Major Retired Donnie Dunagan CREDIT US Air Force 2nd Lt Matthew Stott AND Disney's Bambi 1942 Image ID 2GP2PR5 CREDIT Walt Disney Courtesy Everett Collection
Major (Retired) Donnie Dunagan (Picture: US Air Force / 2nd Lt Matthew Stott) and Disney's Bambi, 1942 (Picture: Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection).

Major Bambi: The US marine who kept his Disney secret to himself for 25 years

Major Retired Donnie Dunagan CREDIT US Air Force 2nd Lt Matthew Stott AND Disney's Bambi 1942 Image ID 2GP2PR5 CREDIT Walt Disney Courtesy Everett Collection
Major (Retired) Donnie Dunagan (Picture: US Air Force / 2nd Lt Matthew Stott) and Disney's Bambi, 1942 (Picture: Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection).

A highly decorated US marine who served for 25 years, during which time he completed three tours in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star and three Purple hearts, had a secret he was determined no-one should know. 

However, a month before he was due to retire, Major Donnie Dunagan's hidden past was revealed, much to his dismay – this man of action and bravery had been the voice of Disney's much-loved baby deer, Bambi. 

Speaking to his wife about his secret for non-profit organization StoryCorps, he said: "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."

But Major Bambi is the exact nickname he received. 

The frail, newborn deer first seen dappled by sunlight and warmly greeted by the forest's residents as he struggles to stand up for the first time was voiced by Dunagan when he was a child actor. 

Released in 1942, Bambi was Walt Disney's fifth animated feature film, but not Dunagan's first, having already appeared in Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Forgotten Woman (1939) and Tower of London (1939). 

Bambi was, in fact, his last role before giving up on acting altogether. 

As a very young child, Dunagan and his family lived in poverty in Tennessee, but their lives were turned around financially when the young boy was spotted by a studio scout at a talent competition. 

The family moved to Hollywood where Dunagan, who was less than four years old at the time, became the main breadwinner. 

His success in the film industry saw his family moving from a one-bedroom property in Tennessee to a house in Beverly Hills – a dramatic shift in fortunes that saw his family life fracture and left 13-year-old Dunagan living in a boarding house where he worked as a lathe operator. 

Five years later, the former child actor signed up to join the US marines, leaving his past acting life as a distant childhood memory never to be revealed to anyone. 

In a chat with his wife Dana for StoryCorps, a company whose mission is to "preserve and share humanity's stories in order to... create a more just and compassionate world", the veteran reveals just how much he thinks his role in Bambi changed his life, saying: "I think I could've 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 love it now when people realize this old jerk – still alive and was Bambi. 

"And I wouldn't take... a darn thing for it." 

Image ID HC7J6P voice of Disney's Bambi Donnie Dunagan in 1939 EXP 10.01.24 CREDIT Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Young Donnie Dunagan also appeared in 'Son of Frankenstein' in 1939 (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

However, he even kept his secret of being the voice of Bambi a secret from his wife at first, such was his desire to keep it hidden. 

He said: "I never said a word to anybody about Bambi – even to you, when we first met. 

"Most of the image in people's minds of Bambi was a little, frail deer, not doing very well, sliding around on the ice on his belly." 

Quite a different image to how he wanted to portray himself as a commander in the Marine Corps and boot camp drill instructor, responsible for hundreds of recruits. 

Dunagan, who was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War, had 13 promotions during his service, which he remembers was a Marine Corps record at the time. 

Eventually, Dunagan's Disney secret made its way to the surface thanks to a fellow marine he had worked for three times, twice in combat. 

Major Retired Donnie Dunagan was the voice of Disney's Bambi CREDIT US Air Force 2nd Lt Matthew Stott
Major (Retired) Donnie Dunagan was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War (Picture: US Air Force / 2nd Lt Matthew Stott).

Like something from a scene in a sitcom, the comic timing of the reveal is worthy of applause. 

Dunangan said: "I go in his office, and he says Dunagan, I want you to audit the auditors. 

"I never said a disrespectful word of this man in 20 years. 

"So I says, General, when do you think I am going to have time to do that? 

"Then he looked at me, pulled his glasses down, like some kind of college professor, and there's a big red top-secret folder that he got out of some safe somewhere – had my name on it. 

"He passes this folder, looks me in the eye and says 'you will audit the auditors, won't you, Major Bambi?'" 

Dunagan's secret was no longer under wraps. 

In the Disney film, fawn Bambi is scared by his first experience of a thunderstorm, a far cry from the action Donnie would have experienced during his service. 

In a distressing scene, which broke the hearts of viewers, young and old, Bambi's beloved mother is shot by a hunter and dies. 

Image ID 2GP2PR5 Disney's Bambi with Thumper and Flower 1942 CREDIT Walt Disney Courtesy Everett Collection
Disney's Bambi with Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk (Picture: Walt Disney / Courtesy Everett Collection).

During an interview with journalist Xan Brooks for The Guardian in 2005, Dunagan explains where he was shot during his service, saying: "Back of the head, left side. Stomach. Left lung with minor penetration of the right lung. Left leg. Scrotum sack – still functional, though." 

When Xan reminds him that Bambi's mother was also shot, his response is particularly poignant, saying: "That's right, but I survived." 

But does the voice of Bambi hunt deer himself?

Hunting is a long-standing tradition within the US armed forces, for serving and veteran personnel.

The US military offers serving personnel, veterans and disabled service members the chance to hunt and fish on its land.

Photo ID 3197719 whitetail deer pictured at Fort McCoy’s North Post February 6 2017 CREDIT US Army Photo by Scott T. Sturkol
Whitetail deer pictured at Fort McCoy's North Post in February 2017 (Picture: US Army / Scott T. Sturkol).

Speaking with Gina Harkins of the Marine Corps Times, for USA Today News, Dunagan said: "No. I am vigorously opposed to hunting for the sake of fun. 

"I remember being at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in 1972 when a couple of guys were just killing young juvenile deer just for the sport, and I challenged them on it. 

"Now, if deer is in season and the meat is going to a legitimate cause, like the Salvation Army or Meals on Wheels, I'm OK with it." 

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