June 6, 2019 is the 75th anniversary of the largest invasion force ever assembled. On June 6, 1944, tens of thousands of ships and planes, with hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers from France, Britain, the United States, and Canada assembled on mass to invade Northern France and retake Europe from Nazi control. It was the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
World War II had a global effect and the Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney himself were all caught up in the war effort. Two areas of focus that the Disney company contributed to the allied war effort were in film and artwork. Let’s look at the Disney role in World War II.
The popularity of Disney cartoons was undeniable, and the US government sought out Walt Disney to help promote success initiatives of the government to ensure success in the war. Not only did the US government seek out the Disney Studios, but the National Film Board of Canada contracted Disney to create numerous propaganda films to promote the war effort. The film work was all propaganda and encouraged the public to go along with whatever means was necessary for success in the war.
The focus of the animated shorts was varied. The New Spirit, which starred Donald Duck and was produced with the Department of the Treasury, was created to help sell the American public on paying their income tax which was being used to help pay for the war effort.
Donald Duck would play a starring role in much of the Disney animated war production. The army commissioned shorts begin with Donald Duck as he is drafted in Donald Gets Drafted. Here the foul tempered duck is called on to serve in the army, and viewers get to watch his journey in follow up shorts like The Vanishing Private, Sky Trooper, Fall Out Fall In, The Old Army Game¸ and Commando Duck.
Donald Duck not only appeared in the animated shorts, he also played a starring role in many propaganda films that were aimed at swaying public opinion to assist in war causes. Donald’s Decision was produced for the National Film Board of Canada to help encourage Canadian citizens to purchase war bonds. Der Fuehrer’s Face was the only war time Donald Duck cartoon to win an Oscar. This animated short placed Donald in a nightmare situation where he was a German factory worker in Nazi controlled Germany. Education for Death showed what it would look like for a child growing up in Nazi controlled Germany. While Stop That Tank has Hitler killed and sent to hell to meet the devil.
From army life to propaganda, Disney animation produced several Donald Duck cartoons that were created with the idea of keeping America going despite the hardships of war. Donald’s Tire Trouble has the temperamental duck driving along in his car when he gets a flat tire. Changing the tire and starting back on the road the other tires pop as well, and the angry fowl is upset because all the tires were retreads. Donald carries on, and the goal of the animated short was to show audiences that rubber rationing may have its difficulties during the war, but even Donald Duck can get along with it, so everyone else should be able too.
Home Defense brought Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie into the world of what civilians could be doing at home to help the war effort. While the cartoon is filled with laughs the role as a civilian aircraft spotter on the West Coast was an important job that countless served in. The threat of a west coast invasion was real, and while the story is played for humor, the situation is serious and highlights the importance of the home defense role.
Beyond all the animated shorts that brought some laughter to real world situations, the masterpiece of Disney animation during World War II was the feature length animated documentary Victory Through Airpower.
Released in 1943 as an adaptation of the book by the same name written by Alexander P. de Seversky, Victory Through Airpower had a much stronger impact on audiences including politicians. de Seversky’s thesis of the book was that a build up of planes and long-range bombers would help the Allied war effort. Walt was a firm believer in de Seversky and pushed through the film for a release in 1943.
The film won over praise from critics and the attention of politicians. As film historian and critic Leonard Maltin points out, it was after President Roosevelt saw the film that he was won over by the idea of long-range bombing to help in the war effort. Though the film was not a box office success, its impact on world leaders and the events of the time is undeniable.
Over a thousand logos for different branches of the military were designed by Disney artists. From ships to planes, the Disney characters were put into service. While Mickey Mouse was used for home front logos, because of his affable personality, the short-tempered Donald Duck was the most requested character for troop logos. For many troops, Donald’s quick temper and fighting spirit was admired by those on the front lines.
Dumbo was often associated with logos related to bomber planes or bombs themselves. Jiminy Cricket was used in association with chaplains. Since he was the voice of reason and conscience in Pinocchio he seemed like a natural fit for the chaplain service. New creations were made when an established character didn’t seem right for the job. The Seabees (the Naval Construction Battalions), Flying Tigers (a volunteer group of American pilots flying under the Chinese flag), and the Mosquito Fleet (the fast-wooden PT Boat group in the Pacific) all received original artwork from Disney artists.
World War II affected everyone. Walt Disney and his company served in the only way they knew. While Walt was shepherding animated shorts to drum up enthusiasm and films like Victory Through Airpower to support the war effort, allied soldiers went into battle with the Disney designed insignias on their boats, planes, and gear.
Much of the Disney World War II work was released in the Walt Disney Treasures collection, Walt Disney On the Front Lines. The depth of how World War II influenced Walt Disney and the studio is unbelievable. As the last of the veterans who landed on beaches in France on June 6, 1944, commemorate this amazing event this year, they were guided by Disney training films and cartoons that taught serious subjects in a light-hearted way, and used Disney created art as their own symbol. Soon the soldiers who fought this war will be a memory, but the material they used that the Disney Studio created will always be able to give us a snapshot of life at this critical world time.
Check out the links below to the watch some of Disney’s World War II animated work.
The New Spirit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMU-KGKK6q8
Donald Gets Drafted https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDDvpTMABOQ
Commando Duck https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XVRR1F1DPA
Donald’s Decision https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gwaON1hJd4
Education for Death https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vLrTNKk89Q
Editor’s note: The following links are currently blocked in the United States but may work in other countries:
The Vanishing Private https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jQ32XGavR8
Sky Trooper https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NuFglfP6Ds
Fall Out Fall In https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIN0sViNhqA
The Old Army Game https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiZmgMTkVHo
Der Fuehrer’s Face https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLV5GCbsRTY
Stop That Tank https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlJD0pZp4eQ
Donald’s Tire Trouble https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5ZzTVl1Nko
Home Defense https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drYWx-CHWok
Victory Through Airpower https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvvqZqsGrbQ