16 Sep 20
Posted by: Michael Ellis

To try to improve recruiting into the US Navy in the 1930s, Frank Martinek, a US Naval Reserve officer, created an adventure strip cartoon Don Winslow of the Navy. Another USNR officer, Leon Beroth, did the drawings. The strip was successful in ‘the Comics’ pages of newspapers and soon expanded into a series of comic books, and radio, cinema and TV serials. This book reproduces a number of the stories, with a commentary.

This was the era of the arrival of Dick Tracy (1931) and Superman (1934). These adventure series fed upon each other and thus, like Batman and Robin, Don had a sidekick, the chubby Lieutenant Red Pennington. While Don and Red fought Nazis and ‘Japs’ 1942-46, their pre-war and post-war adventures were more often battles against megalomaniacs wanting to take over the world; in particular, the Scorpion and his organisation Scorpia. Ian Fleming could have drawn on Don Winslow, for Don is a commander in Naval Intelligence “with thick black hair and an unruly forelock”, and his battles with Scorpia resemble James Bond’s ongoing duel with Spectre. But there were many other villains, notably Singapore Sal, a modern pirate, complete with tricorn hat and skull and crossbones flying on her fast steamship. She looked like Lauren Bacall at her sultriest, and her romantic interest in Don led to some complicated twists in the stories. In all the stories, the villains (except the women) are very ugly and all the good guys good-looking. Unlike Superman, Don has no magic powers and overcomes his adversaries by intuition, agility and liberal use of his fists.

The tales are all preposterous fantasy and generally defy physics, logic, and contemporary events. In one, published in 1946, Don even climbs Everest to rescue Red. A typical plotline, as in the Stolen Battleship of 1943, is:

– Nazis hatch a plot to steal a US battleship

– Winslow gets wind of this and sets out to foil Nazis.

– Nazis capture ship, including Don and Red and then tie them up, but they escape.

– Don and Red surprise Nazis and stolen ship.

Don runs through a rapid series of appointments including shore based counter-intelligence, executive officer of a battleship, attachments to the Coastguard and CO of a PT boat. The USA’s allies are hardly mentioned. In one story, “shortly after the German conquest of Norway”, a US carrier appears offshore to allow Don to be flown ashore to lead (on skis) a sabotage raid with the Norwegian resistance. In a Singapore Sal story, an ‘English girl agent’ assists Don. The stories reflect general American male attitudes of the period; for example, the now politically incorrect tale AmazonIsland, where Red is captured by a tribe of beautiful white women. He is put in a cannibal cooking pot to be eaten. Don, leading a rescue party, includes a number of large mirrors on a hunch. These are set up around the Amazons’ camp, and of course, being women, they stop everything to admire their reflections, allowing Red to escape. How the Amazons got there and where Don obtained the mirrors is not explained.

I am puzzled over why a subsidiary of the US Naval Institute Press published this collection.  I can only assume there are enough comic book enthusiasts and nostalgic old boys to make a print run worthwhile. Don Winslow of the Navy lasted until 1955 when it was overtaken by the growth of television. Its success as a recruiting tool is not recorded.