Sunday, March 15, 2020

Camoufleur and Hollywood star Wheeler Oakman

USS Major Wheeler
The SS Tuscania (launched in 1914) was a Cunard luxury liner until it was refitted in 1916 to serve as a wartime troopship. In late January 1918, it left New Jersey en route to Liverpool, with 2,013 US soldiers aboard. Although it had been painted in a dazzle camouflage scheme (not shown on this page), it was sunk by a German U-boat on February 5. More than 200 personnel perished. This was detailed in an earlier post.

On June 8, 1919, the Washington Post reported that the actor Wheeler Oakman, “considered one of the best looking and talented of [Hollywood’s] younger leading men” had returned from service in France, where he had been a camoufleur with San Francisco’s 144th artillery regiment. Earlier, despite the success of his acting career, the sinking of the Tuscania “fired his long-smoldering patriotism.” In response, he “appealed to Metro to release him from his contract and enlisted as a private” in the San Francisco regiment. Shipped to France, “he got as far forward as the second-line trench below Verdun on the Marne as one of the 24 members of his regiment’s camouflage corps.”

This Hollywood celebrity, the article notes, “is a fighter by heritage and actor by nature. In answering the call to arms the actor only heeded the fighting blood of his family.” His given name was Wheeler because his famous cousin was Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler (1836-1906), a Confederate general in the Civil War, and a US Army general in the Spanish- and Philippine-American wars. Affiliated with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. During World War I, an American ship was named for him. It may have been the USS Major Wheeler, shown above in a dazzle camouflage scheme.

Joseph Wheeler (bearded), and Theodore Roosevelt (right)

Before and after the war, Wheeler Oakman was a star in countless Hollywood films, from 1913 to 1948. In his earlier acting days, he was usually a leading man, but those opportunities decreased with film's transition from silent to sound. In later years, he was usually cast as a villain.

Poster for one of Wheeler Oakman's films