John Wayne: The World War II Hero Who Didn’t Serve?

John Wayne was the star of countless World War II movies, many of them good, and an outspoken patriot. So why didn't he serve?

No one was more a hero in World War II than John Wayne. At least that’s what the aliens will think when they view the historical footage documented in old Hollywood reels such as the Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Flying Tigers (1942), and The Longest Day (1962). Of course, we know better now. But if you’re a child of World War II, who reveled in the Duke’s onscreen heroics while welling up with pride, maybe there’s still some wiggle room to take solace in. For everyone else, fire away.

John Wayne received a 3-A deferment from the draft for family dependency since he was a father of four and had just made Stagecoach (1939) as a then unknown actor. That film also began a career of collaboration with John Ford, the iconic director who had his eye on Wayne since his days as a football player at USC and the numerous stand-in and stuntman roles he performed in previous westerns.

At the time, the studio was adamantly opposed to Wayne for the role, but 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 sign up for the war that reached American shores in December 1941. So his case for deferment was strictly on a temporary basis.

Thirteen wartime movies later, and the flag of heroism he rose in the said Sands was still awaiting his recruitment in real-life. And this was a fact that John Ford, now a commander in the U.S. Navy, never shied away from letting the Duke know about. He would frequently berate Wayne “to get into it,” saying that he was growing rich as other men died.

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The latter apparently provided a powerful disincentive. And with a bevy of top-billed leading men doing their part, Wayne knew how valuable a commodity he was in Hollywood. So upping to A-movie pay was among the spoils he received in their absence.

Wayne (born Marion Morrison) was also concerned that the war would age him out of high playing action roles once the fighting finally ended. 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. And his performances in Mr. Roberts (1955) and Midway (1976) did not suffer from the three years he served on the destroyer USS Satterlee where he was commissioned as a lieutenant 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 actors were Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, and Clark 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 (1940). Becoming entangled enough in an extramarital affair to make a complete sham of the original deferment, he boasted she was the best lay he ever had. However, this was not just bravado. He fell madly in love and the possibility of losing her while away in service. Again, this 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 that 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 efficiently done as if she were draining an infected sore,” wrote Marc Eliot, in American Titan: Searching for John Wayne.

This is all author Eliot needs to know. Indeed, he even suggests that claims of Wayne begging John Ford to find him a place among the real heroics “are a complete fabrication.” 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.

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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 you can suggest can’t you? No kidding, coach who’ll 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. With 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 discovered 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.

Since Wayne had already left the home of his then-wife Josephine, she certainly would have had good reason to withhold the letter. If he died in the war, she alone would be left to provide for their four children.

Even so, a follow-up is nowhere to be found, and with 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 his father saying during another conversation.

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The movie star definitely had a point about the impact he could have by inspiring the nation and its war bond efforts. It’s certainly a convenient reason, but it’s also enough to allay the personal guilt and put off the hypocrisy he had to feel about playing war on the silver screen.

Here’s another possible answer to his inaction. 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 producer James McGuinness, and director Sam Wood. Their goal was hunting down subversive elements within the American film industry.

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 of where the war was being waged and further satisfy his rationalizations.  

In accordance, he starred in Blood Alley (1955) and Big Jim McLain (1952), the latter of which was based on the actual case of the “Hawaii 7” (suspected communists charged with advocating the overthrow of the American government). Wayne played a big damn American hero in that movie… who worked as an investigator for HUAC.

A less sympathetic depiction of that time period was presented in last year’s Trumbo where Wayne is portrayed as a mindless tool for rightwing columnist Hedda Hopper. 

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. Subsequently, The Green Berets (1968) was a Vietnam War fantasy where an aging Wayne defeated the North Vietnamese while being applauded by a cynical, left-leaning press that had suddenly learned the error of its ways. His final wife Pilar Wayne did offer some empathy for his increasingly erratic political stances. “He became a super-patriot for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying home during WWII.” 

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Garry Wills is not so sympathetic in his book John Wayne’s America, which served as the basis for TruthDig‘s scathing indictment.

“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.”

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 the Duke represented as they viewed from the sidelines as children.

As Ray Davies of the Kinks penned in the song “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 a real American hero not show up at the OSS and get some clarity? Maybe not if fear, opportunity, and Marlene Dietrich were all pulling in the other direction.