John Ford and the First Battlefront of World War II

John Ford’s War

Mention John Ford’s name today, and most people think of Westerns. Stagecoach, Fort Apache, or The Searchers might come to mind. But Ford actually directed a lot of films that weren’t Westerns, not the least of which were made while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. While no one would compare Ford’s military films to Stagecoach, they may have had a greater impact on the nation than anything he had made before. In fact, when Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck tasked Ford with his first project, the venereal disease education film Sex Hygiene, in early 1941, he was assigning him an instrumental role on the front line of the United States’ first major battle of the war.


John Ford, in a still from Undercover, a film he made for the Office of Strategic Services.

By 1940, John Ford had made dozens of films in Hollywood and won an Oscar for one of them. He was known for a unique combination of technical expertise, efficient shooting, and cinematic artistry. In addition to being a master of film, Ford was highly patriotic and eager to serve his country in the war he felt was imminent. Ford was too old to fight, but he saw an opportunity to use what he knew best to help the United States military. In early 1940, Ford signed on to set up the Navy’s Field Photo Unit.

America Prepares for Battle

The United States’ official declaration of war was December 8th, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the United States had already been quietly preparing for involvement in a number of ways despite its isolationist policies. The nation’s first peace-time draft began in September of 1940 and the defense budget increased dramatically. The American government had also aided Allied efforts since March of 1941, providing supplies and materiel under the “Act to Promote Defense of the United States” (known more commonly as Lend-Lease).

There were other, less apparent ways that officials made sure that the armed forces would be battle-ready, like the ramp up in film production to train the nation’s soldiers. John Ford’s Field Photo Unit is one example. In addition, the Army Signal Corps scheduled nearly 200 training films for the year prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. In 1936, they had barely made twenty.

But before the military could worry about training soldiers, they needed to make sure they had healthy men to serve. That’s why, long before American forces were fighting Japan and Germany overseas, the United States military began the fight against syphilis and gonorrhea at home. Officials had learned during the First World War that untreated venereal diseases rendered a significant number of potential recruits unfit for service, and infection rates tended to climb during conflict.


Venereal disease statistics collected during World War I showed that a significant percentage of the troops came in with untreated conditions. This chart shows the rate from March 29-May 24, 1918. 165-WW-267-B-015

It hardly seems like a coincidence then, that AR 40-235, the Army’s policy on preventing venereal disease, was updated in October of 1939, only a month after Germany invaded Poland and sparked the war in Europe. Next, the Army hashed out a joint plan of attack with the United States Public Health Service and the American Social Hygiene Association, defining the roles of each to make sure that the nation would be ready to fight. The plan, known as the Eight-Point Agreement, was formalized in May of 1940 and issued as a directive by the Army on September 19, 1940 just three days after the draft began. Education was a major component of both of the documents. By April of 1941, Ford completed Sex Hygiene, and AR 40-235 was updated to indicate that screenings of Sex Hygiene would satisfy the educational component of the policy. The film was shown to every inductee throughout the war, usually multiple times.

Seeing the Fordian in Sex Hygiene

Most of Sex Hygiene is exactly what one might expect from a film designed to scare millions of young men away from risky behavior: It is informative and graphic. (John Ford famously told Peter Bogdanovich that he threw up when he saw the clinical footage.) We won’t be sharing the entire film here. We can, however take a look at a few visual elements that bear John Ford’s fingerprints.

In the opening sequence of the film, two soldiers play pool in the recreation hall. (The actors are George Reeves, TV’s Superman and Robert Lowery, who played Batman in a 1949 serial.) When Pete passes by, obviously dressed to go out on the town, the two men know he is about to make a bad decision. The film cuts to a close-up shot of the cue ball coming up behind the eight ball, an obvious visual reference to Pete’s choice. Ominous music plays over the shot.

The second part is more subtle, yet extremely efficient and clever. A close-up shows a still-burning cigar resting on a banister at the top of a staircase. Multiple burn marks on the banister indicate that this cigar is not the first to be left here. A hand reaches down to pick up the cigar and the shot zooms out to show a disheveled Pete. He buckles his belt and goes on his way. In just fifteen wordless seconds, the viewer knows that Pete has likely visited a brothel and will suffer unsavory consequences.


Still from Sex Hygiene: Pete retrieves his still-burning cigar.

The film continues with a posted notice to report to a screening of Sex Hygiene. What follows is a screening of a filmed lecture by a stern military doctor, complete with horrified reaction shots from the audience. Ford intentionally films the actor from below and employs dark shadows so that the doctor is both authoritative and a little frightening.

Sex Hygiene was just the first of many films that John Ford made for the military, but it was likely burned into the brains of those who saw it like no film he made before or after, mostly because of its graphic nature, but also because of Ford’s visual choices. Sex Hygiene is also the most enduring of John Ford’s wartime career: The film served as one of the main pillars in the military’s fight to keep soldiers free from disease, and maintained this role for over twenty years.


A Note on Sources:

There is no production file for Sex Hygiene, but some references to the film were found in the textual holdings and allowed us to better understand the historical context. This material included copies of Army Regulations and data regarding venereal disease infection rates in the military. These records can be found in: Statistical materials, studies, and publications, 1941-1945, Records of the Social Protection Division, Record Group 215, Records of the Office of Community War Services.

Links in the text direct to publications from the U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History.

Other general information about John Ford and Sex Hygiene can be found in Five Came Back by Mark Harris and Sex Ed by Robert Eberwein.

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Batter Up: World War I Amputees Play Ball


One-armed baseball team, Walter Reed Hospital. June 20, 1919. 165-WW-255A-20

Long before Pete Gray or Jim Abbott stepped up to the plate, veterans of World War I recovering at military hospitals throughout the United States formed amputee baseball teams. Elbert K. Fretwell, Director of Recreation in Hospitals in the Department of Military Relief with the American Red Cross, insisted that the best recreation for recovering soldiers was their traditional activities modified for everyone to be able to enjoy, and the soldiers seemed to agree. One player at Fort Des Moines exclaimed, “Gee, I’m glad I can still swat the old pill!”¹


One-armed baseball team, Walter Reed Hospital. “Out at Second.” 165-WW-255A-22

The Department of Military Relief organized field days, where veterans from different hospitals competed. Fretwell wrote, “At Fort McHenry and Walter Reed, the one-armed baseball teams defeated their opponents — two-armed teams that played with one arm tied behind their backs. At Fort Des Moines Field Day, June 17, there was a hot game between the one-armed and the one-legged team.”²


As we tune in to the Invictus Games, Fretwell’s comments resonate:

It is an expression of the desire of the American people to provide everything that is practicable in the way of reconstructive recreation for our sick and wounded soldiers, sailors, and marines — our own men who for their Country stood ready to give if necessary their last full measure of devotion.³

NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.


1. Fretwell, Elbert K. “Recreation in Hospitals.” Carry On: A Magazine on the Reconstruction of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. June 1918-July 1919.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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Happy Mother’s Day from the National Archives!

To the women who play with us:

Teach us:

Keep us well and well-fed:

Who work:


And to mamas of pets:

Happy Mother’s Day

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Aftermath of Disaster: RMS Lusitania in Photographs

In the early afternoon of May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania made her way towards Liverpool, England. Six days earlier she’d left New York City on her 202nd transatlantic voyage, carrying 1,265 passengers and 694 crew members from all over the world, including nearly 150 Americans.


Lusitania leaving New York. Steaming out of the harbor. 165-WW-537F-5

The mood aboard Lusitania during the voyage was one of resigned anxiety. On April 22, 1915, just two weeks before Lusitania’s departure, the Imperial German Embassy placed an advertisement in American newspapers warning of the threat to passenger ships entering the declared war zone off of the British Isles. On the evening of May 1, the day of Lusitania’s departure, the Washington Times reported, “Cunard line officials laughed at passengers’ fears and said the Lusitania could show her heels to any submarine.” Still, the Cunard Line took precautions at the suggestion of the British Admiralty, advising that Lusitania not fly flags in the war zone, paint her funnels to avoid detection, and consider a zigzagging maneuver. Captain William Turner also took precautions at sea, closing the ship’s watertight doors, ordering a blackout, and preparing the lifeboats to be launched if necessary.

Shortly after 2:00 PM on May 7th, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania crossed paths with German submarine U-20, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger. According to his diary, Schwieger followed the Lusitania, hoping for her to turn to her starboard side in order to secure a favorable shot. By 3:10 PM, Schwieger had a “clear bow shot.” He set an angle of intersection at 90 degrees and ordered the torpedo fired. He reported:

Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder!). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge were torn apart; fire broke out; light smoke veiled the high bridge. The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time.¹

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Spotlight: Submarine Chasers

In 1916, after 2 incidents with German submarines off the east coast of the United States, the U.S. Navy recognized an urgent need for a new kind of vessel, one heavy enough for weather at sea, but nimble enough for antisubmarine maneuvers. The result was the 110 foot submarine chaser.


Outboard Profile

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Majestic Mount Rainier: Finding My Park in the Archives

This year the National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial and encouraging Americans to “Find Your Park.” Even though I now reside on the opposite side of the country, I know my park will always be Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State.

Mount Rainier in the 1967 film "What is a Mountain?"

Mount Rainier in the 1967 film “What is a Mountain?”

Growing up outside Seattle, my family took advantage of summer weather to visit many of the national parks in the Pacific Northwest, but the one I most remember is Mount Rainier. Even in warm weather, we would find fields of snow near the lodge and visitor center at Paradise. From that vantage point, we used binoculars to search for Camp Muir, the overnight shelter used by mountain climbers attempting the summit. On our own less-strenuous hikes, we would look for the waterfalls that spring up during the summertime, fed by melting snow and glacial ice. Continue reading

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Dr. Paul Owen: The First PHS Optometrist

Paul Owen grew up in Jacksonville, Florida in the mid-20th century. He attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he earned his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and then his Doctorate in Optometry (O.D.). In 1966, Dr. Owen became the first optometrist in the Public Health Service commissioned Officer Corps. Prior to this, any necessary optometry care was provided by contracting physicians.


Series 513-AS

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Universal News Presents “A Whirl with the Squirrels”

Squirrels have long been popular in American culture. In 1959 Jay Ward introduced us to Rocky the Flying Squirrel and today we have the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and her squirrel friends. The Washington Post even has an annual squirrel photography contest. So it’s no surprise that in 1953 the producers of the Universal Newsreel series were very pleased to offer an exclusive look at the trained squirrels of Mrs. Florence Hinton.

According to a magazine clipping in the newsreel’s production file, Florence Hinton had been an opera singer on tour when a little boy gave her two baby squirrels in exchange for tickets to her performance. She later brought the squirrels with her to a performance for children. Her audience was so delighted that she decided to train the squirrels “despite warnings from experts that it could not be done.” At the time of the newsreel, she had eight performing squirrels with an arsenal of tricks.

Universal cameraman Jimmie Lederer filmed Hinton and her squirrels at her home in Grover City, Calif., on October 19, 1953. At the bottom of the caption sheet that accompanied the film reels back to Universal he noted, “If not released in three weeks, she will let the other [news]reels who have asked for this story make it—SHE HAD LETTERS FROM ALL REELS IN LOS ANGELES….and will hold off!!!!” Universal wasted no time, running this exclusive story on October 22.

Other stories in this release include the dedication of the Falcon Dam on the US-Mexico border, a ticker-tape parade for retiring Army General Mark Clark, an Italian fashion show, and a demonstration of the Bongo Board. You can view the whole newsreel, and many more, on our YouTube channel.

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Faces of Counterfeiters Past: Mugshots from the United States Secret Service Collections

Last year marked the sesquicentennial of the establishment of the United States Secret Service, the federal law enforcement agency assigned to protect the nation’s highest elected leaders and investigate and prevent counterfeiting activities. However, when the agency was formed on July 5, 1865, their mission was not twofold but rather concerned with combating the illegal production, or counterfeiting, of money in the post-Civil War years. It wasn’t until after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service began their protection duties.

By the end of the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all the currency in circulation was counterfeit. Prior to a national currency, the ability of state banks to print their own currency led to a myriad of banknotes with various designs in circulation. By 1867, Congress had expanded the agency’s investigative duties to include any acts of fraud against the federal government.

As individuals were arrested for counterfeiting and other fraudulent activities, their photographs were taken and placed into albums where they served as a visual record of criminals for the Secret Service. Copies of the mugshots were sent to Secret Service headquarters in Washington, DC and then distributed to district offices across the country, including Cleveland, OH; Philadelphia, PA; and Pittsburgh, PA. The reverse side of the photographs provide varying levels of information about those arrested – from vital statistics, peculiar characteristics, and arrest information to simply the offender’s name.

In describing the offenders, the Chief of the Division (from 1888-1890), John S. Bell, urged agents to “take personal pride in carrying out the most minute details…” An example of this detail is observed in the description of George W. Shamen, “small creases on both cheeks; slow swinging walk; very quiet in his manner.” Also worth noting is the legitimate occupation of those arrested; a number of individuals held jobs as artists and printers which, without a doubt, assisted in the manufacturing of counterfeit notes and coins.

Photographs of individuals arrested for counterfeiting and currency offenses can be found in the following series: 87-CA, 87-PC, and 87-PCM. The photographs in these three series are of the carte-de-visite (CDV) format. A CDV consists of a thin photographic print mounted on a thick card support. Popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the CDV was small in size, at 2 1/2 by 4 inches, and cheap to produce. Because these photographs were often taken by local photographers near where the persons pictured were arrested, it is not uncommon to see the reverse side of the card bearing the photographer’s logo or advertisement.

Another interesting series of mugshots can be found in 87-CS, Photographs of Criminals and Suspects, ca. 1914 – ca. 1925, and typically include a frontal and side view of the offender with identifying information on the back. Additional images may be found at the National Archives at Washington, DC within Record Group 351, Entry PI-186 138, Identification Books for the DC Metropolitan Police Department from 1883-1890.

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Spotlight: Eggs through the Ages

The annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn – a longstanding American tradition.


Easter Egg Roll, White House Lawn. Ca. 1942 (RG 69-GU)

Maybe you’re planning to hunt them down, dye them brilliantly, roll them across the White House Lawn – or maybe you’re just hoping to get through the next two weeks with as few boiled eggs in your life as humanly possible. Whatever the case may be, it is hard to deny the importance eggs have in our diets year round. But where do these eggs come from before they reach our tables, our plates, and our lawns? Check out the story of eggs, as told by these 1920’s through the 1950’s images from the Department of Agriculture: RG 16-G.


First, eggs had to be gathered from the hens and hen houses.


Next, the eggs would be processed. This involved cleaning, weighing, checking to be sure no little chickens were growing within, grading, sorting, and packaging for distribution.


Once processed and ready for purchase, the eggs had to make it to market! Sometimes they were shipped to stores or purchased at auction, sometimes they were sold door-to-door or purchased direct from the farmers, sometimes they were sold at local markets or collected through co-ops.


But regardless of where they came from, eggs were – and continue to be – eggceptionally important.

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