As a Chicago alderman, Douglas had worked with Chicago Daily News publisher Frank Knox in fighting corruption in Chicago. Knox, who had been Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1936, had become Secretary of the Navy, thus responsible for both the navy and the Marine Corps.
Shortly after losing the primary, Douglas resigned from the Chicago City Council. With the aid of Knox, Douglas enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on May 15, 1942, at the age of 50, becoming the oldest recruit in the history of Parris Island. Entering service as a private, Douglas was placed in an ordinary platoon and received no waivers aside from his teeth and eyesight.
As a member of the 57th Street Meeting of the Quakers, Douglas recognized that joining the Marines was contrary to the traditional testimony of that group against war and offered to resign his membership; the meeting refused to release him. Initially, Douglas was kept stateside, writing training manuals and giving inspirational speeches to troops, and quickly rose to the rank of staff sergeant. With the aid of Knox and his assistant Adlai Stevenson, Douglas was commissioned as a captain on November 24, 1942. Requesting combat duty, he was subsequently sent to the Pacific theater of operations with the 1st Marine Division.
During Battle of Peleliu, Douglas initially served as an adjutant in the 1st Marine Division headquarters before being assigned R-1 (personnel officer) of the 5th Marine Regiment. On the second day of the battle, Captain Douglas received permission to head to the front where he found work as a mobile regimental troubleshooter. He earned a Bronze Star for carrying ammunition to the front lines under enemy fire and earned his first Purple Heart when he was grazed by shrapnel while carrying flamethrower ammunition to the front lines. In that six-week battle, while investigating some random fire shootings, Douglas was shot at as he uncovered a two-foot-wide cave. He then killed the Japanese soldier inside at which point he wondered whether his enemy might be an economics professor from the University of Tokyo.
A few months later, during the Battle of Okinawa, Douglas earned his second Purple Heart. A volunteer rifleman in an infantry platoon, he was helping to carry wounded from 3rd Battalion 5th Marines along the Naha-Shuri line when a burst of machine gun fire tore through his left arm, severing the main nerve and leaving it permanently disabled.
Return to civilian life
After Douglas left the service he returned to teach at the University of Chicago around 1946. In 1947 he was awarded the highest honor in the economics profession when he was elected president of the American Economic Association.
He went on to be elected three times to the US Senate from Illinois.
A memorial marker at the Marine Corps training base at Parris Island reads:
in Memory of SENATOR PAUL H. DOUGLAS 1892 ~ 1976Graduating from Parris Island in 1942 as a 50-year-old Private, Mr. Douglas was an inspiration to all. He rose to the rank of Major while serving in the Pacific Theater where he was wounded at Peleliu and Okinawa. Retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. The former economics professor later served as a U.S. Senator from Illinois. By his personal courage, fortitude and leadership, the Honorable Paul H. Douglas demonstrated the personal traits characteristic of Marine leaders.
From 1986 to 1997, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the Paul Douglas Teacher Scholarship in Douglas's honor.
In 1992 the University of Illinois, Institute of Government and Public Affairs established the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government as part of the celebration of the senator's 100th birthday, and in recognition of his outstanding service to the nation.
The Paul Douglas Forest Preserve in Hoffman Estates, Illinois is named for him.
Douglas was entitled to campaign participation credit ("battle stars") for Capture and Occupation of the Southern Palau Islands (Peleliu), and Assault and Occupation of Okinawa.
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Semper Fi, Senator Douglas