For the entirety of his Marine Corps career, Donnie Dunagan feared his fellow Marines discovering his pre-Corps life. The last thing he wanted was to be known forever as “Major Bambi.” It was a nightmare he’d harbored for 21 years of Marine Corps service – and it almost came out just weeks before retirement.
Donnie Dunagan as a Marine Corps officer in 1974.
Dunagan was a Marine recruiter’s dream – except he was never recruited. He was drafted into the Corps in 1952, which certainly made his life interesting, but it was already interesting. As a young child, Dunagan’s family struggled with poverty in Tennessee. After young Dunagan won 0 in a talent competition, the family moved to Hollywood where he became something of a child star. His last role was as the voice of Disney’s beloved baby fawn, the title role of Bambi.
His Hollywood past was a sharp contrast to his teen years. He earned money as a lathe operator in a boardinghouse before being drafted into the Marine Corps. But he took to the life of a Marine. He was promoted 13 times in his 21 years, which was a record at the time. He was also the youngest drill instructor to ever don the campaign hat. All the while, he harbored a secret he was desperate to keep from his fellow Marines.
He fought three tours in Vietnam and over the years earned a promotion to Major along with a Bronze Star and three Purple hearts. 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?”
His secret finally caught up to him.
“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,” Dunagan told StoryCorps. “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.”