Walt Disney Served As An Ambulance Driver for the Red Cross During World War I

Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Getty Images

Growing up, Walt Disney had a passion for drawing. He pursued this as he matured, turning sketching into not just a career, but the biggest animation studio in the world. Disney had other passions, too, and one of those was serving his country in times of war. Unfortunately, he was either too young or too old to enlist during World War I and II, meaning he had to find other ways to contribute to the war effort.

Walt Disney’s early life

Walt Disney working at his drawing desk
Walt Disney, 1930. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Walter “Walt” Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. In 1906, his family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where he spent his younger years developing his initial interest in art. While in Missouri, he received a commission to draw the horse of a retired neighborhood doctor, sparking his knack for drawing.

Disney’s father, Elias, had purchased a subscription to the Appeal to Reason newspaper, which the youngster used to practice his skills; he’d copy the front-page illustrations. Branching out and experimenting with different art mediums, Disney also tried his hand at watercolors and crayons.

After briefly moving to Kansas City, the family returned to Chicago, where Disney enrolled at McKinley High School. He became a cartoonist for the school newspaper, taking a particular liking to sketching patriotic cartoons about the First World War.

Trying to enlist while underage

Walt Disney dressed in graduation regalia while holding dolls of his cartoon characters
Walt Disney, 1938. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Walt Disney was inspired at a young age to serve his country. His older brother, Roy, enlisted in the US Navy in June 1917, which made Disney want to join the war effort even more. “He looked so swell in that sailor uniform,” he once recalled. “So I wanted to join him.” His two other older brothers, Ray and Herbert, also joined the US Army, serving as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

In an attempt to serve in WWI, a 16-year-old Disney tried to drop out of school and enlist in the Army (some sources say Navy). Unfortunately for him, he was rejected for being underage. Next, he and a friend attempted to join the Canadian Armed Forces, but his pal, Russell Maas, was rejected due to poor eyesight and Disney didn’t want to serve without him.

Undiscouraged, the young Disney forged the date of his birth on his birth certificate, so it looked like he was of age to join the Red Cross. The organization accepted him in September 1918, and he was trained as an ambulance driver.

World War I was over before Walt Disney arrived in France

Walt Disney standing with a Ford Model T ambulance
Walt Disney while an ambulance driver with the Red Cross, 1919. (Photo Credit: Unknown / Chicago Red Cross Stories / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Training for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps took place at Camp Scott, a temporary encampment at an old amusement park near the University of Chicago. To learn how to repair the ambulances, if needed, and drive on rough terrain, mechanics of the Yellow Cab Company spent weeks instructing the recruits. After this, they were subjected to two weeks of military training.

When Disney was sent to France in November 1918, the armistice had already been signed. Despite this, he made the most of his time overseas, explaining to his daughter, Diana, “The things I did during those eleven months I was overseas added up to a lifetime of experience. It was such a valuable experience that I feel that if we have to send our boys into the Army we should send them even younger than we do. I know being on my own at an early age has made me more self-reliant.”

While serving as an ambulance driver, Disney often drew cartoons on the canvas sides of the Ford Model Ts, providing humor to increase morale. He even had some published the in US Army newspaper.

Was Walt Disney dishonorably discharged?

Walt Disney speaking while sat at a table
Walt Disney, 1954. (Photo Credit: Raymond Kleboe / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

A rumor has long circulated that Walt Disney was dishonorably discharged. However, this can’t be true, as he never served in the US military. He himself explained what sparked the story.

“It was in February… they sent me with a white truck,” he later recalled. “I was the driver and I had a helper. A white truck loaded with beans and sugar to the devastated area in Soissons. Well, I went out of Paris and it started to snow. I got up part way and I burned out a bearing on the truck, close to a watchman’s shed…

“So, the orders were never to leave your truck. Sugar and beans were gold,” he continued. “So the helper was supposed to go, and I’d stay with the truck. There was this little watchman’s shed… and I sat with the watchman. I sat two nights and no help came. So, the third day I was so tired, so sleepy, that I left my truck and walked up to this town and ordered a meal. Then I got a bed and I flopped into this French bed. And I slept clear around the clock.”

When Disney returned, the truck had disappeared. After hopping on a train back to Paris, he figured out what’d happened, saying, “This helper got into Paris and went out that night before he reported to the headquarters… and got drunk and he was drunk for two days. Then he finally reported and he came to find me. I was gone and he picked up the truck. So I was court-martialed.”

When stood before the board, a man he’d worked for came to Disney’s defense, exclaiming, “‘Look, this boy sat there for two nights.’ He said, ‘What happened to the helper?’ He said, ‘Have you court-martialed the helper?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ He was in the brig.” In the end, Disney was let off.

Offering support during World War II

Walt Disney standing with four US military officials in his office
Walt Disney with US military personnel, 1942. (Photo Credit: US Army / PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

Walt Disney was too old to serve in the Second World War, but he still did what he could to support the war effort. “Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life,” he once said of the conflict. To encourage these ideals, he partnered with the US military to create short films to boost morale, both at home and overseas.

During WWII, long after Disney Studios had been established, he formed the Walt Disney Training Films Unit, committing 90 percent of his workforce to developing instructional and propaganda films. Working with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., he created the Donald Duck short film, The Spirit of ’43, which encouraged Americans to purchase war bonds.

Over the course of the conflict, Disney Studios produced 400,000 feet of military-related film material. In 1943, the short film, Der Fuehrer’s Face, was so popular that it won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. However, these came at a cost, as the studio only ever made enough revenue to cover production.

More from us: Before Becoming Hollywood’s Leading Man, Kirk Douglas was Chasing Japanese Submarines In the Pacific

In addition to helping the war effort through film, Disney was also tasked with designing emblems for the US military. In 1942, he developed the insignia for a new fleet of US Navy torpedo boats known as “mosquito boats,” depicting a mosquito riding atop a torpedo. Disney made over 1,200 emblems for the Navy and US Army, and did so without expecting any compensation in return. They were displayed on various military vehicles, flight jackets and equipment.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!