Monday, June 30, 2014

Why didn't Roy Rogers and John Wayne serve in World War II?

Milwaukee Journal, March 14, 1945

Why didn't singing cowboy Roy Rogers serve in World War 2? Or John Wayne, for that matter?

Rogers and Wayne "are forever tainted with the stigma of opting out[,] unlike so many of their contemporaries from the Hollywood community who put country first before family [and] career," Bruce Hickey wrote. Seventy years later, people still have heated opinions about it. Wayne's lack of service has been written about more extensively than Rogers', but both are perennial topics of speculation, justification, and scorn.

A notable contemporary among the actors who enlisted was Gene Autry, who—like Rogers and Wayne—was a Western star under contact to Republic Pictures. Autry was four years older than Rogers and the same age as Wayne.

Autry in the service, still singing

Autry, in a WWII-era interview that is quoted in Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson's book Country Music Goes to War, said:
I think the He-men in the movies belong in the Army, Marine, Navy or Air Corps.  All of these He-men in the movies realize that right now is the time to get into the service. Every movie cowboy ought to devote time to the Army winning, or to helping win, until the war is over—the same as with any other American Citizen. The Army needs all the young men it can get, and if I can set a good example for the young men, I'll be mighty proud.
Roy Rogers, the book says, "received a deferment because of his children," and John Wayne received a deferment thanks to Republic Pictures' efforts, which were driven in part by the studio's unhappiness over losing Autry to the service. 

Roy Rogers

Robert W. Phillips' book Roy Rogers: A Biography... tells a slightly different story. It says that Rogers was classified 1-A, which made him eligible for the draft, but his classification soon changed to 3-A because of his age.

The change in the maximum age limit is also mentioned by Adam Lounsbery, who wrote:
A lot of men were drafted during World War II. Roy Rogers was one of them. With a 1-A classification, he expected to be shipped out in the spring of 1945. Consequently, screenwriter John K. Butler (working from a story by Leon Abrams) came up with a script to showcase Rogers’s leading lady, Dale Evans. When V-E Day rolled around, however, the draft board exempted men over the age of 30 who had children, so Rogers never had to serve. Director Frank McDonald’s Sunset in El Dorado ended up starring both 'The King of the Cowboys' and 'The Queen of the West'....
And yet another story appears in Raymond E. White's book King of the Cowboys, Queen of the West: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. White writes:
Rogers carried a 1-A draft classification, but he never entered the service. Carlton Stowers, who helped Rogers with his autobiography, says that at the point of Roy's induction, the Selective Service lowered the maximum age limit for men being drafted. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times indicates that the star's draft was deferred so that he could 'make a previously scheduled tour of military hospitals.'
(The Los Angeles Times article that White refers to is from March 21, 1945, one week after the Milwaukee Journal article that can be seen in the image at the top of this page.)

Just to recap, the reasons we've heard so far for Rogers' deferment have been children, age, age plus children, and so that he could continue his movie star activities.
John Wayne
According to the draft classifications as they were during World War 2, Roger's change to 3-A—a deferment for "Men with dependents, not engaged in work essential to national defense"—was granted because of his kids, not because of his age. It's unclear whether Republic helped to wrangle the deferment, but in John Wayne's case, the studio appears to have intervened repeatedly. 

Scott Eyman, in John Wayne: The Life and Legend, says that Wayne was reclassified from 3-A to 2-A after "a deferment claim was filed by a third party—undoubtedly Herbert Yates and Republic. The 2-A classification meant that the registrant had a talent or skill not replaceable by another person." (Rogers was never classified 2-A.) Wayne continued to be the subject of third-party deferment claims until the end of the war, at which point he was classified 4-A, which was an age-related deferment.

Eyman points out that Wayne didn't entirely avoid service—he applied for the Office of Strategic Services in 1943, because he wanted to serve in a photo unit with director John Ford. Nevertheless, Wayne caught some flak even during the war years for his choice not to serve. Garry Wills' book John Wayne's America says that John Ford needled Wayne about it during the filming of They Were Expendable in 1945, resulting in Wayne storming off the set. 

As other Hollywood actors enlisted, Rogers and Wayne both benefited from the shrinking number of leading men who were available to star in motion pictures. Bruce Hickey, writing about John Wayne, said:
The fact that so many leading men were in the service [and] Wayne free to make movies greatly enhanced his career. It is doubtful if he would have gained the notoriety to the extent he enjoyed as a movie star had he gone into the services for 3-4 years.
And Rogers, with Autry out of the picture, quickly rose to become the leading Western actor at the box office. Dubbed the "King of the Cowboys," he starred in 50 films during World War 2. Autry, in contrast, made no films between Bells of Capistrano in 1942 and Sioux City Sue in 1946.

Bottom line: Rogers and Wayne could have served if they'd wanted to, but they weren't required to serve, so they didn't. Both were under pressure from Republic to keep making movies, and deferments were pursued more aggressively in Wayne's case than in Rogers'. It's not clear to me that Rogers' deferments were specifically applied for, but the eleventh-hour deferment just as he was about to report for duty is a bit of a coincidence. In any case, both actors took advantage of their deferments while many older actors, such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda, chose to serve. 

Some of Rogers' wartime activities benefited the war effort. He sold war bonds (reportedly more than any other Hollywood star) and spent a lot of time entertaining troops at USO shows and generally keeping up American morale. 

Someone recently argued that Wayne contributed to the war effort by "extolling military virtues." Some of the military movies in which he appeared served as wartime propaganda.  His third wife, Pilar, wrote in her biography of Wayne, John Wayne: My Life with the Duke, that he became "a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home." 

Despite any lingering resentment the public had over Roger's and Wayne's decisions to opt out of military service, both actors enjoyed robust careers in the postwar decades—in part because of the visibility they enjoyed onscreen from not having served. By not serving, they were both vilified and rewarded.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. John Wayne is and has always been my favorite Hollywood Star and Hero, due to his Great Acting and the Type of Films he Starred in, especially Westerns. He has always stood out to me as a True American, that Loved His Country and stood for nothing but Good and Patriotic. I hadn't Realized He had never Served His Country in the Military. I realized this after doing research on my Computer and have read many articles covering this Fact. I ended up with an empty feeling about this and wondered if I had been Idolizing someone I shouldn't have, as I read more and more, I could not find a real hard reason for Him not Serving His country as I had done ! I have found many reasons for His Decision to not Serve, but none that I felt were Justifiable especially with all of the other Stars willingness to Serve. I see that His Decision did in Fact do a lot of Good that was actually needed in Our Country during Time of War and that John received so many Great Awards because of this that in a way He was still a Hero to His Country, but His Image to me didn't really diminish but I guess you could say it had picked up a bit of Tarnish !!!

    1. As a vet you should despise this coward as much as you can. He is not a hero as you stated. He is a coward.

    2. My father and 2 of his brothers served in WWII without being drafted. Actually, dad and his twin brother fudged their age by a few months so they could join and be allowed to serve together. He loved both Roy Rogers and John Wayne. We even met Roy on several occasions. From what I read above neither of them started the deferments but may not have argued deferment either. It has been 70 years. Everyone has their path. We must forgive what we weren't involved with and let it go.

    3. By 1941 Roy was called to service, but was turned down because he was over the age of 26 and already had a family. He tried volunteering for the Army, but again turned down. He was 4 years over the age limit. Already at the age of 30 and having a family he had to settle for the next best thing. Roy made 126 appearances in 20 days selling War Bonds in cities all over Texas. He sold more than any other Hollywood celebrity and that was only the beginning.. Roy along with Trigger put his high energy into supporting the troops until the war was over.

    4. Who authorized you to say as a should...If he's a Vet.he earned the right to say and feel any way he wants !!! I joined the Army and didn't get out till. 11 Nov.1972.That didn't make me a hero.If you were drafted and served you were in the same situation.If you stood by and your number didn't come up you were just lucky.The cowards ran to Canida and "Sat it out" like a "punk".If you actually did serve,You would respect the opinions of fellow Vets.If you agreed or not ! ! !

  3. There is a reason for everything in life.. God put John Wayne and ROY Rogers where he felt they would be needed the most. ROY Rogers sold the most war bonds of anyone and dedicated much of his time entertaining the troops and military hospitals. He gave a lot of himself not only during wartime, but for the rest of his life!

    1. Yes, and it wasn't my intention to criticize either one of them. I was only interested in their stories.

  4. Perhaps their stock should not drop, so much as ''lesser'' stars, who did serve and their careers suffered or their health should be thought more of. Exploits on the screen are merely entertainment and our own live are important.

  5. maybe they did more good my keeping kids and families entertained at home.roy I still remember like yesterday , I am 72 cheers

  6. If Rogers receive a deferment because he had children. That excuse, or reason is total bullshit. One of my uncles was drafted and was wounded in France, and he had six children at home and a pregnant wife. As a veteran, I wil always believe that celebrities who failed to serve showed a streak of cowardice.

    1. I agree with unknown. My pop served and he was 27 and had a newborn. He was wounded and sent back to the front and served for the duration of the war. His career was interrupted. My sister was two before she saw him. Why were Wayne's and Roger's careers and personal lives so precious?

  7. Money was more important than their country. I cannot watch a John Wayne film. Ironically, he's worn every U.S. service uniform there is--in the movies. This veteran has nothing but scorn for him. My Great Uncle was drafted at age 44 toward the end of the war.

  8. Compare either of these two "patriots" to Jimmy Stewart and see how a true American served. Al Davis

  9. I iodilized john Wayne as a boy,l am a peace time veteran but served honorably and only in middle age have I come to realize he ducked the war. What is most appauling to me is he then draped himself in the american flag for the rest of his life,no combat vet ever does this,its like Stallone dodging Vietnam and then making rambo,did he donate any money to those brave men who came home to a hostile nation? I'm betting no. Shame on both of them

  10. I agree with you, Thomas. My father was considerably younger than withe Rogers or Wayne, but he and his three brothers) all went into service w/o being drafted. My father was badly wounde din the So.Pacific and discharged finally in 1943. In later years, when he elarned the truth about "Duke" Wayne, he understandably became angry even many years later. I wonder how many still have the misstaken impression this "oversized coward" ran from war service, but was only too happy to encourage others to serve when he starred in THE GREEN BERETS?

  11. Oops! I should have stated "how many still have the mistaken impression this"oversized coward" SERVED during the war years, but ran from war service..., etc."

    My own guess is a large number yet think Wayne was an actual veteran of the conflict. Perhaps blogs like this one will help others see the actual man apart from the myth.