It seems the Duke chose to be a megastar millionaire instead of an over-worked, underpaid draftee doing lowly jobs overseas.
John Wayne is undisputedly one of the most popular stars in American history. His vast legacy of films, which set the cinematic standards for the decades to come, granted him immortality and rightly made him an icon.
Though he died in June 1979, he’s still idolized by innumerable people as the face of American ideals and values. Even today, there’s hardly any “favorite film star” list in which the Duke – as the actor is nicknamed – isn’t seen among the top spots.
But despite being hailed by many as “the greatest of the great,” Wayne had a darker side to his personality, unknown even to his closest friends.
The actor frequently played a steadfast, unflinching war hero in his enthralling movies, yet he failed to enlist himself during his own time. His absence from the US military throughout the course of the Second World War became the most agonizing part of his life in the post-war era. It was something which kept haunting him until his death
When the US joined the war in December 1941 after the deadly Pearl Harbor attack, Wayne was in the early stages of his new-found stardom. He had finally gotten his big break in the 1939 hit, Stagecoach, after a tireless effort spanning more than a decade. The actor had been relishing his much-deserved fame for barely two years when the call to arms came.
At first, Wayne was exempted from military service due to his family status and his age. He was 34 at the time and had a wife and four kids to support.
Several other stars, however, joined the ranks despite having a family to support. Henry Fonda, Gene Autry, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Robert Montgomery had all enlisted themselves in spite of having similar circumstances to that of Wayne.
Ronald Reagan, who had also recently got his breakthrough movie King’s Row in 1942, joined the service for the military signal corps, declining several potentially big movies. Many fellow celebrities voluntarily enlisted themselves. As a result, it didn’t take long for Wayne to become the center of controversy.
When asked the reason behind not joining the ranks, the Duke argued that he could, in fact, provide a better service by boosting the morale of the soldiers through his influential and inspiring films. And he wasn’t wrong – the quintessential hero that he used to play in his movies undoubtedly invigorated the spirits of the fighting men.
But sometimes, the actor also came up with absurd excuses to defend himself. For instance, he once claimed that he left some important documents at home and his recently separated wife didn’t let him collect them.
Another time, he said that he couldn’t complete the forms within the stipulated time because he didn’t have access to a typewriter.
Wayne’s failure to enlist was blamed on his splendid lifestyle. And considering the kind of life he was enjoying at the time, one can see where the critics were coming from.
In 1941, after separating from his wife, Wayne was involved in a torrid affair with a sensationally beautiful Latin actress. By then, he had also become a universally loved actor with women of all stripes, ages, and nationalities. Many were willing to spend anything just to be in his company.
Wayne regularly went out for all sorts of adventures – be it riding, hunting, fishing, swimming, or yachting. His excursions to Mexico, where he would heavily indulge in tequila and Latin women, were quite infamous at the time.
On top of that, he had also started making huge investments in various endeavors such as a Culver City motel, a beach club, a country club, apartment buildings, and even oil wells.
It seems the Duke chose to be a megastar millionaire instead of an over-worked, underpaid draftee doing lowly jobs overseas. But no one knows for sure if his glamorous life was why he failed to join the ranks.
For instance, there are several incidents which suggest that Wayne really wanted to enlist himself. On one occasion, Wayne applied to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of CIA, according to US National Archives records.
Though Wayne got selected to the Field Photographic Unit, he never learned about his appointment. His acceptance letter from the OSS Commander, William J. Donovan, was mistakenly sent to his ex-wife who never told him about it.
Wayne also repeatedly told his close friend and director, John Ford, that he wanted to join the ranks. He once wrote to Ford, asking if he could join the director’s military unit, but postponed his enlistment until after finishing a couple of films.
The Duke was re-classified as 1-A (fit for the draft) in 1944 when the US military felt a shortage of men. Though he didn’t prevent his reclassification as 1-A, his studio did.
As the only A-list actor working with them, Republic Studios emphatically resisted his enlistment. The studio interceded and requested his exemption from the service “in support of national interest.”
After some time, the actor was again classed as 1-A, but the studio intervened once more and had him re-classified as 2-A. Wayne also claimed that the studio owner, Peter Yates, had threatened him with a lawsuit if he breached the contract.
Critics assert that Wayne could’ve easily joined the service had he wished. They say that he need not have feared a lawsuit for contract violation because no Hollywood studio carried out such a threat during the war.
Some even claim that it was Wayne himself who pushed the studio to intervene in the Selective Service process and get him deferred.
Irrespective of what kept him from joining the service, the Duke did pay a heavy price for his absence from the war in the form of stigma which lasted until his death – the label of being a “draft dodger.”
Wayne was shamed on countless occasions for his absence from the war by those both distant and close to him, sometimes even by his dearest friends. For instance, Ford once deliberately embarrassed him in front of the entire set while filming the 1945 movie, They Were Expendable, in which the Duke was playing a GI.
As the actor saluted for a scene, Ford sarcastically said, “Duke, can’t you manage a salute that at least looks like you’ve been in the service?” Embarrassed and enraged, Wayne left the set at once for the only time in his life.
Despite being close friends who remained deeply connected for almost their entire careers, a sore point was always there between Wayne and Ford due to Wayne’s failure to serve in the military. He also got into several fights with servicemen during the war because of his alleged “draft dodging.”
And it was probably his guilt of not serving which made him an ardent patriot in the later decades of his life. Wayne’s attitude toward other men who chose not to serve in the subsequent wars was clearly dictated by intense nationalism. He severely criticized those who didn’t enlist for the draft during the Vietnam War, calling them “soft.”
Since Wayne’s death, there has been an extensive debate on whether his absence from the war was justified or whether he was just a draft dodging hypocrite. We can probably never know for sure what kept him from joining the ranks. This knowledge is something he took with him to his grave.