Actor Ernest Borgnine. What image comes to mind? A man built like a bull? The brutal Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity? The affable Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in TV’s McHale’s Navy? General Worden of The Dirty Dozen? What do you think of him?
Before he was an actor, before the United States entered World War II, Ernest Borgnine served in the navy for six years. He served aboard a 1917 destroyer, the USS Lamberton, and looked upon those years as one of the most wonderful times of his life. He was proud to be a destroyer man, a tin can man.
A fond memory was his desire, as a member of the deck crew, to pilot the captain’s gig. When the opportunity arose, he polished that boat to a gleaming finish. He brought the boat alongside, and put one foot on the gangway and the other on the boat. The captain came aboard, telling him where he wanted to go.
When Borgnine pushed off with one foot on that highly polished boat, he slipped straight down between the boat and the gangway into the water.
After six years, he decided he’d had enough. He left the Lamberton in Hawaii and the navy in October of 1941. Two months later, the Japanese attacked. Borgnine went back to the navy.
Since he’d already put in six years of sea duty, he qualified for shore duty. He spent the war on a requisitioned yacht that belonged to William Lawrence Murphy, who made the Murphy fold-away beds that store in a wall niche. He had his own stateroom. They trained naval officer candidates, patrolled for U-boats, and served as a floating school for sonar operators.
After the war, he was 28 and had trouble finding a job. He considered going back to the navy, but his mother suggested he try acting. In order to attend Yale’s school of drama, he needed two years of undergraduate studies in classes like geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. He left and found the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford, Connecticut, which he attended on the GI Bill. Then he accompanied another aspiring thespian to the Barber Theater of Virginia, and stayed for five years. He got good reviews and headed for New York.
|From Here to Eternity - Ernest Borgnine, Burt Lancaster & Frank Sinatra
He patterned his role in From Here to Eternity after a bosun’s mate he knew from his navy days. His time in McHale’s Navy gave him to opportunity to do things he hadn’t been able to do in the real navy. The secretary of the navy told him, “You’re the greatest recruiter we’ve ever had.”