The Marine who held a secret for over 20 years

This drill instructor was terrified his Marines would find out

The Marine who held a secret for over 20 years

Donnie Dunagan in his Marine Corps uniform. (Photo/NPR)

In 1952, Donnie Dunagan enlisted in the Marine Corps and knew he found his dream career. Dunagan became the youngest drill instructor in history and would be promoted a whopping thirteen times in twenty-one years. In other words, roughly once every two years, a Marine Corps record.

As Dunagan become more successful in the military, he continued to safeguard a secret he hoped would never be revealed to the public: He was the voice of Bambi. (In 1942, Disney released the classic animated film Bambi, without an official cast being listed.) 

Dunagan was a former child actor during the 1930s. He had worked his way up from street performances to Hollywood and wound up being picked by Disney for the starring role in Bambi. Originally he selected to serve as the facial model for the deer, however, his involvement evolved into a speaking role.

He left the film industry shortly after the creation of Bambi and enlisted in the Marines. At 18-years-old, Dunagan was shipped directly to Drill Instructor School from basic training. On the fast track for promotion, he was selected for a commission in the Marines in 1957 as a counterintelligence officer. In 1966, Lt. Dunagan went to Vietnam for his first of three tours. He was promoted to Captain, and then Major while overseas — far ahead of the regulatory time-in-grade requirements, due to his exemplary service. He was eventually selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel but turned it down.

All the while, he never told a soul about his film credit — not even his wife. He worried that his Marines would lose respect for him the moment they found out he was the voice behind a frail, weak animated deer.

He managed to keep his secret until 1977 when Disney decided to re-release the film and for the first time ever, include the credits. Dunagan was a Major serving as a commander of a training unit at the time and a mere month away from retirement.

It didn't take long for people to make the connection. Dunagan was unaware anyone knew his secret until one day General Kenneth Houghton called him “Major Bambi” as a joke during a conversation. Dunagan's worst nightmares had come true. It didn't matter how much Dunagan had distinguished himself, or how many purple hearts he had (three). His fellow Marines couldn't believe the hardened officer they had known for years was the voice of innocent Bambi.


Newspaper clippings of Donnie Dunagan listed as the Bambi model. (Photo/NPR) 

So how did Dunagan react to this change of opinion? He completely embraced it. To this day, he doesn't regret anything about it. He particularly enjoys the fact that many people find it difficult to believe someone like himself could be the voice of Bambi.