Disney goes to war

Military History Matter's Assistant Editor Calum Henderson delves into Disney's contribution to wartime propaganda.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in December 1941, a large studio lot in Burbank, California, was swiftly requisitioned as an army anti-aircraft base. Nearby was the Lockheed aircraft production plant, and this newly established site would ensure the plant was protected from enemy raids.

The studios were the property of Walt Disney, already something of an icon in the United States for his animated films. Because of his status, he was soon approached by the US government to produce wartime propaganda films, a task that he embraced wholeheartedly. More than 90% of the Disney company’s wartime output was dedicated to assisting in the struggle against Japan, Nazi Germany, and their allies.

Reminder for the American public to ‘remember Pearl Harbor’ and stay vigilant against wartime threats, such as foreign spies.

This remarkable period in the studio’s history is the subject of a new exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Curated by historian Kent Ramsey and in partnership with Seattle’s Museum of Flight, it showcases more than 550 examples of rare historical objects, film clips, and posters.

An original story sketch for the short film The Vanishing Private, in which Donald Duck uses invisible paint to disguise a cannon – and then himself.

With regards to film, the Disney company’s output was particularly prodigious. Over the course of the following four years, the organisation made short educational features for every branch of the American armed forces and government.

A Masquer’s Servicemen’s Morale Corps programme card, designed by artist Hank Porter. It shows Disney characters Donald Duck, Mickey, and Minnie Mouse saluting American soldiers.

Over 400,000 feet of film was eventually produced, which if played continuously would run for more than 70 hours. Production hit its peak in 1943, the year in which the Battle of Midway arguably turned the tide of the Pacific War in American’s favour, with 204,000 feet of film churned out within those 12 months alone.

Fifinella was a character designed by Walt Disney for a proposed film of an early Roald Dahl book. During the war, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) got permission from Disney to use it as their official mascot. It was later adopted by the 319th Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment (AAFFTD).

There were also short movies for the general public, such as The Vanishing Private, in which Donald Duck, already a Disney stalwart, discovered invisible paint and used it to disguise a cannon and play mind games with a buffoonish general.

A sketch from the visual development stage of the 1943 short film Victory through Air Power, showing the symbolic might of American airpower during the Pacific War.

Many of these films are still kicking around online and are just as enjoyable as the feature-length, cinematic releases of that era, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. Although now classics, these movies initially underperformed at the box office due to wartime conditions.

But Disney’s enduring popularity helped enormously in the success of the propaganda. The medium itself was ideal: brief and uncomplicated, films and posters with recognisable characters instilled either patriotic fervour or issued warnings for the public to be vigilant against wartime threats.

An historically accurate colour rendition of a 1942 Dumbo insignia of the 2nd Reconnaissance Squadron, Fresno, California.

For curator Kent Ramsey, there is a strong personal dimension in bringing the exhibition together. ‘Disney’s insignia design team created two clever insignias for my uncle’s photo reconnaissance group,’ he explained. ‘Unfortunately, my uncle was shot down and killed one month before the war ended in Europe, and, for me, this exhibition serves as a salute to his supreme sacrifice.’

Text: Calum Henderson.
All images: Kent Ramsey/Disney Studio Artist.