Maj Donnie Dunagan: How a Beloved Disney Character Became a Tough Marine

Maj Donnie Dunagan took to the Marine Corps readily when he joined the Corps in 1952. But he had a secret that he wanted none of the Marines to know about: as a child, he was the voice of Disney’s Bambi. The ribbing would have been unmerciful, so he did his best to keep it under wraps.

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I am a commander in Marine Corps boot camp. Drill instructors, hundreds of recruits I’m responsible for…I just thought to myself, “I don’t think I want all these young Marines to start calling me Major Bambi.” And I kept my mouth shut

Donnie Dunagan to StoryCorps
Would YOU have called this man “Major Bambi” to his face? We think not.

Major Dunagan served 25 years in the Marine Corps, from 1952 – 1977. He was promoted 13 times and earned a Bronze Star and 3 purple hearts. He served at least two tours in Vietnam, some outlets say three. He also kept secret his pre-corps life. That is, until shortly before his retirement, when the whole thing caught up with him.

A few weeks before he was set to retire from the Corps, secret intact, he was called into his CO’s office. The CO wanted him to “audit the auditors” – and When the Major asked when he would ever have the time to do what his commander asked, the CO patted a big red folder and said:

“You will audit the auditors. Won’t you, Maj. Bambi?”

Dunagan received $100 for being chosen as the voice of Bambi

As a small child, Donnie was in several films, but none as dear to people as Bambi. The list of his childhood stardom:

By the age of 13, he was living in a Boarding House and working as a Lathe operator. At age 18, he became a United States Marine. Not long after, he became the Corps’ youngest drill instructor.

In 2014, Donnie Dunagan was honored during a feature presentation of the film, “Son of Frankenstein.”

Though 80 years old, Donnie had the energy and stage presence of a man half his age. Passing on the available chair, Donnie stood the entire length of the interview and engaged his audience with wonderful stories of working with the likes of Boris Karloff and Walt Disney…

In addition to his days in Hollywood as a child star, Donnie also talked about his career in the military. Donnie had spent twenty-five years in the Marine Corps and served two stints in Vietnam where he was wounded multiple times. He has received the Purple Heart three times as well as other decorations. Near the end of the interview, Matthew surprised Donnie by bringing out the Marine Corps Honor Guard. They had been waiting behind stage.  Donnie was visibly moved when Captain James Stenger and First Lieutenant Leroy Um of the 9th Marine District at Great Lakes presented him with a letter of recognition for his many years of service. The major returned the salute of the younger men as though not a day had passed since his retirement in 1977.

Park Ridge Classic Films

The audience gave all of the Marines a standing ovation.

A night of honor at Park Ridge Classic Films

I have some holes in my body that God didn’t put there. I got shot through my left knee. Got an award or two for saving lives over time. But I think I could have been appointed as the aide-de-camp in the White House, it wouldn’t make any difference — it’s Bambi that’s so dear to people. But I, I love it now. When people realize, “This old jerk, he’s still alive and was Bambi.” And I wouldn’t take anything for it, not a darn thing for it.

Donnie Dunagan at StoryCorps


Featured photo: Donnie Dunagan as a Marine and in 2014 at age 80

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