Maverick star James Garner quit high school in Oklahoma, lied about his age and joined the Merchant Marines during the final year of World War II. He was only 16 and quickly found out he became too seasick to serve on a ship.
So he moved to California to live with his dad. He re-enrolled in high school, but quit a second time to model Jantzen bathing suits, saying he made more than the teachers. And then came his real stint in the military.
In 1950, Garner became the first man from Oklahoma drafted into the Army. He was in the California National Guard for seven months and then served in the 5th Regimental Combat Team 5th Regimental Combat and the 24th Infantry Division during the Korean War. But he wasn’t James Garner then. He had no idea he’d ever star on TV in shows like Maverick or Rockford Files. He simply was Pvt. James Bumgarner.
“Do I have fond memories? I guess if you get together with some buddies it’s fond,” Garner, who died in 2014, once told a reporter about the Korean War. “But it really wasn’t. It was cold and hard. I was one of the lucky ones.”
The Maverick Star Earned Two Purple Hearts, But He Didn’t Receive Second Medal For Decades
Garner was injured twice, meaning he was eligible for two Purple Hearts. But he only received one while serving. That was for shrapnel wounds to his hand and face. The military awarded the second Purple Heart decades later after he mentioned how he was injured in the war during a TV interview about one of his movies.
He described the incident this way:
“As a matter of fact, I got it in the backside. I went into a foxhole head first and I was a little late. There’s a lot of room for error with a wound in the rear. It’s a wide target.”
The wounds were from friendly fire. Garner jumped into a foxhole to avoid getting hit as U.S. fighter jets flew overhead.
Star Described How His Sense of Smell Saved His Life During War
Garner also wrote about his military experience in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files. The book included details about his TV career on shows like Maverick and Rockford Files. But he also told how he used his nose and his hatred of garlic to help save the lives of fellow soldiers. He wrote:
“Army chow was bearable as long as I could keep the onions and garlic out of it. I cannot stand onions and I’m very sensitive to garlic. I can taste tiny amounts of it, like when they’ve cooked another dish with garlic before and don’t wash the pan. If I get even a hint of it, I might throw up in my plate.
“This violent aversion may have saved my life. Like our South Korean allies, the Chinese and North Korean troops lived on a diet of fish heads, rice, and garlic. One night while on guard on the line, I caught a faint whiff of it coming from the direction of the enemy positions. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew there was someone out there and they were coming closer. Once I sniffed them I could hear them, too. It turned out to be a patrol heading straight for our position. They were just the other side of a rise when I passed the word down the line. We were ready for them and stopped them in their tracks.”
When Garner, or Bumgarner, got out of the Army, he worked several jobs until he discovered what he enjoyed. That was acting. He shortened his name when he earned his first part, a non-speaking role, in The Caine Mutiny: Court Martial.
In 1957, he landed a part that launched his TV career. For three years, Garner played Bret Maverick in Maverick, a western with a layer of comedy to it. He was a vivid part of TV history until he died of natural causes at age 86.