John T. Wayne never knew who his grandfather was growing up.
His father never talked about it. His grandmother never brought it up.
It never occurred to him that his father didn’t know.
“Granny didn’t say anything,” Wayne said. “All we ever got told when we were growing up when we asked was ‘go play. It’s none of your business.’ It never occurred to us that he didn’t know.”
When his father died in 2009, it left even more questions in his mind. At the funeral, he found out that his aunt’s real name was Mary Ann, not Ann as he has always known her as. And he found it strange that six out of nine of his father’s siblings all had names that were associated with the actor John Wayne. There was Uncle John. Uncle Duke. And Uncle Bobby, which was short for Robert.
All except for his father, who was born Billy Gene Hammock.
Wayne said after the funeral it even left him doubting who he really was. His given name is Terry Wayne Hammock. But after digging into his family tree, he uncovered a secret that was kept hidden since the 1930s that changed everything he thought he knew about his family.
Wayne discovered that his father was actually born out of wedlock and that his real father was the legendary western movie actor John Wayne, and that he was the Duke’s grandson.
“They buried dad’s identity, and they buried it really well,” Wayne said. “My father went to his grave not knowing.”
Wayne, who lives in Paragould, Arkansas, and writes western fiction for a living, said it took him 10 years to uncover the truth, but he believes he has the evidence to prove it.
Wayne is putting the finishing touches on his autobiography which spells it all out and will be released in January 2022.
“I’ve been writing it for 10 years,” Wayne said. “It all points to John Wayne.”
The story begins in Hickman, Kentucky, a city that sits along the Mississippi River bordering Kentucky and Missouri. According to the birth records, Billy Gene Hammock was born on February 21, 1935 to Lela Pearl Clements. The doctor who birthed him was John C. Morrison, John Wayne’s real family name.
Wayne said Morrison had a party to celebrate his daughter’s graduation from Duke University in the spring of 1934 which John Wayne was at.
“This was a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne,” he said. “He wasn’t as famous yet, but he was a movie star and everybody knew who he was. He showed up to this party and my grandmother, who lived in town, was there. It also was John Wayne’s birthday the day of the party. He was 26 at the time and married. His first wife, Josephine, was back in California, pregnant with their first son, Michael. With everything we know about John Wayne, do you think he’s not going to celebrate his birthday? Apparently, he celebrated a little too much.”
Wayne said there was no other reason for the famous actor to be there other than he was related somehow to Dr. Morrison. When the baby was born, Morrison listed the father as Victor Hammock, a man who lived in Hickman.
But according to Wayne, Hammock’s obituary only mentioned that he had two sons, Larry and Bill. Wayne doesn’t believe his grandmother was ever married to Hammock.
“We lived in Unionville, Tennessee, for two years in the 1960s which was 15 miles from Hickman, where this all took place and where the Hammock family lives,” Wayne said. “But we never met a Hammock. If that’s our family, where are they? Why weren’t we introduced? That leaves a big question mark. I don’t think they are family. I don’t think they ever were. It was just a name given to my father to hide who he was.”
Wayne said John Wayne’s wife was a strict Catholic. Any mention of a child born out of wedlock would have ruined his career. And to complicate matters even more, his father was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spine which left him with a lifelong limp and limited use of his right arm.
“You can’t have this kid of a famous movie star running around with a handicap,” Wayne said. “So they buried his identity. They couldn’t have this come out.”
Wayne said there are other clues as well that he’s uncovered. Both Dr. Morrison and John Wayne were 32nd Degree Masons, as was another man with ties to Wayne, Walter Ruby.
“Walter Ruby was a bank president and was also one of the premiere Hereford cattle breeders in the country,” Wayne said. “Walter Ruby and John Wayne bought cattle together and he visited Madisonville, Kentucky, many times. They have pictures of him in the newspaper. They were lifelong friends.
Wayne said he didn’t make the connection to John Wayne until after his father’s funeral. He and his wife were driving back to Florida when she suggested that since he planned on writing western fiction, that he should at least look like a cowboy.
“That made sense because I do write westerns,” Wayne said. “So we stopped and picked up a hat and some cowboy boots. Over the next couple of weeks I started dressing like a cowboy to see if it would work.”
He was originally going to publish under the name Terry Wayne.
Then something funny began to happen to him. Everywhere he went, people kept telling him that he looked like John Wayne. At first he dismissed it, but it kept happening over and over.
“I could’t go anywhere without somebody saying ‘do you know who you look like?’’ Wayne said. “I was driving out of Texas one day and stopped at three different places. The second time a young lady said ‘do you know if you had an eye patch you’d look like Rooster Cogburn?’ Then the next stop, which was in Denton, I stopped to see if I could find a shirt. And a young lady in the store stopped me and said ‘oh my God. It’s you.’ I said ‘excuse me?’ And she pointed to a cutout at the end of the hall of John Wayne from the movie “Hondo.” She said ‘that’s you!.’ I said ‘whoa, you’re about 30 years off.’ She said ‘that’s you.’ And she was adamant.”
Wayne said he got back in his truck and had a soul-searching argument with God. In his head he kept hearing ‘you’re John Wayne’s grandson, dummy.’ Like all arguments with the Lord, Wayne said he knew he wasn’t going to win. And after what he was able to find in his family tree, Wayne said he could no longer deny what was in front of him and finally came to embrace the fact that he was, in fact, John Wayne’s grandson.”
“You can only listen to that for so long, and when you have a family history like I have, you can’t help but ask yourself, is there something to this, because I don’t know who my grandfather is,” Wayne said.
Wayne has since published seven novels under the name John T. Wayne and bills himself as the Duke’s grandson at book signings and festivals across the country.
“When I realized what granny had done with all the names, I became certain that it wasn’t a coincidence,” Wayne said. “She hid this secret her whole life. And a lot of things happened since then that have confirmed it. It’s taken ten years to put all these pieces together, but I wouldn’t use it if I wasn’t certain.”
Ironically, writing was never his strong point. In fact, Wayne said he flunked English in high school. He joined the Marines after graduating where he was stationed for two years in Japan. With little to do in Japan other than drink, Wayne said he decided he was going to use his time to read. He got hooked on Louis L’Amour novels and decided that he wanted to write western fiction when he got out of the Marines.
“I thought gosh, if I could write like this guy, I could write my own ticket,” Wayne said. “But how was I going to write a book when I failed English all through high school?”
Wayne enrolled at University of Oregon where he picked up some writing tips, but dropped out after his daughter died. For the next six months, he started writing down all of his thoughts in a journal, watching as his marriage ended and trying to figure out who he was.
“After six months, I thought, if I’m going to be writing this much, I need to write a book,” Wayne said.
His first novel, “Treasure of Del Diablo” was published in 2011.
“When I finished that book, I realized I didn’t have one book. I had a series," Wayne said.
The books are part of a continuing series called “The Gaslight Boys,” a name which was given to boys in St. Louis who were left orphaned by the Civil War and later went out west where they became cowboys.
“The orphanages were so overrun they couldn’t handle them,” Wayne said. “And they ended up living in the streets. A lot of them were put on a train and shipped out west.”
In addition to his autobiography, Wayne currently is working on a series featuring the U.S. Marshals who were based out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, in Judge Isaac Parker’s court. Proceeds from the books will benefit the U.S. Marshal’s Museum which is under construction in Fort Smith.
Wayne also helps promote the “True Grit Trail,” which runs from Highway 22 in Dardanelle County Arkansas to Fort Smith in recognition of author Charles Portis, who wrote “True Grit.” John Wayne won an Oscar in 1969 for his performance as the boozy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the film version.
“I’ve got all these books that have U.S. Marshals in them and thought, you know what? I can just call them the True Grit Trail series,” Wayne said.
He also has another soon-to-be released novel called “The Counterfeiters,” which deals with the Secret Service’s efforts to stop counterfeiters, and is set after the death of Abraham Lincoln.
“It is unique in that Abraham Lincoln signed the bill creating the Secret Service the day he was killed,” Wayne said. “The Secret Service wasn’t originally designed to protect the president,. It was designed to go after counterfeiters who were ruining the federal economy.”
Wayne attends about 30 book and western festivals a year where he sells his books and gives talks. He’s even been in a short film about a train robbery.
Everywhere he goes, fans tell him how much they love his grandfather’s movies. As for his own favorites, Wayne said he is partial to “The Comancheros,” “The Flying Leathernecks,” and “Rio Bravo” where the Duke plays John T. Chance.
Wayne said he has met a few of John Wayne’s children and grandchildren at different times over the years, but has never had a chance to share his story with them. Only one, Anita Swift, John Wayne’s oldest granddaughter, has ever threatened to sue him over his use of the name Wayne.
Wayne said he doesn’t want anything from the John Wayne family. He only wants to be able to acknowledge his true heritage, the one that was hidden from him his whole life.
“That’s all I want,” Wayne said. “I don’t care about their money. I don’t care what they have going on. They’ve lived their lives the way they wanted, and I’ve lived mine. I don’t want anything from them. I am who I am.”