This week marks the 116th anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth. You’ve heard about Mickey, Minnie and Donald, but did you know about Walt’s dishonorable discharge from the military?
If not, that’s good: because it never happened. But like many things, this rumor is based in some facts.
Back in 1918, a 16-year-old Walt wanted to join the Army and fight in World War I. The Army said no due to his age, so Disney forged the date on his birth certificate and joined the American Ambulance corps, which was a division of the Red Cross. In November, just days after the war ended, Disney’s outfit was shipped to France.
He was assigned to an evacuation hospital in Paris. He drove trucks, ambulances and schlepped officers all over the place. In February 1919, Disney and another driver were picked to take a truck load of beans and sugar the 80 miles from Paris to Soissons. The truck broke down in the cold countryside. Walt sent the other person back to Paris by train while he stayed with the truck of supplies. After waiting for two days, Disney set out to the nearest village in search for food and shelter. After sleeping for almost an entire day, he returned to where he left the truck, only to find that it was missing.
Come to find out, the other driver decided that a two day drunken bender was in order. He finally made his way back and let the Americans know about the truck. It was towed back to Paris. When he returned to his Parisian headquarters, Walt faced a disciplinary board for abandoning his truck. The board found that he had taken steps to safeguard the vehicle and decided to not dismiss him from his duty.
The legend about the dishonorable discharge seems to come from an idea that Walt hung his release from the Red Cross upside down behind his desk. It has even been said that Walt hung the certificate on the wall of his office so the world could see it on the weekly TV shows. The problem with this is the office shown on TV was simply a soundstage, his real office was never shown on TV.
Nothing was ever hung upside down behind Walt’s desk. Somehow the rumor was started as a sign of Disney’s displeasure with his experience in France. Over time, the volunteer duty with the Red Cross, which is a civilian organization, morphed into actual military service. This rumor was even picked up and spread during official tours at the Pentagon, and even told to recruits in basic training.
During World War II, Disney formed the Walt Disney Training Films Unit inside of Disney and made military training films like Four Methods of Flush Riveting. He also produced a short Donald Duck cartoon to promote war bonds. His Der Fuehrer’s Face, which was originally called Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film in 1943. This short is considered to be #22 on the list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all times.