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Published April 09. 2014 05:01PM

Most Americans know Mickey Rooney as the Hollywood legend who entertained people for nine decades.

Fewer may know him as a member of the Greatest Generation who used his talents to support servicemen without bringing attention to himself. In World War II, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for entertaining troops in combat zones.

Rooney made sure we never forgot the risks and sacrifices of all veterans, including the Vietnam soldiers who were not welcomed home as they should have been. Rooney appeared in war-themed movies watched by many of the soldiers overseas.

"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", the 1969 song performed by The Hollies, tells of a soldier carrying his wounded and/or dying buddy. The inspiration for that song title came from Mickey Rooney's performance in the 1939 film, "Boys Town."

After being called up for service following Pearl Harbor, Rooney was turned down and classified 4-f due to high blood pressure. Though disappointed, he spent the next two years entertaining the troops with the USO, doing bond drives and shows for Armed Forces Radio.

In 1944, Rooney tried to re-enlist and was accepted. At the time he was in the midst of filming "National Velvet" with child star Elizabeth Taylor. Rooney had only one month before reporting for active duty with the army so Hollywood director Louis B. Mayer shot all of Rooney's scenes first.

After Rooney reported for training at Fort Riley, Kan., one soldier in his group stated that the only reason Rooney won promotion to squad leader was because of his celebrity status. In a bare knuckle fight in front of the squad, the 5-feet-2-inch Rooney bested his antagonist. From that time, no one challenged the "little giant."

Just before starting training in chemical warfare, Rooney was reassigned to a Special Services unit formed from musicians, entertainers, comedians and actors who were to provide entertainment strictly for the men on the front lines. They received no special treatment and just like other soldiers, carried a gun, ate c-rations, and went without showers or shaving for long periods.

Rooney gave his first "jeep show" three miles from the front lines and in-between two Sherman tanks in a Belgium snowstorm. Another time, he and his two companions had to flee for their lives before an enemy bombardment. After getting lost in a snowstorm, their jeep confronted a German tank. Fortunately, they were able to speed off before the tank zeroed in.

Despite the ever-present danger of life on the front lines, Rooney did not mind. He realized he was a soldier first.

By Jim Zbick

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