John Wayne

John Wayne: How the Military Used an Invaluable Tool Named After The Duke for Nearly 4 Decades

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John Wayne was bigger than life. He stood 6-foot-4 and his swagger was even larger. Yet, there was a tool in the military nicknamed for The Duke. And the troops loved it because it was compact and tough. It could do most anything, including opening a can.

Yes, the John Wayne military tool was a can opener, which troops used from World War II and through Vietnam. The P-38 could fit in the palm of a soldier’s hand and it was so small and lightweight, he could wear it on a chain with his dog tags.

We get these John Wayne and the P-38 details from Military.com. Before the United States even entered WWII, the military used canned foods for rations. But it wasn’t prudent to give each soldier a full-size can opener to stash in a backpack. So designers with the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago created the best battlefield opener. That was the standard P-38, with no nicknames attached to it.

So how did it get associated with John Wayne? The Navy introduced the can opener to its sailors with an instructional film. Duke did the voiceover. So voila, the can opener had a nickname. Plus, in an episode of the History Channel’s “Mail Call,” R. Lee Ermey, a former Gunnery Sergeant, says his fellow Marines in Vietnam called it the John Wayne because it was tough and powerful, just like Duke.

Known for His Patriotism, John Wayne Never Served in Military

To this day, John Wayne, who died in 1979, is known for his patriotism. But he never served in the military, although he was in his 30s at the start of WWII. He filed for a 3-A draft deferment. The country provided exceptions for any man who was the sole supporter of a family of four. Wayne married his first wife in 1933. The two were parents to four children.

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Before the end of the war, the military, with a push from the Hollywood studios, gave Wayne a special 2-A status. That meant the government deferred his draft status in “support of national interest.” During the war, Wayne made two major films about the conflict — “Flying Tigers” in 1942 and “The Fighting Seabees” in 1944. Wayne told friends he thought he was supporting the troops with his movies.

According to Military.com, WWII vets booed him at some USO events because he avoided serving, while other actors (Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart) enlisted or were drafted. But by Vietnam, Wayne’s status officially turned with the troops. In the summer of 1966, he was part of some USO tours, with American and South Vietnamese troops giving him gifts and writing him letters. Pilar Wayne, Duke’s third wife, said her husband became a “super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying at home.”

John Wayne was known for both his Western and war-themed movies. Some of his best-known films were about battles, no matter the time period. Those films include “The Alamo,” “The Longest Day” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

And about that John Wayne can opener. The military retired it in the early 1980s as it changed the way it fed out troops. But you might find some P-38s still kicking around.

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