Navy Muster Rolls Reveal WWII Service of Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Jason Robards, Ernest Borgnine

1 April 2014

jason robards high schoolWhen World War II took center stage, the stars came out to support the U.S. Navy.

With an eye to the worsening situation in Europe, the U.S. authorized expansion to a two-ocean Navy in July 1940. Rapid and massive increases in ships and personnel followed. The Navy’s ranks totaled 126,418 in September 1939. By the time World War II came to an end, that number would reach 3.4 million.

Muster rolls and reports of changes were prepared to help track and report on a unit’s personnel. Now, you can use these Navy documents to follow an ancestor through their years of military service. They include plenty of luminaries who served their country on the high seas during the Second World War.


Henry Fonda: Being Mister Roberts

Henry Fonda joined the Navy in 1942 at age 37, saying he didn’t “want to be in a fake war in a studio.” He began his service aboard the destroyer USS Satterlee, with muster rolls indicating he was assigned to the ship at her commissioning.


fonda satterlee commission


Fonda’s service won him the Bronze Star and prepared him for future roles as Admiral Nimitz in the movie Midway and the iconic Mister Roberts, where he wore his own military cap for the Broadway production.


Paul Newman: Dangerous Waters

Paul Newman enlisted in the Navy in 1943 after graduating high school. By 1945 he was serving with his torpedo squadron on the aircraft carrier Hollandia, which was “sailing from a port outside the continental U.S. to dangerous waters.” Newman later took advantage of the GI Bill to attend Kenyon College.


hollandia newman


Jason Robards: Sink and Swim

Stage and screen star Jason Robards enlisted in September 1940, before either the war or his acting career had begun. He was serving aboard the USS Northampton when it was torpedoed and sunk in November 1942 at the Battle of Tassafaronga.


robards northampton shortly before it was sunk


Robards survived by treading water until he was picked up. Later he appears aboard the Nashville, where, as the story goes, he found a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude and began to consider a career as an actor.


Ernest Borgnine: The Call of Duty

Ernest Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Connecticut in 1917. In 1935, Ermes joined the Navy and in 1936 was serving aboard the U.S.S. Lamberton, where he continued until October 1941, when he appears on the list of changes for the crew. Discharged in October, Borgnine re-entered the service following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in March of 1942 he reappears on Navy muster rolls, this time aboard the Sylph.


borgnine sylph


But that was barely the beginning of the story for Borgnine. When he returned from the war discharged from the Navy, it was time to get a job. His mother said, essentially, you like to clown around in front of people. Why don’t you go be an actor? And at 30 years old, with 10 years in the Navy and a war under his belt, and no prior experience or inclination, he went ahead and did just that.

These are only a handful of actors who went on to awards and acclaim after their service. But they had already played their most important roles on the largest stage the world had ever seen.