Today is Steve McQueen’s birthday and I wanted to say a few words about his life and legacy that might be of interest to SOFREP readers. He was definitely one of the coolest guys ever to step onto a stage. While I liked just about every character he played, the movies I most enjoyed seeing him in were military ones. But if you pay close attention you will find that these characters he played tended to mirror his actual life in the military. You see, following a very difficult childhood, Steve McQueen became a Marine.

Living on the Streets

McQueen had a very difficult childhood, with an alcoholic mother who’d abandon him and marry bad guys over and over again, men that tended to drink and beat her and her son Steve. In his first years, he was given away to his grandparents and then returned to his mother. By the time he was nine, he ran away after a particularly vicious beating by his new stepdad. Steve was now living on the streets and getting by committing petty crimes with other street kids to feed himself. Rounded up by the authorities he was returned to his aunt and uncle in Slater Indiana where he stayed until he was 12 and his mother asked to again have him back. By that point, she had a new husband, her third. This new husband didn’t like Steve much either and another cycle of abuse ensued. It wasn’t long before McQueen was sent back to his aunt and uncle for the second time.

McQueen was not a good student in school suffering from both partial deafness and dyslexia. By the age of 14, he decided to run away and join the circus, which offered acceptance, travel, and adventure to a young boy desperate to fit in.

Not much is known about this time in his life but he soon drifted back to Los Angeles and his mother and stepfather. There, McQueen took to the streets again, running with gangs of boys, and getting into trouble. Caught stealing hubcaps by the police and returned to his mother and stepfather he endured a final beating that saw him thrown down a flight of stairs. McQueen told his stepfather that if he ever touched him again, he would kill him.

An Incorrigible Delinquent

The response from his mother and stepfather was to have Steve declared an incorrigible delinquent and sent to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. While there McQueen found himself in trouble again. That passive-aggressive, rebellious streak in McQueen now got everyone in his housing unit in trouble and he found himself on the receiving end of beatings from the other boys too. But something began to change. Perhaps in finding himself among boys with similar family problems, Steve began to identify with them and conform to the rules and structure so missing in his life with his mother. It was not very long before McQueen was considered a model of good conduct and was elected to the governing Boys Council by his peers.

Leaving when he was 16, McQueen joined his mother who was living in Greenwich Village in New York City. After a brief time there, Steve joined the Merchant Marine (probably lying about his age) and crewed a vessel to the Dominican Republic. There he deserted the crew and worked in a brothel. He returned to the U.S. and held various other odd jobs. He also spent 30 days on a chain gang in Texas for being a vagrant. In a final bid to get away from everything in his past, McQueen got his mother to grant permission for him to join the Marine Corps. He was just 17 and the year was 1947, just two years after the end of WWII.

Busted Down to Private Seven Times

McQueen did well at Paris Island under a regime of tight discipline, which makes it pretty hard for trouble-makers to get themselves into trouble, and was promoted to PFC upon graduation. But almost as soon as he was out from under the tight supervision of the drill instructors he reverted to his prior habits. McQueen managed to get himself busted back down to private seven times. Given a weekend pass he took a two-week Unauthorized Absence until the Shore Patrol found him. McQueen decided to try to resist arrest and did 41 days in a Navy Brig. It is important to mention here that Navy Brigs are actually staffed and run by Marines who are notoriously hard on fellow Marines unfortunate enough to get sent there. McQueen would live on a bread and water diet for 21 of his 41-day sentence.