Q: Dave, can you tell me what kind of relationship Walt had with his parents? I've been told that he didn't like his mother, but I don't ever recall hearing that! Is this true?
John, Belvidere, Illinois
A [Dave Smith]: When Walt Disney was growing up, he was very close to his parents, especially his mother. He never disliked her. Flora even agreed to help Walt get into the Red Cross at the time of World War I, even though he was underage. Walt's father was more strict, and there were times that he and Walt clashed.
1918: A young Walt Disney forges his parents' signatures to enlist in the American Ambulance Corps (part of the Red Cross). He changes his birth from 1901 to 1900. See the details above!
Walt Disney in the American Ambulance Corps
The summer of 1918 was the best that Walt had known. His hours for the post office were long, but there was no drudgery to the work, and he was outdoors most of the time. At night he took girls from McKinley High School to movies and vaudeville shows.
For the first time in his life, Walt had enough money to indulge himself, and he contemplated buying a movie camera or a canoe. A girl friend urged him to buy a canoe, but he decided on the camera. He mounted it on a tripod in an alley and photographed himself in imitations of Charlie Chaplin. To please his friend, he joined another boy in buying an inexpensive canoe; it was so small and unwieldy that he and the girl were swept out into the lake on a windy Sunday.
By late summer, the Allies had stopped the Germans in the second battle of the Marne, and Marshal Foch bad ordered a counterattack. Walt grew more impatient to get in uniform, telling his parents, "I don't want my grandchildren asking me, 'Why weren't you in the war? Were you a slacker?' " The Navy had transferred Roy to Charleston, South Carolina, then assigned him to voyages between New York and France. Ray Disney had joined the Army. Walt wanted to take part in the same adventure; he couldn't conceive of returning to high school for another year. A friend at the post office, Russell Maas, shared his feelings. They decided to cross the border and enlist in the Canadian Army, which accepted younger recruits. Their plot was thwarted when Russell's mother discovered his packed suitcase; her son admitted the plan and she warned Flora Disney. One day Russell arrived at the post office and told Walt excitedly. "There' s something forming here that you and I can get into. It's a volunteer group called the American Ambulance Corps, part of the Red Cross. They need drivers, and they're not fussy about how old you are."
At noon, the two young men hurried to the headquarters of the American Red Cross. They learned the age limit for ambulance unit volunteers was seventeen. Both were sixteen, but they falsified their ages and applied as the St. John brothers, Russell and Walter. The ruse succeeded until the applications for passports which required their parents' signatures. Walt was forced to disclose his plan to his parents. "I will not sign any permission" Elias Disney declared. "It's signing a death warrant for my son."
Flora Disney argued that three of their sons had left the family home by stealth and she didn't want Walter to go the same way. "The boy is determined," she said "I would rather sign this and know where he is than have him run off."
"Well, you can sign it for me---I won't!" Elias replied, and he stalked from the room. Flora forged his name on the passport application, and Walt altered his birth date to read "1900." He and Russell Maas returned to the Red Cross, and their applications were accepted. The two boys received uniforms and reported to a tent encampment at a burned-down amusement park near the University of Chicago. Mechanics from the Yellow Cab Company taught them how to repair motors and drive cars over rough terrain.