Steve McQueen Was a Brig-Rat Marine Legend Before He Became Hollywood’s ‘King of Cool’

July 13, 2021Mac Caltrider
Steve McQueen, ‘The King of Cool,’ was a Marine tanker who got busted down in rank seven times. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Steve McQueen, ‘The King of Cool,’ was a Marine tanker who got busted down in rank seven times. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Steve McQueen had a rough childhood. Between two abusive stepfathers, an alcoholic mother who abandoned him, and growing up in a reform school, it’s no surprise the famous actor viewed the Marine Corps as a great escape from life’s hardships.

Before he was a movie star or a jarhead, “The King of Cool” worked a long list of dirty jobs, including one stint as a roughneck on an oil rig and one as a “towel boy” at a brothel, which prepared him for the grimy existence of an enlisted Marine.

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen, who often portrayed military heroes on screen, actually saved the lives of five Marines when he served on active duty. Screenshot from The Sand Pebbles.

McQueen enlisted in 1947 as a tank engine mechanic and endured a very bumpy four-year enlistment. Apparently attending a reform school for boys did not have the intended effect, and McQueen struggled with the Corps’ strict rules. He had a penchant for rebelling and was busted down to private no fewer than seven times: an impressive feat for such a short military career.

While serving aboard Camp Lejeune, he took it upon himself to turn his weekend liberty into a two-week unauthorized vacation. When he was finally apprehended, McQueen was charged with unauthorized absence and sentenced to 41 days in the brig, where he lived on bread and water — an experience that came in handy for his famous roles as a prisoner in The Great Escape and Papillion. 

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen was busted down to the rank of private seven times during his four years in the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Despite his aversion to obeying rules and regulations, McQueen ultimately came around to the Corps’ rigid ways, and he began to excel as a tanker. Eventually, he was even given command of his own tank while still holding the rank of private first class.

While deployed to the Labrador Sea for amphibious training, his transport ship struck a sandbar, sending several of the tanks and their crews into icy waters. Without hesitating, McQueen dove into the sea and reportedly saved five Marines from drowning.

Steve McQueen
Before Steve McQueen was a movie star, he worked on tanks as a Marine. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

McQueen’s heroic actions helped the Corps overlook his history of demotions, and he was given the opportunity to be a part of the President’s Honor Guard, where he helped protect Harry S. Truman’s yacht. McQueen never made it past private first class, but he received an honorable discharge — which never would have been approved in today’s Corps.

According to his ex-wife, Neile Adams McQueen, the King of Cool’s entire unit was tragically wiped out in the Korean War, just months after he was discharged. Luckily for fans of his iconic films, McQueen missed the war by a few months and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors.

Films like The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, and The Thomas Crown Affair established McQueen as a serious dramatic talent, but his offscreen persona of racing cars, practicing martial arts with pal Bruce Lee, and getting drunk with Ol’ Blue Eyes built his reputation as one of the coolest men in Hollywood. But his often-overlooked time in the Marines made Steve McQueen The King of Cool long before he ever appeared on the silver screen.

Read Next: 5 Clint Eastwood Movies That Highlight His Love for the Military and Veterans

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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