How One Man Went From Bambi To Marine Corps Commander

Donald "Donnie" Dunagan was a tough-as-leather Marine Corps major with combat medals and bullet wounds in equal measure that he'd received fighting the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, per The Guardian. But he also had a secret, one that he feared would make it hard to do his job as a drill instructor teaching Jar Heads the ins and outs of surviving the rigors of combat.

Dunagan had once been a child actor who worked with such Golden Era Hollywood legends as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Basil Rathbone, according to WTTW. He was a rough and tumble kid and hated that the Hollywood studios curled his long blond hair every day, per his personal website, but he'd become the main breadwinner for his family, so he put up with it. In 1940, when Walt Disney came calling, the 5-year-old had already appeared in six other films, per IMDb and The Commercial Appeal. But working for "Uncle Walt" would be a very different experience.

Donnie Dunagan's childhood career 

At age 3, with a walking stick under his arm and a homemade top hat on his head, Donnie Dunagan jigged his way into first place at a talent show in Memphis, Tennessee, earning $100 (about $2,000 today, per U.S. Inflation Calculator) for his struggling family during the Depression. "And this was at a time when people were earning 20 cents for a full day's work," he told The Guardian in 2005. Soon, he and his parents were in Hollywood and Dunagan was getting good press for his roles in such films as "Mother Carey's Chickens" — the Los Angeles Evening Citizen-News called him "outstanding among the juveniles recently introduced on the screen." Soon other film roles came his way, including "Son of Frankenstein" and "Tower of London," both in 1939, per IMDb.

Dunagan also made film history when the Los Angeles Superior Court approved his RKO film contract stipulating his parents had to put half his salary aside in a trust fund, per The Commercial Appeal. After the parents of child actor Jackie Coogan, who starred with Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 film "The Kid," squandered his money, the court began stipulating the new clause and Dunagan was the first to benefit, per the newspaper.

Donnie Dunagan's most iconic role 

By 1940, Donnie Dunagan's star was rising. The precocious child could already speak four languages, sing and play the ukelele, and not only easily memorized his own lines but all the other actors' lines as well, per The Commercial Appeal. Walt Disney handpicked him to voice the young Bambi. The full-length animated film had been in the works since 1936, but other projects and difficulties with adapting the source novel to film held up production, per ACMI. Now that Disney had a voice for the young Bambi, he ordered his animators to incorporate Dunagan's expressions and body movements into the character of Bambi, per The Commercial Appeal.

Working at Disney Studios was a unique experience for Dunagan. For one thing, they had ice cream, per the Times of Northwest Indiana. And Walt Disney was often on set. "Everyone spoke well of him and he was very involved," Dunagan told the newspaper during a 2011 interview. "If there was a problem, they knew he'd know how to fix it." The one thing Disney couldn't fix was Dunagan's home life, where things were crumbling. "We'd gone from a one-room tenement to a house in Beverly Hills, and it was too much, too quick," Dunagan told The Guardian. "The family just ruptured, and I was then farmed out to a bunch of people."

From actor to drill instructor 

Donnie Dunagan's family imploded soon after Bambi. His parents later died, and he was on his own living in a boarding house at age 13 and working as a lathe operator, per the San Angelo Standard and The Guardian. In 1952, Dunagan enlisted in the Marines at age 18, sending him on a new path far from the bright lights of Hollywood. He became the youngest drill sergeant in Corps history and would be promoted 13 times in 21 years, another record at the time, according to We Are the Mighty.

Dunagan served three tours in the Vietnam War, was wounded multiple times — several times during the infamous Tet Offensive in 1968 — and received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, per We Are the Mighty. "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," he recalled on StoryCorps. He also had a secret he prayed wouldn't be discovered by his fellow Marines.

A hardened Marine combat veteran with a secret

Throughout his military career, Donnie Dunagan feared the recruits he trained, his fellow officers, or anyone else with ties to the Marine Corps would discover his past as a child actor, and specifically, his role as the voice of Bambi. He didn't even tell his wife, Dana, according to StoryCorps. "I was blessed to be in a leadership role for 25 years, either in counterintelligence or training troops," Dunagan told the Houston Chronicle, "and if these animals I was leading had ever found out about Bambi — as much affection as I had for it — they'd have ridden me out on a rail."

Dunagan kept a lid on his past, or so he thought. A month before he retired from the Marines, he was called into a general's office. His superior officer wanted him to do extra work on top of the pile of duties he already had to contend with. When Dunagan balked at the new assignment, the general patted a red folder on his desk with Dunagan's name on it, and asked again, this time calling Dunagan, "Major Bambi," per StoryCorps. The secret was out.

The secret gets out 

Donnie Dunagan retired from the Marines in 1977 and continued to keep a lid on his childhood acting career until a friend discovered his secret while watching "Son of Frankenstein" in 2004, according to the Houston Chronicle. Soon, a local Texas TV news station did a story on Dunagan and things snowballed from there. The Walt Disney Company — who believed Dunagan had died — contacted him about promoting a "Bambi" DVD release, per The Guardian, and he was soon back in the public eye, celebrating his ties to the Disney classic.

Dunagan experienced lots of difficulties in his life, including losing a million-dollar investment because of the notorious Enron scandal involving the Texas-based energy company that lied to investors before going belly up in 2001, per the San Angelo Standard. He now lives in San Angelo, Texas, and has made appearances at Comic conventions and similar events, per his website. Dunagan's secret has become a source of pride once again. "It's a constant joy to talk to people who have such a love and appreciation for movies that I was a part of," he wrote on his website. "It makes a fellow feel pretty lucky."