In the twilight of G.I. Joe's career, local fans praise the action figure of their youth as “a real American hero.”
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.