Most people remember John Ford as an iconic Hollywood film director and winner of multiple Oscars. Ford was known especially for his westerns for which he frequently used Monument Valley in the Arizona/Utah area as a backdrop. But during World War II, Ford went to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to both the CIA and the Army’s Special Forces.
Ford was born Sean Aloysius O’Fearna (also known as John Martin “Jack” Feeney) on February 1, 1895, in Capetown, Maine — the 11th and last child of an Irish family. John attended Portland High School. He then went on to study at the University of Maine for a short time.
His older brother Francis had taken the stage name of Ford and was working in Hollywood. John soon followed him there. He also adopted the stage name of Ford and was known at that time as “Jack.” He began working as a prop man and later acted in silent films before moving on to write and direct films himself.
Known for his westerns, Ford also developed a long-lasting relationship with John Wayne who appeared in 24 of his films. One of those garnered Ford an Oscar for Best Director in “The Quiet Man”, which was filmed in Ireland with Wayne and Maureen O’Hara as the stars of the film. He’s the only director to have won the Best Director award four times for “The Informer”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “How Green Was My Valley”, and “The Quiet Man.” He and Wayne collaborated on several iconic westerns among them “Stagecoach,” ”Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers” (which gets the vote here as the best western ever made), and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Ford received a commission as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and six years later began putting together a group of experienced filmmakers that would make films for Uncle Sam. A year later, that unit got the attention of William “Wild Bill” Donovan who at that time was the Coordinator of Information (COI) as OSS was first known. COI got the filmmakers transferred to the fledgling intelligence unit. COI eventually became known as the Field Photographic Branch.
The purpose of the films was to boost the morale of the troops, provide training, intelligence, and record historic events. Ford immediately began filming documentaries that depicted, for example, defensive preparations for the Panama Canal and Iceland, and the first Atlantic convoys. He also filmed a documentary detailing the attack on Pearl Harbor.
OSS began using film as a training tool and produced several films to aid in the training of their operatives. It also documented the actions of Detachment 101 in China and Burma as well as the Normandy landings in 1944.
Perhaps one of the more important films that John Ford made (and arguably the least known) was “Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines.” The film was intended for OSS operatives. This training film broke new ground and was the first film ever produced by an intelligence service to train its agents.
Ford actually appears in the film and has a speaking role, the only time he has spoken in a film. It is essentially a film within a film as it is a training vehicle that follows two OSS trainees “Charlie” and “Al” who take different paths to be inserted into a hostile country. Charlie is careless and cocky and pays the price. Al is smart, and prepares well, makes good decisions. Ford appears as an undercover lawyer, smoking a pipe.
Ford, would be awarded two more Oscars for Best Documentary; these were on the Battle of Midway and Pearl Harbor. He filmed both of these while he was in uniform and a member of OSS.
During the Midway battle, he was wounded by machine-gun fire and received a Purple Heart. He later was awarded the Air Medal and the Legion of Merit. When he finished the Midway documentary, he showed the reels to President Roosevelt in the White House. In the documentary Marine Corps Major James Roosevelt, the son of the President, was shown at a memorial service for the men killed in the battle. When the president recognized his son, he grew silent. After the film was finished, the first lady Eleanor wept and the president was impressed. He told Admiral Leahy, his senior Navy advisor, “I want every mother in America to see this picture.”
During the buildup for Normandy, he spent five days onboard a PT boat with Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, the commander of a PT-boat squadron. (Bulkeley had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his work in the Philippines.) After the troops went ashore on France, Ford put together the idea that a year later would result in filming the PT boat war story “They Were Expendable.” Robert Montgomery played Bulkeley’s character in the film and John Wayne played the brash Rusty Ryan, Montgomery’s executive officer.
At the end of World War II, he was discharged with the rank of Captain. He later was recalled back to active duty during the Korean War and served as a Rear Admiral, retiring for good in 1951.
Ford died of cancer in 1973 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon. His coffin was draped with a tattered American flag that had been flown by the Marines at Midway.
If you care to watch the training film “Undercover” you can access it here.