Actors in Uniform: From Lieutenant Henry Fonda to Mister Roberts

Actor Henry Fonda put a successful acting career on hold to serve in the US Navy.

In 1948, Mister Roberts began a three-year run on Broadway. Based on the novel of the same name, Mister Roberts tells the story of a miserable crew aboard a supply vessel in the Pacific in the waning months of the war. The Tony Award-winning play starred stage and screen icon Henry Fonda as the title character, Lieutenant Douglas Roberts. In 1955, the play was adapted for the screen and Fonda reprised his role as Roberts, joined by James Cagney as the ship’s detested Lieutenant Commander Morton, and Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver, the lackadaisical officer in charge of laundry and morale. Adding authenticity to the performance was the fact that Fonda served as a lieutenant in the US Navy during World War II.

Already an acclaimed stage and screen actor, Fonda joined the Navy on August 22, 1942. He was quoted as not wanting to “be a fake in a war studio.” At 37, Fonda was almost too old for acceptance into service, but he was determined. His Official Military Personnel File, just like those of other men and women in service with the US Navy in World War II, is held by the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri. Fonda’s record is now digitized and available as part of the Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) files. Details of Fonda’s service in the navy as well as insights into his personality can be found in his file.

“Well, I don’t want to be here, I wanna be out there. I’m sick and tired of being a lousy spectator.”

Henry Fonda as Lieutenant Roberts

Like many celebrities at the time, including Fonda’s close friend James Stewart, Fonda wanted to do more than make films to support the war effort. Although some celebrities continued to do so while in the service—making civilian films or joining film units—Fonda enlisted in the Navy to be a sailor, not a movie star.  

“Actor Henry Fonda with seabag on shoulder after enlisting in United States Navy, 1942” Photo from: Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Fonda joined the navy with a sentiment that echoed his character in Mister Roberts. “Well, I don’t want to be here, I wanna be out there," he said. "I’m sick and tired of being a lousy spectator.”

Having attended the University of Minnesota for two years, Fonda was eligible to apply for a commission upon enlisting; however, he chose to spend time as an enlisted man first. A letter in his file states that “he preferred to be enrolled in the naval service as an enlisted man, depending on his performance of duty to establish his qualifications for appointment to a commissioned rank, rather than endeavoring to secure immediately his commission, which would have been very much to his advantage financially and from the point of view of rank and prestige.” As an actor, Fonda was making $150,000 a year ($2.3 million today). An enlisted, married sailor made less than $1,600 a year (approximately $25,000 today), depending on a variety of factors. At the time of his enlistment, Fonda was married to his first wife, Frances, and they had three children (stepdaughter Frances, Peter, and Jane).

After basic training, Fonda went to Quartermaster School, graduating in the top 10 of his class of 200. He was briefly assigned to the destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) as quartermaster third class. Less than a year after enlisting, Fonda underwent the application process to become an officer. Due to his age (he was 38) Fonda was commissioned at the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, instead of ensign. A memorandum regarding the justification of his appointment is filled with interesting details. Fonda was still working on a film when he decided to enlist and was commended for doing so. He was considered by his commanding officers to have demonstrated “officer-like qualities of leadership, military bearing, loyalty, judgment and intelligence.” For those familiar with Fonda’s portrayal of Mister Roberts, that description could have been written of his famous character.

After receiving a commission, Fonda became an assistant air combat information officer and air operations watch officer in the Pacific theater. In this role Fonda assisted in the planning and execution of air operations for the Marianas, Western Carolines, and Iwo Jima campaigns. For his involvement in the air operations in those campaigns, Fonda was awarded a Bronze Star. Although Fonda left active duty in November 1945, he remained a reserve officer until his resignation in 1948 because he was “overage in rank.” Despite being overage in rank to remain a naval reserve officer, Fonda would go on to portray a military officer in not only Mister Roberts, but also in iconic World War II films such as: Battle of the Bulge, Midway, and The Longest Day.

Note: Official Military Personnel Files can be requested from the National Archives through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. For more information on available records and how to request them, see the Museum’s research guide. Fonda’s personnel file is part of a series called the PEP files: Persons of Exceptional Prominence. These are files of famous individuals and are being digitized by the National Archives. Digital files can be found on the National Archives website: Read Fonda's file here


Kali Martin

Kali Martin earned a bachelor's degree in International Studies and German at the University of Miami and a master's degree in Military a...
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