From the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Bronze Star: Henry Fonda : Henry Fonda and the Navy

by Madison Basso, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator

Due to the amount of attention our Facebook trivia question on Navy actors  received earlier this month, we decided to expand upon Henry Fonda’s naval service for this month’s blog. Although actor Fonda is famous  for his roles in films such as 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath and Mister Roberts, many are unaware of his military career.  During World War II, Fonda believed  he could do more to help his country than be an actor. Although he was already an Academy Award nominee by 1942, he longed for real military service. He famously stated that he did not “want to be in a fake war in a studio.” 

LT Henry Fonda

Lieutenant Henry Fonda at the conclusion of his service, USNR, circa 1945. Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

Although he was already thirty-seven years old, Fonda was determined to join the Navy. He was accepted into service on August 22, 1942. Upon his enlistment, the Navy offered  Fonda a commission because  he had previously completed two years of school at the University of Minnesota. Despite this offer, Fonda preferred to be enlisted. The disparity in pay made no difference to Fonda as he was making over $150,000 a year in Hollywood (or almost $2,300,000 in today’s money.)  


Newly enlisted Henry Fonda with his seabag in 1942. Photo from: Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

After boot camp, Fonda attended Quartermaster School where he ranked in the top ten of his graduating class. The Navy assigned Fonda to the destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) with the rank of Quartermaster Third class. Shortly after his first anniversary in the Navy, Fonda applied to become an officer and received a  commission of Lieutenant, junior grade.

Fonda served in the Pacific theater as an Assistant Air Combat Information Officer and Air Operations Watch Officer. For his service, he was awarded  the Bronze Star and a Navy Presidential Unit Citation. In the fall of 1945 Fonda left active duty and remained in the Naval Reserves until 1948.

USS Satterlee

The destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) pictured in Northern Ireland preparing for the invasion of France, circa 1944. Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

After his Naval career, Fonda never forgot about his fellow Sailors and members of the Armed Forces. During the Vietnam War, he toured with the USO helping to boost troop morale. Supporting the troops was very personal to Fonda. Reflecting on his USO tours, he recalled that “it was a trip that this (sixty-two)-year-old man didn’t want to take, but I felt I had to…for the guys sweating it out and dying in the rice paddies and jungles.” 


Former Sailor Henry Fonda touring Vietnam with the USO circa 1967. Image courtesy of the USO.

The legendary performer and World War II veteran passed away in 1982 at his Los Angles home due to heart disease. In 2004, the USO discovered a personal letter written by Fonda to the organization during an office move. The letter, dated April 27, 1967, contained this heartfelt message from Fonda that the USO tours were, “the most rewarding experience of my life, and I will be forever grateful that I was given this opportunity.”

To learn more about Henry Fonda’s Navy career, check out his Official Military Personnel File, which has been digitizedby the National Archives here.

Have a favorite Henry Fonda movie? Leave your comments below about Henry “One-Take” Fonda!



“Anniversary Photos – Henry Fonda.” United Service Organizations. January 31, 2010. Accessed June 18, 2019.

Fonda. “Actor Henry Fonda with Seabag on Shoulder after Enlisting in United States Navy, 1942.” Calisphere. Accessed June 18, 2019.

Martin, Kali. “Anniversary Photos – Henry Fonda.” United Service Organizations. June 20, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.

“Navy Muster Rolls Reveal WWII Service of Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Jason Robards, Ernest Borgnine.” Ancestry Blog. March 14, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.

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