When my hero faced off against real Russian assassins

When I was growing up, my family was very poor. America was still recovering from the Great Depression, and we were fighting in World War II. Because of my alcoholic father’s irresponsibility, we moved a lot and lived in several places, including Oklahoma, California and Arizona. But Mom and God provided all the security my two brothers and I ultimately needed.

I was born in Ryan, Oklahoma, then lived out my earliest years in the rural town of Wilson. It was and still is a small town in Carter County. Believe it or not, in 1940 (the year I was born), it had a population of 1,700. At the 2010 census, its population was still only 1,724 people.

For many years, Wilson used to have a tall water tower that soared over the town with the words on it, “Home of Chuck Norris.” That was very kind of the residents of Wilson. I still have a lot of love for the people there.

Growing up, I used to patrol the streets of Wilson every day after school and collect pop bottles that I would return to the grocer for a refund. I also picked up scrap iron, which I sold for a penny a pound.

There was one movie theater in Wilson where, for a dime, I could spend all Saturday afternoon watching the double feature. Back then, during World War II, you’d even get to watch news reels before the movies.

I loved those Saturdays. With a nickel bag of popcorn on my lap, I could escape into another world. I went to Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant took me to India. My favorite movies, however, were Westerns, especially ones with John Wayne. For those few hours in the movie theater when I was watching a John Wayne movie, I became him.

Like many young kids, I dreamed of becoming a cowboy. And there was no one who set that bar better than John Wayne, who is also still endearingly known as “The Duke.” Eight decades later, he’s still my biggest screen hero. His persona helped me to fashion mine in over 200 episodes of my television series, “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

Wayne delivered some of the best one-liners in Western movie history. A few of my favorites include:

  • “You may need me and this Winchester, Curly” (“Stagecoach,” 1939)
  • “Get down off them horses. I don’t favor looking up to the likes of you.” (“Red River,” 1948)
  • “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.” (“She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” 1949)
  • “Ya don’t get lard less’n you boil a hog!” (“The Alamo,” 1960)
  • “Out here, due process is a bullet.” (“The Green Berets,” 1968)

There’s one fact about the Duke you can take to the bank: he was tough, and he proved it on screen and off screen.

There’s a legendary moment in his life when he faced off with actual Russian assassins. No kidding. A few people think what I’m about to share is from Duke folklore, but it was as real as the writing on this page.

Remember the Russian dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953? According to a Stanford historian, he was responsible for the deaths of at least 9 million people through mass murder, forced labor and famine, but the true figure may be as high as 60 million.

Well, apparently Stalin hated John Wayne. Why? Because Wayne was a true-blue American patriot, who hated communism. And because of the power and influence of stars on stage and screen, Stalin considered Duke a huge global threat to his rule and the spread of communism.

WarHistoryOnline.com explained, “In the late 1940s, many countries feared the global spread of Communism. This included the United States, where it was feared people were secretly supportive of the USSR and its Communist regime. John Wayne was vocal about his dislike of Communism, a rarity in Hollywood, as many in the entertainment industry had secret ties or sympathies.”

Stalin was also a film buff, loved American Westerns and was outraged at the anti-communist rhetoric Wayne expressed in the late 1940s, on and off screen.

Military.com revealed how there is a similar twisted-passion for movies among dictators:

“It seems like so many dictators just love movies. We all do, but absolute power takes it to a whole new level. [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi had a channel set up just to play his favorite movie – his one favorite movie. Kim Jong-Il kidnapped his favorite actors and actresses to star in North Korea’s movies. Then, of course, the next natural step for these guys is directing movies.

“Kim Jong-Il made several films. [Italian fascist] Benito Mussolini pitched to Columbia pictures. And even [Iraq’s] Saddam Hussein made a $30 million war epic. But Josef Stalin was the Soviet Union’s ‘ultimate censor.'”

According to The Guardian, Russian filmmaker Sergei Gerasimov, who attended a peace conference in New York in 1949, affirmed Wayne’s fervent anti-communist beliefs to Stalin. Though it seems a bit contradictory, according to the book “John Wayne – The Man Behind The Myth,” the author explained that Gerasimov apparently also told Wayne of the KGB plot against him the same year.

One might think, with Stalin’s reputation and record of brutality, even Wayne might have trembled in his boots and hid, but it was just the opposite. Stalin’s disdain for the Duke didn’t bother that cowboy at all. In fact, Wayne was irritated and ready to confront Stalin’s hatred and death threats. The Duke knew the only way to beat a bully was to stand up to him, not cower and run.

Stalin ordered an actual hit on the movie star by dispatching two KGB assassins in 1951. The FBI uncovered the plot from an unnamed Soviet source, which was years later verified by Stalin’s successor himself, Premier Nikita Khrushchev. When Khrushchev met John Wayne in 1958, he apologized for the killing contract, telling him, “That was the decision of Stalin in his last mad years. I rescinded the order.” But not before the Russians tried to take out the Duke.

The FBI notified Wayne about the KGB assassination plot. He responded to the FBI by asking them to let the two hit men show up and he would deal with them himself.

Military.com explained, “Obviously not one to let a thing like Communist assassins get him down, Wayne and his scriptwriter Jimmy Grant allegedly abducted the hitmen [some say with additional help of a few stuntmen], took them to the beach, and staged a mock execution. No one knows exactly what happened after that, but Wayne’s friends say the Soviet agents began to work for the FBI from that day on.” (They feared retribution back in the USSR, so pleaded to remain and became FBI informants.)

Unfortunately, this was not the only Soviet assassination attempt of the Duke. There were other plots to kill him, including an attempt in Mexico on the set of the film “Hondo” (which was released in 1953), led by a communist cell. There was also a sniper attack when Wayne visited Vietnam in 1966, though it’s difficult to say if that was a Soviet-based plot because it was a decade after the contract on Wayne’s life was apparently rescinded.

Military.com concluded, “The entire time Wayne knew there was a price on his head, he refused the FBI’s offer of federal protection and didn’t even tell his family. He just moved into a house with a big wall around it. Once word got out, though, Hollywood stuntmen loyal to the Duke began to infiltrate Communist Party cells around the country and expose plots against him. Wayne never spoke of the incidents publicly.”

In the end, and despite repeated Russian attempts to take his life, John Wayne came out unscathed, victorious and went on to have an illustrious career of filmmaking, notoriety and benevolence. Sounds like an American hero to me!

It all reminds me of the way the Duke rode through life and the movies, and we would be wise to do as well: As he said in “True Grit” (1969), “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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