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John Wayne: Why Didn’t the Iconic Actor Serve in the Military?

by Halle Ames
(Photo Credit: RKO Pictures/ Getty Images)

Legendary actor John Wayne serve in the military, during a time where Americans saw draft dodgers as controversial. While some have stamped him with the disdainful title of a draft dodger, Wayne has an interesting reason behind his lack of participation in WWII.

With the USA’s entry into World War II due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many men were drafted to serve their country. Regardless of your status within society, whether you were a mere factory worker or a glittering star in Hollywood, the military called you to suit up and fight.

John Wayne was just starting his career as an A-list movie actor. He was cast for the role in John Ford’s movie Stagecoach in 1939.

Why John Wayne Could Not Serve

At the time of Pearl Harbor, Wayne was 34 years old, which is considered too old to serve.

According to the National World War II Museum, “On September 16, 1940, the United States instituted the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for the draft. This was the first peacetime draft in United States’ history.”

Nowadays, the Selective Service System requires all male U.S citizens and immigrants, ages 18 through 25, to register with the government in the rare case that a draft is needed again.

In addition, John Wayne’s family status released him of duties. He was considered under the 3-A hardship deferment. This made him exempt from serving “because service would cause hardship upon his family.”

John Wayne was 27 when he welcomed his first child, Micheal Wayne, into the world. He was 29 when he had his second daughter, Toni, and 32 when Wayne had Patrick. By age 33 he and his wife had Melinda. In all, John Wayne would have seven children, but at the time of the draft, the government decided he could not leave his four children behind.


However, Wayne wanted to serve his country. He wrote to John Ford numerous times, expressing his wish to enlist. Wayne asked Ford if he could pull some strings for the actor and get him into Ford’s military unit.

John Wayne was reclassified as 1-A. This made him eligible for the draft, but Republic Studios held their grip tight. They were hoping not to lose their only A-list actor. In fact, the studio threatened a lawsuit against John Wayne if we broke his contract to enlist.

According to the U.S. National Archives records, Wayne did apply to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The actor was granted permission, but his acceptance letter went to his estranged wife’s house. She never informed Wayne of the letter.

John Wayne did work for the USO, touring bases and hospitals in the South Pacific for three months in 1943 and 1944.

Randy Roberts’s book, titled John Wayne: American highlighted his dream to serve his country.

“By many accounts, his failure to serve in the military later became the most painful part of his life. His widow later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt. She wrote: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”