79 YEARS AGO TODAY, GENE AUTRY JOINED THE MILITARY WITH GREAT FANFARE AND WITH FANS LISTENING IN
In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, celebrities from entertainers to athletes enlisted or were drafted into the military.
Few, however, went in with the fanfare – and fans listening in –as did cowboy singer and actor Gene Autry. On July 26, 1942 – 79 years ago today – the entertainer who brought us country Christmas favorites including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” announced his enlistment into the U.S. Army Air Corps as a technical sergeant. He was sworn in during an episode of his “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch Radio Show” at WBBM in Chicago.
The announcement, like so many others involving celebrities, came at the request of the War Department, which wanted to make as much public relations and morale hay as possible as America ramped up its war effort.
A week after taking the oath, he changed the program’s name to the Sgt. Gene Autry Show and continued hosting it and singing as part of his military assignment. Some of the broadcasts were aired before live audiences of soldiers stationed at the base from Luke Field in Arizona, where Autry was also stationed.
Autry, who as a teen worked at a local railway station in Oklahoma, was “discovered” by humorist Will Rogers, who while passing through heard Autry killing time by singing and playing his guitar. Rogers urged him to make a career out of it. By 1934, Autry had built a solid following on radio and went west to star in B westerns, called “Oaters.”
He soon became the nation’s singing cowboy and started his radio show in 1940. However, unlike many of the celebrities who served during the war, Autry wanted to see action. Already a private pilot, he went to Santa Ana Air Force Base in Southern California and then to 555th Army Air Base in Texas, where he served in the 91st Ferrying Squadron throughout the remainder of the war. He flew cargo planes, including a mission to the China-Burma-India theatre.
As the war came to an end, he did a tour of USO shows in the South Pacific. Autry left the service in 1946.
When he returned stateside, he resumed his radio show and was “Back in the Saddle Again” until 1956. He also made more than 100 films during his career, which ended with his retirement in 1964. He died in Los Angeles in 1998.
Autry’s military career is showcased in an exhibit at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
Photograph source: reprinted with permission of the Autry Museum of the American West.