Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of John Wayne’s death. In observance of that, several new biographies will appear along with at least one television documentary currently in production.
In the objective sense, since he was only a Hollywood celebrity, his personality and career seemingly have little to do with the main areas of interest of this magazine’s readers: military history and current event analysis. More subjectively, however, Wayne’s influence went far beyond theaters due to the fact that, throughout the mid-20th century, his on-screen persona came to typify – for both supporters and detractors – the archetypal American male.
In regard of his larger cultural significance, we’ll offer two short articles zeroing in on that aspect of his life. This first one has to do with his involvement – or, more correctly, his non-involvement, in the Second World War: Wayne never wore his country’s uniform except theatrically.
The reasons for that are multifaceted, and which you accept as containing the most ‘truthiness’ depend largely on your own political outlook. Wayne himself, starting near the end of the war, began telling his friends he knew it would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life he hadn’t put his career on hold to enlist, and he predicted – correctly – his critics would always dog him about that omission.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Wayne was already 34-years-old, married and the father of four. On that account he was granted a “2-A” deferment. Of course, others in similar situations – both inside and out of Hollywood – chose to give up their deferments and enlist anyway.
Wayne, however, had only recently broken through to A-List stardom with the 1939 release of "Stagecoach." The studios to which he was under contract, as well as the draft board in Los Angeles, therefore assured him he could make his best contribution to the war effort by staying where he was and starring in patriotic war movies.
He later told several journalists he had still gone ahead and tried to enlist, while keeping it from his managers and studio employers, only to be given a 4F (medical) deferment on account of a bad back and easily dislocated shoulder. He'd gotten both those conditions, he explained, during the 1930s when, as a decade-long B-Lister in short action-westerns, he would offer to do his own stunts in order to make himself seem economically employable to casting directors.
In later years, as he aged, he certainly did display signs of chronic back and shoulder pain in everyday life. Even so, no one has ever been able to find the official records of the physical in which he was supposedly given 4F status.
During the war he starred in three war films – “The Flying Tigers” (1942), “The Fighting Seabees” (1944) and “They Were Expendable” (1945) – all of them blockbusters that together worked to forever after make him just as iconic as an American GI as he already was as a cowboy.
Late in 1944, as military manpower shortages became chronic, the whole 2-A deferment category was done away with. Against Wayne’s protest, Republic Studios filed an appeal with the draft board, alleging the star was still most valuable being kept where he was. The appeal was approved, and Wayne was officially reissued with a 2-A deferment.
The one episode of actual wartime “service” he performed came in December 1943, when he went on a USO tour of American bases in the Southwest Pacific and Australia. Shortly after Wayne agreed to go, he was secretly contacted by the head of the Office of Strategic Services (institutional forerunner of today’s CIA) Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who asked the actor to meet with Gen. MacArthur while in Australia.
Ostensibly that meeting was to take place purely for public relations purposes, but Donovan gave Wayne a list of questions he wanted him to ask the general. It seems MacArthur, who was no supporter of the whole concept of the kind of clandestine warfare Donovan typified, wasn’t cooperating in setting up OSS operations in his theater of command. The master spy wanted to see how far that dislike went.
As it turned out, MacArthur had his own behind the scenes contacts in Washington, and they got word to him about the true purpose of Wayne’s request for a meet up. The general therefore made himself scarce during the time Wayne was near his headquarters.
Wayne did get to talk with some of the MacArthur’s subordinates, and on the strength of that he wrote up a brief report he sent to Donovan after returning from the tour. In gratitude for having made the effort, Donovan sent the actor a “certificate of commendation” from the OSS. Somehow director/producer John Ford – who had a decades long on-again off-again friendship with Wayne, and who did serve in the wartime Navy – got ahold of it.
Ford had the letter engraved on a sheet of copper (as opposed to the silver or gold in which military medals are usually cast) and sarcastically presented it to Wayne at a dinner party at his home. Wayne pointedly left the plaque behind when he departed Ford’s house later that night.
Ford went after Wayne about his service record one more time, early 1945 when he was directing the actor in the filming of “They Were Expendable.” In a scene in which Wayne was to salute his costar, Robert Montgomery (who had served and had won the bronze star). Ford kept yelling “cut” because Wayne kept making a sloppy salute. Ford said: “You don’t have the faintest idea how to salute, do you!? That’s because you never joined up! You just stayed at home and made money from lousy pictures while your countryman were giving their lives!”
Wayne stood there wide eyed, receiving Ford’s harangue, until Montgomery stepped forward and said quietly to the director: “You don’t ever talk to the ‘Duke’ (Wayne’s nickname since boyhood) like that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Ford then sat down and began to quietly weep. (He apparently suffered from a mild level of what would today be diagnosed as “post traumatic stress syndrome.”) Wayne then graciously ended the episode by sitting next to Ford, patting him on the back and saying: “That’s OK, Coach. You just want to make this film the best it can be.”
In two weeks: “Part II: Wayne in the Cold War – The Duke versus Stalin.”
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