Clint Eastwood: From Navy to one of the greatest American actors

Clint Eastwood as Marine Sgt. Highway in movie Heartbreak Ridge in 1986
Clint Eastwood in the Hollywood blockbuster Heartbreak Ridge in 1986 (Photo: XY)

The Hollywood star Clint Eastwood once upon a time was a soldier. Long before he dared anyone to make his day as famous Dirty Harry, he served as a swimming instructor at Fort Ord (Ft. Ord) in California. As fate (and luck) would have it, his swimming skills would come in beneficial.

One time when he was hitching a ride aboard a Navy torpedo bomber Douglas AD-1Q, the plane developed engine trouble and was forced to ditch into the Pacific Ocean off the Point Reyes Peninsula near San Francisco Bay. Clint Eastwood and the pilot swam 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) through the tide to shore to safety, implying his own character’s watery trials in “Escape from Alcatraz. His military career set the future course of his life and taught him to be disciplined and persistent. It was a lifetime experience that must have surely given Eastwood an insight into warfare that would influence the war films in which he would later star and direct.

He is also one of the rare famous Hollywood actors that actually survived a plane crash.

Early life

Born Clinton Eastwood, Jr. in San Francisco on May 31, 1930. He was born in a family of Ruth and Clint Eastwood as the older of two children. The family traveled a lot across Northern California during the Great Depression. In the meantime, Clint Jr. took up competitive swimming and basketball during high school. After graduation, he worked as a lumberjack and forest fighter in Oregon, and a steelworker in Seattle. In Seattle, his life got a new direction after he tried to enroll at Seattle University in 1951 but instead was drafted into the United States Army.

A photo from Clint Eastwood's childhood
A photo from Clint Eastwood’s childhood (Photo: XY)

Military Service

These were the early days of the Korean War and Clint Eastwood was sent to Ft. Ord in California for basic training. He lucked into a job as a swimming instructor and remained at Ft. Ord. He worked nights and weekends as a bouncer at the NCO club.

“I was drafted during the Korean War. None of us wanted to go… It was only a couple of years after World War II had ended. We said, ‘Wait a second? Didn’t we just get through with that?’”

During his military service, Clint Eastwood became friends with future successful TV actors Richard Long, Martin Milner, and David Janssen. Despite his career wasn’t so active like he had acted in some movies, Clint remains as one of the greatest American actors and producers of all time.

Clint Eastwood military service
Clint Eastwood during his military career (Photo: Military Service)

After his discharge in 1953, Eastwood attended L.A. City College and studied drama under the GI Bill. From humble origins in the movie business (he started on a $75-a-week contract with Universal Studios), he eventually found international fame in “spaghetti” westerns, the Dirty Harry series, and as an Oscar-winning director.

Sergeant Highway in Heartbreak Ridge

In 1986, he featured Marine Sgt. Thomas Highway. Sgt. Highway is a decorated veteran of two wars. On his last posting before retirement, he is surrounded by officers with no combat experience who view him as an odd, even dangerous, holdover. Sgt. Highway is assigned to train a group of undisciplined recruits including Cpl. Stitch Jones, a slick hustler who has previously encountered Highway. As the old soldier prepares his men for a war they don’t believe will come, the U.S. invades Grenada.

Clint Eastwood’s character is a fictional veteran of the battle at Heartbreak Ridge (as is one other character), for which he received the Medal of Honor. The movie itself is a fictional account of events that took place during actual operations in Grenada.

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