The Insignia Art of Walt Disney Productions During World War II
"The insignia meant a lot to the men who were fighting ... I had to do it ... I owed it to them."
- Walt Disney, 1901-1966
Walt Disney Productions created approximately 1,200 designs during World War II for both American and Allied military units. Designs were also created for other organizations such as civil defense and war industries. All of this work was done by the studio free-of-charge as a donation to the war effort.
Walt Disney served in World War I when he was 16 years old as a Red Cross ambulance driver. He understood the value of cartoon humor to unit morale and esprit-de-corps. Throughout his service in France, he embellished his ambulance and others in his unit with drawings and cartoons, much to the delight of all.
Walt Disney Productions created their first military insignia in 1933 at the request of a Naval Reserve Squadron stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York with other random requests following over the next few years. During America's military mobilization in 1940-1941, however, hundreds of new military units were created and the Disney Studios were soon flooded with requests for insignia designs.
The Disney Studios were heavily committed to critical contract war work. They created many public information and training films during the war years. In addition to this effort, time and resources were found to create the many hundreds of insignia designs.
Throughout the war, the Disney insignia designs helped keep up the morale of Allied fighting forces. While Walt Disney Productions made many award-winning contributions to the war effort, none of these achievements provided the personal satisfaction and pride than that of the unit insignia designs.
The War Time Designs
Walt Disney Productions created over 1,200 unit insignia during World War II for all branches of the U.S. armed forces. In addition to U.S. military units, designs were also accomplished at the request of Allied military units from Britain, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Poland. Individual units were allowed to request designs directly from the Disney organization and accept finished work without having to go through any higher headquarters.
Virtually all of the Disney characters appeared in Unit insignia. The most requested was Donald Duck who appeared in at least 216 unit designs. Donald's quick temper and fighting spirit had universal appeal to all services. Pluto appeared in 45 designs, Goofy in 38 insignia, and Dumbo the Elephant in 20. Mickey Mouse was featured in 37 designs, but none associated with combat units. Mickey's nice-guy persona seemed better suited to represent home front and defense industry activities. Snow White, while unofficially utilized in aircraft nose art, was used only once for a medical unit. Additional Disney characters appearing on insignia included Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, the Reluctant Dragon, Flower, Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey & Louie, Little Hiawatha, all of the seven Dwarfs, Ferdinand the Bull, Peg Leg Pete and others. The only major Disney character that did not appear in any insignia designs was Bambi.
In addition to the established Disney characters, the design team also created hundreds of new, original characters. Included in this menagerie were 90 new cats, 50 dogs as well as apes, owls, octopi, roosters, and storks. While most of the designs were cartoon in nature, there were some done in a more serious and traditional manner representing the best commercial art practices and styles of the time.
Walt Disney became personally involved with the military insignia work of the studios and committed to their success. He created a special six-person team of artists and animators to work the requests, in addition to their other wartime duties.
Leading the effort was Mr. Hank Porter, who was responsible for many early insignia designs. Among his most notable creations was the eagle with boxing gloves for the American Eagle Squadron in the Royal Air Force. This insignia transferred with the unit when it was incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Forces as the 334th Fighter Squadron. Porter was one of Walt Disney's very best and trusted artists, being one of the very few that were authorized to sign the Disney name to a finished product. He continued to be the leader of the insignia project through out the war.
Also on the team was Mr. Roy Williams who, along with Porter, created one of the most famous of all Disney insignia, that of the Flying Tiger. Originally done for the American Volunteer Group in the Chinese Air Force, the insignia continued, with modifications, to be widely used in the China-Burma-India Theatre and continues to this day as part of the heraldry of the 14th Air Force. Williams gained significant notoriety and popularity after the war as a permanent member of the television series, "The Mickey Mouse Club" and he was also the inventor of the "Mouse Ears."
It is common that the work of studio artist's remain anonymous and their creations unattributed. We are most fortunate to know that along with Hank Porter and Roy Williams were the talents of Bill Justice, Van Kaufman, Ed Parks and George Goepper. While many Walt Disney employees contributed ideas for insignia, the actual burden of creative energy and artistic accomplishment in producing the over 1,200 designs during WWII was primarily born by these six individuals.
On the Home Front
There was a keen and growing interest on the home front for the work being done by Walt Disney Productions, and others, in creating unit insignia. To promote home front spirits, the Hearst Publications offered a series of ultimately 250 individual stamps with full color representations of insignia along with five separate mounting albums to the public. The first album was published in February of 1942 by the Los Angeles Examiner and then followed by other Hearst Newspapers.
The albums each cost 15 cents and contained 50 insignia designs. Newspaper readers could clip black and white copies of the insignia from their newspaper and then redeem them for the full color copies by mail.
The Hearst stamp promotion was, by far, the most widespread use of the insignia designs on the home front. It was followed secondly by a series of matchbook covers each bearing a different insignia design.
Despite the fact of the wide spread use of the designs were being used for commercial purposes, Walt Disney Productions freely allowed their use, without royalty, in hopes of promoting home front spirit.
The "Other" Designs
Walt Disney characters were well established as part of the popular culture of the United States during WWII. It is not surprising that Walt Disney characters were locally adapted by airmen. Most frequently this adaptation was for aircraft 'nose art' which appeared not only on the aircraft but, in many instances, also on the flight jackets of the crew.
Notable is the photographs and memorabilia from the "Snow White" Squadron as well as other instances of aircraft nose art and flight jackets.
Donald and his Friends Go Home
Individual units of all the branches of service were free to make contact with the Disney organization to request an insignia design. When the overall design was accepted by the unit they were provided with the final full color original from which the design could be utilized by the unit for not only insignia but also used on stationery, signage, chinaware, etc.
The final step in the insignia process, however, was the submission of the finished design to the War Department for approval. In the haste and urgency of wartime, this final step was frequently not accomplished and most Disney designs remained 'unofficial' despite their wide usage.
When the U.S. Air Force was created on Sept. 18, 1947, many actions were needed in order to establish the vital new identity for the service. Among them were new policies and rules governing unit insignia. These standards promoted a more traditional approach to heraldic designs and the light-hearted cartoon designs were to be no longer acceptable. While units that had officially approved Disney designs could continue with their use, other units which had never gained approval were now denied. The U.S. Air Force policy has remained firm over the last five decades regarding the standards of heraldry.
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