The Navy's Crackerjack Superhero

By Scot Christenson

Born in 1895, Martinek began his career as a copyboy then cub reporter for the Chicago Record Herald, where he developed a fascination with criminal investigation and the new science of fingerprint identification. When the United States entered World War I, Martinek enlisted in the Navy. His background in analysis and investigation qualified him for naval intelligence, and he was sent to Washington, D.C., to work as a codebreaker. Commissioned in 1918, Martinek joined the Asiatic Fleet as an intelligence officer and evaluated information gathered from throughout the Pacific during the Russian Civil War.

By 1921, Martinek had returned to civilian life and penned a series of 12 nationally syndicated columns warning of Japan’s rising fervent nationalism and desire to become a world power second to none. The Japanese, he wrote, were becoming emboldened by their success expanding their control into Korea and China and were now eyeing U.S possessions—Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. He proclaimed the best way to maintain peace was to be prepared for war. The columns failed to convince the public or the government that the Japanese were a viable threat. One editorial even dismissed Martinek’s statements as irresponsible jingoistic warmongering. Somewhat dejected, Martinek took a position as a special agent with the Bureau of Investigation in Chicago, becoming one of the G-men lauded for locking up gangster “Bloody” Angelo Genna.

In 1925, Martinek took a job with Standard Oil of Indiana, traveling the world uncovering fraudulent practices by the company’s contractors. His stories of international intrigue and gang busting captivated his coworkers. After several years he began writing a novel of his adventures, featuring Lieutenant Commander Don Winslow, a naval intelligence officer battling sinister forces menacing the United States.

As he was developing Don Winslow, Martinek learned of a challenge by Rear Admiral Wat T. Cluverius. Cluverius was attempting to recruit young men from the Midwest to join the Navy despite their never having seen an ocean. That led Martinek to conclude that his Don Winslow idea might work better as a daily comic strip. It could inspire Navy recruitment and finally awaken an oblivious public to the threats facing the nation.

To round out his cast of characters, Martinek gave Winslow the beautiful Mercedes Colby (daughter of an admiral) as his romantic interest. The jolly Lieutenant Red Pennington completed their trio as sidekick. For the villain, he cooked up the mysterious Scorpion, the “leader of international gang of plotters Scorpia” bent on world domination. Although he modeled Don Winslow after himself, Martinek did not have the sculpted figure and chiseled features of an action hero. Short and with “ample girth,” Winslow’s stocky pal Pennington shared a closer physical similarity to Martinek.

Carl Hammond and fellow former Navy officer Leon Beroth were recruited to execute the strip. Martinek outlined the plots and wrote dialog. Hammond oversaw layout, while Beroth did the artwork. Even Cluverius got involved, enlisting Chicago Daily News publisher Frank Knox (who would become Secretary of the Navy in 1940) to convince Bell Syndicate to accept the strip for publication.

Don Winslow, U.S.N., began to run weekdays on 5 March 1934 and was immediately well received. Later that year, Martinek published a novel with the rather unwieldly title Don Winslow, U.S.N., in Ceylon with Kwang, Celebrated Chinese Detective. The instant popularity of Don Winslow meant it was not long before he was colorized and deployed to the Sunday papers, where the final panel was reserved for “Winslowgrams,” which provided commentary and facts about the Navy.

Martinek relied on a jury of 12 youngsters to judge the strip’s plots. He would present storylines to the kids and then make edits reflecting their feedback. The junior jury insisted that there be no smoking or drinking by the characters and that Winslow not kill his enemies; Instead, he was to outsmart them into destroying themselves. To ensure that ships, terminology, and operations were portrayed accurately, the strips were presented to the Navy for final approval.

Martinek’s team created a colorful cadre of characters to be the members of Scorpia. Winslow tangled with Dr. Centaur, the Crocodile, and the Dwarf. Scorpion would have several seductive henchwomen, including the Duchess and Lotus, to do his bidding. One particularly controversial plot that involved Don Winslow overthrowing a villain known as the Tyrant, dictator of the fictional country Tierra Nueva, had Latin American readers arguing the strip was pro-interventionist propaganda.

Working with a ghostwriter, Martinek published several books under the Big/Better Little Book imprint for younger readers. And starting in 1937, fans could listen to him on the radio as well. Opening with the rousing patriotic song “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the NBC Blue Network began broadcasting Don Winslow of the Navy on 19 October. Bob Guilbert voiced the lead role and won praise from Martinek, who wrote that he was “the flesh and blood character of my imagination.”

The show aired five days a week in 15-minute episodes, and was an immediate hit. Though the show was targeted toward boys, producers were surprised to learn it was equally popular with girls and adults. The sponsors Kellogg’s cereal designed a special box of Wheat Krispies to prominently feature Don Winslow on the front and facts about Navy ships on the back.

Martinek received more than 400,000 fan letters addressed to Don Winslow, while membership in the naval hero’s official fan club boomed. Fans could join Winslow’s “Squadron of Peace” as ensigns and be promoted to commanders if they recruited enough friends to form a local “Peace Ship.” By 1938, an impressive national fleet of 10,000 Peace Ships could receive manuals with vital information for aspiring intelligence officers, such as codes and secret handshakes. Don Winslow rings, decoders, buttons, and periscopes became coveted premiums.

The comic strip and radio show ran independently of each other but they began to share the reputation of being able to predict the future. Fans began to note the frequency with which Winslow seemed to foretell real world events. Considering that Martinek always had intended to use the character to awaken the United States to emerging threats, he was delighted if not vindicated that Don Winslow was achieving what his own newspaper columns did not.

Don Winslow made the leap to the silver screen when Universal purchased the film rights for its 1941–42 season. In the wake of the series of Tarzan movies, theaters had grown disinterested in themes that featured animals and jungles and were more receptive to timely, topical features. The “news forecasting” ability of Don Winslow was appealing, as was his established fan base. Even before production on the serial Don Winslow of the Navy began, Universal experienced a substantial spike in contracts from theaters keen to book the series.

The serial was quickly banged out at the end of 1941 with a minimal budget that relied on stock footage from the Navy, recycled sets, and obvious sound stages. The title role was given to Don Terry, an athletic, well-educated actor. The plot was stripped of the more fantastical comic-strip characters and focused on Scorpion’s efforts to disrupt U.S. shipping in the Pacific. With the United States not yet involved in the wars raging in the real world, producers hedged their bets by depicting Scorpion as being Asian in appearance but speaking with a vaguely German accent.

On Navy Day, 27 October 1941, the serial’s first 13 chapters were premiered in six cities, replete with bands from local bases and appearances by cast members. Theaters allowed local recruiting stations to attend and enlist young men as they exited, swelling with patriotism and yearning for adventure.

In October 1942, the radio once again crackled with sounds of ship bells, roaring aircraft, machine guns, and a call for “all hands on deck for Don Winslow!” The resurrected show had a new sponsor and starred cult voice actor Raymond Edward Johnson. Listeners were addressed as “shipmates” and were told that Don Winslow soon would issue them orders to help on the home front, but until then they should stay nourished by eating a “smacking good dish” of Post Toasties. Billboard magazine panned the program for being “disappointingly unexciting and quiet” with “ineffectual characters,” and noted that the endorsement for Post Toasties should prevent kids from eating the cereal. The series lasted only a few months on the air.

Don Winslow would get a much heartier endorsement when Captain Marvel appeared on the cover of the first issue of Don Winslow of the Navy, published by Fawcett Comics in February 1943. Standing with his hand on the back of a saluting Don Winslow, the superhero told readers that the “dynamic star of radio and movies is here to thrill you with his own 68-page comics magazine!”

The new comic was inspired by Hollywood cinematography. Winslow experienced a bit of a transformation, as his appearance was modified to more resemble Don Terry’s. The comic enjoyed a respectable run of 69 issues through 1951. Charlton Comics released reprints in 1955, but Winslow lost star billing when the title of the series was changed to Fighten’ Navy to better reflect the anthology of “exciting sea battle stories” the comic had featured (Dead Reckoning, a new imprint of the Naval Institute Press, has released a collection of the original comics).

Meanwhile, the success of the movie serial begat the 1943 sequel series Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, again starring Terry. More than 3,000 Coasties and 30 journalists attended the 22 March premiere at Manhattan Beach Coast Guard Training Station hosted by Martinek and former heavyweight champion Lieutenant Commander Jack Dempsey, who was serving as director of physical education for the Coast Guard Reserve at the time. Scorpion was back but now openly aligned with one of the United States’ real enemies, the Japanese. The series concluded with Winslow making a direct appeal to the audience, reminding them to be wary of spies and to buy war bonds.

The end of the series coincided with the end of Terry’s acting career. He joined the Navy and commanded an amphibious landing ship during the Battle of Okinawa, where he was cited for heroism for rescuing wounded sailors from a burning vessel.

After smooth sailing for almost two decades, the Don Winslow franchise began to lag behind other military-themed comics with more graphic depictions of war. Bell canceled the strip in 1952 when it became clear Don Winslow was about to run aground. General Features Corporation tried to refit the aging comic as an “all service” strip with characters representing other branches. Don Winslow drifted along for a few years before finally being scuttled on 30 July 1955. Martinek suffered a heart attack that same year, and any hope of refloating the brand was lost.

Television helped extend the life of Don Winslow when old serials became regular late-night fare, but these too would disappear from the airwaves. After 21 years in the newspapers, two radio shows, two movie serials, 16 books, 69 original comic books, plus dozens of reprints, Don Wilson was almost completely unknown to the 1960s generation.

Martinek continued to work for Standard Oil until 1960, but he never again produced any original Don Winslow material. For several years he remained a popular speaker at community and civic events, warning audiences about the need to remain vigilant against saboteurs, spies, and communists. He died in 1971 at the age of 75 in Tucson, Arizona.

While Don Winslow largely may be forgotten today, his influence is seen in modern-day characters such as James Bond and Jason Bourne. And George Lucas revealed that the Don Winslow serials were one of the chief inspirations for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The best heroes never die.

Mr. Christenson is the director of communications for the U.S. Naval Institute. A frequent contributor to USNI News, he began his career as a television producer and journalist before going on to develop and manage public-relations strategies for a wide range of organizations including amusement parks, zoos, think tanks, and lobbying firms.


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