World War One Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

During World War II, many employees of the Disney Studio left to join various branches of the armed forces.  When Card Walker came up and told Walt that he was leaving the Studio to join the Navy, Walt first tried to talk him out of it and then eventually said, “You’re a lucky guy.  I’d like to go myself.”

Walt was either too young or too old when the United Stares went to war and as a result was never a member of any of the branches of the armed forces.  However, Walt grew up in a time when it was an honor and an obligation as an American to serve your country. 

"Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life," Walt  stated during World War II.

“Once a man has tasted freedom he will never be content to be a slave.  That is why I believe that this frightfulness we see everywhere today is only temporary.  Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life.  All men will want to be free and share our way of life.  There must be so much that I should have said and haven’t," he added. " What I will say now is just what most of us are probably thinking every day.  I thank God and America for the right to live and raise my family under the flag of tolerance, democracy, and freedom.

“Recently, I was invited to see a show on America, and as I sat there watching and listening I felt both proud and thrilled; thrilled with the voices, thrilled with the sounds, proud of the group of one hundred talented young Americans singing about our country," he said. "The songs that make me proud of being an American."

To learn more about the Disney Studios and its many contributions to the various branches of the armed services during World War II, make sure you visit David Lesjak’s Web site (link) that I highly recommend as accurate, entertaining, and filled with surprises not found anywhere else.

While Walt Disney never served in the armed services, he was always one of the strongest supporters of Americans in uniform even as a teenager in Kansas City, Missouri.

During World War I, Walt drew patriotic cartoons for his high school newspaper.  Those drawings displayed his passionate support for the troops and included helpful suggestions like buying saving stamps or eating less so more food could be sent overseas for the troops. A caricature of The Kaiser usually took the brunt of Walt’s youthful fervor as did people who Walt felt were "slackers" since they hadn’t joined up to fight the Huns.

Walt’s older brother, Roy, joined the Navy on June 22, 1917 and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago.  He was eventually transferred to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was assigned to transporting material between New York and France.

"He looked so swell in that sailor uniform," remembered Walt.  "So I wanted to join him."

When Walt visited his brother, he was mistaken for a new recruit and was almost shipped off with Roy.

Walt’s other two older brothers, Ray and Herbert, served in the Army in the newly formed American Expeditionary Corps.

Russell Maas (a friend of Walt;s who worked at the Post Office)  found that the Canadian army would accept young volunteers so Russell and Walt planned to sneak out and cross the border to sign up.  Russell;s mother found his packed suitcase and called Walt’s mother and they stopped their sons from running away.

Russell was also the one who found out that the American Ambulance Corps, that was part of the Red Cross, would accept volunteers as young as 16.  While Walt’s parents were not happy about the plan of Walt going overseas, they reluctantly allowed him to sign up when he pleaded, "I don;t want my grandchildren asking me 'Why weren't you in the war?  Were you a slacker?'"

In one of his first artistic endeavors, Walt altered his birth date on his passport application from "1901" to "1900" so that he could go and serve his country.  The Disney Archives has that famous document and once you know to look at the date closely, the forgery is obvious.

The two boys received uniforms and reported to Camp Scott, which was a temporary encampment at a burned out amusement park near the University of Chicago.  Mechanics of the Yellow Cab Company taught them how to repair motors, assemble and disassemble cars and drive vehicles over rough terrain for two weeks and then the boys got two weeks of rough military drills.

An influenza epidemic struck Chicago and Walt became so sick he was released to go home so his parents could take care of him since many people going to the hospitals were dying.  By the time Walt recovered and reported back to his unit, the war had ended.  However, drivers were still needed overseas to help with evacuating the troops, so Walt was sent off to France roughly seven days after the Armstice (November 11, 1918).

Walt spoke only positively of his time in France and told his daughter Diane: "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…"

He sent an illustrated letter to his high school magazine and it was filled with drawings of soldiers and prisoners of war.   He created a cartoon character of a "doughboy" and drew it on the canvas sides of the ambulances. 

Walt earned extra money by teaming up with another young soldier who had created a sideline enterprise of selling souvenirs to homeward bound soldiers.  While the other young man obtained German helmets, Walt used his artistic skill to transform them into very rare German sniper helmets by making them look battle scared with quick drying shellac, some paint, banging them up, shooting a bullet hole into them and attaching hair and dried blood.  The two boys made quite a lot of money to send home. 

First, Walt was billeted in a chateau in St. Cyr that was so dank and chilly he wrapped himself in newspapers before going to sleep. The food was primarily pork and beans. Later, he was transferred to an Evacuation hospital in Paris.  He was assigned to the motor pool. He spent his spare time drawing posters, cartoons for soldiers, and painting cartoons on jackets.

Walt spent much of his time chauffeuring around army officers and special dignitaries including General Pershing's 10-year-old son. Walt gained quite a reputation as a top tour guide.

One of the many urban legends that surrounded Walt after his death was that he was dishonorably discharged. The short answer is that Walt was never in the military so he couldn’t be discharged either honorably or dishonorably.

The legend about Walt Disney's dishonorable discharge seems to have begun with someone claiming that Walt purposely hung his release from the Red Cross upside-down behind his desk as his displeasure with his experience in France. For the record, nothing was hung upside down in Walt’s office.

The story was that Walt supposedly hung his dishonorable discharge on the wall of his office for everyone to see on his weekly television show. Walt's office on the television broadcasts was just a set mocked up to suggest his real office.

As the error was repeated over and over (including being repeated on official tours of the Pentagon and shared with recruits in basic training), Walt's volunteer duty with the Red Cross (a civilian organization) was mistaken for actual military service, and his release was transformed into a dishonorable discharge.

Some versions of the legend included the detail that an influential congressman had offered to "fix" Disney's discharge and turn it into an honorable one, but Walt declined the favor.

Why people believe that Disney would have been proud of a dishonorable discharge or disliked his time in France is rather puzzling considering all the evidence to the contrary.

However, most legends have some basis in fact and here is the true story as told by Walt himself:

"It was in February. . . They sent me with a white truck. 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. 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.

"And then I went back and my truck was gone… I didn't know what had happened… I got a train into Paris. When I got into Paris, I found out the story. 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. They brought me up before this board, and… the greatest disgrace would be to be kicked out of the Red Cross, you know…

"Then this fellow that I had worked for… came to my defense… He was almost like my attorney He said '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. So they let me off."

So basically, Walt and his assistant drove a truck with beans and sugar but the truck threw a rod in a deserted section and Walt sent the assistant for help.  Walt stayed with the truck for three days and finally stumbled into a village inn and fell asleep on the bed for 24 hours. When he awoke, the truck was gone. He hitched a ride on a train back to Paris. His assistant had gone off on a two day drunk before reporting the breakdown. The disabled truck with its cargo intact was towed back. Walt faced serious charges of abandoning his vehicle. A friendly sergeant spoke on his behalf that Walt had done all that was physically possible by remaining with the truck for three days and that after all, Walt was only 16 years old! The review board of officers agreed and no discipline was imposed. Walt’s assistant landed in the guardhouse.

One of the last things Walt did before he left Paris to return home was to get a photograph taken of himself in his khaki uniform. He had spent roughly a year in France. However, his experience only increased his affection and respect for the American men and women in uniform and when World War II started almost two decades later, Walt committed all the resources of his Studio to helping the war effort.