Mickey Mouse morale: Disney on the World War II home front

By Bethanee Bemis
Patch with character of Fifinella—a winged woman wearing goggles, frozen mid-jump

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II. The very next day U.S. Army troops requisitioned half of Walt Disney’s Burbank, California, studio for their use. But space was not all that Disney would provide the troops. Artists, animators, and Walt Disney himself pitched in, enlisting Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other beloved Disney characters in the war effort.

Throughout the early 1940s, Disney churned out military training films, educational shorts (provided to the U.S. government at cost), and military insignia for over 1,000 different units in the U.S. armed forces (provided free of charge). Disney’s entire stable of characters was employed in the name of patriotism, and by 1943 newspapers were reporting that up to 90 percent of the Disney studio’s work was for government agencies.

In 1943 The New York Times singled out Donald Duck, in particular, as an “ambassador-at-large, a salesman of the American Way” for his representation of the United States both at home and abroad. By the end of the war, however, the title “Salesman of the American Way” may well have belonged to Walt Disney himself. The use of Disney’s characters in war-related work helped to strengthen the perception of the Disney brand as a symbol of the United States and its values.

Disney was most prolific during the war as a morale booster for the troops. Company artists created images of Disney characters for unit patches, eventually providing insignia to almost 1,300 units in the U.S. armed forces. Requests were so numerous that the studio had to set up an entire five-person unit devoted to insignia, under the lead of artist Hank Porter, to even come close to meeting demand.

Patch with character of Fifinella—a winged woman wearing goggles, frozen mid-jump
A Fifinella patch worn by women pilot trainees in what became the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). According to British Royal Air Force pilot lore, Fifinella was one of many winged gremlins that played havoc with their airplanes. Roald Dahl popularized the story in 1943 with illustrations provided by Walt Disney, who was given rights to the characters. (Division of Armed Forces History)
Two-page spread, entitled “Disney Cartoons Spur Combat Flyers,” shows a range of colorful insignia
Spread from the April 1944 edition of “Scientific American” showing some of the most popular Disney-designed insignia. (Division of Armed Forces History)

Disney partnered with several other government programs to educate citizens and encourage them to do their part for the war effort. Disney characters appeared on posters, in books, and even on war bonds to boost their appeal to children. Examples from the museum’s collection include a series of posters made for the Food and Nutrition Committee of the California War Council, as well as a book with movable characters created at the “suggestion” of the U.S. Treasury Department. Disney designed the book The Victory March to teach children the importance of saving stamps for war bonds.

Button shows Mickey Mouse holding a large wrench and a plane propeller with a blueprint in the background. The text reads: “Aircraft Worker…Building Planes for Victory”
Aircraft worker victory button worn by a worker at the Lockheed Martin munitions factory in Burbank, California (just over the hill from the Disney Studio), where thousands of aircraft were manufactured during the war. (Division of Political History)
Poster declaring “You can’t breakfast like a bird and work like a horse” shows a horse whistling and operating a drill while, on the other side of a metal sheet, a duck struggles to keep up.
Poster distributed in service of the National Wartime Nutrition Program, around 1943 (Division of Political History)
Two page spread from the book “The Victory March” shows a train full of Disney characters perched near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Interactive book from 1942 featuring Disney characters protecting an important treasure—a savings bond stamp (Division of Political History)
Bond featuring Disney characters, whose faces create a border around the document
Bond certificate from the U.S. Treasury War Finance Committee printed during the Fifth War Loan Drive in 1944. The certificate recognized purchase of a bond by or for the recipient. This particular certificate was awarded to Lavonne Hoover in 1946, though we don’t know when the bond was purchased. (Division of Political History)

At the beginning of World War II, Disney’s most famous product was animation, which logically was put to patriotic use in educational shorts and training films—and it even played a role in international diplomacy. Animated shorts were used for many different purposes. The New Spirit helped explain income tax laws enacted in 1942 to help fund the war, while Fall Out—Fall In provided entertainment aligned with current events and promoted patriotic service, as exemplified by Donald Duck.

Cel shows Donald Duck in uniform holding a rifle with a fixed bayonet
Cel from “Donald Gets Drafted,” the first of Disney’s war-themed entertainment shorts, which premiered in 1942. (Division of Culture and the Arts)
Drawing of Donald Duck
Sketch from the 1943 short “Fall Out—Fall In”, in which Donald Duck starred as a private in the army who has troubles setting up his tent after a long march. (Division of Culture and the Arts)

The Studio’s work was not just instrumental in the United States’ war effort; using Disney characters to speak on behalf of the U.S. government also solidified the idea—building since Disney’s 1930s cartoon work—that the brand was associated with patriotism and a symbol for America writ large. This association continues to be fostered today as seen in the nightly flag retreat ceremony held at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, where park visitors gather to honor the American flag and the country’s veterans.

Tie clip and two buttons
This United States Marine Corps tie clip was given to Ernest “Gunny” Napper, a security guard who leads the Saturday flag retreats at Disneyland. The daughter of a World War II veteran who regularly attended the retreat asked that the tie clip be given to Napper after his death in thanks for his role in ensuring veterans and the flag were properly honored at Disneyland. These buttons were created by private citizens in the group “I Support the Disneyland Flag Retreat,” which regularly gathers for the event. (Division of Political History)
Challenge coin featuring Mickey Mouse
This challenge coin was given to Susan Emslie in recognition of her service to veterans at Disneyland’s flag retreat in 2015. (Division of Political History)

The objects featured here are only a small sampling of what the Disney Studios produced during World War II, but they offer a window into how one of America’s favorite brands contributed to the nation’s victory and became inextricably linked to the country itself—with a bit of Disney diplomacy and a whole lot of Mickey Mouse morale.

Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist in the Division of Political History. She has previously blogged about Disney and the American Experience, suffrage history, and dead presidents.