Monday, August 24, 2009

John Wayne, What a Difference a Generation Makes

I very much enjoyed reading William Manchester’s account of his service in the Pacific during World War II, Goodbye Darkness. His Marine Regiment fought on Okinawa and suffered 81% casualties. Of his circle of friends, one got a million-dollar wound, one was grievously injured, one came through without a scratch and the rest all died.

Manchester himself got a million dollar wound, meaning he had a slight injury bad enough to take him out of combat, but not bad enough to permanently disable him. However, after a day of enjoying good food, clean sheets and radio broadcasts, he went AWOL to rejoin his unit. The next day, Manchester’s luck ran out. He was seriously injured by a huge Japanese mortar shell that killed two of his friends. He had walked back to the aid station, but was carried off of the island. He spent the next few months in a hospital in Hawaii. During his stay in the hospital, he was in a large group of Marines who had been wounded on Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Some of those young men were so badly injured that to attend a movie at the base, they had to be carried in on stretchers.

One night, someone in the public relations department did something that probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The actor John Wayne showed up at the theater in his cowboy outfit. The young Marines watched in stunned silence and then they booed John Wayne off the stage. As Manchester later related, John Wayne was a n actor doing a macho act, and those young Marines had had macho acts up to their eyeballs.

From the research I’ve done, John Wayne was not a draft dodger. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was 34 years old, a married man with four children. He could have joined the service if he wanted to, but chose to pursue his career instead. (Editorial comment: I don’t think it’s reprehensible, but it is interesting that Wayne’s pal, Jimmy Stewart, a year older and also married with children, volunteered to join the Army Air Corps and enter the war as a full colonel in command of a bombardment group of B-24s.)

Ironically, twenty-six years later, in January 1973, when the POWs from the Vietnam War were welcomed back , President Nixon invited them to a dinner at the White House. One of the special guests that evening was none other than John Wayne. He played his role quite well. The Duke stepped up to the podium and said, “I’d be proud to ride off into the sunset with you anytime.” The POWs graciously have Wayne an ovation.

It’s interesting how two different generations perceived the man.

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