Service with Character

The Disney Studios and World War II

by David Lesjak | Release Date: May 31, 2014 | Availability: Print

Disney Goes to War!

Walt never shot a Nazi. But he and his artists did shoot countless feet of film for the armed forces about subjects ranging from the care of psychotic soldiers and the Burma campaign to Donald Duck setting an example for Americans by paying his income tax (when he wasn't throwing a tomato in the Fuehrer's face).

In Service with Character, you'll learn about the dozens of little-known but strategically important short films that the Disney Studio made for all branches of the U.S. military, and how Walt's patriotic service to his country put his studio in dire straits.

But Walt did much more than make training and propaganda films. Few people know that he assigned one of his best artists to create, for free, Disney-designed insignia for any servicemen who asked. These morale boosters were displayed by American military units around the world, giving soldiers a taste of home and scaring the pants off the enemy with such designs as Bambi's Flower wielding a mortar, Mickey throwing bombs from a plane, and hundreds more.

In Service with Character, you'll not only hear the untold story of Disney's war-time insignias, but also:

  • The crucial importance of Walt's famous propaganda films, including Victory Through Air Power and Der Fuehrer's Face
  • Why the war was bad for Disney character films but great for Disney character merchandise
  • How Walt almost made a film about the gremlins who enjoyed sabotaging Royal Air Force planes
  • The inspiring story of Disney artist Henry "Hank" Porter, who designed hundreds of Disney-themed insignia for servicemen - despite being color-blind
  • Whether there's any truth to the story that "Mickey Mouse" was the password for the D-Day landings in Normandy
  • Annotated lists of hundreds of Disney war-time collectibles

Get your kit together because we're marching off to war—together with Disney—in David Lesjak's Service with Character!

Table of Contents

Foreword by Sam Grabarski

Chapter 1 The Studio

Chapter 2 Home Front

Chapter 3 Gremlins and Friends

Chapter 4 Insignia

Chapter 5 Propaganda and Training Films

Chapter 6 Epilogue: Postwar

Chapter 7 Walt Disney's Comics and Stories

Chapter 8 Print Media: Magazines and Newspapers

Appendix A Wartime and Military Short Films

Appendix B Walt Disney Gremlins Letter

Appendix C Gunther Lessing WASP Letter

Appendix D Matchbook Covers

Appendix E Insignia Licensing Agreements

Appendix F Oskar Lebeck Letter: "Der Fuehrer's Face" Party Favor

Appendix G Community Singing Game: "Der Fuehrer's Face" Party Favor

Appendix H A Message from Walt

Appendix I The World Is Our Marketplace

Appendix J Mickey Mouse and the D-Day Password Puzzle

When the World Trade Center was destroyed in an unprovoked attack in 2001, the citizens of North America suffered a widespread sense of vulnerability. But seventy years prior, there was a harsher time when a universal sense of fear gripped the peoples of the United States and Canada. It seemed that international foes might strike our national soils without contest. The civil rights of Japanese Americans were suspended. Food, gas, and clothing were rationed. Individuals purchased War Bonds to pay for the cost of a worldwide lethal conflict. Men and women joined in the sense of sacrifice that either placed them in military uniforms or immersed them in one of many home-front campaigns to protect freedom for themselves and others in distant lands.

During the hard years of World War II, people turned once again to symbols to make sense of the confusing world around them. The concepts of truth, honor, and heroism were essential, but as always, hard to grasp or even see in everyday life, or on the battlefield. As the ancient philosophers suggested, pictures were again “worth a thousand words” to soldiers, housewives working on assembly lines, and to boys and girls assisting with scrap drives. And one source for pictures stood out above many others for its ability to inspire, amuse, and train in so many necessary ways for the times.

The Walt Disney Studios compiled a service record that should never be forgotten. Well over one-thousand individualized insignia were designed for U.S., Canadian, and Allied forces, featuring famous and beloved characters, lesser-known supporting cast members from early classics, or a stable of newly invented cartoon heroes capable of achieving all tasks assigned to them. Clever critters with eight arms could repair any ship or truck, and Donald Duck was every bit the patriot we knew him to be.

But the Disney Studio went well past supplying cartoon symbols to boost morale. Studio personnel served in military units, produced training films for all branches of the Armed Forces, released epic cartoons that inspired and educated a worried public, and even suffered for a brief time the housing of military units on the studio’s property.

Documenting the output and the influence of The Walt Disney Studios during World War II is no easy task. Categories of discussion need to include advertisements, articles, ink blotters, books, trading cards, certificates, Christmas items, decals, envelopes, flyers, films, heat transfers, labels, magazines, manuals, matchbook covers, menus, newsletters, insignia patches, photographs, pins and brooches, post cards, posters, programs, sheet music, stamps and stamp albums, stationery, ceramic tiles, war bonds, and yearbooks.

Each category, no matter how benign it may sound, plays an important part in the saga of how the Disney Studio faced up to the crushing economic challenges that could sink it, while delivering pamphlets about why airplanes ice up and why donating to the Red Cross was a good thing, booklets about what is propaganda and how civilian employees were expected to behave on military bases, and why the citizens of South America were our good friends and caballeros before Axis Powers could convince them otherwise.

No one understands the contributions of The Walt Disney Studios to the military men and women of World War II better than David Lesjak. He has compiled the single most comprehensive overview of the studio’s accomplishments pertaining to the war effort. He sees the full merits of studio insignia drawings as well-crafted art, but he marries them effectively to the service records of the military units that used them. He’s interviewed veterans that served in the units, including some who suffered as prisoners of war, and has their proxy to explain long after they are gone the meaning of displaying a Disney character on a uniform, or on the side of a truck, or on the nose of an airplane, whether sanctioned by The Walt Disney Studios or not. The subject of Disney militaria is alive on Lesjak’s vigorous website,; through his frequent contributions to today’s military magazines and journals; and through his curatorial work with Army, Navy, and Air Force bases eager to display the artifacts he has identified and located.

Philosophers have been debating for centuries about the purpose that art plays in human life. Many agree that art delivers embodied symbolism so effectively that “a picture is worth a thousand words” hardly covers the truth of it. Read on via Lesjak’s scholarship how The Walt Disney Studios led the way in a massive number of home-front campaigns, and how Disney’s characters provided soldiers an invaluable anchor to home, and tangible reminders of the spirit of freedom they were defending against determined enemies in distant places.

And to my favorite war-time hero, Goofy, thanks for your bravery in whatever uniform you wore, in whatever scary place you endured, without even once saying “GOSH!”

Sam Grabarski is an established collector of classic Disney Studio drawings and memorabilia. Grabarski credits David Lesjak for stirring and stoking his interest in Disney militaria as “the most authentic and reliable source of information on the subject”. Grabarski resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

David Lesjak

David Lesjak has been writing about the history of Walt Disney and his studio since the mid-1980s. He has had numerous Disney-related articles published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. He can be found online at and

A Chat with AUTHOR

If you have a question for David Lesjak that you would like to see answered here, please ask it here.

Chat coming soon

In this excerpt, from "Home Front", David Lesjak tells the story of the oddest Disney WWII collectible of all: the Mickey Mouse gas mask.

One of the most interesting and unique home-front items produced with the permission of the Disney Studio was a child’s Mickey Mouse gas mask. Two versions of this mask exist: one manufactured in England, and the other in America.

The English produced four different gas mask styles during the war: masks for infants aged zero to two years; the so-called “Mickey Mouse” mask for two to five year olds; civilian respirators; and duty civilian respirators for nurses, law enforcement officials, air raid wardens, and others who performed work during enemy gas attacks.

The British child’s gas mask was given the name “Mickey Mouse” in order to make the device more palatable to children. The donning of the mask was turned into a game to reduce a child’s fear and anxiety, and while this mask bore the name of Disney’s famous cartoon character, the actual device has no real physical semblance to the cartoon character.

An English firm did, however, produce a children’s gas mask carrying tin that featured a fantastic wrap-around, full-color, tin lithograph illustration of Mickey Mouse wearing a gas mask. In 1942, the English Disney licensee Happynak produced a child’s gas mask carrying tin that measures almost eight inches tall with a diameter of four inches. The canister featured a great color illustration of Mickey Mouse wearing a child’s gas mask. As Mickey said, “Boo-oo”, one child-sized mouse responded, “Oo-er,” while a second said, “It’s a bear,” and a third stated, “S’only Unca’ Mickey.”

This tin is marked, “By permission of Walt Disney Mickey Mouse Ltd., Happynak Series No 50. Made in England”, and was only produced for a short time. The metal used in the manufacture of the tin was eventually rationed and diverted to the production of war materiel. Less than 10 examples of this carrying tin are known to exist.

One month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, T.W. Smith Jr., the owner of the Sun Rubber Company, became concerned that Americans might be subjected to enemy poison gas attacks. Because Sun Rubber produced items made of rubber, Smith decided to pursue the possibility his firm could produce gas masks. T.W. Smith’s son Richey Smith said:

There was a fear of gas warfare…consideration [was] given to issuing gas masks to all civilians. My father thought they would scare children and went to [Walt Disney] with the idea to make a gas mask for children. Disney liked it. [The idea] was presented to the Chemical Warfare Department of the Army, which eventually approved the project.

Correspondence between Sun Rubber and the Chemical Warfare Service began in late 1941. In January 1942, Walt Disney met with members of the Chemical Warfare Service to discuss the possibility of producing a gas mask for children molded in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s face. The design for the mask was presented to Major General William Porter, Chief of the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS). Sun Rubber produced several prototypes and submitted them for review. Richey Smith said, “Bernard McDermott, a product-designer at Sun Rubber, made plaster impressions of children’s faces. [The mask] was compression molded from rubber. Prototypes with canisters were produced.”

On January 13, 1942, the Charleston Daily Mail reported the news of Disney’s latest venture when it ran a one-line story that stated simply: “Walt Disney has designed a Mickey Mouse gas mask for children.”

As a result of the CWS meeting, and according to Major Robert D. Walk, a U.S. Army Reserve Command Weapons of Mass Destruction Instructor: “125 masks were ordered in February 1942. Production was canceled in April 1942 by the Chemical Warfare Service due to the divergence of all rubber to military purposes…protection of children was not an essential military purpose.”

On April 19, 1942, Disney’s licensing rep Kay Kamen sent a Mickey Mouse Hustlegram (memo) to Chester Feitel regarding the Mickey Mouse gas mask. Kamen wrote:

At the present time no work on the production of Mickey Mouse masks has started due to the fact that this mask requires more rubber then the child’s mask now being made. This does not mean that a Mickey Mouse mask will or may not be used ultimately. But at the present time it is not an actuality.

Chester Feitel was hired as a Disney Sales Representative on September 21, 1942. Robert Tieman of the Disney Archives said: “1942 was too early for film sales/distribution being done in-house, but Dave [Smith, who was head of the Archives until his retirement in 2011] suggested perhaps [Feitel did have] something to do with merchandising. We surmise that Feitel possibly worked for [Disney merchandising rep Kay] Kamen. It looks like Walt was unsuccessful in obtaining a deferment [as] Feitel left the company on March 27, 1943. He was re-hired as a Sales Consultant on December 19, 1949, possibly to head the merchandising division after Kamen’s own untimely death in a plane crash in October of that year. Feitel resigned on September 3, 1955.”

Very few of the American Mickey Mouse gas masks have endured the ravages of oxidation. The U.S. Army Chemical Corps Museum in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, owns a pre-mold prototype; the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has a production specimen; the Walt Disney Archives has a face-piece without ears or lenses; and Richey Smith of Sun Rubber owns one in poor condition.

In this excerpt, from "Gremlins & Friends, David Lesjak reveals Walt's interest in making a film about gremlins set during WWII.

In July 1942, Walt Disney received a letter from Sidney Bernstein of the British Information Services. Bernstein wrote to alert Disney to a story authored by Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl about “a new dream community in the Air Force”. Bernstein thought the story had great film potential and said if Walt was interested he could reach Dahl through the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where Dahl was stationed as an Assistant Air Attaché.

Thinking Dahl’s manuscript contained enough material for a feature-length film, Disney sent Bernstein a thank-you telegram on July 13. That same day, Walt contacted Dahl and shortly thereafter the Studio acquired the rights to the story.

The history of the word “gremlins” has been traced back to the old English word “greme”, which meant “to hex”. The gremlin association with the R.A.F. dates back to tales told by British pilots stationed in India in the 1920s.

In Dahl’s story, the neo-mythical creatures tampered with R.A.F. airplanes during dogfights with the Germans because the British destroyed the Gremlins habitat when they built an airfield on their land. By the end of the story, however, both the Gremlins and the British pilots reconciled their differences and joined together to fight the Nazis.

In mid-September 1942, another R.A.F. pilot came forward claiming the idea behind the Gremlins was his. On September 18, 1942, Douglas Bisgood wrote to Dahl outlining his concerns. Bisgood had just ferried a bomber across the Atlantic from the U.S.A. to England, and after arriving back home had read a newspaper account of Disney’s plans to produce a Gremlins film. Bisgood’s letter read in part:

I read in the Times that [Walt Disney] is making a film of the little fellas. What careless talk have you been up to…who originated the chaps? The names of Fifinella, Widget, and Flippertygibbet are my own private property. I shall take an extremely dim view of it if my name doesn’t figure somewhere.

Two days later Bisgood sent Disney a letter outlining his concerns:

I learn with keen interest that you are making a film on “Gremlins”. I view with dismay the fact…you are using family names which I claim as being my originals and which I am in fact…using in a book I am writing.

It may be that Flight Lieut. R. Dahl has mentioned these titles to you as I discussed them with him when I was on my way to Canada this year. I am not so much perturbed at the monetary consideration as I am at my titles being used without any reference to myself. I hope that your new film will be as successful…but I do feel that I have a very definite claim on the family titles you propose using.

Hoping to stave off any legal dispute with Bisgood, Walt wrote back to the pilot, indicating any royalties from the use of the characters would be donated to the R.A.F. Benevolent Fund. Disney also mentioned the project had “the full cooperation of the British Air Ministry, and Commander Thornton of the British Embassy in Washington”. Disney closed his letter by writing: “It is our hope that this film will help to bring about a better understanding between the British and American people.”

On October 1, 1942, Disney wrote to Dahl regarding the potential problem with Bisgood:

If you have any feeling that this fellow may be inclined to cause trouble, I believe it would be wise to straighten it out now. [W]hen we undertake the production of a film, the cost of which runs into many thousands of dollars, we must surround ourselves with every precautionary measure. I would appreciate having your reactions to this particular situation.

On October 7, 1942, Dahl wrote to Disney regarding Bisgood. Dahl admitted he had spoken to Bisgood about the Gremlins, but added he didn’t think Bisgood would cause any problems:

I am quite sure that he will not cause any trouble. More particularly when he finds out how we are treating the matter and what we are doing with the proceeds.

By late October 1942, Disney had registered a number of Gremlins-related film titles with the Hays office. Suggested film names included Gay Gremlins, Gremlin Lore, Gremlin Gambols, Gremlins in the Sky, We’ve Got Gremlins, Gremlin Trouble, Widgets Next in Wings, The Helpful Gremlins, The Gremlin Legend, We Fly with Gremlins, Hi-Flying Gremlins, and Look! Gremlins!

Because the subject matter was not original, Disney needed to establish copyright. In November 1942, Disney penned an article about the Gremlins that was published in an R.A.F. journal that same month. (The story was also reprinted in the 1946 edition of Slipstream, A Royal Air Force Anthology. This hardcover book featured a collection of R.A.F. short stories.) On December 2, 1942, Dahl sent Disney a note of thanks on behalf of the Air Ministry for sending along the story for the journal:

I have just received a telegram from Air Ministry asking me to convey to you their thanks for sending along the article on Gremlins for the R.A.F. Journal, which they happily received on time. They said it was just what they wanted and seemed very pleased about it all.

I, myself, want also to thank you and all those in the Studio for the extremely pleasant time which you gave me during my short visit. I must say that never in my life have I seen so many “good types”, as we call them, gathered together under one roof. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for ages.

After shopping the story idea to Colliers and American, Cosmopolitan magazine agreed to publish the story—the December 1942 issue featured Dahl’s Gremlin story illustrated by Disney artists. Shortly thereafter, Dahl received numerous requests to turn his manuscript into a book. Disney liked the book idea, and in 1943 Random House published The Gremlins. Disney artists Al Dempster and Bill Justice provided the illustrations—Dempster was responsible for the 13 full-page color paintings, while Justice drew the black-and-white illustrations.

According to an article in the May 1, 1943, Rome, New York, Daily Sentinel, “The original manuscript for the book…[was] presented to the New York State Historical Association by the Artists’ and Writers’ Guild.” The article went on to say the manuscript was signed by Dahl and was to be displayed for several weeks in the “Gremlin Center” in Cooperstown (the museum of the New York State Historical Association), before being permanently placed in the association’s library.

After seeing the Gremlin characters created by Studio artists, Dahl wrote to Disney to express his concern with the preliminary character designs. Dahl believed the Gremlin characters should be drawn with derby hats. The issue quickly turned contentious. Dahl had a very specific design in mind, and it was one that Disney apparently failed to capture:

I am very glad to see that you had not very definite views about Gremlins not wearing bowler hats (which I think are called derbys in this country); but their omission in your drawings did cause a little trouble, because Cosmopolitan wanted to cut out my description of Gremlins because it did not tie up with your drawings. I am afraid that I took a very strong line with them and told them, just because you happened to have drawn a Gremlin slightly differently to what he really looks like, this does not mean that all the Gremlins in the world will suddenly change to conform with your drawings.

I…told them that they had to leave my original description in, whether it tallied with your drawings or not. I hope you don’t disapprove of this.

None of the approximate three-dozen Gremlins pictured in the Cosmopolitan story wear derby hats. All of the headwear worn by Gremlins in the article has the appearance of being pull-down winter toques with horns protruding from either side.

The editors at Cosmopolitan contacted Dahl in January 1943 wanting permission to publish the story in the British edition of the magazine. Dahl wrote Disney again reiterating he did not like the original illustrations, which had been published in the American edition of the magazine:

Another point is that it would, of course, entail a completely new set of drawings from you, because the ones you originally gave Cosmopolitan would not be suitable.

On March 19, 1943, Walt Disney wrote to Dahl indicating plans to produce a combination cartoon/live-action Gremlins film had been shelved. Disney indicated his staff was now working on ideas and plans to produce the subject as an animated feature-length film instead—the focus of the film would be from the Gremlins’ perspective. Walt wrote that his artists seemed to be having a problem formulizing the idea or plot behind the film: “[W]e do get stuck on a lot of the GREMLIN business.”

Read the rest of Walt's grab for the gremlins in the book.

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