He’s captured pygmy gorillas and hunted white tigers, fought terrorists at home and worked to save the world from environmental disaster. Through it all, several generations of boys and girls have commanded his every move.
Whether he’s parachuting into a living room fortress made of cushions, or dodging enemy fire in back-yard foxholes, America’s first action hero has become a legend in his own time.
“I have G.I. Joe to thank for a lot in my life,” said Ace Allgood, a Minneapolis superfan who’s been collecting G.I. Joe memorabilia for as long as he can remember. “He could be anyone I wanted him to be — a tiger hunter on Monday, a soldier on Tuesday, or go in search of mummies on Wednesday.”
Like his physical appearance, which changed dramatically over the years, G.I. Joe’s career is filled with ups and downs. But one thing has remained constant — for decades, he has been a political weather vane, pointing toward the country’s mood on war.
“He is the great American hero and, as long as there is the United States of America, there will be G.I. Joe,” said Jordan Hembrough, host of the Travel Channel’s “Toy Hunter.” “It’s that lasting love that we have for patriotism that makes him so popular.”
But as G.I. Joe enters his fifth decade, the once indestructible soldier is at a crossroads. Superheroes, transforming robots and intergalactic star warriors rule the hearts and minds of kids across the country. Is there still room for this real American hero?
The birth of a hero
In 1964, G.I. Joe enlisted in the U.S. military and quickly became the emblem of the courageous American soldier. Standing 12 inches tall, he looked like an everyman soldier yet with a ruggedly scarred face. So adept at combat was he that he represented all four branches of the armed forces.
Some days he was a bayonet-slinging soldier. Other days he was a pilot in an orange flightsuit, or a sailor sent to bombard enemy ships. He drove a “Five Star Jeep,” shining searchlights on crouching enemies, and explored the sea in his state-of-the-art “frogman” suit.
As the United States was becoming deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War, G.I. Joe struck a chord.
“He mirrored the social and cultural movements of the country,” said Minnesota Historical Society senior curator Adam Scher. “G.I. Joe had all these different identities and roles, and that’s what was appealing as a kid.”
Sometimes his missions didn’t end well, though. The parachute often failed when G.I. Joe jumped from a tree. He lost limbs to exploding firecrackers and nearly drowned during underwater missions.
“One time G.I. Joe succumbed to death in the bathtub — he was swimming and his arms fell off,” said 55-year-old Heidi Schreiber, a longtime admirer from Minneapolis. “We tried to save him — and did for a while — but like an old pair of jeans, it was time to say goodbye.”
Fans like Schreiber say G.I. Joe helped the generations bond. Countless boys — girls, too — imagined going on the same missions fought by their fathers, uncles and grandfathers.
Schreiber preferred G.I. Joe over Barbie. He represented everyday soldiers, like her late father, who served in World War II and the Korean War. G.I. Joe’s uniforms and equipment were just like her dad’s, Schreiber said.
The hero is enshrined in Schreiber’s “Joe room,” where about 70 of the vintage toy soldiers live. It’s also the place where she and her father spent many hours marveling at replicas of the soldier’s green fatigues and beret.
“When I’m 80 years old and in the old folks home, he’ll be with me,” she said.
Joe quits the military
By 1968, the country was growing weary of the Vietnam War and interest in military expansion was starting to wane. It was time for G.I. Joe to reinvent himself.
He became a daring adventurer, sent to rescue mummies and ancient artifacts. He wrestled bears and tigers and took on abominable snowmen, giant clams and massive spiders — nearly anything but U.S. military rivals.
“He came out of the Vietnam era to stand up for patriotism and give everyone hope and belief that the government and America were doing the right thing,” Hembrough said.
To entice a new generation of fans, G.I. Joe also grew fuzzy hair and sometimes sported a beard. He developed the now-famous “Kung-Fu Grip,” a technique to better hold his weapons and equipment. His popularity soared.
Longtime fans keep the memory of these years alive with their Joe rooms.
“It’s reliving your childhood — those times you had when you were a little kid and you had no worries,” Allgood said. “These are just a gentle reminder of those years gone by.”
Allgood has more than just a room dedicated to G.I. Joe.
The 46-year-old’s basement is lined with floor-to-ceiling glass cases crammed with G.I. Joe collectibles. Closets store even more “fanfare,” which he regularly takes to conventions such as “Joelanta” or “GIJoeCon,” where he meets other fans and swaps stories and wardrobe accessories.
Allgood even proposed to his wife at one of the G.I. Joe conventions. She agreed, under one condition: His Joe room had to move from his living room into their basement.
There’s even a Twin Cities Facebook group devoted to G.I. Joe’s life: The Minnesota G.I. Joe Club.
Longtime club member and collector Aaron Warwick of Minneapolis takes family vacations to Joe conventions and has turned his 14-year-old son on to the soldier.
As a child, Warwick spent summers with his grandparents — and G.I. Joe accompanied him. He remembers the two of them rescuing the needy with a net made of turkey webbing. Paper clips attached to the end of the rope came in handy. A headquarters made from a cardboard box was all they needed.
“G.I. Joe could do anything and be anyone,” Warwick said, “whether he was in the jungle or out in the desert looking for a mummy. … But he never died.”
Joe goes small
As the 1970s came to a close, problems arose again for G.I. Joe — this time as a result of the petroleum crisis. The cost of oil used to fuel his foot-high figure skyrocketed, so G.I. Joe went under the knife and shrunk to 8 inches.
The move didn’t go over well with young fans.
“It was an unmitigated disaster,” remembered Jim Kitchen, 45, of St. Paul.
Schreiber added: “To see [him] go by the wayside was a bummer.”
With no superpowers to hang his hat on, G.I. Joe slipped into obscurity as interest shifted to action figures from a galaxy far, far away.
At the beginning of the 1980s, G.I. Joe’s career was resuscitated when he was recruited to take on a new, powerful foe: a ruthless terrorist organization called Cobra.
By this time, G.I. Joe had shrunk to 3 ¾ inches, making him an unsuitable date for the 11 ½-inch Barbie. Still, “The Real American Hero” had an army of new soldiers to help him fight terrorism. Snake Eyes, Duke and Scarlett represented America’s melting pot and were united against Cobra.
Suddenly, G.I. Joe’s career was lightning in a bottle all over again, spawning cartoons, comic books, video games and movies — where his battles with Cobra were well-documented. He drove around in slick new armored vehicles and piloted a giant aircraft carrier. He slipped into an “eco-suit” to stop bad guys from dumping toxic sludge into the environment.
But by 1995, G.I. Joe grew weary of sharing the spotlight with Luke Skywalker, Donatello and a team of mighty morphing martial artists. The competition was fierce and G.I. Joe was fading.
Nearing the end?
During the next decade, G.I. Joe tried to make a comeback. He regained his original height, but only to mark a few of his anniversaries. In 2004, he was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, where he joined his friends Mr. Potato Head and, of course, Barbie.
Now, at 50, many of his fans are wondering if G.I. Joe’s career is nearing the end.
“I honestly think G.I. Joe is dead to kids — for now, anyways,” said Chris Short, 48, of Minnetonka.
Short, a serious collector of G.I. Joe memorabilia, has spent more than $35,000 in a single day at toy auctions: “For the most part, I don’t think children care or even know [who] G.I. Joe is.”
Hasbro, the company that makes G.I. Joe, insists the action figure “continues to inspire the imagination of kids and fans around the world.” Plans are in the works for “exciting new publishing ventures,” more movies and action figure sets to honor the hero, the company said.
But while movies may rekindle his memory, his final mission can’t be far away.
“G.I. Joe and I had all sorts of adventures,” Kitchen said. “I can remember how excited I was on Christmas in 1973 when I was first introduced to him. All those memories I have are going to slip away. And all those adventures he and I had? Who will remember those?”