Walt Disney embarked upon his first great adventure when he joined the Red Cross and was shipped out to war-torn France, where he had his first drink, drew some of his first cartoons, and narrowly avoided court-martial. It was a coming of age for an under-aged Walt.
With World War I raging in Europe, Walt wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Roy and enlist. But he was too young. The Red Cross needed drivers and wasn't so picky about age. With his mother's permission, and a clever forgery, Walt became a driver for the Red Cross in France, an experience that closed his childhood and put him on the road to the man he would become.
In David Lesjak's engagingly written, extensively researched "In the Service of the Red Cross", you'll learn about this little-known time in Walt Disney's life:
With over 50 PHOTOS, many of them never seen before.
It’s a side of Walt you’ve never seen, before Mickey, before the fame, when he was just a doughboy named Walt Disney.
Chapter 1: The Disney Family Tree
Chapter 2: “The War to End All Wars”
Chapter 3: Brothers in Arms
Chapter 4: Adventures in Chicago
Chapter 5: Over There, Almost
Chapter 6: Journey Across the Atlantic
Chapter 7: On the Move
Chapter 8: Artistic Endeavors
Chapter 9: The First Alice in Walt Disney’s Life
Chapter 10: The Charge of the Cordwood Brigade
Chapter 11: Fresh Eggs and Fresh Stories
Chapter 12: Homeward Bound — No Dog and No Girlfriend
Chapter 13: New Horizons
Chapter 14: A Well Deserved Trip
Chapter 15: Fond Recollections and a Friendship Renewed
Chapter 16: Disney, Howell, and General Pershing
Chapter 17: A Happy Reunion
Chapter 18: Back Home in Nebraska
Chapter 19: World War Once More on the Horizon
Chapter 20: Alice Again Goes to War
Chapter 21: Walt Goes to War, Again
Chapter 22: “My Wonderful Friend, Miss Howell”
Appendix A: Red Cross Volunteer
Appendix B: The Passing of Alice Howell
Books Cited in the Text
Walt Disney was proud of being an American, his patriotism deeply ingrained and worn with honor and humility. Where did that patriotic spirit come from? And how did it develop?
Nearly fifty years after Walt’s passing, there exists a community of archivists, educators, historians, filmmakers, and storytellers whose efforts explore and expand our understanding of Walt Disney: the man and his legacy. I am privileged to have been a part of this community for 40-odd years, beginning as an archivist for Walt Disney Productions, and continuing today as a consulting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum and various divisions of The Walt Disney Company.
Author David Lesjak is a respected member of this special group. I first “met” him by email in 2006 while I was working with Diane Disney Miller and her family in developing the museum presenting the life, work, and legacy of her father. A noted researcher specializing in Disney memorabilia and particularly Disney’s involvement in World War II, Lesjak graciously shared his knowledge and generously offered key pieces from his collection to help us tell the story of Walt and the studio during those difficult days.
In 2014, Lesjak published through Theme Park Press Service with Character: The Disney Studios and World War II, a comprehensive study of Walt and the studio’s efforts in supporting America and the Allied Forces. Now Lesjak has turned his attention to Walt’s early patriotic adventures when, as a teenager too young to serve in America’s armed forces during World War I, he joined the Red Cross and drove cars, trucks, and ambulances in France at the end of the war. Lesjak takes us through Walt’s early life before boarding the British steamship that carried him and his mates across the Atlantic to the experience that turned the boy into a man.
Walt Disney’s adventures as a driver during “the Great War” and its aftermath strengthened his patriotic spirit, so for Lesjak the story doesn’t end upon Walt’s return to America in 1919. We see his longstanding friendship with Alice Howell, who ran the Red Cross canteen in Neufchâteau from which he enjoyed her homemade doughnuts. After the war, when he had gained international acclaim for the creation of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, they renewed their acquaintance via a series of letters, and in 1935 she even arranged for one of Walt’s long-standing patriotic dreams to come true—but you’ll have to read the book to find out just what that was. Through their correspondence you’ll gain a special and very personal view of Walt Disney and his thoughts, not only about their shared experiences during World War I, but also his concerns and efforts during the Second World War—as it was happening.
Lesjak also provides extensive quotes by Walt Disney himself, from the series of interviews conducted in 1956 by journalist Pete Martin for articles published in the Saturday Evening Post under Diane Disney Miller’s byline.
Combining solid scholarship with an easy-to-read storytelling style, Lesjak’s account of Walt’s early adventures and service in the Red Cross—and beyond—presents a fascinating and little-known view of the man whose name still conjures magic around the world.
This book explores the early life of Walter Elias Disney. While much has been written about Disney’s life and his many accomplishments, not a great deal has been written about his youthful escapades and the early events that helped shape his personality, work ethic, and overall outlook on life. One of those early adventures included a trip overseas to France at the end of World War One.
Walt celebrated his 17th birthday in France, where he served as a volunteer driver with the Red Cross. Disney was responsible for transporting supplies from warehouses to hospitals and canteens in and around Paris and the surrounding countryside. His superiors asked him to play the role of tour guide, and on one such occasion he took a general’s son to the birthplace of a French heroine for a picnic lunch. When he had some down time, Disney earned extra money creating doctored souvenirs with the help of another volunteer—these trinkets were sold to unsuspecting soldiers passing through the quaint French village he was posted to at the time, and he was tasked with overseeing a work party composed of German prisoners—all of these feats were not the typical things 17-year olds would normally be doing. But then, the word typical hardly defines who Walt Disney was and what he was on his way to becoming.
In the Service of the Red Cross tells the story of Walt’s “coming of age”. Join Walt and relive this thrilling time in his life, as told through rare letters, postcards, and photographs, many of which have never been published before. You’ll “hear” Walt recall his exciting, overseas adventure—a journey that fortified his independent streak and set him on the path to becoming one of the world’s most beloved entertainers. Also featured are early images of art Walt created in a scrapbook while in France that he sent home to a high school love interest—these very rare and unique images make their first public appearance in this book.
As Walt told journalist Pete Martin in 1956, “All of those things that I did [when]...I was over there, I had a lifetime wrapped up in experience and everything. It was such a valuable thing for me.”
David Lesjak has been writing about the history of Walt Disney and his studio since the mid-1980s. He has had dozens of Disney-related articles published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. In 2000, David wrote and self-published Toons at War, which explored Disney’s participation in World War II. A second edition of the book was issued in 2014 by Theme Park Press under the revised title Service with Character.
In 2007, Walt Disney’s daughter, the late Diane Disney Miller, asked David to join the staff of The Walt Disney Family Museum as a Consultant, Special Projects. One of David’s areas of expertise is Walt Disney’s involvement in World War II. He used his knowledge of the subject to help museum staff design the layout and content of the display cases in Gallery 6—The War Years. David also conducted personal research for Diane.
David has presented lectures on a variety of Disney topics at The Walt Disney Family Museum, the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet, and various Disney fan events. Topics have included the history of Disney’s Hyperion Avenue studio, Disney-designed World War II combat insignia, the 1930s Mickey Mouse Club, the life and times of Disney merchandising rep Kay Kamen, and vintage Disney Christmas collectibles from the 1930s.
David maintains an archive of Disney research material from the 30s and 40s including photographs, newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, as well as audio files. He is currently writing a reference guide that will explore all of Walt Disney’s 600+ personal awards—everything from statues, trophies, medals, and certificates, to one-of-a-kind presentation art honoring Walt Disney the man and Walt Disney the entertainer.
In his spare time, David runs two blogs, vintagedisneymemorabilia.blogspot.com and toonsatwar.blogspot.com, and he is the co-administrator of two Facebook groups, The Friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum and Disney and the War.
David’s other hobby is interviewing World War II veterans. He lives in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Walt Disney talks about some of the ways he earned pocket change while in France, making use of his budding artistic talents.
When he wasn’t busy doing odd jobs, Walt put his creative talent to use designing canteen posters touting the “hot chocolate they had for the troop trains, and the shower baths”, as well as humorous illustrations for his coworkers. The budding artist remarked:
I used to do special things for the guys. They’d say, “Look, I want to send one to my girl. Will you make one of this and that,” and I used to try and draw the caricature of the guy to send home. I’d pick up money that way. I made money decorating…anything they wanted decorated, you know? I had pictures all over…I put little [pictures] on my cammie [camouflage] net on this truck. I found out that the inside and outside of an ambulance is as good a place to draw as any. I had a doughboy I used in a lot of these cartoons I tried to sell to Life. I had this doughboy with this beanie face and he was on one side [of the ambulance].
The enterprising youngster then started painting faux medals on jackets and camouflage patterns on footlockers:
We all wore leather windbreaks…[with] no sleeves. There was a Frenchman who took care of our barracks. He had a Croix de Guerre. I asked him, “Can I borrow it for a day?” He said, “Alright.” I painted on my jacket a Croix de Guerre…just as a gag.
The Croix de Guerre, created by the French government in April 1915, was awarded to the “bravest soldiers on the battlefield after each case” by his commanding officer. Disney said when other men saw what he had done, they wanted a copy of the medal painted on their jackets as well.
Then the guys said, “Hey, Diz, paint me one of those, will yah?” So, every one of us was going around that barracks, all of us with a Croix de Guerre. You’d see somebody coming down the street ten feet away [and] you’d swear he had a Croix de Guerre on. You got up [to] it [and it] was a painted one. They liked them. I used to get ten Francs for the darned things.
Besides painting fake medals on jackets, Walt also painted his foot locker.
I was fooling around one day with my foot locker and I camouflaged it. [I] put different colors on it. The guys loved it and everybody wanted [their foot locker] camouflaged.
After watching him paint his foot locker, a co-worker known only by the nickname the “Georgia Cracker” approached Disney and asked him to paint a specific camouflage scheme on a German helmet. Satisfied with Walt’s work, the Cracker proposed forming a partnership. Disney agreed, and the two young men combined their talents to create and sell doctored souvenirs to unsuspecting soldiers looking for a memento of their time overseas. Walt remembered that first meeting with the Cracker:
So, this kid came up to me and…he said, “Paint me a camouflaged helmet”. He had a [genuine] sniper’s helmet. I copied the sniper’s helmet. He said, “Make it look old.” I got some of this quick drier so that when I painted…it would crack. He took [the helmet] out and banged it in the dirt…and then he came back. I think he gave me five francs, or ten francs. Then he had me painting them on a regular order. And before I knew it he had them laid out in the sun. And then one day he went out and he was shooting holes in them. And he even got hair…and he’d put the hair in the hole.
The Cracker took the doctored helmets and sold them to unsuspecting, souvenir-hungry soldiers passing through. As Walt recalled:
These troop trains would come through and all the soldiers would…spill out. They were replacements…going on up into Germany. Neufchâteau…was on the line running on up to Nancy into Germany. They’d be around there for an hour, an hour-and-a-half because the French would change engines.
This allowed time for the Cracker to pedal his doctored wares to unsuspecting buyers. The enterprising fellow knew the troop train schedules and always seemed to be at the depot when the trains pulled in. The supposedly “rare” sniper helmets were the big draw for the troops.
They all wanted those helmets. He started a little racket. [H]e knew every troop train coming…he’d go over there with a whole armful of helmets. German helmets. Now these kids…they’d come right off the boat. They were…going on up into Germany. They hadn’t seen a battlefield or anything. “Souvenirs!” He’d sell these helmets. They all fought over that sniper’s [helmet]. He always had [lots of] the other [helmets] but he only had one [sniper’s helmet] for every troop train. He never had more than one hanging on his arm.
Walt was fascinated by the activities that happened when the troop trains pulled into the station:
More things happened around that troop [train]. It was a very interesting thing when those troop trains would come through. They had…little games…crap games…loaded dice, and everything else.
To meet the seemingly never-ending demand for war relics, Disney and the Cracker often went on treasure hunts, scouring the surrounding countryside in search of discarded helmets, weapons, and other saleable war-related items. Walt said:
We used to drive up…through ammunition dumps…[Cracker] would go pick-up as many helmets as [he] could pick up. The helmets were the thing.
Earning money through the sale of souvenirs wasn’t Walt’s only source of extra income. Servicemen with idle time on their hands often engaged in a game of cards or dice hoping to acquire some extra spending money for their next furlough. And while he wasn’t much of a gambler, he took part in a craps game one evening that provided a tidy windfall:
One night this crap game started. I was more-or-less an amateur at it. I innocently got in the crap game. And there [were] two fellas that had come through, just staying overnight. They were going somewhere. And this one guy wanted the game. Nobody wanted the game. So they got it started and I got in it…and I ended-up cleaning him. And all the guys were making a pile on me. I was hot as a pistol. They took this guy to the cleaners and I ended up with 1,800 francs. Well, that was a lot of money then…over 300 dollars.
Course, a lot of the guys there’d lost a little. This fellow then was broke and he wanted to begin to borrow and things and nope, that was the rule we had, you know? It’s almost like table stakes. It’s what you had in your pocket. So the game ended. [T]he next day I went right down, there was an American Express [office] set up there…in town. I went down and I sent darned near all of it home plus I sent some money to my sister to buy her a watch.
Continued in "In the Service of the Red Cross"!
Walt remembers how wine and potholes make for a lot of broken eggs.
As the canteen’s driver and errand boy, Disney was often sent out into the countryside to perform low-level errands. One such trip entailed a journey to purchase fresh eggs. Walt related the humorous tale of having to traverse back country roads pitted with potholes in order to reach a local farmhouse:
I went…one time [to] this little place where we’d get the eggs. The family was friendly. I remember…filling this great big basket full of eggs…and of course…I’d drink a little wine. Well, one time I came back and I’d hit too many [pot]holes and there were too many broken eggs. So the next time they sent me down to get eggs, they sent this MP [Military Police] sergeant along with me…Sergeant Smitty, he was kind of a fat fella and full of fun.
On the way to the farmhouse to fetch the next order of eggs, Disney asked Smitty why he was along for the ride:
We were bouncing all over…[and Smitty] said, “I’m supposed to see that you don’t get anything to drink so the eggs are not all broken.”
So we got down there and this French family, [they] were so friendly—it was a wonderful French farmyard, [with] peacocks, you know? It was a wonderful place [where] we got these wonderful eggs. While they’re filling the basket with eggs, well [they asked us if we’d] come in and have a little wine. “No,” Smitty says, “no, we can’t have any.” You know [what]? Pretty soon Smitty was having a little. It finally ended up that Smitty got plastered [laughter].
So we drove back. Smitty sat in the front seat and he was so plastered, holding the whole basket of eggs, and we got back to the canteen we hadn’t broken any. Smitty was holding them in his lap.
Continued in "In the Service of the Red Cross"!