History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
In 1943, while the United States was engaged in World War II, the army brass was pulling out all of the stops to buoy the spirits and skills of their soldiers in the battlefield. They needed to find a way to raise the morale of the troops and to educate them about things like the perils of leaking military secrets, how to prevent malaria, and why they should always keep a gas mask at hand.
But it was a tough job. The American army was made up of a diverse group of men from different geographical and economic backgrounds; some could read, others could not; some were dutiful soldiers, others not so inclined to listen to officers drone on about protocol. But there was one thing that could bring them all together—the antics of a cartoon soldier made just for them.
Enter Private Snafu, an animated series of 27 short films made between 1943 and 1945 meant not only to entertain U.S. troops, but also to guide their behavior in order to preserve their own health and safety as well as that of the cause. Born from the minds of the Hollywood-laced film division of the War Department, Private Snafu became a rousing success.
The Top Secret Birth of Private Snafu
Private Snafu was not the ideal soldier. In fact, his name was a reference to the rather indelicate army acronym SNAFU, which, in its tamer translation, stands for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.” The cartoon private had the best of intentions, but he just couldn’t help screwing things up. Whether he was misinterpreting orders or acting on an inane hunch, he often ended up harming himself or the Allied cause, just like in this video, where he is the source of viral rumors that spread fear throughout the front lines.
With his comedic—often decidedly racy—antics, Private Snafu was a favorite among the troops. According to the Prescott Evening Courier in 1944, this series consistently ranked first or second when the army surveyed soldiers on their favorite wartime films.
But about that newspaper report: As the Prescott Evening Courier says, the Private Snafu films were “of, by, and for the armed forces only.” They were classified war office creations, meant to be kept top secret. But in 1944, before the end of the war and the end of Private Snafu’s story, the existence of the series had clearly been leaked to at least one local Arizona news outlet. Seems like someone wasn’t watching those Private Snafu films closely enough after all.
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The film division of the War Department—and particularly the team surrounding the Private Snafu franchise—was made up of the creme de la creme of Hollywood. Frank Capra, the famous director behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and, after the war, It’s a Wonderful Life, was tapped to become the head of the First Motion Picture Unit, charged with producing all domestic and overseas propaganda and educational films. Capra was the one who came up with the idea for the Private Snafu series.
But credit for their hilarious storylines lies solidly with Theodore Seuss Geisel, the man almost every American child knows as Dr. Seuss. Often working with a co-writer, Dr. Seuss was responsible for writing almost every one of the 27 Private Snafu films. Once you know the magical mind behind this rather adult franchise, the animation style begins to take on a distinctly Seussian character.
Last, but not least, is Private Snafu himself, who became just one in the army of characters given voice and life by the famous vocal actor, Mel Blanc. He of the “man of a thousand voices” fame was called on to lend his distinct talents to Private Snafu, whose tenor has a whiff of Blanc’s Daffy Duck about him. In 1989, Blanc died at the age of 81. His tombstone pays tribute to the sense of humor that infused so many of his characters, including Private Snafu. Above his name is emblazoned: “That’s All Folks.”
But Not All Rumors Were Bad…
Loose lips sink ships, or so the propaganda posters warned. But the Allies were counting on loose lips—or at least fake news—to help deflect some of the German bombing that was bombarding cities like London and Paris. They did so in the form of decoy cities.
The German Luftwaffe tore across the sky with their deadly payload guided by the most primitive of guidance systems: a compass, a map, and the human eye (which, in all fairness, were the only tools available at the time). The British concocted a scheme to try to fool the enemy pilots into thinking they had reached their intended targets by constructing sham sites that were designed and lit to appear as if they were cities or military installations. The idea was that the German bombers would pass over these decoy cities first, think they were the real thing, bomb them, and leave the real inhabited and valuable sites alone.
The U.S. followed suit after Pearl Harbor, but they took a different tactic. Because of the perceived danger of Japanese bombing on the West Coast, the U.S. wanted to disguise two airplane factories that were engaged in war effort production from their sites in Burbank and Seattle. In order to do so, they built fake neighborhoods on top of the factories that, from the air, would camouflage them to look like any old, harmless American suburb. It was a scheme sure to fool any Private Snafus on either side of the war.