In observance of Memorial Day, internationally-respected Disney Historian Jim Korkis has provided the following insight into Walt’s Red Cross service.
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 States 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, and while Walt 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. “He looked so swell in that sailor uniform,” remembered Walt. “So I wanted to join him.” Walt’s other two older brothers, Ray and Herbert, served in the Army, in the newly-formed American Expeditionary Corps.
Walt and a friend, Russell Maas, tried to enlist, but Maas was rejected because his eyesight was poor, and Walt didn’t want to go without his friend. Deflated, they got jobs at the Post Office together. Then Maas found out that the Red Cross Ambulance Corps would accept volunteers as young as 17. They applied as the “St. Johns Brothers,” and were rejected, so the boys planned to sneak away to and sign up. Russell’s mother found his packed suitcase and called Walt’s mother, and they stopped their sons from running away.
While Walt’s parents were not happy about Walt’s plans to go 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 early 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 Walt 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 so many people going to the hospitals were dying. By the time Walt recovered, his unit had sailed without him, so he joined another company awaiting transport to France. While waiting for that unit to be shipped out, the war ended—but they decided to ship out 50 men the following day to aid in the occupation. Walt was number 50 and was shipped out.