bulge. It discussed the German offensive and the military action taken in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Newman hadn’t been in that particular battle – but his war experiences weren’t a million miles away.

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Before World War II broke out, though, Newman was just an ordinary young man. He was born in 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the youngest son of a well-off family. The Newmans owned a sporting equipment store, and all throughout little Paul’s childhood it provided enough income for a good, cosy upbringing.

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Newman’s mother Theresa was interested in acting, and her son followed in her footsteps. The young Paul began performing from a very young age, albeit just in school plays. At the age of seven he appeared as a jester in his school’s production of Robin Hood, and on another occasion he played St. George of dragon-fighting fame.

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But Newman never thought he would actually use those skills to become an actor. In 2007, just before his death the following year, he told ABC’s Barbara Walters, “I certainly never expected to be a professional actor. I never expected to be in movies… I thought I would probably become a teacher.”

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But, in fact, the young Newman didn’t really seem to think he would end up anywhere. In 1989 he told Esquire magazine, “When I was a kid, I was not a good scholar, and I really wanted to be one. I was not a good athlete, and I really wanted to be one. I was not a good conversationalist, and to this day I have difficulty talking.”

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Newman loved sport and athletics, but he didn’t excel in the field. In 1973 he remembered to Rolling Stone magazine, “I would’ve loved to have been a professional athlete of one kind or another, but I had no talent for it at all.” Being an actor, he believed, was his only major skill.

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As Newman grew up, he gained the handsome looks he would become so famous for. But he also gained a rebellious, carefree attitude that landed him in hot water. He pushed back against the expectations his wealthy parents placed on him, and became somewhat of a troublemaker. He was even arrested a few times.

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Newman graduated from his high school in 1943. Then, he enrolled in Ohio University – but his bad-boy attitude hadn’t changed. Before too long he’d been expelled. Reportedly, in the midst of fraternity hijinks, he had rolled a drum of beer into a rector’s vehicle and dented it. This was simply unacceptable behavior, so out he went.

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In his later years Newman would regret the years he spent causing trouble. When being interviewed for AARP The Magazine in 2005 the subject came up, and he considered that the reason for all the bad behavior was because he “couldn’t find a reason to respect myself.” Also, he added, “One of my great regrets in life is that my father never had a chance to see me be successful.”

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The young man was far away from the stardom he would eventually achieve. In 2006 the older Newman told the website IGN, “There was a children’s theater at the Cleveland Playhouse… I was involved in that, but I had no expectations of being an actor when I was young. I had no expectations of being an actor after the war.”

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The war had come to America in 1941, when Japanese planes bombed the naval base of Pearl Harbor. This attack killed thousands of people, including civilians, and the American populace was furious. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan one day later, and the US allied with Britain and Russia.

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The U.S. army needed lots of men to sign up, and they needed them fast. Draft notices were sent out, and even celebrities of the era weren’t exempt. For instance, Elvis Presley – one of the biggest names in America at that point – got his draft letter in 1957. One year later, having finished filming his most recent movie, he became a private.

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Many people badly wanted to sign up to the military and serve their country. But despite the need for men, there were rules. If you had any sort of physical disability – especially one that would prevent you from operating a firearm – you were designated as “unfit for duty” or “4F.”

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Receiving a 4F was often a source of shame among men who applied for the army, though there was no reason for that. Thus there were a lot of people who simply didn’t reveal their health conditions to the recruiters. But there were a lot of things that could disqualify a person, including chronic illnesses, mental illnesses and even skin rashes.

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These high standards were what caused trouble for Newman when he tried to sign up. What he wanted was to become a pilot, but obviously this was difficult work that required lots of training. He joined the Yale Navy V-12 program in the hopes it would work out, but unfortunately for him it didn’t.

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Back in those days Newman wasn’t quite the physical presence everyone remembers him as today. He was small and thin – he hadn’t even qualified to be part of the football team in university. Other members of the military towered above him. And during pilot training there came a big blow. As it turned out, he was colorblind.

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This spelled the end for Newman’s hopes of being a fighter pilot – you need to have regular color vision in order to operate the plane’s instruments. So, the young man was shipped off elsewhere. He went to basic training, where he could learn other skills that would be useful to the war effort.

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In a way, it was ironic that Newman had a fault with his eyes, because it was those same eyes which would help make him famous. Once he became an actor, multitudes of fans started to focus on the “baby blues” and their incredible expressiveness. Newman himself always seemed to have mixed feelings about them, though.

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Newman always disliked that fans would focus on his eyes. In 1984 he told People magazine, “Someone will come up and say, ‘Mr. Newman, thank you for some wonderful evenings in the theater,’ and you’ll feel terrific. And then some lady says, ‘Take off your dark glasses, I want to see your blue eyes.’ There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat.”

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Newman made sardonic jokes about his eyes for a long time. A few years later, in 1986, he told The New York Times magazine, “I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.’” So much of his life, it seemed, had revolved around the function of his eyes.

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After being sent to basic training, Newman qualified as a rear-seat gunner and radio operator in 1944. His full military title was Aviation Radioman Third Class Newman. He was then assigned to the replacement torpedo squadrons in the Pacific, which trained men for combat in the specialized, widely used torpedo planes.

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And then Newman was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill. World War II historians will know the significance of that ship and its fate. The vessel – named for the famous Battle of Bunker Hill – took part in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. This was the last big engagement of the whole war and it resulted in tremendous loss of life.

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The Japanese forces used kamikaze pilots against the American ships, and those on board found them almost impossible to shoot down before they hit. The USS Bunker Hill was hit by two of these, and the body count was very high. Some who did survive were traumatized by the carnage they had witnessed.

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Newman should have been on that ship in the middle of that battle – but a tremendous twist of fate saved him. Before it all took place, the pilot he was assigned to came down with an ear infection. This was serious enough to prevent him from getting in an airplane, and thus Newman didn’t have to either.

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So, Newman wasn’t present when the USS Bunker Hill was bombed. If he had been, chances are high that he would have been killed. A total of 346 bodies were found in the end, but plenty of other soldiers were simply missing. The Bunker Hill had been hit harder than any other boat subjected to a suicide strike.

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Some people survived to tell their stories of that day. One of them was Stanley Abele, who in 2018 told Risen Magazine, “The smoke is what killed most of the people… Finally, it got so bad that the airplanes close to us were beginning to burn and they were loaded with ammo, bombs, and rockets so they were going to explode soon… We decided to jump, so we all jumped overboard 80 feet down to the water.”

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The story is a good illustration of the horrors of war, and perhaps Newman thought so, too. Although he didn’t speak often about his wartime experiences after becoming an actor, he did add his voice to the ones protesting against the Vietnam War. In fact, he campaigned against it so much that he was put on President Richard Nixon’s list of enemies.

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Newman was a big movie star by that point. He’d been in films including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, Hombre and Cool Hand Luke. And his status as a leading man had given him a huge fanbase – a whole group of people who would listen to him. He decided to use that power to protest.

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A televised speech which Newman made in November 1969 seems to sum up his views on war. During the speech he declared, “To the great majority of Americans [the Vietnam War] has created no pain. I mean, it is business as usual and we go about our lives and there is no pain in our lives. And I don’t know what war is all about if it isn’t to create pain.”

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When Newman passed away from lung cancer in 2008 he left behind a long legacy of charitable works, activism and philanthropy. The profits from his Newman’s Own food line didn’t go to him, but to charity, thus putting millions into good causes. To this day, the Newman’s Own company continues to do this.

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Newman also managed to turn a personal tragedy into a force for good. Scott, his son from his first marriage, passed away of an accidental overdose in 1978. Therefore, a devastated Newman set up the Scott Newman Foundation in order to raise awareness of substance abuse issues and help those in need.

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Then, there was the Hole in the Wall camp, which Newman started in 1988. Initially, it was a campsite with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid old west flavor, where disabled and ill children could go and have fun. This project grew bigger and bigger and today it has hospital outreach initiatives.

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And in the course of his philanthropy Newman also happened to befriend a Vietnam veteran named Bob Forrester. This man, in fact, eventually became President of the Newman’s Own Foundation. In 2018 – not long after the foundation announced some new large grants for veterans’ charities – Forrester spoke to Fox News about Newman, his war service and how he perceived luck.

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Forrester said, “[Newman] didn’t talk about [World War II] much. People who’ve been in combat don’t talk about things like that so much. But it had a profound impact on him. He just knew he was lucky. He had a huge respect for the men and women of our military. He believed in the concept of luck.”

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Forrester went on to elaborate on this idea. As he put it, “Here you have a young man who volunteers to go to war to help preserve the United States and its opportunities. At the same time, he thinks he’s going to be a pilot but has the bad luck of not being a pilot because of his blue eyes, or his color blindness.”

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Of course, Forrester said, in the end Newman’s eyes “also happened to be one of the things that got him such good movie roles. Aside from being a great actor, of course.” He finished, “It was his experience out there that made him realize the difference between people was circumstance.”

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Indeed, Newman didn’t discuss his wartime record much. When talking to Rolling Stone in 1973, he said only of it, “I served three years as a radioman-gunner. The combat situation was…well, we got a few submarine patrols and so forth when we were flying torpedo planes out of Okinawa and Guam.”

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But in that same interview the legendary actor also mused, “It’s so funny to trace these things. It always seems to me that most things are accidental. There’s so much accident in getting places. You know – being in the right place at the right time, falling into a certain kind of vacuum. It’s all an incredible sham.”

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