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“THE KING OF COOL: STEVE MCQUEEN, the Marine

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Image of Steve McQueen from the National Personnel Records Center (Archival Operations Branch) (NRPAO), Persons of Exceptional Prominence, McQueen, Steven Personnel Record.

In April 1947, at the age of 17, Steve McQueen—full name Terrance Steven McQueen—enlisted in the Marines. His military file reveals that, in 1949, he spent 30 days in the brig and was fined $90 for being AWOL for several days from his camp in North Carolina. In his statement about the incident, he declares, “I did not register for the selective service,” suggesting he may have thought that since he had joined the military voluntarily, he should be free to come and go as he pleased. From the NatIonal Archives

After being honorably discharged from the Marines in 1950, McQueen worked at a variety of jobs before finally enrolling in acting school. He would become famous for such movies as The Great Escape and Papillon,playing rebellious prisoners with a profound desire for freedom.

It is not every day you open a box full of government records and find an original signed and embossed letter from a major movie star. However, such was the case when I was processing records from the National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB). Steve McQueen, a movie star known for the motorcycle chase scene and jump in The Great Escape (with the aid of a stunt man), and the legendary car chase through the hills of San Francisco in Bullitt, was not someone I would have associated with traffic safety advocacy. Nevertheless, away from the screen he was an avid motorcycle enthusiast, off-road racer, and motorcycle collector who was involved with the American Motorcycle Association. This gave him an interest in promoting motorcycling and motorcycle safety. On April 19, 1967, McQueen wrote to Dr. William Haddon, Jr., Director of the National Highway Safety Bureau, expressing a desire to take part in a federal motorcycle safety program.

Letter from Steve McQueen to Dr. William Haddon, Jr., April 19, 1967.
Steve McQueen Letter 2
Letter from Steve McQueen to Dr. William Haddon, Jr., April 19, 1967.

The NHSB did not want to enter into an agreement with someone without first checking up on him. The result was a memorandum describing McQueen in a manner that might have shocked his fans. How many would have thought that the King of Cool was living a “quiet and orderly life”?

Memorandum from Lowell K. Bridwell to William Haddon, May 24, 1967.
Memorandum from Lowell K. Bridwell to William Haddon, May 24, 1967.

On July 21, 1967, Director Haddon replied to Mr. McQueen.

Letter from William Haddon, Jr. to Mr. Steve McQueen, July 21, 1967.
Steve McQueen Letter 5
Letter from William Haddon, Jr., M. D. to Mr. Steve McQueen, July 21, 1967.

Later that year there was additional correspondence about the possibility of McQueen working with the NHSB to create a motorcycle safety film. Unfortunately, the file does not make it clear if such a film was ever produced.

The documents above are from the folder: 1970 PR [Public Relations] 9-3 Individuals: McQueen, Steve. Solar Productions, 1967.(NAID 106757090), in the Series: Subject Files, 1970-1972 (NAID 84564937). Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Office of the Administrator. Office of the Executive Secretary. (12/31/1970 – 1984). Record Group 416: Records of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1966 – 2007.


If he were alive today, Terrance “Steve” McQueen would be celebrating his 89th birthday on March 24. You can view his Marine Corps Official Military Personnel File from the National Archives at St. Louis in its entirety here on the National Archives Catalog!

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