The WWII generation was faced with a set of challenges that we can hardly wrap our minds around today. Building a military large enough to fight a two ocean war was one big hurdle to overcome. Men were conscripted into military service beginning in 1940, however, 50 percent of men reporting for induction were rejected for military service due to physical or mental deficiencies. After the nation was at war, standards for induction into the military were relaxed and rejection rates dropped to 29 percent for the duration.
Of those accepted for military service, 70 percent had dropped out of school, 500,000 had less than a fourth grade education, and 4.4 million had less than an eighth grade education. One army psychiatrist estimated the mental age of the average soldier to be between 13 and 14 years of age. On the other end of the spectrum were the college graduates, who made up only three percent of the army’s ranks.
For high school-aged Americans at the time, military service was a foregone conclusion. In most cases, the American fighting man was just a teenager who had likely never ventured more than 100 miles from their birthplace before the service.
To educate young soldiers with minimal formal education on military subjects and to improve morale, a series of cartoons were created by the US War Department. Director Frank Capra, chairman of the US Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, came up with the title character, Private Snafu, a bumbling recruit who did everything wrong. To the GI audience, SNAFU was also a military slang acronym for: Situation Normal All Fouled Up.
Most of the four minute shorts were written by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and voiced by Mel Blanc, who was already famous for his vocalization of Bugs Bunny. Private Snafu was produced by Warner Bros. Studios, and most were directed by animation industry giants Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng. The cartoons were for military use only and considered classified at the time.
Private Snafu episodes had titles like, “Gripes," “Spies," “The Goldbrick," “Censored," “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike," and “Boobytraps.” In some episodes, Snafu is aided by his Technical Fairy First Class, a cigar chomping, miniature-winged Technical Sergeant that has the power to grant Snafu wishes. Snafu uses his wishes to do things his way instead of the army way, or to transfer out of the infantry and into other branches of service he considers cushy. Snafu always learns that his way results in disaster, and that the grass isn’t always greener.
Private Snafu was extremely popular with its GI audience. Episodes addressed soldier’s gripes with a sympathetic ear, while simultaneously stressing the importance discipline plays in the military establishment. The underlying message assured servicemen that discipline and military procedure wasn’t instituted to make their life miserable, but served the dual purpose of achieving victory while increasing their odds of survival.
Today, the Private Snafu cartoon series is part of the public domain and can be viewed on YouTube, or free of charge on Amazon Prime for members. Just be warned, the series does contain outdated cultural depictions that were common during the war. Also, because they were property of the US War Department, the series was not subjected to the Motion Picture Production Code, so they are edgy by 1940s standards. Nonetheless, watching the series is a great way to experience a tiny snippet of our fathers’, grandfathers’, or great-grandfathers’ military experience during World War II.
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Larry Decuers is a former Curator at The National WWII Museum and veteran of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division.