From the quick-tempered Donald Duck to the loveable Dumbo, Walt Disney Productions created some 1,200 designs during World War II. Such recognizable characters were used for aircraft nose art, flight jacket patches, pins and other memorabilia for American and allied military units. The Disney brand may be a “cash cow” today, but all of this work was done by the studio free of charge as a donation to the war effort.
Disney’s relationship with the military dates back to 1917, when Walt Disney’s older brother Roy joined the Navy. Walt himself served a year later during World War I as a Red Cross ambulance driver when he was only 16 years old. A sign of what was yet to come, he decorated his ambulance, and others in his unit, with drawings and cartoons.
Walt Disney Productions created their first military insignia in 1933 and created many public information and training films during the war years.
Disney also created more than 1,200 unit insignia during World War II for all branches of the U.S. armed forces. It did the same for allied military units from the United Kingdom, Canada, China, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Poland.
In fact, the only major Disney character that didn’t appear in any insignia designs was Bambi.
Two notable Walt Disney artists during this effort were Hank Porter and Roy Williams. Porter created the 334th Fighter Squadron, Army Air Forces, eagle with boxing gloves which came from the American Eagle Squadron in the Royal Air Force. Williams created the Flying Tiger insignia for the 14th Air Force and later became the inventor of the “mouse ears” worn on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
At least 216 unit designs
Officially used only once for a medical unit
In June 1942, the Disney studio in California became a war plant. By 1944, they employed 600 people and 25 percent of them either voluntarily enlisted or had been drafted. According to David Lesjak, author of “Service with Character – The Disney Studio and World War II,” the studio had a service flag with 165 blue colored stars on it. Each star represented an employee serving in the military. The studio’s 1944 annual report noted the breakdown of staff serving included 85 army, 49 navy, 21 Marines, two merchant marines and one WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots. They also had five gold colored stars, each representing a staff member killed in the line of duty.
Fast forward to today, the military’s century-long relationship with Disney continues to evolve. The studio regularly coordinates film productions with the military, and service members and their families enjoy discounts at Disney’s theme parks. Given the longevity of Mickey Mouse, 90 years old now, there’s no sign of that relationship slowing.