Early in June, James Arness died. Everyone thinks of him as Matt Dillon, the brave and incorruptible town marshal of Dodge City in the television series Gunsmoke. I think of him as the father of one of my childhood friends and as one of the last actors in Hollywood to have fought in World War II. Although renewed interest in World War II during the last several years has made some aware of Arness’s service, few knew of it while he starred on Gunsmoke—or of the severity of the wound he had suffered. Once there were many in Hollywood who were decorated veterans of the war. They stand in stark contrast to more than a few of the stars today, who can make only contrived attempts to imitate men.
Jim Arness was born and reared in Minnesota. His obituaries say he was Norwegian, but that’s only a quarter of the story. His father was half Norwegian and half German, and his mother was purely German. Arness said he had a wonderful childhood in the Minnesota of the 1920’s and 30’s, and especially enjoyed hunting, fishing, and sailing. Most of his summers were spent at Ox Lake, where his family rented a cabin on an island in the middle of that pristine body of water some 60 miles west of Duluth. He was the designated woodchopper for the family. The exercise and the fresh air must have done him good. By the time he was 14 he stood more than 6’6″ and had a tremendous bone structure. I can tell you that shaking hands with him was like getting your hand caught in the jaws of a giant pair of Vise-Grips.
In high school, when a good buddy moved to Fargo, North Dakota, Arness hopped a freight train to visit him. This was beginning of many adventures riding the rails. Arness would skip school and climb into a boxcar just to see how far he could get. When he and a couple of friends found themselves stranded one winter night 400 miles from home, they called their parents. The mothers thought they should wire the boys money for a bus ride back home. The fathers answered with an adamant no, saying the boys got themselves there without any help, and they could darn well use their own ingenuity to get themselves back. A different America. Other adventures included sailing the Caribbean on a freighter and working in a lumber camp in Idaho.
Despite a less than sparkling academic performance in high school and little interest in higher education, at his mother’s urging Arness applied to college. He was accepted at Beloit in Wisconsin for the fall semester 1942, probably because so many other boys had left to join the service. Arness thought that if he could complete two years of college he would become eligible for the naval flight program. However, his dreams were dashed when he learned he exceeded the height limit by nearly five inches. He lost whatever little interest he had in studying and wrote his draft board in Minneapolis requesting induction. By the end of March 1943 he was in the Army.
He sailed through basic training, describing himself as “lean and mean, nothing but bone, muscle and sinew. Not an ounce of fat on me, and . . . I could knock off one of those 20-mile hikes like it was nothing.” A few months later he was landing in Morocco, then Italy, but as yet not facing the enemy. That was about to change, although Arness and everyone else thought it would occur when they hit the beach at Anzio on January 22, 1944. As the landing craft churned their way toward shore, a sergeant gave him an extra load to carry, a burlap sack with TNT charges, and said, “You’ll go first down the ramp on the beach. That way we can check the water depth. If you go under, we know we have to move closer to shore. Good luck!”
Arness went into waist-high water and waded ashore. Other troops followed until 15,000 of them were standing on the beach, stunned that not a shot had been fired. When American forces moved inland, though, the fighting began. Day after day, in firefight after firefight, bullets and shrapnel wounded or killed those around him, splattering him with their flesh and blood, but he emerged without a scratch. This charmed existence ended at night in a vineyard, when a round from a German machine gun shattered the bones in Arness’s lower leg. He fell to the ground in excruciating pain. It was some time before a medic could reach him and still more time before litter bearers arrived and started carrying him to safety. While negotiating their way along a ridge line in the darkness, one of the litter bearers slipped, and Arness tumbled off the stretcher and down an embankment. Miraculously, he wasn’t injured beyond the wound he had already sustained, and, full of morphine, he said he was feeling no pain. He would spend nearly a year in hospitals and almost lose his leg until a new drug, penicillin, stopped an infection. He was discharged with a disability pension and a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Just before he died he said, “I was honored to have served in the Army for my country.”