Time magazine had planned its Christmas-issue cover for 1941 long in advance. The magazine was going to feature a photograph of Dumbo, which had been released on Halloween. It just goes to show you, though, that there’s no way to predict the news. On December 7, 1941, ships and facilities at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, were bombed by the Japanese military, destroying many ships and killing some three thousand men and women.
The nation was outraged; rumors and fears spread. Californians worried that once Hawaii had been attacked, they might be next. On the night of December 7, the studio manager called Walt with troubling news. ‘The army is moving in on us,” he told him. “I said I’d have to call you. And they said, ‘Call him. But we’re moving in anyway.’”
The next day, war was declared, and Walt’s studio was turned into a military installation to protect the nearby Lockheed aircraft plant. Soldiers lived in the studio. Officers seemed to be everywhere. Artists had to share offices to make space.
Immediately, Walt Disney Productions dropped work on future projects. To help with the war effort, it started creating training films like Aircraft Carrier Landing Signals. In terms of sheer footage, the studio produced many times the amount of film during the war than it did before or after. Some of the work was very simple; short films included animated sequences as well as live action. Keeping up with all the work was brutal, particularly since many Disney employees had been drafted.
Disney’s traditional cast of characters, including Donald Duck, Goofy, and the Seven Dwarfs were featured in many of the shorts used to educate, inform, and incite the public about the war. One of the most well known was Der Fuehrer’s Face, which starred Donald Duck as a benumbed, overwrought, and bullied worker in Nazi Germany. In the end, it turns out that Donald was just dreaming, and he wakes up to discover how grand it is to be a U.S. citizen.
Another facet of the studio contribution to the war effort were the insignia. The insignia were an especially personal project for Walt. Having served during World War I, Walt understood the needs of the soldiers’ serving far from home. He knew that symbols could be used to not only bring humor to military units but could also be a fantastic way to boost morale.
The first insignia was created as early as 1933 for a Naval Reserve Squadron stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York. According to long-time Disney archivist Dave Smith, “Sometimes the unit would provide suggestions as to what they wanted…sometimes they would leave the task up to the Disney artists.”
The requests for insignia began to flood into the studio. Walt decided to create his own insignia design unit with Hank Porter, at the helm, Roy Williams, Bill Justice, Van Kaufman, Ed Parks, and George Goepper. Together, these men created over 1200 unique insignia throughout the duration of World War II. All of the designs were created free-of-charge and became another invaluable contribution to the war effort by the Disney studios.
"The insignia meant a lot to the men who were fighting ... I had to do it ... I owed it to them." said Walt.