Defense Media Network

Ronald Reagan “Performed Well” in World War II

Advertisement

Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday on Feb. 6 is a good time to be reminded of Reagan’s World War II service in the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF).

Reagan’s time in uniform was not as dramatic as some of his film appearances or his tenure as president, but as one U.S. airman described it, “They gave him duties that fit with his experience and he performed them well.”

“They gave him duties that fit with his experience and he performed them well.”

Because the AAF evolved into the U.S. Air Force immediately after the war, today Reagan’s service is considered a part of Air Force history.

The National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, has a display of an overcoat, lapel insignia, shoulder patch, and identity card used by Reagan during his military duties from 1942 to 1945. Reagan worked in the film industry while in uniform, appearing in patriotic films like Jap Zero and For God and Country, both produced in 1943. He left the service at war’s end as a captain.

Ronald Reagan World War II

Ronald Reagan in the U.S. Army Air Force during the 1940s. National Archives photo

Born and raised in Illinois and an alumnus of Eureka College with a bachelor of arts degree in economics-sociology, Reagan became a private in a cavalry unit of the Army Reserve in 1937. He quickly earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the Reserve. He was a radio announcer and actor living in Los Angeles on the eve of World War II.

Soon after he married Jane Wyman in 1942, Reservist Reagan received the expected call to active duty. Due to his nearsightedness, he was classified for limited service, which meant he couldn’t go overseas. He served at the San Francisco port of embarkation at Fort Mason, Calif., as a liaison officer until transferring from the cavalry to the AAF on May 15, 1942.

His film unit eventually helped to make 300 training and propaganda films and was responsible for 3,000,000 feet of combat footage. Reagan called the film office “an important contribution to the war effort.”

Reagan tried to get a waiver that would permit him to serve in a war zone but the Army refused. Moreover, the nation needed Reagan’s peacetime skills to help with the war effort. He made his first government film, Air Force, after being assigned to the AAF’s film unit, known in military slang as “Fort Roach” because it took over the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif. Producer Jack Warner, now a lieutenant colonel, commanded the unit. The famous stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who became a major, commanded flight operations. The film unit also was responsible for officer commissions for Alan Ladd, George Montgomery, Van Heflin, and Arthur Kennedy, among Hollywood actors.

Reagan was promoted to first lieutenant, Jan. 14, 1943, and to captain on July 22 of that year. In addition to filmmaking while in uniform, he served in New York City in 1944 to participate in a war bond drive. He returned to Culver City. His film unit eventually helped to make 300 training and propaganda films and was responsible for 3,000,000 feet of combat footage. Reagan called the film office “an important contribution to the war effort.” Other AAF films included Desperate Journey as well as Irving Berlin’s, This Is the Army.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s overcoat is on display with the Celebrities in Uniform exhibit in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Reagan’s World War II service in the Army Air Forces is considered part of Air Force history. U.S. Air Force photo

Reagan was recommended for promotion to major on Feb. 2, 1945, but never pinned on gold oak leaves. He returned to Fort MacArthur, Calif., where he was separated from active duty on Dec. 9, 1945.

“He wasn’t a pilot, didn’t go overseas, and didn’t shoot down enemy planes,” said Jon Lake, an aviation writer who has followed Reagan’s life. “Still, he was part of the Air Force’s story.”

“He wasn’t a pilot, didn’t go overseas, and didn’t shoot down enemy planes,” said Jon Lake, an aviation writer who has followed Reagan’s life. “Still, he was part of the Air Force’s story.”

President Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan salutes a crew member of a 437th Military Airlift Wing C-141B Starlifter, July 24, 1986. Reagan developed a good rapport with those in uniform during his time in office. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. David McLeod

Reagan was 34 when he left active duty. Later remarried to Nancy Davis, who became a driving force in his life, he was keynote speaker at the 1964 Republican national convention, governor of California (1967-1975), and the 40th president of the United States (1981-89). As president, he won the approval of many in the military for building up the armed forces. Many believe his defense policy hastened the downfall of the Soviet Union. Reagan died in 2004.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...