Gene Autry and Rudolph

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

Gene Autry was not born in Oklahoma, but he moved there as a small child and always considered himself an Oklahoman. He started out in radio and went on to movies.

Unlike John Wayne in his early films, Autry was a singing cowboy who could actually sing. What he lacked in acting skills in his early movie days was forgiven because of the positive effect his singing had on the success of those "B" westerns he made.

I can still remember watching Gene Autry movies on TV as a child. My dad the Navy Master Chief was stationed out in Idaho. That was the Wild West, just like in the Autry movies.

I first learned to tell time because of Gene Autry movies. My dad worked shift work and sometimes my mother would leave me home while my father was sleeping. She taught me how to figure out time on the clock so I would know when to turn on Gene Autry. One o'clock was the time the movie started, which of course became the most important time in this four year old's life.

Since all the other kids in the neighborhood watched the same movies, we would then go out in the backyard and re-enact our favorite scenes. Gene Autry sang and acted in the very early days of "talkies," when people like Charlie Chaplin gave the new movies with sound six months before the "fad" disappeared.

Unlike many people in the entertainment business who made a lot of money, Autry did not waste his new found wealth. Autry turned out to be one of the major financial success stories of the Hollywood industry. He owned radio stations and a Los Angeles TV station. He stopped regular performances in the early 1970s.

Autry had a great love for baseball, so he bought a controlling interest in the Anaheim Angels ball team. There actually came a time when younger generations knew Gene Autry as the ball team owner without knowing about his singing and movie career.

Autry was a private pilot but only in small airplanes. When W.W.II broke out he started taking flight lessons in larger transport category aircraft at his own expense. This was done in order to prepare himself for joining the Army Air Force.

He had his own weekly radio show, the "Melody Ranch" that was heard coast to coast. On 23 July 1942 during a live broadcast, Gene Autry took his oath of enlistment on the air, and became Technical Sergeant Autry.

When he first approached the Army about joining, they wanted him to go into the Special Services and spend the war entertaining the troops. He wanted to fly and he wanted to fly real missions, not just publicity flights that made for good press. He trained at a number of air bases, but finally was sent to Love Field in Dallas to attend flight school and became a flight officer in 1944.

He flew in the China-Burma-India Theater and throughout the Pacific operations. It is alleged he was the only person in the Army Air Force allowed to wear cowboy boots while on flying duty. He continued his radio show during the war but shortened it to fifteen minutes. It was renamed the Sergeant Gene Autry show.

When the war ended Autry stayed in the service until 1946, and this time he did entertain the troops. He traveled the Pacific flying his C-47 aircraft into remote locations to perform for the sailors, marines and GIs waiting their turn to rotate back to the States.

In 1947 he recorded the song "Here comes Santa Claus," which was a big success. It was, however, his 1949 recording of "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" that became a world famous Christmas song. It sold two million copies the first year and it went on to become the best selling song of all times. In 1980 alone Autry sold a half million copies of the song. My folks still have our family record album of Gene Autry Christmas songs with "Rudolph" and Gene on the front cover.

I will be in Chicago for Christmas and will be playing the album. Airman Gene Autry died in 1991 and on the marker of his grave it reads Patriot and Veteran. Even with all his Hollywood fame he wanted to be remembered as a military member who did his part for his country.

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.