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Hollywood Movie Legend George O’Brien Left Everything to Serve His Country in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 26, 2024 3:02 am

Hollywood Movie Legend George O’Brien Left Everything to Serve His Country in WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 26, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is Roger McGrath.

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They're some of our favorites. Here to tell another Hollywood Goes to War story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. He's a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries, and he's a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. He was born in Hollywood, which may be why he is forgotten today by a different Hollywood and a different America. George J. O'Brien comes into the world in April 1899 in San Francisco. His father is Daniel J. O'Brien, and his mother, the former Margaret Donohue, both born into Irish immigrant families. In 1902, Margaret gives birth to a second son, Daniel J. O'Brien, Jr., who is almost immediately called Jack.

George and Jack will be the best of buddies. George is one day shy of his seventh birthday, when early on the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake strikes, an earthquake unlike anything San Franciscans have ever experienced. George and Jack are hurled out of bed and land on the floor 15 feet away. Their mother looks out the window of their two-story brownstone house and exclaims, The street has burst open.

People are running from their houses. The rumbling and quaking continues for some time, and then there is an eerie silence. By then the O'Briens are in the street and their house is crumbling. With a low rumble, the quaking begins again. Suddenly Margaret thinks of what she left behind in the house and says, My wedding ring!

My marriage certificate! Oh, Dan! The brownstone is swaying and heaving, but Dan O'Brien goes back into the house and retrieves the precious items. George later describes his father as extraordinarily calm but stern throughout the earthquake and the fire that follows. George is shocked by what he sees in the streets.

Dying people half buried in rubble and pleading for help, familiar landmarks obliterated, corpses in grotesque positions, gas lines exploding in balls of fire. San Francisco gradually recovers from the great quake and fire of 1906, and so too does the O'Brien family. Dan becomes a policeman, first working as a patrolman at nights and then rapidly rising through the ranks, become chief of the San Francisco Police Department in 1920. It was my luck to have a wonderful father, says George. He knew how to manage a boy. He showed me what was what and then gave me my head with full liberty to make an ass of myself if I felt like it. His life and standards gave me plenty to live up to.

My father weighed 220 pounds and was six feet tall. He had been an amateur boxer in his younger days when the West Coast was a rough and ready place. By the time George arrives at San Francisco's Polytechnic High, his physical prowess is already well known. He becomes the star receiver on the football team and an all state guard in basketball. He also litters in track and swimming in spare time.

He learns to ride rope and bulldog on a family friend's ranch near Las Vegas. Many a college, especially Santa Clara University, want George in pads on the gridiron. But with the United States in World War One, George goes to a recruiting office to join the Marines after graduation from high school. The recruiter tells him the quota for the Marine Corps is full at the moment and he will have to wait. More impulsive than patient, George goes to the Navy recruiter in an adjoining office and is duly sworn in. George excels in training and later in his service aboard the submarine chaser SC-397. He earns several different ratings in the Navy Commendation Medal. While stationed at San Diego after the war ends, he boxes his way through a series of bouts to become heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet.

He's mustered out of service at the end of August 1919. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Screen Star. And this is back when stars were really big during the silent screen era in American film. Iron Horse, John Ford's silent classic. Well, he was the star in many, many more John Ford movies.

Only John Wayne could make the claim that George O'Brien did. Born in 1899, lived through the San Francisco earthquake. And what a thing as a seven year old to witness and get through a star athlete. And when the Marines say no, during World War One, he joins the Navy instead. And as he leaves, he's also the heavyweight champ of the Pacific Fleet. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, George O'Brien's story, part of our Hollywood Goes to War series here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

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See Amazon.com slash Amazon Prime for details. And we continue with our American stories and the story of actor George O'Brien, a part of our Hollywood Goes to War series. Let's return to Roger McGrath. Less than a month later, he's playing football for Santa Clara, a school founded by Jesuits in 1851, making it California's oldest institution of higher learning. At six feet and a very muscular 190 pounds, O'Brien looks as if Fideas has sculpted him out of marble. While he excels in football, his classroom work languishes. In high school, he had done so well in chemistry and biology that his father thought George might one day pursue a career in medicine.

However, George now can't get himself motivated to study. Then at a rodeo, he meets Tom Mix, Hollywood's cowboy star. Mix asks him what he does, and when he replies, he's a student. Mix asks a student of what? Oh, I play football for Santa Clara, says O'Brien, but I want to be a doctor.

I'm taking a pre-medical course. I've got a long way to go, maybe eight years. And then I don't know. Mix knows O'Brien served in the Navy and tells him if he ever decides to leave school and go to work, he should come to Hollywood and look him up. At the end of his first year at Santa Clara, George says goodbye to his Jesuit professors and heads to Hollywood. When he arrives, he learns Mix is on location in Oklahoma, but George finds work as an assistant cameraman at fifteen dollars a week. Assistant means doing every grunt job imaginable, but he's excited to be part of making movies and he's learning a trade. He lives at the Hollywood YMCA, sharing an eleven dollar a month room with another assistant cameraman. He also gets additional work as a stuntman and as an extra.

However, after two years of this, he grows discouraged and heads back home to San Francisco, where his father is the toast of the town. As chief of police, Dan O'Brien implements several innovative programs that not only win widespread praise, but also greatly improve the department and policing in the city by the bay. George O'Brien is a natural for the SFPD, but he decides instead to go to sea while waiting on a wharf before boarding a ship bound for Hawaii. He bumps into Hobart Bosworth, an actor, director and producer. He knows why the seafaring get up. George has Bosworth working on a picture, replies O'Brien.

I'm shipping for Honolulu. Hobart understands by O'Brien's dejected tone the young man has given up on Hollywood. Motioning to a fight scene, he's shooting for a tale of the ice seas.

Hobart tells George, get in there and show those birds how to fight. O'Brien does and then works on the movie until it's completed three weeks later and is given a second small part in Bosworth's next movie. More movies and big parts follow.

O'Brien is earning $25 a day and is now known as an actor. His handsome visage, physique and athletic prowess get him an audition for the lead in Ben Hur. For a time, it looks as if he might get the part. His high hopes are dashed when the studio decides it needs a big name actor.

O'Brien is so disappointed. He thinks of returning to San Francisco and joining the police department. He stays in Hollywood, though, and works regularly in small roles, usually as a sailor or a cowboy. In 1924, John Ford is hired by Fox Studios to make a Western epic to top all others, a story about the building of the transcontinental railroad titled The Iron Horse. Dozens audition for the lead role of Davey Brandon, but Ford remains unsatisfied. Fox finally sends O'Brien over for an audition. Ford rigorously tests O'Brien in several scenes and is happy with what he sees, especially a fight scene that has O'Brien vaulting onto a horse after pummeling an enemy. O'Brien's vault is as good as any stuntman's, but when he hits the saddle, the cinch breaks and O'Brien hits the ground hard.

Nonetheless, he immediately springs to his feet and is ready for action. Ford is sold. The Iron Horse is both a critical and commercial success, and George O'Brien is suddenly a star. He and John Ford become fast friends. They have a lot in common. They're both Irish Catholics, former star football players, lovers of the sea, and American patriots.

There are important differences, too. Ford smokes and drinks, often to excess, and experiences periods of alcoholic depression and rage. O'Brien is a physical fitness buff who shuns drinking and smoking, and because he's on screen, thinks it important to set a good example for the youth of America. George O'Brien's great success with John Ford in The Iron Horse means top directors now demand O'Brien for leading roles. From 1924 through 1928, he stars in 24 movies, and in addition to John Ford, works with such directors as Emmett Flynn, Jack Conway, Howard Hawks, Frederic Murnau, Alan Dwan, and Michael Curtiz.

By 1928 and 1929, the studios are abandoning silence for talkies after the success of The Jazz Singer late in 1927. Some stars don't have the voice to make the transition, but George O'Brien has a voice rich in timbre and resonance, and makes the transition easily. His first all-sound movie is Salute, a tribute to West Point and Annapolis, and the football rivalry between the academies. Directed by John Ford, O'Brien plays West Point's star halfback. The movie is mostly forgettable, but it does have scenes with a couple of football players from the University of Southern California, John Wayne and Ward Bond. From 1929 through 1940, O'Brien stars in nearly 50 films, mostly westerns.

When he isn't a cowboy, he's a cop, or a soldier, or a sailor. He becomes a husband in real life in 1933, when he marries Marguerite Churchill. A year later, they have their first child, Brian, but he dies 10 days after birth. A daughter, Oren, is born in 1935. She will become an accomplished musician and a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1966.

A second son, Darcy, is born in 1939. He will become an English professor and a prize-winning novelist. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of George O'Brien. He went to Santa Clara after his time in the Navy, spent a year playing football, and realized pretty soon that being pre-med and being a doctor, these were someone else's dreams, not his. And he goes to Hollywood.

He picks up every job he could and lives in a YMCA with a buddy. And then comes his big break, a couple of small pictures, but then working with the then-not-so-great-but-soon-to-be-great John Ford in what would turn out to be a classic and a big hit, The Iron Horse. And this is still back when movies had no words.

This was silent screen time, and the stars were big. When we come back, more of the story of George O'Brien and more of our Hollywood Goes to War series with Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. He's a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries, and he's a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

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Let's pick up where we last left off with Roger McGrath. Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God. When the Japanese launch their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, George O'Brien is 41 years old and the married father of two children. He's also starring in movies, including a dozen in the three years leading up to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, O'Brien has already served the country in World War I.

So what does he do? Ten days after the Japanese sneak attack, George O'Brien goes back into the Navy. O'Brien is commissioned lieutenant and is assigned to the San Diego Naval Base to improve physical training for recruits. Lieutenant O'Brien implements programs in boxing, weight training, and hand-to-hand combat techniques, which he partly borrows from similar programs his father developed for the San Francisco Police Department.

After his training regimens are fully implemented and producing excellent results, Lieutenant O'Brien requests a combat assignment. He's trained as a beach master. A beach master is the officer responsible for landing craft getting to the beach in a coordinated pattern to the right location and on time. Because of all the things that can go wrong at each step of an amphibious operation, the task of a beach master is very difficult.

Moreover, a beach master is in the thick of the action, exposed to enemy rifle, machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire. Lieutenant O'Brien sees his first action in the Aleutian Islands in the Battle of Attu during May 1943. A Japanese force of 3,000 men had been occupying Attu Island since invading the island against no opposition in June 1942. There were only 40 Aleut Indians on the island at the time, and the Japanese took them prisoner. The Aleuts were shipped off to Japan, and half of them died in captivity. Considering the wet, windy, and frigid weather and heavy Japanese fire, the landings on Attu go fairly well, but they are not without casualties. O'Brien himself is wounded and also comes down with pneumonia.

It will be many weeks before he is fit for duty again. While he's recovering, he learns that Chester Bennett, who directed one of O'Brien's movies, was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. For eating the Chinese in their resistance, the Japanese tortured Bennett and then sliced off his head with a sword. George O'Brien, now a lieutenant commander, is back in action as a beach master in the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands during June 1944. The initial landings of the Marines are met by fierce Japanese resistance, which includes highly accurate artillery fire. Dozens of landing craft are hit and explode in balls of flame before they reach the beach.

O'Brien is in the thick of the action, but this time he comes through the campaign without a scratch. O'Brien's next landing is at Leyte Island in the Philippines in October 1944. Resistance is relatively light, and American forces land with few casualties.

By the afternoon, the Americans have established a beachhead one mile deep and five miles wide. This enables General Douglas MacArthur to wade ashore from the landing craft and declare, People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil. The next day, though, come a series of Japanese air raids that make shuttling troops and supplies back and forth from the beaches at Leyte a death-defying task. O'Brien is fortunate to come through unscathed. Promoted to commander, the naval rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel, George O'Brien becomes one of the many thousands of Americans preparing to invade the Japanese home islands.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, though, caused Japan to surrender, and a monumental bloodbath is avoided. O'Brien is with the American fleet when it sails into Tokyo Bay. After a war, O'Brien is reduced to character roles, but those include plain cavalry officers and two of John Ford's greatest westerns, Fort Apache in 1946, and she wore a yellow ribbon in 1949. I was slowly but surely rebuilding my second career in films when the trouble in Korea started, said O'Brien. Maybe it was my inner sense of loyalty, but whatever it was forced me to again abort my career in films and resume the life of an officer in the Navy. O'Brien serves in a naval intelligence unit during Korea and then later in the 1950s as a naval attache to NATO. He also helps make several films for the government, including two that have significant relevance for today.

Korea, Battleground for Liberty, and Taiwan, Island of Freedom. George O'Brien retires from the Navy in 1960 at the rank of captain. At age 65, O'Brien appears in his final movie, the John Ford-directed Cheyenne Autumn in 1964. O'Brien again plays the role of a cavalry officer.

O'Brien lives for another 21 years and dies at age 86 in 1985. The Hollywood motion picture star, who appeared in 85 movies, is buried at sea by the U.S. Navy in a formal ceremony off San Diego as Captain George O'Brien, decorated veteran of World War I, World War II, and Korea. And a terrific job on the production by Greg, and a special thanks to Roger McGrath, as always, for sharing the story of those Hollywood stars who served our country in war, and this time George O'Brien's story. And my goodness, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, and his service in World War II, possibly the toughest combat zones. And my goodness, where he starts is tough enough, the Aleutians. First, then the Mariana Islands, and then Leyte Island, easily the high point of his life, failing into Tokyo Bay.

No acting gig could have touched that. And of course, the call of duty comes again as he's resurrecting his acting career one more time, this time with a naval intelligence unit serving his country once again in the Korean War. The story of George O'Brien, a remarkable story of public service and heroism, here on Our American Stories. All in one place, from simple settings anyone can understand, automatic updates with the latest features, and much more, Roku TV is more than a smart TV, it's a better TV. Learn more today at Roku.com. Happy streaming.

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