Donald Duck goes to war

Walt Disney in World War II

Walt Disney (left) presenting a Flying Bull insignia to the commander of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Propaganda has always been an important element of war. Uniting the civilian population behind the cause and keeping morale high both in the general populace and the military is just as important as having enough tanks, ships, ammunition or fuel. Walt Disney, America's most famous animator ever, was neither a soldier, nor a general or a captain of heavy industry. He was, however, at the end of what became a powerful propaganda machine during World War II. This December marks the 122nd anniversary of Walt Disney's birth and the 57th of his death. On top of that, the Walt Disney Company celebrated its 100th anniversary this October. Therefore, we felt it was appropriate to dedicate one of our articles this month to a few interesting facts about Walt Disney and his contribution to the American war effort in World War II.

Doc from Snow White on the insignia of the destroyer tender USS Piedmont
(Image: public domain)

Walt Disney's ancestors were from Normandy. One of Disney's ancestors was a trusted soldier of William the Conqueror, the Normann ruler who invaded England in 1066. In exchange for his service, the man was given fiefdom over the Normandy village of Isigny-sur-Mer, located a few miles from Pointe du Hoc, the seaside cliff where U.S. Army Rangers famously came ashore on D-Day. (Read our earlier article) The name "d'Isigny" ("of Isigny") was anglicized to "Disney" later when the family moved to England. Nowadays, Isigny-sur-Mer is famous for its dairy products and salted caramel. It also has a small museum dedicated to Disney. The famous Sleeping Beauty Castle and the Corona Castle from the animated film Tangled are also said to be inspired by the picturesque island-abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.

Civilians and U.S. troops in Isigny-sur-Mer, the Disney family’s ancestral hometown, during World War II
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Disney already drew propaganda during World War I. Young Walt was still in high school during the Great War and drew patriotic cartoons for his school newspaper. He wanted to serve with the American Expeditionary Force but was disqualified due to his young age. He eventually went overseas by falsifying his birth certificate and getting a job with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He arrived in Europe in November 1918, shortly after the armistice; he spent the time there drawing cartoons on his ambulance, and also got some of his work published in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper before returning home.

Walt Disney with his ambulance car in France
(Photo: unknown photographer)
World War II probably saved Disney's company. We remember the golden era of Disney for its successes, but the sailing wasn't always smooth. In 1937, Snow White made 8 million dollars on initial release against a budget of 1.5 million, but the company still found itself in dire straits in the early 40s. Both Fantasia and Pinocchio performed poorly in 1940, in no small part due to the war already raging in Europe and cutting off the European market. A labor strike over massive lay-offs and union negotiations made the company's prospects look even more dire. The requests from various branches of the armed forces and the government for training and propaganda films were a lifesaver for the company thanks to the predictable and guaranteed income they represented.
 
Walt Disney Studios were occupied by the military. 500 soldiers showed up and occupied Disney's Burbank studio after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and ended up staying for eight months. This was not due to any importance of the studio itself, but rather the proximity of a nearby Lockheed aircraft plant, with the studio used as an anti-aircraft base. Disney's studio became the only Hollywood film studio to fall under military occupation in history.
A part of Disney’s Burbank studio in 1943
(Photo: Disney Enterprises)

The company made a wide range of films for a wide range of customers. Walt Disney was approached about making films for the government almost immediately after soldiers showed up in his studio, and had quickly settled on his first film contract with the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941. The Navy wanted 90,000 feet of film in three months, all of it training films for sailors on navigation tactics. This was more than three times the footage the studio usually made in a year.

Still from a training film about fog produced by Walt Disney for the U.S. Navy
(Image: U.S. Navy)

The Treasury Department joined in on the action, commissioning The New Spirit in 1942 and The Spirit of '43, two short films starring Donald Duck that encouraged the public to support the war effort by paying their income taxes. The Department of Agriculture ordered the short Food Will Win the War to explain the importance of U.S. food shipments to allied nations, and to calm public concerns over how much food was being sent overseas.

Donald’s simplified Form 1040 A from The New Spirit
(Image: Department of the Treasury / Walt Disney Productions)

The Army Air Forces provided naval aviation experts to oversee the production of their films, and some of Disney's team members even learned how to fly so they could better understand the problems of military aviation.
 
The government also ordered shorts to whip up anti-German and anti-Japanese sentiments, including Reason and Emotion, Der Fuehrer's Face, Education for Death – the Making of a Nazi, Commando Duck and Donald Gets Drafted, most of the aforementioned titles featuring Donald Duck. These films, especially the ones about the Japanese, come across today as very racist (and one could argue that they were even back then), and should only be watched with an understanding of the wartime context they were created in.

Still from Der Fuehrer’s Face, with unflattering depictions of Hirohito, Hitler and Mussolini
(Image: Walt Disney Studios)
Walt Disney even made a propaganda film of his own. Disney was an aviation enthusiast, and was quickly won over by Victory Through Air Power, a 1942 book by aviation pioneer Alexander P. de Seversky, who wrote it to espouse his views on long-range strategic bombing. Disney loved the book so much he personally financed an animated film based on it without a government contract – in fact, his goal was to introduce de Seversky's ideas to the government with the film. The movie failed to make a profit, but did convince President F. D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, both of whom saw it during the Quebec Conference. (Read our earlier article) The Allied strategic bombing offensive of Europe had already begun two months before Roosevelt saw the film, but he did consider it a useful tool in selling the idea both the general populace and unconvinced officials in the government and the military. In an unusual stylistic choice, Victory Through Air Power combined animated film with real-life footage of de Seversky explaining his theories and military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell speaking. It also marked the true beginning of educational films, which are still being made and shown in schools, workplaces and militaries.
Still from Victory Through Air Power
(Image: Walt Disney Corporation)

 
A Disney film might have inspired a real-life weapon. The aforementioned Victory Through Air Power has a sequence where a rocket-propelled bomb is used to bomb a German submarine pen by penetrating its thick concrete roof. No such weapon existed at the time, but that was soon to change.  Developed by the Royal Navy, the 4500 lb Concrete Piercing/Rocket Assisted bomb, commonly nicknamed the Disney bomb or Disney Swish, began to see service in 1945, and was essentially exactly what the animated film depicted: a bomb designed to penetrate bunkers and submarine pens, which had rockets attached to it to accelerate it to a higher speed while falling. There's no specific evidence that the bomb was directly a result of the Disney short, it's a long-standing anecdote.
Still depicting the “rocket bomb” and an actual Disney bomb
(Images: Walt Disney Company and U.S. Army Pictorial Service)
Disney characters crossed the English Channel – at least their names did. Operation Pluto, also spelled PLUTO in all capitals, was a project to lay pipelines on the bottom of the English Channel and pump oil from England to Normandy to supply troops after D-Day. The name was an acronym of either "Pipeline Under the Ocean" or "Pipeline Underwater Transportation of Oil," but of course it also suggested Pluto the dog. This did not go unnoticed, and two operations to lay down and operate specific pipes were named Bambi and Dumbo to carry on the theme.
A special drum being towed across the English Channel, laying down a pipeline as part of Operation Pluto
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Even the enemy liked Mickey Mouse. German ace Adolf Galland first decorated his plane with an image of the internationally beloved rodent during the Spanish Civil War, and went on to do so in World War II.
Adolf Galland in a plane decorated with Mickey Mouse
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
On a far less lighthearted note, Unternehmen Micki Maus ("Operation Mickey Mouse") was a German operation in late 1944. Hungary was trying to leave the Axis and change sides, and a secret Hungarian delegate had even reached a preliminary agreement with the Soviet Union. In order to keep the disillusioned ally in the war, infamous SS commando Otto Skorzeny kidnapped the son of Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy. Horthy Jr. was held hostage and his father forced to abdicate and hand power over to a Nazi puppet government.
 
Disney also cooperated with another filmmaker. Beside producing his own educational and propaganda films, Disney also created animations for another live action series of films. Why We Fight is a seven-film series by director, producer and screenwriter Frank Capra, who was serving in the Army as a colonel. The series was originally intended to be only shown to servicemen as an explanation for why the United States became involved in the war, but President Roosevelt eventually also ordered its distribution for public viewing. Capra, who was an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, intended the series as a direct response to German director Leni Riefenstahl's famous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Besides archive footage and Disney's animated segments, the series also used older German propaganda footage, and even reenactions of events when real footage was not available.
Still from an animated segment of Prelude to War, the first of the Why We Fight series
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Many military units were liveried in Disney insignia. Disney Studios maintained a separate department just to create insignia for military units, free of charge. Over 1,200 works were handed out over the course of the war. Most of them were for Army units or Navy vessels, but plane nose art and even insignia for individuals was also given out. Sometimes a unit would write in, simply addressing the letter to “Walt Disney, Hollywood, California," with an already existing idea and maybe a crude draft, which Disney's artists then turned into a proper work of art. British, Canadian, Chinese, Free French, South African, New Zealander and Polish units were also given insignia if asked for. The most popular Disney character on these images was Donald Duck, followed by Pluto, Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Dumbo, in that order. (Some sources also name Jiminy Cricket in the top six.) The only character never featured on insignia was Bambi, and Snow White only appeared once, for a medical unit.
Disney-designed unit insignia for the 23rd Fighter Group, the Flying Tigers
(Photo: Department of Defense)
One particular character was created specifically for wartime use. The female gremlin Fifinella was originally conceived by British author and fighter ace Roald Dahl, and drawn by Walt Disney. Fifinella became the mascot of the WASP, the Woman Airforce Service Pilots, a civilian organization that tested and ferried planes, and trained pilots.
Fifinella the gremlin
(Image: Walt Disney)
Disney World hides a link to World War II. If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, you probably remember the 15-foot mosaics in Cinderella Castle telling Cinderella’s story. What you might not have known was that they were made by a former master interrogator of the Luftwaffe and his daughter. During World War II, Hanns-Joachim Gottlob Scharff was a specialist in interrogating captured American fighter pilots, though he also worked with bomber crews and the pilots of other Allied nations. He was opposed to physical interrogation (beatings and torture), and relied on building up a positive rapport with the prisoner. He emigrated to the United States after the war, giving lectures on interrogation techniques in the Pentagon and at other locales, and building a new career on mosaic art – which is how his and his daughter’s work ended up in Cinderella Castle.
One of the mosaics in Cinderella Castle
(Photo: Disney Parks)

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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