Walt Forges His Birth from 1901 to 1900

Bob Thomas
Walt Disney, an American Original,

New York: Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster), 1976;
[pp 29-38]

The summer of 1918 was the best that Walt had known. His hours for the post office were long, but there was no drudgery to the work, and he was outdoors most of the time. At night he took girls from McKinley High School to movies and vaudeville shows.

For the first time in his life, Walt had enough money to indulge himself, and he contemplated buying a movie camera or a canoe. A girl friend urged him to buy a canoe, but he decided on the camera. He mounted it on a tripod in an alley and photographed himself in imitations of Charlie Chaplin. To please his friend, he joined another boy in buying an inexpensive canoe; it was so small and unwieldy that he and the girl were swept out into the lake on a windy Sunday.

By late summer, the Allies had stopped the Germans in the second battle of the Marne, and Marshal Foch bad ordered a counterattack. Walt grew more impatient to get in uniform, telling his parents, "I don't want my grandchildren asking me, 'Why weren't you in the war? Were you a slacker?' " The Navy had transferred Roy to Charleston, South Carolina, then assigned him to voyages between New York and France. Ray Disney had joined the Army. Walt wanted to take part in the same adventure; he couldn't conceive of returning to high school for another year. A friend at the post office, Russell Maas, shared his feelings. They decided to cross the border and enlist in the Canadian Army, which accepted younger recruits. Their plot was thwarted when Russell's mother discovered his packed suitcase; her son admitted the plan and she warned Flora Disney. One day Russell arrived at the post office and told Walt excitedly. "There' s something forming here that you and I can get into. It's a volunteer group called the American Ambulance Corps, part of the Red Cross. They need drivers, and they're not fussy about how old you are."

At noon, the two young men hurried to the headquarters of the American Red Cross. They learned the age limit for ambulance unit volunteers was seventeen. Both were sixteen, but they falsified their ages and applied as the St. John brothers, Russell and Walter. The ruse succeeded until the applications for passports which required their parents' signatures. Walt was forced to disclose his plan to his parents. "I will not sign any permission" Elias Disney declared. "It's signing a death warrant for my son."

Flora Disney argued that three of their sons had left the family home by stealth and she didn't want Walter to go the same way. "The boy is determined," she said "I would rather sign this and know where he is than have him run off."

"Well, you can sign it for me---I won't!" Elias replied, and he stalked from the room. Flora forged his name on the passport application, and Walt altered his birth date to read "1900." He and Russell Maas returned to the Red Cross, and their applications were accepted. The two boys received uniforms and reported to a tent encampment at a burned-down amusement park near the University of Chicago. Mechanics from the Yellow Cab Company taught them how to repair motors and drive cars over rough terrain.

An influenza epidemic struck Chicago, and Walt became so sick that he was ordered to a hospital. The ambulance driver asked him, "You live in Chicago, kid?" When Walt said that he did, the driver suggested, "We better take you home. With this flu going on, you'd never come out of a hospital alive." Walt took the advice. Two of his close friends had been taken to the hospital, and they had died the next day.

Flora Disney nursed her son through days of high fever and delirium, giving him poultices and heavy doses of quinine. Because his bedroom had no heat, Walt occupied his parents' room; when little Ruth became ill, her bed was placed beside the kitchen store. Flora herself caught the influenza, which was killing Chicagoans by the hundreds, but she continued caring for her two children. Finally the fevers broke. Walt regained strength and returned to the Ambulance Corps. He was dismayed to learn that his outfit, including Russell Maas, had shipped out. Walt was assigned to a new unit and sent to Sound Beach, Connecticut, to await passage to France.

November 11, 1918, brought jubilation to the country, but the Red Cross volunteers at Sound Beach greeted the Armistice with ambivalent feelings. The reason for their volunteering had gone and they faced the future as peacetime chauffeurs. They called themselves Coey's Army, after the ragtag band of unemployed who marched on Washington in 1894, and they grumbled about camp discipline, complaining that they were treated like draftees. Homesickness became endemic. Walt missed his mother's cooking, and he longed to see the girl who had promised to wait for his return.

Early one morning, lights flashed on in the barracks - and the awakening volunteers heard a voice shout: "Up everybody Up everybody! Fifty guys going to France!" A bunkmate shook Walt and said, "Hey, Diz, wake up; they're shipping out fifty guys." Walt replied groggily, "They won't pick me," and he returned to sleep. The fiftieth name called was Walter E. Disney. His companions rolled him out of bed and within an hour he was on the train to Hoboken. That night, November 18, he embarked for France aboard a rusting cattle ship, the Vaubin.

The disappointment over the end of the war was now forgotten in the new adventure of crossing the Atlantic on a ship laden with ammunition. Although there was no reason to fear German U-boats, the ship had to pass through waters that had been heavily mined. Disregarding the danger, Walt slept directly over the magazine hatch. As the ship approached France, minesweepers came alongside to provide an escort through the hazardous English Channel. The Red Cross volunteers lined the railing to watch the minesweepers, long booms on each side, patrol the waters, their gun crews scanning the surface for mines. At Cherbourg, large anti-submarine nets parted to allow the Vaubin to enter the port. The ship didn't land. but continued on to Le Havre, arriving December 4. Walt disembarked with his shipmates, and the young Midwesterners toured waterfront streets wonderingly. Few had been away from their own cities and they were overwhelmed by the sights of the French seaport. They were astonished by the street corner urinals, and none could summon the nerve to use them. But after a day of sightseeing, one of the Americans could wait no longer. He stepped cautiously up to the pissoir, and his companions followed.

Members of the American Ambulance Corps trooped to the railroad station for the trip to Paris. Walt was fascinated to see how small the French engines seemed in comparison to those he had known in his summer as a news butcher. He stared out the window on the journey through the French countryside, noticing the high hedges and the groves of poplars that separated the small farms.

Paris still looked like a city at war. As he rode a taxi down the Champs Elysées, he saw the sidewalks filled with men in uniform. Sandbags still protected the monuments of the Etoile, and gun carts rattled through the streets. Walt had only a brief tour of the city before reporting to the American Ambulance Corps headquarters at St. Cyr, site of the French military academy. St. Cyr was a disappointment after the enticements of Paris. The volunteers were billeted in a chateau so dank and chill that Walt wrapped himself in newspapers before going to sleep on his cot.The food was dismal-mostly pork and beans. When December 5 arrived, Walt faced a grim seventeenth birthday.

Late in the afternoon he stopped by the canteen and found only one friend there. "Come on over to the bistro and I'll buy you a grenadine," the friend said. The pair walked to the nearby café and discovered it was deserted. As soon as they closed the door, Walt's friends emerged from under the tables and behind counters shouting "Happy birthday, Diz!" All crowded to the bar and ordered grenadine, wine and cognac. They slapped Walt on the back and downed their drinks, leaving him to pay the bill. He emptied his money belt, but that was not enough. Walt had to sell his extra pair of Red Cross shoes for 30 francs.

Walt was transferred from St. Cyr to Evacuation Hospital 5 in Paris. First he drove five-ton trucks and ambulances converted into small cars by cutting off the back end. Then he was assigned to the motor pool- in reality, a taxi service for Army officers. He soon learned the geography of Paris, driving majors and colonels to various headquarters, hospitals, legations and, on occasion, bordellos.

Headquarters assigned Walt to drive a White truck loaded with beans and sugar to the devastated area of Soissons. He selected an assistant and set off through the Paris suburbs and into the French countryside. After he had passed through a village, the motor started to clank. The noise grew louder, and the chassis vibrated with the pounding of the engine. Finally, with a great rattling sound, the engine halted, and Walt coasted around a corner, parking off the road near a railway watchman's shack. Walt suspected that the truck had thrown a rod; no amount of tinkering would induce it to start again. He remembered the Red Cross driver's credo: Never leave your vehicle. So he dispatched the assistant back to the village to ride a train to Paris to bring help. Walt resigned himself to a long wait in the February cold.

He stayed in the cab for a few hours, but as night fell his feet grew numb from the cold. In his hesitant French he asked the railroad watchman if he could share the tiny shack. The watchman agreed, welcoming the young American's offer of the truck's emergency rations-bread, cheese, tinned beef and chocolate. Walt dozed through the night in the four-feet-square shack, enjoying the warmth of a tiny stove, to which the watchman added a lump of coal every half-hour. The next day brought no help from Paris, and Walt spent another night before the small stove. On the third day he was so hungry and so numbingly tired that he walked to the village inn and ordered a meal and a bed. When the meal arrived, there was a cockroach among the lamb chops and peas; Walt merely pushed it off the plate, swallowed the food and fell asleep on the bed.

He awoke in a panic, discovering that he had slept for twenty-four hours. He raced back to the railroad crossing and discovered to his horror that his truck was gone. He trudged back to the village, dreading the consequences when he returned to Paris. A freight train arrived, and the trainman allowed him to ride in the cupola on one of the cars. When Walt arrived at headquarters, he discovered what had happened. His assistant had enjoyed a two-day drunk before reporting the breakdown. The disabled truck was towed back to Paris, its cargo intact. Disney faced serious charges of abandoning his truck. A friendly sergeant from Evacuation Hospital 5 appeared before a board of officers and argued that the young driver had done all that was physically possible by remaining near his truck for two nights. The board agreed, and no discipline was imposed. The errant assistant landed in the guardhouse.

Americans continued leaving France in the postwar months, and little work remained for the Red Cross motor pool. Disney was reassigned to a canteen at Neufchateau, near Nancy. During long hours of idleness, Walt got out his pad and pencil and began cartooning. He mailed cartoons to Life and Judge, America's two leading humor magazines; all were returned with polite, printed notes of rejection. Composing a letter to his high school magazine, he illustrated it with a self-portrait and impressions of soldiers and prisoners-of-war he had seen. He drew posters for the canteen and caricatures for the soldiers to send home, and he decorated the canvas top of his ambulance with an alluring female. Borrowing a Croix-de-Guerre from a French officer, he painted a replica of the medal on his jacket; others at the canteen admired it and paid him to do the same on their jackets. he teamed up with an enterprising Georgian who had established a souvenir industry. The Georgian realized the desire of homeward-bound doughboys to collect mementoes of the war-especially those soldiers who had seen no combat. When the troop trains stopped at Neufchateau to change engines, he went down the aisles selling German helmets he had collected on battlefields. One day he noticed that Walt had painted his footlocker in camouflage colors. "Hey, Diz, can you paint me a snipers helmet?" asked the entrepreneur. Walt obliged, and he aged the helmets with quick drying shellac, earning five francs apiece. The Georgian rubbed the helmets in the dirt, shot holes in them, attached hair to the jagged edges, and sold them on the troop trains at inflated prices.

Walt mailed the profits from his enterprise to his mother, along with half of his monthly salary of $52. One day he entered a barracks crap game and emerged with $300. He hurried to the American Express office and dispatched the money to his mother with instructions to buy his sister Ruth a watch and bank the rest. A dozen years later, Walt reminisced about the days at Neufchateau in a letter to Alice Howell, a Nebraska woman who operated the Red Cross canteen:

. . Just in case you can't place me, I will try to give you a brief outline of the work I did. I was the chauffeur of the canteen car. It was my duty to hang around the canteen all day and run errands. I used to drive the girls back and forth from the canteen to their quarters, take them into the country to buy eggs, drive them to the Army commissary for supplies and occasionally on picnics. My main hangout was the little shanty attached to the canteen where the bread was cut...

You will perhaps remember the time that General Pershing sent [his son] Warren down to spend the day with you and we all got into the little car I drove and went up to Domrimi [Domrémy], Joan of Arc's birthplace, and had a wonderful picnic with fried chicken and all sorts of good things to eat. And boy! how good that fried chicken tasted!

I remember some of the boys from the Second Cavalry who used to be around the canteen, and I also remember the squad of German prisoners who worked in the shower rooms. I especially remember one of the prisoners whom I liked real well, I believe his name was Rupert. I remember how they used to play tricks on me to get me to buy things for them.

One day Rupert came to me with an empty wine bottle in his hand and gave me some money saying that Miss Howell wanted me to buy her some wine. Unsuspectingly I carried out his orders, although all the time wondering how it happened Miss Howell wanted me to buy her wine. When I returned Rupert was waiting for me and insisted that he take the wine to you. I did not think any more about it until about half an hour later when I went in the shower rooms. I found all the German prisoners having a great time on that bottle of wine. That was only one of the pranks Rupert and his gang played on me....

When the prisoners went on work crews, Walt and Rupert sat in the canteen car and talked about the war and the future of Germany. They became good friends and helped each other in finding ways to relieve the daily tedium. One day they drove to the outskirts of a village, where the prisoners loaded cordwood onto trucks. Schoolchildren strolled by on their way from school. They had never seen German soldiers before, and they started throwing rocks. Walt told Rupert who spoke fluent French, to order the children to stop. They persisted, and on Walt's suggestion, the prisoners filled their pockets with rocks. When the schoolchildren ignored a second order to stop, Walt called, "Rupert, charge!" The prisoners loosened a fusillade of rocks and chased the children into the village.

Walt was assigned to chauffeur two dignitaries on a tour of the Rhine country, and before leaving he consulted the village priest on what to see. He gained a reputation as an expert guide, and he drove other visitors through France and Germany. On one trip he arrived in Strasbourg on July 14, 1919, to witness the first Bastille Day celebration in fifty years for the recaptured city.

In August the Neufchateau canteen was disbanded, and Walt was transferred to Paris. He found the city changed. The uniforms were disappearing, and the tempo and attitudes of Parisians were returning to normal. Walt found that the American Ambulance Corps headquarters at St. Cyr had been shut down, and his friends in the organization had departed. The Red Cross issued a call for ambulance drivers for a war in Albania, and Walt was tempted by the salary of $150 a month, more than he had ever earned. Then he encountered Russell Maas, the Chicago boy with whom he had joined the Red Cross. They talked of home, and over French coffee and cognac they concocted a scheme to build a raft and float down the Mississippi like a pair of Huck Finns. Both had bought German shepherd puppies, and they agreed the dogs would join them on the voyage. Russell was returning to America immediately, and Walt paid $75 for his dog to go with Russell.

The two young men from Chicago visited a photographic studio in Paris and posed for postcards to send to their friends and family back home. The two photographs afford a character study of the seventeen-year-old Walt Disney. In one, he appears in overseas cap, khaki uniform with jodhpurs and leggings, his heavy overcoat draped casually over his arm. He is bemused and proud. Then he posed in battle helmet, looking like the doughboy he had wanted to be. he is grimly serious, dedicated, a traveler of the world. There can be no doubt what Walt intended the photographs to accomplish: to let those at home know that he had grown to manhood in France.

On September 3, 1919, General Pershing and his staff departed from Paris, and other American units followed. The American Ambulance Corps was finally disbanded, and the remaining volunteers were dispatched to Marseilles for passage home. When Walt Disney and his companions reached the dock, they found their ship floating high in the harbor; a dock strike prevented loading. The unit was ordered to Nice until the strike was solved, and for three weeks, Walt lived a splendid life at a Riviera resort. Then the strike ended, and Walt boarded the ship at Marseilles for the voyage back to America and the start of his career.