Jack Kerouac’s Naval Reserve Enlistment Mugshot, 1943

kerouac mugshot

In the sum­mer of 1942, Jack Ker­ouac fol­lowed in the foot­steps of Joseph Con­rad and Eugene O’Neill and went to sea. After drop­ping out of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty the pre­vi­ous Fall, the 20-year-old Ker­ouac signed up for the mer­chant marine and shipped out aboard the U.S. Army Trans­port ship Dorch­ester.

Although World War II had bro­ken out at about the time of his depar­ture from Colum­bia, Ker­ouac’s motives for going to sea were more per­son­al than patri­ot­ic. “My moth­er is very wor­ried over my hav­ing joined the Mer­chant Marine,” Ker­ouac wrote in his jour­nal at the time, “but I need mon­ey for col­lege, I need adven­ture, of a sort (the real adven­ture of rot­ting wharves and seag­ulls, winey waters and ships, ports, cities, and faces & voic­es); and I want to study more of the earth, not out of books, but from direct expe­ri­ence.”

In Octo­ber of 1942, after com­plet­ing a voy­age to and from an Army com­mand base in Green­land (which he would lat­er write about in Van­i­ty of Dulu­oz), Ker­ouac left the mer­chant marine and returned to Colum­bia. That was lucky, because most of the Dorch­ester’s crew–more than 600 men–died three months lat­er when the ship was tor­pe­doed by a Ger­man U‑boat. But the rest­less Ker­ouac last­ed only a month at Colum­bia before drop­ping out again and mak­ing plans to return to sea. In Decem­ber of 1942 he enlist­ed in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He want­ed to join the Naval Air Force, but failed an apti­tude test. So on Feb­ru­ary 26, 1943 he was sent to the Naval Train­ing Sta­tion in New­port, Rhode Island. That’s appar­ent­ly when the pho­to­graph above was tak­en of the young Ker­ouac with his mil­i­tary hair­cut. It would have been right around the time of his 21st birth­day.

Ker­ouac last­ed only 10 days in boot camp. As Miri­am Klie­man writes at the Nation­al Archives, “The qual­i­ties that made On the Road a huge suc­cess and Ker­ouac a pow­er­ful sto­ry­teller, guide, and lit­er­ary icon are the same ones that ren­dered him remark­ably unsuit­able for the mil­i­tary: inde­pen­dence, cre­ativ­i­ty, impul­siv­i­ty, sen­su­al­i­ty, and reck­less­ness.” Accord­ing to files released by the gov­ern­ment in 2005, Naval doc­tors at New­port found Ker­ouac to be “rest­less, apa­thet­ic, seclu­sive” and deter­mined that he was men­tal­ly unfit for ser­vice, writ­ing that “neu­ropsy­chi­atric exam­i­na­tion dis­closed audi­to­ry hal­lu­ci­na­tions, ideas of ref­er­ence and sui­cide, and a ram­bling, grandiose, philo­soph­i­cal man­ner.” He was sent to the Naval Hos­pi­tal in Bethes­da Mary­land and even­tu­al­ly dis­charged.

For more on Ker­ouac’s brief adven­ture in the Navy, read Kleiman’s Arti­cle, “Hit the Road, Jack! Ker­ouac Enlist­ed in the U.S. Navy But was Found ‘Unfit for Ser­vice’ ”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Jack Ker­ouac Reads from On the Road, 1959

Jack Ker­ouac’s 30 Rev­e­la­tions for Writ­ing Mod­ern Prose

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Comments (10)
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  • Larz Neilson says:

    When some­one goes to sea, he enters the mer­chant marine. It’s like enter­ing the legal pro­fes­sion or the media. It’s a civil­ian occu­pa­tion. There is no such thing as the U.S. Mer­chant Marines. The men of the mer­chant marine were not even rec­og­nized as mil­i­tary vet­er­ans of WWII until 1988.

  • Larz Neilson says:

    The “Green­land gap” in the mid­dle of the North Atlantic was an area beyond the pro­tec­tion of air cov­er, and allied mer­chant ship­ping suf­fered a heavy toll, espe­cial­ly in ear­ly 1943. How­ev­er, on May 6, 43, that all changed. A west-bound con­voy approach­ing New­found­land went into a fog, and the Ger­mans lost them. But the U.S. had low-freq. radar, and were able to hit the u‑boats. Oth­er fac­tors: break­ing of the Enig­ma code, radio track­ing (UF-DF), extra fuel capac­i­ty on B‑24’s. With the Ger­man dom­i­nance of the North Atlantic bro­ken, the mer­chant marine began load­ing up the British Isles, and one year lat­er, the Allies were ready for D‑Day.

  • Mike Springer says:

    Hi Larz,
    Thanks for the inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion. And you’re right about it just being “mer­chant marine.” I’ve made the cor­rec­tions.

  • Plutarcho Santana says:

    Wow, he was so hand­some. Beau­ti­ful, real­ly. His soul­ful eyes stare out of that pho­to. So glad this image has been found and shared.

  • Stephen Kirouac says:

    The para­graph where it talks about him being unfit for the mil­i­tary makes me think of the scene from “Big Wednes­day” the surf movie where they fake all kinds of stuff to keep from enlist­ing.

  • Larz Neilson says:

    An inter­est­ing com­par­i­son of WWII to Viet­nam: In WWII, the Army found many draftees mal­nour­ished and unfit for ser­vice because of the Depres­sion. Because of that, in the 50’s, the govt. put an empha­sis on school lunch pro­grams and phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Viet­nam-era draftees were in much bet­ter shape. Sure, a few want­ed to dodge the draft. But they were in pret­ty good shape, so flee­ing to Cana­da became pop­u­lar. I know a guy with poor eye­sight. When he went for his phys­i­cal, sev­er­al guys were fak­ing their eye tests, so they passed every­one, and he got draft­ed. He stuck it out through basic, and then they dis­cov­ered he had very poor eye­sight. And the records showed he had good vision when he was draft­ed. He got a dis­abil­i­ty dis­charge with a 40 per­cent pen­sion. He’s lucky he got that, because he’s had a rough life and is severe­ly dis­abled, but still hang­ing in there.

  • Jack says:

    He looks so young in this pic­ture. Nev­er saw it before.

  • Larz Neilson says:

    Did­n’t we all (once look young).

  • Jack's Cassidy says:

    I’ve been fol­low­ing the Beat movies at Sun­dance this year so this pho­to of Ker­ouac is good tim­ing. Good-look­ing guy. Too bad he drowned him­self in alco­hol.


    All true, but the foot­ball schol­ar­ship to Colum­bia was a large ommis­sion.

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