Disney Goes To War

One day in 1942, when new Navy torpedo boats were being launched, Lieutenant E. S. Caldwell, then of the Naval Operations office in Washington, wrote a letter to Walt Disney in Hollywood. He asked Disney to design an emblem appropriate for this new fleet of "mosquito boats." A few days later, back to the fleet came an emblem. It was a little mosquito, streaking through the water with a tar's hat on his head and a shiny torpedo held between his many legs. The insignia was such a hit that every torpedo boat in the fleet soon had a Disney mosquito. (In the photo at left, the insignia adorns the cabin of a PT boat.

As soon as word got around in the Army and Navy as to what Disney had done, the Disney office was bombarded with requests to design insignia for tanks, minesweepers, bombers, and fighter planes. Disney did his best to comply. When Brigadier General S. B. Buckner, commander of the Alaska Defense Force at Fort Richardson, Alaska, received his outfit's design — a seal balancing the letters ADF, the general wrote Disney:


Since the arrival of the insignia, all of the seals in Bering Sea have been out on the ice pack balancing Ds on their noses, sneering derisively at the polar bears, expanding their chests, and cavorting merrily over being chosen to represent our defense forces.

It was clear that Disney and his artists had created a whole new system of heraldry, comparable to the ancient knightly arms. With requests for insignia stilt pouring in from the Army and Navy, the Disney studios announced that they had already completed more than 200 designs, and were expected to do at least 500 more. Two of their artists were working full time on the job.

If you've ever watched a WW II movie, you’ve probably seen an unusual and little-documented art form called "nose art." That's the term for the cartoons, drawings, and other markings that military crews painted on the noses of their aircraft beginning in France in the First World War. Walt Disney drove an ambulance in France shortly after World War I, and it's likely that he would been exposed to early nose art. In 1939, the famed American cartoonist was asked by the United States Navy to design a crest. Disney came up with a cartoon showing a wasp with boxing gloves, then went on to form a five-person team that created 1,200 aircraft insignias between 1939 and 1945.

According to the late WW II aviation enthusiast and author Jeffrey Ethell, "the Disney industry was pervasive in American culture and it influenced nose art in a number of different ways. Combat crews copied Disney cartoon characters because they were suitable subjects for humorous and patriotic themes. Disney's influence also included studio artists, who joined the military and then contributed their talents to the creation of nose art. Disney Studios and the U.S. government had a history of cooperation. At the beginning of the war in 1939, Walt Disney and his artists designed and painted squadron and unit insignia. Disney raised the spirit of the troops when he transformed the 'once staid military heraldry format created during World War I' into inspired designs. By the end of World War II, Disney's five-man staff assigned to insignia completed over 1,200 unit insignias, never charging a fee to the military."

The photos below show copies of Disney characters done by members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, showing that Disney's influence transcended the globe in the 1940s.

Two Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Air Training Corps (ATC) cadets
 viewing the artwork on a Lockheed Ventura fuselage, 1943 (aircraft type and serial
 is unknown). Mickey Mouse, proprietor of "M. Mouse Loans" says: "The Axis is
Living on Borrowed Time, An' We're Gonna Foreclose."

A NZAF Lockheed Ventura (No. NZ4509) with a Disney devil affixed.
 The numbers 1-2-3 are labeled Hitler, Tojo, Il Duce. The devil's dilemma is
whether to "bake 'em, roast 'em, or boil 'em in oil."

Another Donald Duck cartoon on NZ 4525.
This one's asking "Why Can't I Get Along With the &#$@@%! Gremlins?"
 Who were the Gremlins you ask? Click here to find out!


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