Tony Curtis has spent fifty years playing one of the suavest characters in Hollywood, with his dark and handsome good looks and well-coifed pompadour -- he has become known as one of the smoothest operators in film. However, Mr. Curtis has another story of his life known only to a few. Tony Curtis was actually born Bernard Schwartz, the son of Emanuel and Helen Schwartz, on June 3, 1925 in New York City. Bernard was the son of an impoverished Hungarian-born tailor, and was a member of an infamous area street gang by the age of 11. That was about to all change following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Before joining the Navy, Tony Curtis's only knowledge of the U.S. Navy and its submarines was from the silver screen. Tony grew up on the east side of Manhattan. "As a youth, I remember seeing Cary Grant in Destination Tokyo and Tyrone Powers in Crash Dive. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a submariner. I used to take broom handles and make submarines out of them. I would stick a nail in the top and a rubber-band to a propeller made from a tin can. Here I was, this little kid down at the park, trying to make my homemade submarine float."
But while his teenage idol Cary Grant only "played" a submariner in Destination Tokyo, at the young age of 17, Bernard (Tony Curtis) would enlist in the U. S. Navy and actually become a submariner. "What I really wanted was an opportunity to see the world," recalls Curtis. "But I knew from the very start that I wanted to be on submarines. There was never a doubt in my mind." So following Basic Recruit Training, Signalman School in Great Lakes, Illinois, and Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut, Tony Curtis was soon on his way off to war. First it was to Mare Island, California, by train, then on to Guam, where he found himself assigned to the submarine tender USS PROTEUS (AS-19) as part of Submarine Relief Crew 202. "Whenever a sub came in after a war patrol, they would tie up alongside the tender and the crew would go on liberty," Curtis said. "We would go aboard then and clean it up and scrape the barnacles from the sides. It was hard work, sure, but it didn't matter. This was great work for those of us waiting to be assigned to a submarine. It was great practice to get those submarines ready to go back out on patrol." Curtis said the only thing he didn't get to do while he was in the Navy was to actually serve aboard a submarine. He was able to take a short run aboard the submarine USS DRAGONET (SS-293) before the war ended. "I wanted to qualify submarines so badly," remembers Curtis, "but it was the only thing I didn't get to do. I wish I could've done that." When the war ended, Bernard was onboard the PROTEUS when she steamed for the Japanese submarine base at Yokosuka where he witnessed the historic signing of the famous Document of Surrender aboard the USS MISSOURI (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay from the PROTEUS' signal bridge through a pair of binoculars. "That was one of the greatest moments in my life," Curtis said, "to be 18, almost 19, standing on the signal bridge and watching the signing of that document. I felt so proud to be part of the service at that time."
In September 1945, Bernard was released from active duty before he could fulfill his dream of actually being "Qualified-in-Submarines", and the right to wear those coveted Dolphins --the very thing that sent him off to war in the first place. It is ironic, that once in Hollywood, he became good friends with the very men who had such a profound impact on his military path --Cary Grant and Tyrone Powers. "We became good friends," Curtis said fondly. "It was amazing to me. I had watched Cary wrapped around the periscope in Destination Tokyo and wanted to be him. Years later when I did Operation Petticoat, there I was in a movie with Cary, and there he was, wrapped around a periscope again. What a wonderful thing. Absolutely amazing."
He's quick to point out, though, that without his time in the service he may have had a rougher time reaching his goals. "I can't thank the Navy enough. They were like my mother. They fed me and clothed me. They fixed my teeth and gave me a job. They kept me out of trouble and let me see the world. My time in the Navy was really very brilliant. "Then," says Curtis, "The Navy then turned out to be a father to me. I suddenly had the GI Bill to get me started." With the GI Bill, Curtis was able to return to school to get his high school diploma and with his tuition paid for at City College of New York and, later, the acting program at the New School for Social Research pain, he was able to pursue the calling that would define the rest of his life --acting. Curtis said it must have been fate that led him through life at that time, because 18 months to the day after he left the Navy, he landed his first starring role and a career that would one day make him a success.
These days Tony Curtis finds himself in the enviable role of being able to give back to the service that meant so much to him. "I was proud to serve in the South Pacific during World War II. That era has passed, but I am able to look back with fond memories of the fellowship, dedication and hard work that enabled us to win the war." Ironically, the more Tony has given back to the Navy it seems the more the Navy continues to reciprocate. In 1987 he participated in the dedication of the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., and was the official co-host at the first Lone Sailor Dinner, and has served as a guest speaker at the Navy Memorial. Tony has been a long time supporter of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation and in 1994 joined such past honorees as Senator D. P. Moynihan and Admiral Bud Zumwalt, USN (Ret.) as the recipient of the Lone Sailor Award. Recently, Tony served as guest narrator during the U.S. Navy Band's 226th Birthday Concert at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., and was a guest of Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations at Tingey House where Tony learned even more about the history and traditions of the Washington Navy Yard. Ironically, the Washington Navy Yard is also the home of another World War II veteran, the sail of the submarine BALLAO which was (the submarine painted pink) one of the three boats used to make Operation Petticoat.
But it was in 1998, during the Submarine Birthday celebration, where RADM Jerry Ellis, then Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC), officially presented a pair of the submariner's coveted "silver dolphins" along with the title "submariner" to Mr. Curtis before a crowd of over 500 sailors for his tireless support of the Navy and the Submarine Service. The State of California proudly recognizes the dedication and deeds of Mr. Tony Curtis as a member of Relief Crew 202 and is honored have him serve as a member of the World War II Submarine Veterans History Project.
Tony Curtis - Operation "Silent Service"
Tony Curtis, known to many as that infamous Supply Officer --Lieutenant Nicholas Holden from that equally famous pink submarine, USS SEA TIGER of Operation Petticoat fame, joins the ranks of the World War II Submarine Veterans History Project as its project spokesman.