Think about John Wayne, and his classic war movies like “The Sands of Iwo Jima” come to mind. Wars create heroes, and World War II was no exception.
Everyday men and women went above and beyond the call of duty, and many Hollywood stars did their part too. Future “Gunsmoke” star James Arness earned a Purple Heart in Italy, Henry Fonda won a Bronze Star in the U.S. Navy, and Jimmy Stewart flew combat missions in Europe.
Wayne was not allowed to be one of these heroes.
Too Valuable for War
John Wayne was 34 when the Pearl Harbor attack took place in December 1941. He registered for Selective Service and received an exemption because of his age and the fact that he had a wife and four children. Early in the war, this was not uncommon, but the 3-A deferment was supposed to be temporary.
In 1943, Wayne was again eligible for the draft, but it still didn’t happen. This time, Republic Pictures submitted a 2-A occupational deferment on his behalf. His breakthrough role in the 1939 classic “Stagecoach,” directed by John Ford, made him a dependable box-office moneymaker, and Republic wanted him on hand to make multiple pictures every year.
Still, Wayne professed his desire to serve and wrote Ford, who was also a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, to plead with him for help enlisting. It was to no avail. Republic Pictures President Herbert J. Yates threatened to sue Wayne if he abandoned his studio contract to join the military.
In the end, the closest Wayne got to the war was a three-month USO tour through the South Pacific to U.S. bases and hospitals in 1943 and 1944.
Wayne Makes Amends
John Wayne never lived down that he didn’t serve in World War II. His third wife, Pilar Wayne, described how he coped: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”
Wayne’s efforts to be a “superpatriot” included multiple roles in movies set during the war. These included “The Flying Leathernecks” (1951), “The Longest Day” (1962), and “They Were Expendable” (1946). The most famous was “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), where he played tougher-than-nails Marine Sergeant John Stryker.
John Wayne’s Legacy
Today, most people don’t know about John Wayne’s failure to serve his country during World War II. Nor do they worry about it like he did. For them, Wayne will be forever known for his larger-than-life persona on film, not for his life offscreen.