The Admiral of American Movies

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When the brilliant Orson Welles was asked to name his three favorite directors, he replied, “The Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

John Ford was arguably Hollywood’s greatest director, churning out 140 movies and documentaries and winning the Academy Award for Best Director a record four times. Nine of his movies were nominated for Best Picture and one of them won it. Two of his documentaries won Best Documentary and he won Best Director of a Documentary for one of them. The John Ford most people don’t know of, though, is the decorated naval officer who served in both World War II and Korea.

Born John Martin Feeney in 1894 to Gaelic-speaking parents from County Galway, Ireland, residing in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Ford was one of 11 children. Five of his siblings died young, and he nearly died of diphtheria himself. But by the time he attended Portland High School, he was an outstanding athlete. He was the star fullback on the school’s state champion football team, earning the nickname “Bull Feeney,” and was also the track team’s top sprinter.

All through high school Ford not only drove an early morning delivery wagon for his older brother Pat’s wholesale fish market, but also worked weekends at a theater, which allowed him to watch movies for free. He especially liked Westerns produced by Thomas Ince for Bison Studios at Inceville, a complex of movie sets in what would become Pacific Palisades. Many of the Westerns shot at Inceville were directed by his older brother Francis Feeney, a Spanish-American War veteran, who used the stage name Ford.

Upon graduating from high school, Feeney boarded a train for Los Angeles to join his brother rather than accept several college scholarships for football and track. By then Francis Ford was making movies for Universal Studios. A month after Feeney arrived, his brother cast him in The Mysterious Rose as a character named Dopey.

The Mysterious Rose was a humble Hollywood beginning for John Martin Feeney, now billed as Jack Ford. He appeared in another 15 movies before he began directing them himself in 1917. That year he directed a dozen movies, three of them starring himself and six starring Harry Carey, who Ford helped establish as one of the leading actors in Westerns. Year after year Ford’s success continued and the trade papers were effusive in their praise of the young director. 

Ford made a trip to Ireland in 1921 to visit family in County Galway for the first time since he went as a child. Ireland’s War for Independence was still raging and a special unit of British soldiers, known as the Black and Tans, were on patrols throughout Galway. The fighting-age Feeney men and their Thornton cousins were volunteers in the East Connemara Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Avoiding the Black and Tans, Ford was able to make contact with his cousin, Martin Feeney, and hand him a large bundle of cash for the IRA. The Black and Tans soon caught up with Ford and took him into custody. He was interrogated and roughed up, but he revealed nothing. After only four days in Ireland, Ford was forced onto a ship and told never to return.

Once back in California, Ford directed movie after movie, including the epic The Iron Horse, starring George O’Brien. Halfway through 1928, Ford made a seamless transition to talkies. His 1931 Arrowsmith received four Academy Award nominations. In 1936 Ford won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Informer, which was nominated for Best Picture. Ford produced and directed Stagecoach in 1939, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. He won the Academy Award for Best Director in his 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath, and in his 1941 movie How Green Was My Valley, which also won Best Picture.

At 47 years old, John Ford was at the top of his game and had money, power, and fame. Nonetheless, he quit Hollywood and went on active duty in the Navy. Back in 1934, Ford, who owned a yacht and had been sailing since his childhood, was commissioned a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve. For the next six years he sailed the coasts of California and Mexico, quietly photographing and making notes on Japanese shipping activity and settlements. He filed the intelligence with the Navy and in 1940 received a commendation for his “initiative in securing valuable information.”

Anticipating a war with Japan in the Pacific, Ford proposed creating a unit to film and photograph the U.S. Navy. The Navy tentatively accepted Ford’s proposal and during the fall of 1941 he began organizing the Naval Field Photographic Unit. 

As the unit was taking shape, William Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services—the OSS—took an interest in it. A World War I recipient of the Medal of Honor, General “Wild Bill” Donovan convinced President Roosevelt that the unit should be put under command of the OSS. Working under Donovan gave Ford great latitude and independence, exactly what the contrary and crusty Ford needed. Ford reported directly to Donovan and Donovan reported only to the President. Ford also got an office in Washington, D.C., and a generous budget.

After assignments to Pearl Harbor, Iceland, and the Panama Canal, Ford was aboard the carrier USS Hornet in April 1942 to document Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo. In early June, Ford was at Midway Atoll. Standing atop the power plant on Eastern Island, Ford filmed the first incoming Japanese planes and continued filming throughout the attack. Knocked out when a Japanese bomb exploded and sent a chunk of concrete flying into him, he regained consciousness and resumed filming. Minutes later he was knocked flat by another bomb and suffered shrapnel wounds to his left arm. Bleeding and in pain, he struggled to his feet and went back to filming.   

Ford used the footage to make the documentary The Battle of Midway, which won the Academy Award.

In November and December 1942, Ford was at the battlefront with the Army’s 13th Armored Regiment in Algeria and Tunisia, leading his photographic unit into the thick of the action. Ford “inspires real devotion among his men,” Gen. Donovan said in a letter to the Director of Naval Intelligence. “He has evidenced his leadership and his courage in his photographic work with the fleet in the Pacific, as well as with the invading forces in Tunisia … both as a man and as an officer, I consider Commander Ford superior and outstanding.”

The fall of 1943 found Ford and Donovan in Chungking with Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalist forces. After taking daring aerial reconnaissance flights over Japanese positions and filming Japanese air raids, the now 49-year-old Ford parachuted behind enemy lines into a Burmese jungle. On the ground he rendezvoused with Fr. James Stuart, an Irish priest who had served with the IRA as a teenager and later as a medical missionary in Burma. Stuart was now wearing a bush hat and khaki fatigues, armed to the teeth, and leading hundreds of Kachin guerrillas against the Japanese. Ford and Stuart took an instant liking to each other.

By the spring of 1944, Ford was in England preparing his photographic unit for the landings at Normandy. He assigned his cameramen to different waves in the landing and rigged many of the landing craft with cameras that automatically started rolling when the ramps dropped. Once the landings began, Ford left the safety of his headquarters aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, climbed into a landing craft, and headed for the beach.

As Ford waded ashore and moved inland with the American troops, one of his cameramen, crouched behind a hedgerow, spied Ford, standing tall and calmly observing the fighting in front of him. Ford not only seemed fearless, the cameraman said, he actually seemed elated—the happiest he had ever seen him. 

After more than two months on the battlefront with brief periods in London, Ford was back in Washington in September. By October Ford and the Navy were in serious discussions about making a movie honoring the derring-do and sacrifice of the PT boats in the Philippines during 1942. Ford began shooting They Were Expendable in Florida in February 1945 and was finished by end of May. In June, Ford was promoted to captain.

Ford now turned his attention to the anticipated invasion of Japan, but the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in August, avoiding an epic bloodbath. At the end of September, Captain Ford was released from active duty. His final Officer’s Fitness Report of WWII said:

Personnel of his organization performed with outstanding distinction and valor in clandestine operations and in combat in the world’s battle fronts. This record of high accomplishments results from Captain Ford’s outstanding ability, his devotion to duty, his loyalty to and love for his subordinates. The discipline of his organization was outstanding; their accomplishments superb. This could result only from great leadership.

Ford went back to making movies in Hollywood but remained in the Naval Reserve and was called to active duty during the Korean War at age 56. He spent several months in Korea making the documentary This is Korea. Upon his return to the states, he was promoted to rear admiral and retired from the Navy. Mark Armistead, a veteran of the Field Photographic Unit, who was again with Ford in Korea, said the famous director “was probably more proud of the Admiral’s stripe than he was of all his Oscars combined.”

Ford was off to Ireland in the summer of 1951 to film The Quiet Man, which would bring him his record fourth Oscar for Best Director. Several more highly acclaimed movies would follow, including Mister Roberts and The Searchers.

John Ford died in 1973. Despite his monumental contributions to filmmaking his headstone identified him not as an actor, a director, or a producer, but as “Admiral John Ford.”

above: John Ford, left, next to his cameraman in the Pacific (Lilly Library / Indiana University, Bloomington)