FEBRUARY/MARCH 2009 — The prototypes were called “Rocky,” “Skip,” and “Ace.” But as Don Levine, the creative director of the toy manufacturing company Hasbro, continued to tinker with his new, first-of-its-kind action figure in 1963, he was looking for a better name.
The toy stood nearly 12 inches tall, and, with a manly scar across one cheek and oversize dog tags around its neck, featured 21 moving parts, making it a high-tech product for the time. Levine, though, wanted it to hark back to the past. The small soldier, with its plain fatigues, paid homage to the real men who fought in World War II and Korea, and he was searching for an equally old-school name. Inspired by a gritty Robert Mitchum movie released in 1945 about a group of GIs slogging their way through the North African and Italian campaigns, Levine finally settled on a name: GI Joe.
Few other products have captured the imaginations of the toy-soldier set the same way as Levine’s, which is celebrating 45 uninterrupted years on the market this February. While the toy evolved to reflect different eras—Joe was an adventurer in the 1970s, fighting crocodiles and sharks, and in the 1990s, equipped to nip the terrorist threat in the bud—it never strayed far from its basic mission.
Or its basic inspiration. Over the last decade the company has released a line of GI Joes called the World War II Classic Collection, which conjures up the style of its first action figures—including toy versions of Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower—while honoring, once again, the grunts who won the war. Mitchell Paige, a marine platoon sergeant who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism in defending Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, probably would have scowled at anyone who dared to call him a GI, but Hasbro made a GI Joe action figure in his likeness in 1998.
Paige died several years later, but 11.5-inch versions of him—along with a small army of fellow soldiers—are still ready for action, armed with an M1 rifle, a machine gun, ammo pouches, and two grenades.