John Wayne and World War II
The history does provide a little grey area for his fans.
Photo by Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup
No one was more a hero in World War II than John Wayne. At least that’s what the aliens would think when they viewed the historical footage documented in old Hollywood reels such as the Sands Of Iwo Jima, Flying Tigers and The Longest Day. We know better. But if you’re a child of World War II, who reveled in his onscreen heroics and welled up with pride, maybe there’s still some draft dodger wiggle room to take solace in. For everyone else, fire away.
John Wayne received a 3-A status for family dependence as a father of four and had just made Stagecoach as an unknown. Beginning a career of collaboration with John Ford, the iconic director had his eye on Wayne since his days as a football player at USC, and the numerous stand in and stuntman roles in scores of previous westerns, according to RogerEbert.com.
The studio adamantly opposed to Wayne, Ford’s casting obviously had prescience. For his part, Wayne wanted to do a few more movies to secure his future place in Hollywood and then signup. So his case for deferment was strictly on a temporary basis.
Hollywood Boulevard Keeps John Wayne Behind the Lines
Thirteen wartime John Wayne movies later, and the flag of heroism he rose in the said Sands were left awaiting a less safe forward position, and John Ford was never shy to let him know it. He would frequently berate Wayne “to get into it,” and that he was growing rich as other man died, pbs.org reported.
The latter apparently providing a powerful disincentive, and a top billing of leading men doing their part, Wayne knew how valuable a commodity he was. So upping to A-movie pay were the spoils he received in their absence. Wayne or actually Marion Morrison was also concerned that the war would age him out of high playing action roles once the fighting finally ended.
Hollywood on the Front Lines
Henry Fonda, on the other hand, paused his paychecks and wasn't looking for theater in the global drama that was playing out across the world. “I didn’t want to fight a fake war in a studio,” declared the well-known Hollywood Liberal. As such, his performance in Mr. Roberts (1955) and Midway (1976) did not suffer the three years served on the destroyer USS Satterlee in which he was commissioned as a Lt. Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence.
Jimmy Stewart also sucked it up – even if he had to live it up first. Originally denied enlistment for being too light, he fattened up on candy, beer and bananas and was the first Hollywood star to appear in stripes. Soon flying combat missions, he eventually made Colonel and became a Brigadier General after the war in the Reserves.
Others serving were Paul Newman, Kirk Douglass and Clarke Gable, but whatever pause the bright lights and big bucks gave, procrastination went full frontal after the Duke starred with Marlene Dietrich in Seven Sinners. Becoming entangled enough to make a complete sham of the original deferment, he boasted she was “the best lay I ever had.”
All’s Fair in Love and War
But this was not bravado. He fell madly in love and the possibility of losing her while away in service meant the war’s winning would have to be left to others.
In the Duke’s defense, the melodramatics of hooking up with Dietrich wasn’t nearly as fair a fight as WWII or on par with the mundane marital bliss others left behind. ‘When she came into Wayne’s life, she juicily sucked every last drop of resistance, loyalty, morality, and guilt out of him, and gave him a sexual and moral cleansing as if she were draining an infected sore,’ according to Marc Eliot, in American Titan: Searching for John Wayne. This is all the author needs to know and claims that he begged John Ford to find him a place among the real heroics “are a complete fabrication,”Caroline Howe reported Eliot's conclusions in the Daily Mail.
On the Other Hand, Reaching Across the Aisle
Dan Gagliasso of Breitbart disagrees and cites Ron Davis’ Duke; the Life and Image of John Wayne to make a case that John Wayne did at least make an effort to join up.
A May, 1942 letter by Wayne to Ford begins Gagliasso’s argument. “Have you any suggestions on how I should get in? Can you get me assigned to your outfit, and if you could, would you want me? How about the Marines? You have Army and Navy men under you. Have you any Marines or how about a Seabee or what would you suggest or would you? No I’m not drunk. I just hate to ask for favors, but for Christ sake what can you suggest? No kidding coach, who do I see,” said the letter found among the John Ford Papers at Indiana University.
This to Gagliasso doesn’t sound like someone shirking his duty and examines what Ford would have to gain by leaving Wayne out to dry. The Duke’s star climbing, Ford must have seen the chance to ascend with his highly bankable friend and asset. At the same time, the manipulative and sadistic side many attribute to Ford would then have something to hold over Wayne by playing the coward card at will.
Either way, no response to Wayne’s letter has been found, but official documentation of Wayne’s intent was found in 2003. The National Archives contain a letter of application from Wayne to the OSS.
Ford’s grandson provides a secondary source for the documentation. Dan Ford recalled that his grandfather told him that OSS Commander William Donovan approved his application to a forward photography unit. But the deployment never occurred because the paperwork was sent to the home of his estranged wife.
Wayne moving out after he originally filed, she certainly would have had good reason to withhold the letter. If he died in the war, she would be left to provide for their four children.
Even so, a follow up is nowhere to be found, and all the officer slots filled by 1943, joining the ranks alongside GI Joes didn’t quite provide enough impetus. “I felt it would be a waste of time to spend two years picking up cigarette butts. I thought I could do more for the war effort by staying in Hollywood,” Dan Ford recalled another conversation with Wayne, according to Gagliasso in Breitbart.
The movie star definitely had a point in the impact he could have in inspiring both the nation and war bond efforts. Certainly convenient, but enough to allay the personal guilt and put off the hypocrisy he had to feel playing war on the silver screen?
Ultra Patriotism Symptom of Cold War Guilt
Here’s one possible answer. In 1948, John Wayne became president of The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This Included actors Ward Bond and Adolphe Menjou, MGM’s producer James McGuiness, and director Sam Wood. Their goal was hunting down subversive elements within the American film industry reported pbs.
Hating communism, Wayne found a cushy place for his overcompensation to reside. In addition, fervently backing the blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee let him join a fight on the front lines where the war was being waged and further satisfy his rationalizations.
In accordance, he starred in “Blood Alley” and “Big Jim McLain,” which was based on the actual case of the Hawaii 7 (suspected communists charged with advocating the overthrow of the American government), reported truthdig.
Less Sympathy from the Left
A less sympathetic depiction from the time period is there for us today in Trumbo where Wayne is portrayed as a mindless tool of right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper, according to Variety.
But if you really want to get deep and find some psychological projection, his disdain for Vietnam protestors and draft dodgers sounds like a cry for help. “As far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t bother me a bit to pull the trigger on one of ‘em,” Wayne once stated.
The Green Berets – let’s not even bother, but his wife Pilar Wayne did offer some empathy. “He became a superpatriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home during WWII.”
Gary Wills is not so sympathetic in his book, John Wayne’s America. “He was, in reality, a draft dodger. America’s archetypal soldier was in fact a chicken hawk. He was a cheerleader and champion of militaristic patriotism and combat he had never experienced. Wayne had “other priorities” during WWII—achieving superstardom (and saving his neck) was more important than defeating fascism. Much like Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought numerous deferments during the Vietnam War, Wayne was the quintessential war wimp, said Wills in Truthdig.
He learned as much on USO tours in Australia and throughout the Pacific where he was greeted by boos from war hardened vets. On the other hand, if the discussion is raised on social media, you will definitely find those who take comfort in the symbol he represented as they viewed from the sidelines as children and are offended by your affront.
As Ray Davies of Kinks penned in Celluloid Heroes, “I Wish My Life was a Nonstop Hollywood Movie Show,” we clearly see denial definitely beats the real thing.
Fantasy and nostalgia aside, John Wayne did write a few letters, there’s documentation to prove it and it’s plausible that his wife withheld the paperwork. But would it take a hero to show up at the OSS and get some clarity. Maybe not if fear, opportunity and Marlene Dietrich are all pulling in the other direction.
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