Remembering a #Hollywood Director’s Distinguished War Record
The U.S. Army’s signal regiment has commissioned many officers throughout its 156 years of existence, including five recipients of the Medal of Honor. However, few are probably aware that a renowned Hollywood director graced the ranks as a signal officer during World War II and had a lasting impact on American soldiers involved in the conflict.
Frank Russell Capra, director of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the World War II series “Why We Fight,” was honored as a distinguished member of the regiment at the 2016 Signal Ball in Springfield, Virginia., on Mar. 11.
Distinguished Members of the Regiment are recognized for their notable military accomplishments and must be a former member of the signal corps. Since the U.S. Army regimental system was established in 1986, there have been 116 Distinguished Member of the Regiment honored in the signal regiment. Capra’s grandson, Tony Capra, a television producer and correspondent, accepted the award on behalf of his grandfather, who passed away in 1991.
“Accepting the Distinguished Member of the Regiment award for my grandfather is huge,” said Tony. “I know this would have meant a lot to him. He was extremely proud of the ‘Why We Fight’ series and the impact it had on the Allies’ winning the war.”
Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Pugh, the commandant for the U.S. Army Signal School, said that being selected as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment is equivalent to being inducted into a Hall of Fame for the signal regiment.
“It’s the highest honor the regiment can bestow on its members,” said Pugh. “It indicates that the recipient made an enormous and lasting impact on the signal corps, the U.S. Army and our nation.”
Frank Capra was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1903, at age 5, with his family. He voluntarily joined the U.S. Army during World War I and became a U.S. citizen in 1920.
“At the time, Italians were considered ‘dirty’ and it’s hard for many of us to understand how important it was to be considered an American to folks like my grandfather,” Tony said.
In 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Frank Capra quit his successful Hollywood career to rejoin the military. He was promoted to the rank of major and assigned to work directly under chief of staff General George C. Marshall on a special documentary project. Marshall wanted to tap Capra’s filmmaking skills and knowledge to produce a documentary series that would promote awareness of why America entered the war, boost public support for it and raise the morale of soldiers serving.
In three years, Capra and his team produced seven films that became known as the “Why We Fight” series. The first and last films, titled “Prelude to War” and “War Comes to America” respectively, focused on explaining why America joined the fight. “The Nazis Strike” and “Divide and Conquer” emphasized the German warfighting strategy. The remaining films, “The Battle of Britain,” “The Battle of Russia,” and “The Battle of China,” focused on America’s allies.
Capra also directed or co-directed “Know Your Enemy: Japan (1945),” “Here Is Germany (1945),” “Tunisian Victory (1945),” “Two Down and One to Go (1945),” and “The Negro Soldier (1944).”
All of the films were a huge success, according to government and U.S. Army officials, and “Prelude to War” won an Academy Award in 1942 for best documentary feature.
Tony Capra noted that General Marshall put a great deal of trust in his grandfather and it paid off.
“He [Frank] was the highest-paid director in Hollywood, in his mid-forties at the high point of his career, and just quit it all to join the Army. It’s hard to put in words how proud I feel when I tell people he volunteered for both World Wars,” said Tony.
Frank Capra ended his U.S. Army service as a colonel. He received the Legion of Merit in 1943 and the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.
Capra returned to Hollywood after the war and went on to make several more iconic and influential films, including one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 most inspirational movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was nominated for five Academy Awards. Even with all his Hollywood success, Capra wrote in his autobiography that he considered the “Why We Fight” series his most important work.
Tony Capra accepted the Distinguished Member of the Regiment award, along with a presentation of the Oscar Frank Capra received for his work on the documentary series. Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the U.S. Army chief information officer/G-6, said he was humbled and honored to share a common bond with such an influential ‘Signaleer.’
“Mr. Capra was not just a soldier who volunteered to serve during a very challenging and scary time in our world’s history,” said Ferrell. “He was a brother in the signal community, and we will never forget his contribution to the war effort and to our signal regiment.”
“His legacy is everywhere,” said Tony Capra, adding that his father and grandfather were his inspiration to pursue a career in film. “When your grandfather is Frank Capra, he is part of you every day. I try to live up to his honesty, integrity and vision.”
Source: US Army