For a United States Marine recruit, there is little more to be afraid of than the drill instructor (“DI”). Equipped with a hard physique, faultless uniform, his/her famous hat pushed down to the point where the recruit might think he/she can’t see, spotless shoes, and seemingly endless campaign ribbons, the USMC drill instructor seems to be the recruits worst nightmare.
Marine drill instructors are not allowed to use corporal punishment in any form. They can add calisthenics, distance to runs and much else (to a certain point), but they are not allowed to strike, etc. This change came about some time ago, but until after the Vietnam War, was not necessarily the most enforced Marine regulation. However – most of the time there was no need for it. The DI had many other tools at their command, including peer pressure, and of course, regulations. Before discipline ever becomes a problem it is usually handled by…
“THE VOICE.” An almost impossible combination of sea-lion bark, Southern drawl, and sore throat, Marine DI’s hone their voice into a perfect delivery system for commands, threats and insults. That voice stays with a Marine for a very, very long time.
It even comes to some in dreams decades later. What a video online. The best ones show DI’s speaking in their normal voice, and instantly switching to their DI voice. It’s disconcerting.
Perhaps the best-known drill instructor was “Gunny” R. Lee Ermey, a former Marine who made a good living in Hollywood after his military career was over. The role that propelled him to fame was that of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
There was another Hollywood DI long before that of Ermey. His name was Donnie Dunagan, and he retired a major, an awarded Vietnam veteran who was wounded several times in the course of his career.
Long before his commission, he was a drill instructor. Just like the thousands that had come before him, he perfected “The Voice.”
But Dunagan had a secret which he managed to keep from almost everybody until 2005, a secret that no DI would ever want anyone in the Marines to know. Dunagan was…“Bambi.” Well, the voice of Bambi, at least.
As a kid in the 1930s, he was discovered at a local talent show in Memphis, Tennessee. He appeared in eight movies in his short Hollywood career, including Son of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, with whom he took a famous publicity still.
When he was eight years old, he and his mother were approached by a man from Disney Studios who told them that Dunagan would be “perfect” for a part Disney had coming up.
Donnie worked with other children doing the voice of the characters in the movie, which he says made the film more “real” than having adults imitate child-like voices. He also had to be filmed for the role so the animation artists could capture his face, emotions, and gestures, and incorporate them into the Bambi character.
Psychologists will tell you that people get thrown by voices that seemingly don’t match expectations – such as a DI that has the voice of Bambi. He was filmed as he had a spoonful of castor oil for the moment in the movie when Bambi gets kissed. He was never told about what happened to Bambi’s mom in the movie, he was just asked to cry “Mother, Mother!” as if he wanted his mom.
Of course, by the time Dunagan was in the Marines, he had outgrown that voice, but in the Marines of the time, being known as “Sergeant Bambi” would likely have not instilled the proper fear in his recruits.
Dunagan managed to keep his secret for decades, but a newspaper was able to track him down. Today he embraces his part in film history, signing autographs and attending functions, and he loves the movie Bambi.
When asked whether or not there was something odd about a Marine who liked Bambi, Dunagan replied: “Is there any incongruity in being a tough old Marine and loving Bambi? No, no,”
“I’m a sensitive man. When I had my first casualties as a lieutenant, I had a hard time controlling my emotions, but I had a strong sergeant with me who kept me from doing something stupid.
“I’ve been around some real tough guys, and I promise you on my honor: The strongest guys I’ve known in life would pick up a wounded baby kitty on the side of the road. Yet you wouldn’t want to go against them in combat. That is not inconsistent. It is part of the same ethos.”