Hollywood, like most of America, overwhelmingly supported our effort to defeat Naziism in World War II. The list of top show business stars who gave up their screen career to serve in the military is impressive and extensive. Some, like Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Charles Durning. and Eddie Albert, won medals for heroism. (Click this link for a more complete list, compiled by the awesome Annemarie of ClassicMovieHub.com.)
Many younger men whose acting careers had not yet started, including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Jack Lemmon and Johnny Carson, served with honor, too. Several women who would be important in show business did their bit as well. Teenage Betty White drove a truck on the West Coast delivering supplies, Julia Child served in the American spy service and Audrey Hepburn, as a child under Nazi occupation, was a courier for the French resistance.
It was a point of honor for Americans to serve in the military. Less than 4 percent of men who were drafted ducked the draft. In Hollywood, two prominent stars who were healthy enough and of the right age to serve actively avoided service. One was cowboy hero Roy Rogers. The other was John Wayne.
John Wayne, Draft Dodger?
John Wayne was cheating on his wife with several women, most notably the woman who would later become his second wife. His marriage was on the rocks and his career was very important to him. John Wayne was younger than Henry Fonda or Clark Gable, and the same age as Jimmy Stewart and Gene Autry – all of whom served in active duty. (It should be noted that these men, like Wayne, also had children.) It was a team effort to keep him out of the war. His movie studio, Republic Pictures, worked ceaselessly with John Wayne to do everything possible to keep this conservative super patriot from having to serve his country during the Second World War. When the draft board overturned one of his many deferments and classified him as 1-A, Wayne and the studio immediately appealed. He was reclassified several times. He did nothing illegal. But his actions are completely inconsistent with the image of patriotism and courage he played out in the pretend world of the movies.
To begin with, there was absolutely nothing that prevented John Wayne from simply signing up for duty as so many Hollywood stars did. He did not need to wait to be drafted. He chose not to enlist. The evidence seems to be that he was more worried about his film career and his affair with a comely Mexican woman than with active duty. (According to another author, it was actually Wayne’s extramarital affair with Marlene Dietrich that prevented him from signing up initially.) He did make 13 movies during the war.
He told John Ford’s biographer/grandson:
“I didn’t feel I could go in as a private, I felt I could do more good going around on tours and things…I was America [to the young guys] in the front lines…they had taken their sweethearts to that Saturday matinee and held hands over a Wayne Western. So I wore a big hat and I thought it was better.”
John Wayne did do publicity tours. He had to learn to deal with being booed by active duty military men and he even got into a couple of fistfights with servicemen who were angry about him not serving! Meanwhile, Wayne continued receiving deferments that prevented him from going on active duty. He grew extremely rich and play acted being a soldier in films while other men did the real fighting. His extreme conservatism seems to have been a reaction to the shame he felt about actively avoiding service. His third wife, a beautiful woman from Peru, said Wayne became a “super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying at home” and not serving in the war effort.
John Wayne, Draft Dodger?
Without splitting hairs, it would be wrong to refer to Wayne as a draft dodger. Although he and his studio did everything possible to keep him from active duty in the military, there is nothing to indicate that he would have eventually fled the country or gone to jail rather than serve. But those who extol John Wayne’s often stated patriotism and decry the liberalism of people like Henry Fonda, George McGovern, and Paul Newman (WWII vets) might want to consider why John Wayne actively avoided serving in World War II.