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The Straight Dope



In your book The Straight Dope you were asked whether John Wayne had ever served in the military. You said no--that though Wayne as a youth had wanted to become a naval officer, "during World War II he was rejected for military service." However, it may be more interesting than that. According to a recent Wayne bio, for all his vaunted patriotism, Wayne may actually have tried to stay out of the service.

--Virgiejo, via AOL

John Wayne, draft dodger? Oh, what delicious (if cheap) irony! But that judgment is a little harsh. As Garry Wills tells the story in his book John Wayne's America (1997), the Duke faced a tough choice at the outset of World War II. If he wimped out, don't be so sure a lot of us wouldn't have done the same.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, Wayne was 34. His marriage was on the rocks, but he still had four kids to support. His career was taking off, largely on the strength of the classic western Stagecoach (1939). But he wasn't rich. Should he chuck it all and enlist? Many of Hollywood's big names, such as Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Clark Gable, did just that. But these were established stars. Wayne knew that if he took a few years off for military service, he might be over-the-hill by the time he got back.

Besides, he specialized in the kind of movies a nation at war wanted to see, in which a rugged American hero overcomes great odds. Recognizing that Hollywood was an important part of the war effort, Washington had told California draft boards to go easy on actors. Perhaps rationalizing that he could do more good at home, Wayne obtained 3-A status, "deferred for [family] dependency reasons." He told friends he'd enlist after he made just one or two more movies.

The real question is why he never did so. Wayne cranked out 13 movies during the war, many with war-related themes. Most of the films were enormously successful, and within a short time the Duke was one of America's most popular stars. His bankability established, he could have joined the military, secure in the knowledge that Hollywood would welcome him back later. He even made a halfhearted effort to sign up, sending in the paperwork to enlist in the naval photography unit commanded by a good friend, director John Ford.

But he didn't follow through. Nobody really knows why; Wayne didn't like to talk about it. A guy who prided himself on doing his own stunts, he doesn't seem to have lacked physical courage. One suspects he just found it more fun being a Hollywood hero than the real kind. Many movie-star soldiers enlisted in the first flush of patriotism after Pearl Harbor. As the war ground on, slogging it out in the trenches seemed a lot less exciting. The movies, on the other hand, had put Wayne well on the way to becoming a legend. "Wayne increasingly came to embody the American fighting man," Wills writes. In late 1943 and early 1944 he entertained troops in the Pacific theater as part of a USO tour. An intelligence big shot asked him to give his assessment of Douglas MacArthur. He was fawned over by the press when he got back. Meanwhile he was having a torrid affair with a beautiful Mexican woman. How could military service compare with that?

In 1944 Wayne received a 2-A classification, "deferred in support of [the] national...interest." A month later the selective service decided to revoke many previous deferments and reclassified him 1-A. But Wayne's studio appealed and got his 2-A status reinstated until after the war ended.

People who knew Wayne say he felt bad about not having served. (During the war he'd gotten into a few fights with servicemen who wondered why he wasn't in uniform.) Some think his guilty conscience was one reason he became such a superpatriot later. The fact remains that the man who came to symbolize American patriotism and pride had a chance to do more than just act the part, and he let it pass.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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