Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Walt Disney's Dishonorable Discharge Urban Legend Revealed

By Keith Mahne

Did Walt Disney receive a dishonorable discharge from the military during World War I? Is it true he hung that dishonorable discharge letter in his office upside down? You hear these claims being made about Uncle Walt all the time, but are they true? To find out the real answers to these questions we need to first know the entire story. We need to go back to 1918 and examine the facts and that's just what we'll do in today's new article...

A young Walt Disney and his brother Roy

It was Sep 16, 1918, a 16-year-old Walt Disney enlisted in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. A very patriotic citizen, Walt wanted to join the military like his brothers, but he was too young. The military would not take 16 year olds. His closest 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.

Not being able to join the military, Walt heard about a Red Cross unit that would take 17 year olds, and he knew that was his ticket. After his mother signed his passport application, he committed a little forgery, changing the birth year from 1901 to 1900, and he was thus able to get into the Red Cross, along with a friend from school...

Walt Disney's 1918 passport

Walt Disney's Red Cross service record, notice the Date of Birth

In 1918, Germany signed an armistice, however, the Red Cross Ambulance Corps still needed more drivers to help with post-war operations in France. Walt arrived in France and was put to work making deliveries, driving ambulances or chauffeuring important officers.

Walt Disney's drawing

When Walt was not driving, he did what he had always done - draw sketches for the canteen menu, designs on the canvas ambulance flaps, and caricatures for his friends to send to girlfriends and families (for a small fee!).  “I found out that the inside and outside of an ambulance is as good a place to draw as any,” Walt later remarked. He also sent funny and poignant letters with sketches to The McKinley Voice, his high school newspaper. As you can see in the photo above of his drawing, Walt’s growing homesickness is revealed, where he wrote, on April 18th, 1918, “OH! I want to go home to my Mama!”.

Walt is on the right

This is where we come to one of the many urban legends that surrounded Walt after his death, that he was dishonorably discharged. But how could Walt be dishonorably discharged if he was never in the military? He couldn’t be discharged—either honorably or dishonorably. However, he did get into a bit of trouble while overseas, and here is the true story as told by Walt himself and can be found in Jim Korkis' amazing series of books The Vault of Walt:

“It was in February…they sent me with a white truck. I was the driver and I had a helper. A white truck loaded with beans and sugar to the devastated area in Soissons. Well, I went out of Paris and it started to snow. I got up part way and I burned out a bearing on the truck, close to a watchman's shed…So, the orders were never to leave your truck. Sugar and beans were gold. So the helper was supposed to go, and I'd stay with the truck. There was this little watchman's shed…and I sat with the watchman. I sat two nights and no help came. So, the third day I was so tired, so sleepy, that I left my truck and walked up to this town and ordered a meal. Then I got a bed and I flopped into this French bed. And I slept clear around the clock...

Replica of the type of Ambulance Walt would have drove.

“And then I went back and my truck was gone…I didn't know what had happened…I got a train into Paris. When I got into Paris, I found out the story. This helper got into Paris and went out that night before he reported to the headquarters…and got drunk and he was drunk for two days. Then he finally reported and he came to find me. I was gone and he picked up the truck. So I was court-martialed. They brought me up before this board, and…the greatest disgrace would be to be kicked out of the Red Cross, you know…

“Then this fellow that I had worked for…came to my defense…He was almost like my attorney He said 'Look, this boy sat there for two nights.' He said 'What happened to the helper?' He said, 'Have you court-martialed the helper?' They said, 'Yes.' He was in the brig. So they let me off.”

So there you have it, the real story directly from the mouth of Walt Disney himself! Also, one of the last things Walt did before he left Paris to return home was to get a photograph taken of himself in his khaki uniform. Although he had spent almost an entire year in France, his experience only increased his appreciation and respect for the American men and women in uniform. Though on occasion he was still a prankster - particularly to his mother - Walt had matured emotionally into a man of self-reliance and independence.

“I was able to ...line right up on an objective...and I went for it.”

You sure did Walt and we thank you for it.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed today's article on Walt Disney, I highly recommend you grab a copy of Jim Korkis' amazing series of books called The Vault of Walt in the link below. They are packed with everything you've ever wanted to know about Walt Disney. Also, be sure to listen to my two podcast interviews with Jim Korkis for more fun stories.


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.


  1. My mother repeated the story all these years and I'm 72YO. I'm sure it was repeated over and over again until it became the truth as for as anyone knew.

    Thanks for the information;