Featured in comics, novels, radio programs, and film serials, Don Winslow of the Navy attracted legions of fans throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The character was created by a former crime reporter, naval intelligence officer, and FBI agent named Frank V. Martinek. Although he surely enjoyed the commercial success of Don Winslow, Martinek was in part motived to develop the character because he had been frustrated with the public’s indifference to his dire warnings of an inevitable war with Japan.
The creative process that resulted in Don Winslow began when Martinek worked as a young crime reporter for the Chicago Record Herald. In addition to watching the newspaper's cartoonists at work, he became an enthusiastic student of trailblazing detective Mary Holland. Holland, who had trained at Scotland Yard and operated her own agency, taught Martinek the latest investigative techniques including the new science of fingerprint identification. He quickly became recognized as a pioneering expert in the field of loops and whorls.
Following the U.S. entry into World War I, Martinek enlisted in the Navy and trained at Naval Station Great Lakes, becoming a chief petty officer after only three weeks. His superiors quickly realized his unique investigative skills could be put to better use. Awarded a commission and assigned to the Asiatic Fleet as an intelligence officer, Martinek began gathering and analyzing information from throughout the Pacific before being sent to Vladivostok in 1918 as part of the American Expeditionary Force during the Russian Civil War. Perhaps because his father was a Czech immigrant, Martinek became the liaison between the United States and the isolated Czechoslovak Legion, which was negotiating with the Russians for passage back to the Western Front. He obviously was an effective go-between because Czechoslovak President Tomas Masaryk awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross while the anti-communist Russian Kolchak government presented him with the Order of Saint Stanislaus just before the Red Army seized control of the country.
It was during his time in Vladivostok that Martinek became increasingly alarmed by the attitudes and actions of the Japanese military. In addition to witnessing the open hostility the Japanese showed American personnel, he was learning through his network of informants about Japan’s plans to be the “protector of the East” and drive out all Western presence. He was also concerned but intrigued by Japan’s proficiency in using media to breed discontent in the already strained relationship between the United States and Russia. He noted that Tokyo's propaganda campaign extended into China, where the Japanese were trying to tap into the mistrust of Westerners that spurred the Boxer Rebellion two decades earlier.
In 1921, Martinek left the Navy and immediately began writing a series of nationally syndicated columns about the looming threat of Japanese militarism. He believed the Japanese were bitter after being marginalized by the other victorious nations during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. Because they were not recognized as an equal world power by the Western nations, the Japanese were determined to eliminate all Western influence in Asia and the Pacific. According to Martinek, Japan particularly was angered by U.S. opposition to Japanese territorial claims in China. He wrote that the Japanese would eventually strike U.S. possessions—with Hawaii being one of the key targets. He also highlighted his distrust of the Japanese immigrants clustering near strategic ports along in U.S. Pacific coast because he thought they could serve as spies and saboteurs.
Despite the wealth of information and keen insight he provided in the columns, his warnings did not register with anyone. Not with the public. Not with the government. No one seemed to believe that the Japanese could present a viable threat.
Martinek next began working as a special agent for the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) in Chicago. He helped lock up “Bloody Angelo” Genna, who had frustrated federal authorities for years by beating multiple murder raps. Genna himself congratulated Martinek for courageously gathering the evidence and testimony that finally led to a conviction.
He joined Standard Oil of Indiana in 1925, becoming assistant vice president in charge of investigations. After noticing his coworkers were always enthralled by his stories, he began to draft a novel inspired by his experiences. When Martinek learned the Navy was in need of an effective recruiting tool, the printer’s ink left in his veins from his newspaper days began to percolate. He remembered being amazed at how closely people followed the day-to-day exploits of their favorite characters in the comics. It occurred to him that a daily comic about the adventures of an intelligence officer modeled after himself would generate exposure for the Navy while giving him the opportunity to remind the public there are enemies looking to take advantage of U.S. complacency and vulnerability.
Don Winslow of the Navy debuted in newspapers in 1934 and was an instant hit. The hero tangled with an international gang of villains, known as Scorpia, who were trying to secure world domination by attacking U.S. overseas interests. After the popularity of the character proved to carry over to books and radio, Universal produced a movie serial. The first chapter premiered 27 October 1941—two weeks prior to the attack that Martinek had predicted 20 years earlier. The success of the movie led to a sequel as well as a comic book series in 1943 (The Best of Don Winslow was published by Dead Reckoning, as imprint of the Naval Institute Press). With the United States now officially at war, Martinek was finally able to depict Don Winslow battling the Japanese.
After the war, Martinek continued the comic strip until the 1950s. He became a popular speaker at civic events, where he frequently warned of a serious new threat to the United States—terrorism. He passed away in 1971.