Of our 20th-century wars World War II stands alone. In a sneak attack early on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Japanese naval forces bombed Pearl Harbor. As reports were broadcast throughout the day American shock turned to anger. The following day Congress, with but one dissenting vote—pacifist Jeannette Rankin—declared war on Japan. We were a nation united. We were also a nation that still believed in itself, knew its history, and honored its heroes. Perhaps we should not find it surprising that Hollywood got behind the war effort and actors got into the war. William Lundigan was one of these.
The grandson of Irish immigrants, William Lundigan was born to Michael Francis and Martha Elizabeth (née O’Brien) Lundigan in Syracuse, New York, in 1914. By the time little Bill came into the world, his father was a highly successful proprietor of a shoe store. Bill excelled in school and from a young age also worked part-time in his father’s store. Three younger brothers would follow a similar path.
Bill Lundigan attended Nottingham High School in Syracuse and starred in several sports, including football. He also began acting in plays on the local radio station, WFBL. He already had a voice rich in timbre and resonance and had a mellifluous delivery. While in college at Syracuse University and majoring in pre-law, he became a radio announcer for WFBL. Somehow, he found time to star on the football and basketball teams.
After graduating, he thought first of becoming a lawyer, but Charles Rogers, the production chief for Universal Studios, was visiting in Syracuse when he heard Lundigan on the radio. Rogers was so impressed by Lundigan’s voice that he called up WFBL and arranged for a meeting with the announcer. Rogers was prepared for disappointment because rarely did someone with a great voice have great looks to go with it. When he saw Lundigan, Rogers immediately thought screen test. Lundigan was a lean 6'2", had blond hair and blue eyes, and was movie-star handsome.
Off to Hollywood went Lundigan, and Universal soon had him under contract. His first role was as a gang member in the movie Armored Car (1937). Before 1937 was out he had appeared in five more movies. He doubled his production in 1938, appearing in a dozen movies. Lundigan moved from bit parts in 1937 to supporting and starring roles in 1938, among the latter State Police, The Missing Guest, and Freshman Year. His appearances declined to six movies in 1939, but they included starring roles in Three Smart Girls Grow Up, They Asked For It, and The Forgotten Woman. In supporting roles he got to work with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, George Brent, and Richard Arlen.
Bill Lundigan was now one of Hollywood’s most regularly featured actors, either as a leading man or in a supporting role. One of the reasons he worked so much was because he could transition easily from one to the other. Unlike many in Hollywood, his ego was not inflated. He also remained close to his family, and when his father decided to sell his business and property in Syracuse and retire, Lundigan urged him to move to the land of perpetual summer. Soon Lundigan’s mother and father and three younger brothers were in a house in Hollywood. Lundigan lived a few miles to the west in Beverly Hills.
Nineteen-forty saw Lundigan in eight movies, including such classics as The Sea Hawk, Santa Fe Trail, and The Fighting 69th. His six movies in 1941 were followed by another six in 1942, including two of the Andy Hardy series. By this time Lundigan was under contract to MGM, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer was elated that Lundigan was draft exempt because of an injury from football in college. After appearing in Salute to the Marines (1943), though, Lundigan told Mayer he was headed for the recruiting office. Mayer was furious and told Lundigan he’d never work again in Hollywood. On May 29, 1943, William Lundigan enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
When Lundigan went to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, he was 29 years old. He was also a college graduate. He could have been an officer and secured a comfortable billet in public affairs. He wanted none of that. He would remain in the enlisted ranks and plead for a combat role. The Corps did convince him, though, that because he knew filming and camera angles and how movies were made, he should become a combat cameraman.
Lundigan would taste his first combat on Peleliu, a speck of an island in the southwest Pacific. Only six miles long and two miles wide, Peleliu is part of the Palau group, 550 miles due east of the Philippines. The Japanese began their occupation of Peleliu in 1942, building an airstrip and fortifying key points across the island. They dug tunnels to connect caves, some with steel doors, in the mountainous center of the island and planted 13,000 crack troops in them. The island was one big pillbox.
Peleliu remained out of the war until 1944. Then, during June, U.S. high command decided that Gen. Douglas MacArthur would finally return to the Philippines with a landing on Leyte Island, scheduled for October. To protect his flank it was thought that Peleliu, with its airfield, must be secured. There was less than unanimous agreement on the plan. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, for one, argued the operation was unnecessary, that Peleliu should be leapfrogged as had so many other Japanese-held islands in the Pacific.
For several days Navy ships shelled Peleliu and Naval and Marine aviators dropped bombs on the island. The airstrip, the principal reason for the operation, was destroyed. No Japanese planes would be taking off to threaten MacArthur or anyone else. The Naval admiral in command, Jesse Oldendorf, announced that the Navy had “run out of targets.” The Marines would walk ashore with only light resistance.
At 0830 on D-day, September 15, 1944, Bill Lundigan and other jarheads of the 1st Marine Division began to storm the beach, when Japanese fire suddenly roared from hundreds of concealed positions. Hit by artillery and machine guns, several landing craft exploded in balls of flame. Shrapnel and lead filled the air. The noise from explosions and gunfire was deafening. The temperature was already in the 90’s and rising. It would peak that day at something over 110 degrees. A sailor in command of one of the landing craft said, “It was the closest thing to hell I ever want to see.”
As difficult as was D-day, taking the island’s high ground, the Umurbrogol Mountains, was even worse. From D-day on, Lundigan was filming it all with his 16mm camera. He had narrow escapes daily. Casualties doubled, then tripled, again and again. By late October when the Army’s 81st Infantry Division came ashore to relieve the Marines, the 1st Marine Division had suffered 9,000 casualties. Lundigan was a long ways from exchanging lines and embraces with beautiful actresses in Hollywood.
Lundigan next went into action on D-day, April 1, 1945, when he waded ashore with the 1st Marine Division on Okinawa in what would be the Marines’ last battle in World War II. Lundigan and others couldn’t believe what they were experiencing on what was both April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday—the Japanese were nowhere to be seen or even heard. Where were the 110,000 Japanese troops intelligence officers had said were on the island?
The largest island of the Ryukyu archipelago, Okinawa is some 60 miles long and about 10 miles wide, although it narrows to 2 miles at one point and widens to 18 at another. Because of its size, the Japanese had decided to defend the island in depth. They also decided that because there was nothing left of Japan’s once-great surface fleet and the American Navy could sit off Okinawa without fear of a naval engagement, stopping an American landing was impossible.
After a week of light fighting and rapid progress, Lundigan and his fellow Marines ran into the Japanese stronghold, a series of mountain ridges at the island’s southern end. Caves, tunnels, and steep ravines made the area ideal for defense, and the Japanese had fortified it with everything they had. Okinawa became another hell on earth. Lundigan was in the thick of the fighting, cheating death on several occasions. Not until July 2—three months after arrival—was the island declared secured. By then the U.S. had lost 13,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Another 37,000 men had been wounded. Still another 27,000 were nonbattle casualties. Well more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers had been killed.
When I was growing up, I was glued to the television screen whenever an episode of the incomparable series Victory at Sea was aired. Little did I know that much of the footage of the Marines on Peleliu and Okinawa came from the camera of William Lundigan.
Lundigan was discharged from the Marine Corps in October 1945 and returned to Hollywood. He married Rena Morgan Cournyn. They would have a daughter and remain married until his death in 1975. Work did not come as quickly as marriage—the former star didn’t get a part in a movie until 1947, a supporting role in The Fabulous Dorseys. Twenty more movie roles followed, Lundigan appearing as a supporting actor in some, and a leading man in others. He became a sci-fi cult hero for playing the astronaut who flies into space to intercept a meteor in Riders to the Stars (1954). Lundigan also made dozens of guest appearances on television and played the lead, Col. Ed McCauley, in 38 episodes of CBS’s Men Into Space.
A Democrat when he first registered to vote in the mid-1930’s, Lundigan switched his registration to Republican after World War II and remained a staunch conservative—even campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964—for the rest of his life.