Don’t Call Him Maj. Bambi! Child Actor Donnie Dunagan Was the Youngest Drill Instructor in USMC History

Photo Credit: 1. joaohenriquecaraballo / MovieStillsDB 2. 2nd Lt. Matthew Stott / U.S. Air Force / Goodfellow Air Force Base (Colorized by
Photo Credit: 1. joaohenriquecaraballo / MovieStillsDB 2. 2nd Lt. Matthew Stott / U.S. Air Force / Goodfellow Air Force Base (Colorized by

It’s not unusual to learn that your favorite celebrity once served their country, but what about learning that one of your comrades voiced one of Disney’s most popular animated characters? Former child actor Donnie Dunagan voiced young Bambi in the 1942 film of the same name, but he refused to tell his fellow Marines about his celebrity past. In fact, he kept it a secret throughout his over-two decades of dedicated service.

A talent show leads to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Donnie Dunagan standing on a red carpet
Donnie Dunagan attending a screening of Bambi (1942) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, 2017. (Photo Credit: Liliane Lathan / FilmMagic / Getty Images)

Donnie Dunagan was born on August 16, 1934, in San Antonio, Texas. When he was a toddler, his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where they struggled in the poor economic climate of the Great Depression.

That being said, the young Dunagan found ways to keep himself entertained. He befriended a man who’d tap dance on a street corner near his family’s one-bedroom property and, before long, he himself was learning the craft. The youngster immediately showed promise, going on to win $100 at a talent show at the Orpheum Theatre.

Little did he and his family know that someone was in the audience who would change their lives, if only for a few years.

Donnie Dunagan takes on Hollywood

Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone as Ygor, The Monster and Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in 'Son of Frankenstein'
Son of Frankenstein, 1939. (Photo Credit: nadaone / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

As it turns out, a talent scout was in the audience at the talent show and, as a result of his performance, offered Donnie Dunagan and his family a chance at stardom. The clan subsequently packed up their belongings and relocated to Beverly Hills, California, where they lived a life that was a far cry from their time in Tennessee.

Dunagan appeared in seven features over the course of his four-year-long acting career, and it wasn’t long before he was the main breadwinner in the family. His first role was as Peter Carey in 1938’s Mother Carey’s Chicken, with one of his most famed movies being the following year’s Son of Frankenstein, in which he starred as Peter von Frankenstein.

Lending his voice to Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942)

Still from 'Bambi'
Bambi, 1942. (Photo Credit: JoMaSanRa / MovieStillsDB)

However, it was Walt Disney‘s Bambi (1942) that became the feature Donnie Dunagan became known for. The animated film, which tugged at the heartstrings of audiences, saw the youngster voice young Bambi, with Bobby Stewart, Hardie Albright and John Sutherland also voicing the deer as a baby and as he aged into a stag.

Bambi was the last time Dunagan lent his voice to a character, as he retired from the entertainment industry shortly after the feature’s release. He later said he found himself in an orphanage and, by the time he was 13, he was living in a boarding house, working as a lathe operator.

Drafted into the US Marine Corps

Silhouette of Bambi overlaid on a photo of Donnie Dunagan in his US Marine Corps uniform
Donnie Dunagan during his time in the US Marine Corps. (Photo Credit: 2nd Lt. Matthew Stott / U.S. Air Force / Goodfellow Air Force Base)

In 1952, at the age of 18, Donnie Dunagan was drafted into the US Marine Corps, at a time when the United States was involved in the Korean War. Throughout his over-two decades in the service, he was promoted a then-record 13 times, becoming the youngest drill instructor in the Marine Corps.

Dunagan was deployed to Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in 1967, for what was the first of three deployments during the conflict. He was wounded several times, resulting in him thrice being awarded the Purple Heart. He once said that he has “some holes in my body that God didn’t put there,” referring to wounds he’d suffered to his left leg, the left side of his head, his left lung, his stomach and his scrotum.

Outside of his wartime deployments, Dunagan served as a counterintelligence expert (it was the the middle of the Cold War, after all), and he was even assigned to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego as part of an experiment.

Dunagan retired from the Marine Corps in 1977, with the rank of major. Along with his Purple Hearts, his service saw him receive the Bronze Star, the Navy Presidential Unit Citation with one service star, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat V, the Navy Meritorious Unit Citation, the National Defense Service Medal with one service star and the Vietnam Service Medal with three service stars, among several other decorations.

Donnie Dunagan never revealed his acting past to his comrades

Donnie Dunagan standing on a red carpet
Donnie Dunagan attending a screening of Bambi (1942) during the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo Credit: Jesse Grant / Getty Images for Turner)

Throughout his time in the US Marine Corps, Donnie Dunagan kept his former acting career a secret from his comrades. When asked later in life why he’d decided to keep such a big part of his life from those with whom he served, he said, “I just thought to myself, I don’t think I want all these young Marines to start calling me Major Bambi, and I kept my mouth shut.”

That’s not to say, however, that his secret was fully safe. In fact, he learned a few weeks before his retirement that some of the men he served with did know about his past. He’d been called into his commanding officer’s office to “audit the auditors,” and when he questioned how he could possibly complete the work, he was told, “You’ll audit the auditors. Won’t you, Maj. Bambi.”

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In his post-military life, Dunagan has embraced his time as a child actor, largely because of how much audiences still love and adore Bambi. He’s since accepted the movie and character as part of him, and in his later years has attended events and other celebrations about both the feature and Disney as a whole.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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