The Disney Company is taking its lumps lately but once upon a time it was engaged in an actual war instead of the Culture War.
Here’s a secret: Along with the 16 million American soldiers that served in the military during World War II were Walt Disney characters Mickey, Donald, Doc, and the Practical Pig from The Three Little Pigs. The vast expansion of the US military meant the creation of hundreds of new army units, ships and squadrons that all needed unique insignia and markings to build esprit de corps in the men and women serving in them. So the War Department turned to Walt Disney to help.
Disney, Already a Hit
Disney was already a crowd and box-office favorite when World War II broke out, with the successful release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, and Dumbo in 1941, considering the fact that there was an ongoing conflict at that time. His feature-length animated films were not made for kids, but for adult audiences who marveled at the level of artistry and sophistication that went into his work. Snow White one the first-ever Honorary Academy Award for an animated movie.
Their short movies also became popular globally, with Mickey Mouse already an international icon that he was already in a US Navy’s insignia even before the war. This was the beginning of a trend of Disney cartoon characters being used in the insignias of the US military, particularly in the Navy, which was not really approved by Disney in the beginning.
Act of Patriotism
As the number of men enlisted kept on flooding, the US military could not keep up with the number of insignias they needed to produce. Walt Disney stepped in. As an act of patriotism, Disney decided to dedicate a unit of five artists who would customize military unit insignias for free. Hank Porter, a highly-talented draftsman, became the head of the small team. They worked steadily throughout the war and managed to create about 1,300 insignia based on requests.
Disney was pretty busy during the war with contracts for dozens of short animated training films and adding animation and graphics to other government propaganda films produced during the war.
Quite often, the unit already had a design in mind that they wanted to use, and the Disney artists just had to bring these ideas to life with the help of a rough sketch for reference that the troops attached along with the request letter.
How the whole thing worked was that the units would send request letters addressed to “Walt Disney, Hollywood, California.” Once the letter reached Disney, it would be placed in the queue along with other pending requests, and the units usually had to wait for about three to four weeks, sometimes even for several months, especially when they received a lot of requests.
As for the process of creating the insignia, it usually started with a pencil drawing, then a full-color pencil version, then finally a full-gouache made on an artboard which would then be sent to the unit that requested. The main drawing was usually hung and displayed in the unit headquarters as a template for whenever they needed to reproduce it on tanks, aircraft, and other military equipment, including uniforms and unit letterhead.
Perhaps we would never fully understand how it felt for a soldier at war to have his unit represented by a Disney-inspired insignia. It’s great to know how Donald Duck and the others boosted the troops’ morale and made them feel that their job was important enough, and even Disney acknowledged ad recognized that.
Guess who among the Disney characters was the single most requested one?
Hint, it wasn’t Mickey Mouse.
Yep, it was Donald Duck, with at least 216 insignias featuring him. Perhaps it was his irascibility that was interpreted as patriotism and military zeal, added with a touch of comedy. The second placer who appeared in 45 insignias was Pluto. His signature facial expression made it easy breezy for the artists to incorporate him into different military insignias. And then we have Goofy for the third place, with about 38 insignia. Bambi, on the other hand, was the only Disney character that did not appear in the insignias.