Charles Bronson Went to War
Action star fought on-screen ... and off
The late international screen icon Charles Bronson once said, “I might never have found the outside world if I hadn’t been drafted into the Army.”
Charles Dennis Bunchinsky was born in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 3, 1921, into a family of dirt-poor coal miners. “There’s nobody who had less regard for himself than I did in my youth,” Bronson said. “There’s nothing that gives a more inferior feeling than digging a hole in the ground.
“When I was a kid, I used to take long walks in the woods while other boys were playing baseball or football. Every once in a while, I’d spot a chicken that had gotten loose from its owner’s coop. I’d throw my knife at it. Then I’d chop off its head, gut the chicken, pack it in mud and cook it slowly over a fire. It really was delicious.”
At 16, he went into the family business. The young man’s time in the coal mines built up his later-to-be-famous physique, but the grueling work also left him with permanent scars on his back.
Charles was drafted into the Army in early 1943 and was assigned as a truck driver for the 760th Mess Squadron in Kingsman, Arizona. Several superiors called him a “Polack” and also ridiculed him because of his limited vocabulary and broken-English style of speech.
“You come out of a coal-mine town and you’re frightened,” Bronson recalled. “You have to even ask people how to tie your tie. I never had it so good as when I entered the Army. Men were complaining all around me. But I was eating and sleeping well, and I thought: ‘Jeez! This is great!’ For me, being drafted was like having a fairy godfather change me into a prince. Who knows where I’d be today if I hadn’t gone into the Army? I met my share of sonofabitches in the service.
“I remember back during World War II, when I was in gunnery school at Kingman, Arizona, the squadron had a party. This sergeant’s wife wanted to dance with me. Great big fat woman. Hell, I didn’t want to dance with her. Nobody’d want to dance with her. I told her no. Little later, the sergeant comes over to me and wants to know why I’ve been propositioning his wife. Apparently, she’d gone over and told him I’d been after her. I told him I hadn’t propositioned her, and I wasn’t interested in her that way or any other way.
“So he wants to fight. Fight a sergeant when I’m a private? I didn’t need that and I knew it. I backed off. He follows. I back. He comes on. I back all the way down the dance floor, until I’m against the wall and I can’t back any further. So I picked the bastard up and threw him. For some screwy reason, I thought if I didn’t hit him, I wouldn’t get in trouble. So I threw him. When he landed, he broke his arm. I got six months hard labor, carrying sides of beef into the mess hall and cans of garbage out of it.”
After the mess hall assignment, Charles served as a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber in the South Pacific. At one point he took a bullet in the shoulder, which added another scar to his already-creviced torso. His time in the cramped gun turrets (and his prior gig in the coal mines) led to periodic bouts with claustrophobia that lasted for the rest of his life.
In February 1946, Charles was honorably discharged from Camp Atterbury, Indiana. After a few years of wandering, he decided to use the G.I. Bill to study acting. Billed as “Charles Buchinsky,” he struggled to find work. “When I got out of the Army, I got a job in [a] gambling joint in Atlantic City. Then I went out to the Pasadena Playhouse, where I tried to study speech just to improve my diction. It was rough. I was afraid that too much speech instruction would hurt me. Precise English and my kind of looks don’t go together.”
Five years after leaving the Army, the 29-year-old actor got his first movie role: a bit part as a belching, brawling Polish-American sailor in the naval comedy USS Teakettle (1951) with Gary Cooper. Later, using the new surname “Bronson,” he had major roles in a half-dozen other military-themed films. (His character survives in all but one.)
Bronson played a tank sergeant in the Korean War-set Target Zero (1955); then a machine-gun-toting private who thwarts the assassination of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in When Hell Broke Loose (1958); and a Native American sergeant in World War II Burma in Never So Few (1959). He had one of his best-remembered roles as a tunnel-digging, claustrophobic POW in the reality-based classic The Great Escape (1963).
Bronson played an irritable major in the lackluster, historically-inaccurate Battle of the Bulge (1965). His final armed-service screen role was as one of The Dirty Dozen (1967), where he played a convicted murderer/ex-soldier who gets sent on a D-Day suicide mission against the Nazis.
The latter movie was released at the height of the anti-Vietnam peace movement. Despite the onscreen brutality and military glorification, The Dirty Dozen became one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade.
You can find more information on Charles Bronson’s later life and films in my books Bronson’s Loose!: The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films and the all-new Bronson’s Loose Again!: On the Set With Charles Bronson.