When the United States entered the war in 1917, Walt Disney’s older brothers enlisted, but 16-year-old Walt was denied enlistment because of his age.
Disney was determined to do his part. When a friend learned that the Red Cross Ambulance Corps would accept volunteers as young as 17, Disney used his artistic skills to alter the birth date on his passport application from “1901” to “1900” so that he could go and serve his country.
Disney reported for training at Camp Scott, a temporary encampment near the University of Chicago. Yellow Cab Company mechanics taught recruits how to repair motors, assemble and disassemble vehicles, and drive over rough terrain.
Because his departure to Europe was delayed while he recovered from influenza, Disney’s unit sailed without him. He then joined another company awaiting transport to France. While that unit waited to be shipped out, the war ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918. Nevertheless, they shipped out 50 men the following day to aid in the occupation. Disney was number 50.
Disney is seen above in his Red Cross uniform, and on the right with a group of his buddies.
Because he hadn’t left the U.S. until after the war ended, Disney never fulfilled his desire to be an official ambulance driver. He never experienced the atrocities and dangers that most ambulance drivers faced, but he did his duty and put in his fair share of driving.
Disney was first billeted in a chateau in St. Cyr. Later, he transferred to Evacuation Hospital Number 5 near Paris, where his duties included being a driver and mechanic for Red Cross supply trucks and providing taxi service for army officers.
He also served at a Red Cross canteen at Neufchateau in the French countryside. His duties included driving Alice Howell, a Red Cross canteen worker, to various base hospitals to deliver doughnuts and ice cream to patients. The two became friends and a few years later when one of Howell’s colleagues was visiting the Disney studios, he asked about her and renewed their acquaintance by sending her a Mickey Mouse doll the following Christmas.
Shown below is Disney’s travel authorization to Neufchateau.
While overseas, Disney found time to develop his artistic skills. He decorated vehicles with cartoons (visible in the photo below), illustrated posters for the Red Cross, and drew war-related cartoons for Life magazine and Judge, a humorous periodical. Alice Howell confirmed his love of art when she was quoted in The Daily Nebraskan, the University of Omaha newspaper, by saying “. . . I would spend the afternoon going to the hospitals. He was drawing even then . . .”
This photo of Disney in uniform was taken before he left Paris to return home.
Shown above is Disney’s Red Cross employee service record.
Disney spent roughly a year in France. As American troops were quickly being sent home, Disney applied for a discharge and was sent back on September 22, 1919. His overseas experience remained with him throughout his life and gave him great respect and affection for American men and women in uniform.
Find more information on the American Red Cross in World War I on redcross.org.