“John Ford passionately loves freedom,” President Nixon said on March 31, 1973. “John Ford, in his works, has depicted freedom in all of its profound depths. . . . John Ford has fought for freedom, and for that reason it is appropriate that tonight, on behalf of all of the American people, he receives the Medal of Freedom.”
The son of Irish immigrants (his real name was John Martin Feeney), director John Ford gave generations of moviegoers his vision of America in dozens of beloved Hollywood films – movies such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But some of his work took place far from American shores.
Though already a famous director, Ford joined the Navy during World War II and put together a unit of film crews to document much of the war. In June 1942 he filmed the Battle of Midway from atop the island’s powerhouse, a primary target for Japanese bombers. At one point a piece of flying concrete hit him on the head and knocked him out. He came to, grabbed his camera, and kept shooting. When shrapnel tore a hole in his arm, he kept relaying information about the battle’s progress to officers on the ground.
Ford went in harm’s way from the Pacific to North Africa to the Normandy coast. On D-Day, he oversaw cameramen filming the Allied invasion. After the war, while he continued his legendary Hollywood career, he held the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Perhaps in part because he knew the cost of freedom, Ford spent a lifetime interpreting his nation’s heritage. He accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors, with the words, “God bless America.”