He was, quite possibly and probably, the most popular movie star in the history of the movies. To this day, although he has been dead for over 30 years (the Duke passed away in June of 1979), his name always ranks near the top in all the lists for "favorite movie star.” He left us with a rich legacy of enthralling, stirring, all-American films, where he almost always portrayed the quintessential hero- not only brave, but fearless. I am referring to, of course, the immortal John Wayne- “The Duke".
Now, first of all, we all now can view John Wayne's life in it's full perspective- after all, he died in 1979. We think of him as not a movie star, but the movie star of all-time, the greatest of the great. And this he was. But it wasn't always this way.
In December of 1941, when America entered World War II, John Wayne was, indeed, a movie star. But this was a fairly recent development- after over a decade of being a journeyman film actor, he had finally had his breakthrough role in the movie Stagecoach (1939), and had been enjoying his well-deserved stardom for barely two years.
The call to arms came, of course, after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), and many of Wayne's fellow movie celebrities immediately joined ranks. Wayne was at first deferred, as he had a wife to support and four children.
But Henry Fonda had a wife and three kids and he joined ranks. As did Jimmy Stewart, Robert Montgomery, and Clark Gable, who was actually 41 at the time of his enlistment. Gene Autry was four months younger than Wayne when he signed on. Even Ronald Reagan, blind as a bat without his contact lenses, signed on for service in the military film unit for the signal corps. And Reagan, much like Wayne, had recently too, had his breakthrough role in King's Row (1942) and his service cost him many recently offered roles.
The John Wayne controversy began almost immediately. The Duke came up with excuse after excuse after excuse on why he wasn't serving...
He was "trying to fill out the proper forms to enlist in the military," but he had no typewriter on location. He had "left his enlistment forms with Ward Bond" (his close friend), who "couldn't fill them out." His wife, who he was separated from, "wouldn't let him get the (essential) documents he had left at home." Wayne even claimed that his studio head, Peter Yates, said he would "sue you for every penny you hope to make in the future,” if the Duke walked away from his contract. This last seems highly unlikely as no studio boss in Hollywood did such an action during the duration of the war.
To friends who asked about his possible enlistment, Wayne would usually say he planned on enlisting "after one or two more films." Many John Wayne fans even put out a rumor that Wayne's "mythical" college football injury, which he had gotten 14 years previously, was the reason Duke was not called up.
Wayne went out of his way to have the studio cook up reasons to get him his deferment. In 1944, Wayne was re-classified as 1-a, only to have the studio get him a deferment "in support of national interest.” He was re-classified as 2-a. This was later revoked and he was classed 1-a again, but the studio interceded again and he was re-classified 2-a until the end of the war.
So the question becomes why? Was he afraid?
One can hardly imagine the Duke being physically afraid- heck, this was a guy who did all his own stunts in his films. He was a rough-and-tumble ex-football player from the U.S.C. team. Even if he was scared, he could easily have gotten an assignment behind a desk or in special services, entertaining the troops.
Although, ironically, this may have looked equally bad, John Wayne as a "desk jockey" or putting on shows, may have elicited many hoots and catcalls from fellow GIs. Wayne did appear in USO shows, entertaining the troops in 1943 and 1944. He was well aware of the the circumstances surrounding him, as he once confided to a friend: “I better go do some touring. I can feel the draft board breathing down my neck.”
So, again, the question is “why?”
Well, let's take a look at John Wayne's life in 1941. Recently separated from his wife, he was in a hot and heavy affair with a beautiful Latin lady. Being a world-famous movie star at his physical peak, he undoubtedly had dozens and dozens of other ladies of all ages, types, nationalities, and stripes, willing to give anything to spend some time with "the Duke.”
He had hunting trips, fishing trips, riding on his beloved horses, swimming, yachting, and visits with his friends (fellow movie stars mostly). There were his infamous excursions to Mexico, where he could indulge in drinking tequila and his great love for Mexican and Latin women. (Wayne was always partial to the senoritas, marrying three exotic Latin women).
Now earning the big bucks, he was quite an investor too. Wayne had investments in apartment buildings, a country club, a beach club, a Culver City motel, oil wells, as well as various common stocks. He was earning the big bucks now, and it must have been fun to "check on his investments.” One can hardly blame him for not wanting to give up the good life he had worked so hard to achieve.
From all the evidence, it just simply looks like a case of a man preferring to be a Hollywood movie star millionaire to being a $21.00 a month GI, risking his life in some foxhole or in a plane, overseas. But then, one never knows what is truly in another man's heart. Maybe the reason was this simple, maybe not.
Was the Duke scared? It's possible. Ironic, but possible.
Wayne paid a price, spiritually, for his ducking his service. In filming the movie They Were Expendable (1945), after the war, John's great friend and director, John Ford deliberately embarrassed John in front of everyone on the set. Wayne played a GI in this film.
As Wayne saluted during a scene, Ford sarcastically said (in front of everyone present), “Duke, can't you at least manage a salute that at least looks like you've been in the service?" Wayne, embarrassed and furious, stalked off the set- for the only time in his career.
Robert Montgomery, a fellow veteran, chewed Ford out for this cruel act, telling him “You don't dress down a man in front of the troops.” Ford felt guilty, wept and apologized to Wayne. Ford felt very bad and gave Wayne, as an amends, one of the greatest scenes of his career. In it, Wayne gives a very touching performance, as he reads a poem over a fallen war comrade.
But it was always noticed by friends that although Wayne and Ford were very close friends and were very closely connected for their entire movie careers, there was always a sore spot there, because of Wayne's not serving.
Wayne would sometimes make appearances at a studio event called the "field photo farm," a studio gathering of ex-GI’s to celebrate Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, etc. Wayne would sometimes go to some these affairs at Christmas, and feel very uncomfortable, as all the ex-servicemen would don their military uniforms. He would hang around for while, mingle stiffly, and leave at the easiest opportunity. During the war years, Wayne actually did get into more than one fight with servicemen over his not serving.
Was John Wayne a great villain for not serving his country as a soldier? Of course not. In fact, one of Wayne's many excuses for his deferment was that he could be more of an influence and boost morale better by making his films, inspiring the fighting men. This was, undoubtedly, true.
One of the greatest ironies is Wayne's later attitudes to other young men who chose not to sacrifice their own lives during wartime. During both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Wayne criticized those who did not serve, calling them "soft.” Some claim that Wayne's well-known intense love of country stemmed from the guilt of his not serving.
Wayne had a strange view of himself and his role up until the end of his life. In 1975, Emperor Hirohito of Japan was visiting America and asked to meet the great John Wayne. Wayne was astonished and amazed and said, “I must have killed the entire Japanese Navy.” (!!!!)
In a conversation, late in his life, with John Ford's grandson, Wayne told him that the reason he never served was that he would "only have been a private" and as such, he couldn't have influenced his fellow soldiers very much (this was an absurd and untrue statement).
Was John Wayne a hypocrite? Did he use bad judgement? Did he make a mistake in not serving as a soldier? Did he say some "wrong things"? Was John Wayne a draft dodger?
We all have a right to our own opinions, as did the Duke. Nonetheless, Wayne's "war years" of non-service remain the murkiest chapter in his incredible story. Just exactly why John "the Duke" Wayne chose not to serve during World War II is something only he knew. And like all men, John Wayne took many secrets with him to the grave.
Just one other point, and one other thing I have discovered to be true: It is quite impossible to go through this crazy game we refer to as "life" and not make mistakes. It just is not possible, no matter how hard any of us try, not to occasionally screw up, mess up, do something wrong, unethical or stupid. The many different people we all meet and the crazy, unexpected situations we all encounter, just make living a "perfect life" an impossibility. We all have our own flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings; you, me, and yes---even John Wayne!
Honest, decent people (a great majority of the human race) do, still, try their best. Maybe someday man will evolve into the perfect creature all the philosophers and commoners alike have envisioned for eons. But it hasn't happened yet. And maybe it would be good if we forgave our fellows, as we ourselves would like to be forgiven.