TNB Night Owl – Henry Fonda, US Navy

Scene from "Mister Roberts" (1955).
Scene from "Mister Roberts" (1955). Image captured by the News Blender.

Even nearly forty years after his passing, Henry Fonda is still one of the greatest and best-known actors to ever grace the stage and screen. His acting career is well known, but his naval career is practically a military secret to most people.

When the United States entered the Second World War, Fonda wanted to do his part to serve his country but eschewed the high-profile celebrity role that others in the entertainment industry took. He is widely quoted as having said, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio”, and enlisted in the US Navy in August, 1942. He was thirty-seven years old, almost too old to enlist.

Because he had already completed more than two years of college, the Navy immediately offered him a commision to serve as an officer, but Fonda turned it down. After completing boot camp, the Navy sent him to quartermaster school to learn the ropes of navigation, signaling, operating the helm, and other duties related to the bridge of a ship. Fonda graduated from quartermaster school near the top of his class (top ten out of 200), after which he was ordered to report to the destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626), as a Quartermaster, Third Class. He was received on board Satterlee on 1 July 1943.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) off the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts (USA), on 22 September 1943. Public domain.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) off the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts (USA), on 22 September 1943. Public domain.

Built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation, Satterlee was a brand new tin can, having been launched 17 July 1942 and commissioned 1 July 1943, the date of Fonda’s arrival. Her first assignment was to escort the British aircraft carrier HMS Victorious from the west coast to the east coast. (Victorious had been in the Pacific to reinforce the American carrier fleet after the loss of USS Hornet and severe damage to USS Enterprise at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands).

Upon arrival, Satterlee became part of the US Atlantic Fleet, 26 August 1943. She then sailed twice to Casablanca, North Africa, escorting convoys in support of Operation Torch.

Approximately one year after Fonda had enlisted, he decided to apply for a commission after all. He was definitely aboard Satterlee while she escorted Victorious to the eastern seaboard, but it’s not clear if he sailed with her to Casablanca. His application for a commission was readily accepted. A letter written by his commanding officer describes Fonda as possesing “officer-like qualities of leadership, military bearing, loyalty, judgment and intelligence”. Now thirty-eight years old, he was beyond the upper age limit allowed for an Ensign, and therefore commissioned as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade.

Fonda was sent to the Pacific where he was assigned roles of Assistant Air Combat Information Officer and Air Operations Watch Officer. During at least part of his time in the Pacific, Fonda was stationed aboard the seaplane tender USS Curtiss (AV-4). His job involved helping to plan and execute Navy air operations during the invasions of the Marianas, Western Carolines, and Iwo Jima. For his contributions to those campaigns, Fonda was awarded the Bronze Star.

Fonda remained on active duty until November, 1945, after which he became a Navy Reserve officer. He resigned his commision in 1948 as he had exceeded the maximum allowed age for a Lieutenant, J.G.

Fonda’s naval career provided an authenticity in his stage role of “Mister Roberts” on Broadway, which premiered in 1948 and ran for several years, and on screen in the movie version released in 1955.

[An interesting side bar on the USS Satterlee, long after Fonda had departed the ship: Satterlee was given a special D-Day assignment. Crossing the English Channel, she escorted mine sweepers to the Normandy beaches, then commenced firing on Pointe du Hoc to provide cover for US Army Rangers to scale the cliffs during their famous June 6, 1944, assault].

Question of the Night: What’s your favorite Henry Fonda movie?

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