|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:
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.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.
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:
(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.)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.'
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.
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.