Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of May 28-June 3

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Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of May 28-June 3

A 15th century miniature depicting Joan of Arc, artist unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

This Week in Military History

May 30, 1431 – Joan of Arc, amateur military leader, burned at the stake, age 19

Joan of Arc was born January 6, 1412, in Domrémy, a small town in eastern France. Her family owned about 50 acres of land, and her father was a minor town official, serving as tax collector and commander of the town watch. Joan was illiterate, and had her first visions at the age of 13.

The Hundred Year's War between France and England was still going strong, but was going in favor of the English and their Burgundian allies. In 1428, 16 year-old Joan wrangled an escort to see Charles VII, the as-yet uncrowned French monarch. The simple peasant girl impress the Dauphin (Charles' actual title as the heir to the throne of France). After closely questioning the ardent teenager, the Dauphin agreed to allow her to accompany a French army seeking to break the English siege of the city of Orléans.

When Orléans was relieved and the English driven off, Joan received much acclaim. [Modern historians are still divided on the true extent of Joan's contribution to the military action. Surely, she gave the French soldiers a much-needed morale boost at the very least.] Joan urged the French commanders to attack through English-held territory in northeastern France and capture the city of Reims, the traditional location of the coronation of French kings since AD 816. The move was at first opposed by the military experts, but Joan convinced Charles it was necessary. On July 16, 1429, the city of Reims opened its gates to the French army, and Charles was officially crowned as Charles VII the next day.

After the coronation ceremony, Joan had little to keep her busy. However, in May of 1430, a French army marched to the city of Compiegne to lift an English-Burgundian siege. She was captured during a nighttime attack by Burgundian soldiers. She was quickly transferred to English jurisdiction, and eventually imprisoned in the city of Rouen.

Her heresy trial opened in January, 1431. It was a travesty to secular or ecclesiastical justice. The court was stacked with clerics that opposed her, and many secular and ecclesiastical rules were violated. However, the inquisitors were astounded by Joan's understanding of canon law. She was finally entrapped into wearing men's clothing (a very important consideration at that time) and she was convicted. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Her remains were burned two more times to insure that no relics could be collected, and the ashes were thrown into the Seine River.

Between 1454 and 1456, a re-trial was authorized by Pope Callixtus III. After examining the records and interrogating dozens of witnesses, the verdict of Joan's original trial was reversed. She was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1909, and canonized in 1920.

Cropped screenshot from trailer for Cleopatra (1963); Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Cropped screenshot from trailer for Cleopatra (1963);
Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

June 2, 1990 – Sir Reginald "Rex" Harrison – RAF veteran, actor; age 82

Reginald Harrison was born in March of 1908 in Lancashire, UK. As a result of a childhood bout of measles, he lost most of the sight in his left eye (which caused him some problems in his stage career). Harrison first appeared on stage in 1924, and would tread the floorboards in London and New York City for the rest of his life.

His stage career was interrupted by the Second World War. He served in the Royal Air Force, reaching the rank of flight lieutenant. Harrison had already made a number of film appearances before the war, and he made a number of fairly well-received performances in the mid- to late 1940s. Two which come to my mind are Anna and the King of Siam (1946) as the King of Siam; and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) in which he played the irascible, disembodied spirit of sea captain Daniel Gregg. [These two films were redone as the Broadway musical and later feature film "The King and I "and a late 1960s TV sitcom "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" respectively.]

In the 1960s, Harrison performed in four films that surely defined his career, and showed he could to justice to any role. These films – and Harrison's roles – were:

  • 1963 – Cleopatra, with Harrison portraying Roman general and politician Julius Caesar with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, and Richard Burton as Mark Antony;
  • 1964 – My Fair Lady, where he played the domineering voice teach Professor Henry Higgins as the he sought to turn Audrey Hepburn's flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady;
  • 1965 – The Agony and the Ecstasy, with Harrison cast as Pope Julius II opposite Charlton Heston as Michelangelo; and,
  • 1967 – Doctor Dolittle, with Harrison portraying the lead character who "could talk to the animals."

Harrison made his last film in 1979, and devoted the rest of his life to the stage. He was diagnosed in early 1990 with pancreatic cancer, and he died May 30, 1990. Two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are dedicated to him, one for movies and the other to TV.

James Arness as Matt Dillon, in Gunsmoke; Photograph taken in 1956, photographer unknown
James Arness as Matt Dillon, in Gunsmoke
Photograph taken in 1956, photographer unknown

June 3, 2011 – James Arness, 2nd World War veteran, actor; age 88

He was born James K. Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis MN. When he began his acting career he dropped the "r" from his name to become James Arness.

After graduating from high school in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a member of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, Arness participated in the invasion of Anzio, Italy in 1944. As the tallest man in his unit (Arness was 6 feet, 7 inches tall), he was the first man ordered out of the landing craft to test the depth of the water; it came up to his waist. During the course of the operation, Arness sustained severe wounds to his right leg.

He was sent home to recover from his wounds, and was honorably discharged in January of 1945. [For his service in the U.S. Army, Corporal Arness received a Bronze Star, a Purple Hear, and a Combat Infantryman Badge.]

After his discharge from the service, Arness entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. He began his entertainment career as a radio announcer at Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945. Shortly afterwards, he hitchhiked to California to enter the film industry. Despite the fact he has been known for his work in Westerns, Arness appeared in two sci-fi films: The Thing From Another World (1951) as The Thing menacing research scientist at an Arctic base; and Them! (1954) where he portrayed an FBI agent seeking to find giant irradiated ants.

In 1955 Arness was cast in the role that would make him famous, as Dodge City marshal Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke." He would appear in all 635 episodes (both ½ hour and full hour) from 1955 through its cancellation in 1975. After the end of Gunsmoke, Arness was cast in another Western series called How the West Was Won. Though this series only consisted of 28 episodes, the show was very popular in Europe.

Proving Matt Dillon still had staying power, Arness made a total of 5 made-for-TV movies continuing the adventures from the Gunsmoke universe. The first was broadcast in 1987 (when Arness was 64), and the other four appeared in 1990, 1992, and 1993.

James Arness died in 2011 from natural causes. For his contributions to the television industry, Arness has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.