Like comic book creators, cartoonists in the ‘40s were not afraid to stir things up. It was all part of a bigger message; one to unite Americans against Nazi Germany, and increase the war effort at home.
It’s strange looking back at television’s most iconic characters as they’re embroiled in conflict — sneaking behind battle lines and bashing Nazi heads in, smiles on their faces. After all, you don’t see today’s Saturday morning lineup roughing it in the Afghani desert.
While these classic cartoons were marketed to children, it can be fun analyzing them as an adult. Catching the subtext behind each line – the humor injected into such a serious subject – and getting a real sense for how much the world has changed.
Here are some of your favorite cartoon characters in WWII:
10. Annie Awful
This 1943 commercial served as a real warning to service members. “Her business is robbery and coldblooded murder … they call her Annie Awful … She’s a thief and a killer. She stops at nothing.”
Any guesses for who Annie is?
Back then, malaria was as deadly as a Nazi’s bullet, and even more discreet. Annie Awful, the mosquito, waited in the cots of forgetful soldiers who’d been too careless to string up netting. Thanks to public health efforts like this, malaria was eradicated in the U.S. by 1951.
9. The “Ducktators”
A humorous play on the Axis leaders, this animated short from 1942 depicts Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito as ducks. It’s reminiscent of Animal Farm, as the trio try to force a pro-war lifestyle upon their fellow farm-dwellers.
Of course, it does not end well for the ducktators. A brave dove, with help from a rabbit that strangely resembles Joseph Stalin, chases the ducks away. A poster reads: “For Victory, Buy United States Victory Bonds.”
8. Private Snafu & His Brothers
Voiced by Mel Blanc (AKA Bugs Bunny), Private Snafu is a total troublemaker. Slacking off on duty and constantly complaining, Snafu wishes he had one of his brother’s jobs instead. A cigar-smoking fairy appears to show him what he’s missing out on.
One of his brothers – Private Tarfu – is a pigeon keeper. His other brother, Private Fubar, trains dogs. As Snafu watches his brothers passionately complete their duties, he is inspired to work harder and do his part in the war.
For those who don’t know, their names are plays on WWII-era military slang:
SNAFU = Situation Normal: All F**ked Up
TARFU = Things Are Really F**ked Up
FUBAR = F**ked up Beyond All Recognition
7. Private Pluto, the MWD
Pluto is an extremely patriotic and loyal dog who takes his military duty very seriously. He is featured in a couple animated shorts, in which he attempts to guard both Army and Navy equipment from enemies. Key word: attempts.
He is quickly thwarted by the chipmunks Chip & Dale, who use Army howitzers to crack open their acorns, much to Pluto’s chagrin.
6. Daffy Duck
Daffy is probably the less-famous cartoon duck, though no less important. And, it seems, ducks make up a large portion of cartoon characters in WWII.
Daffy operates as a spy behind enemy lines, assassinating Nazi leaders and destroying their buildings and equipment. He does this using bombs and wooden mallets, in a very Tom & Jerry -like manner. In one of his exploits, he
5. Porky Pig
Porky Pig is a lovable, but unexpected soldier. He is known for his timidness; he is not quick to anger, and often becomes a doormat to his more boisterous Looney comrades. Apparently even Porky’s famous stutter is useful in wartime.
As an Army soldier, Porky fights mostly from the homefront. He sells war bonds, and sparks hope among citizens: the war will be won!
4. Bugs Bunny
Bugs is not known for his conformity, and that doesn’t change in the war. Though he never fights specifically for the U.S. military, he is strongly opposed to Nazi Germany.
Using his infamous guerilla tactics, Bugs manages to capture an entire island controlled by Japanese forces. Later, he disguises himself as a Nazi and invades German headquarters.
3. Donald Duck
One of the faces of Disney, Donald Duck was in about a million war-centered cartoons, in more than one branch of the military. Even though he’s usually dressed as a sailor, Donald actually geared up as an Army soldier more often than not.
The most famous war cartoon he’s featured in is one where he jumps out of a plane. Paratrooper Donald conducts a solo combat mission into Japan, deflecting bullets with an oar and stumbling his way through the landscape. He eventually sights a Japanese airfield and victoriously notes: “Contacted enemy.”
2. Popeye the Sailor Man
Popeye – who was often used to convince stubborn children to eat their greens – makes a convincing and successful Navy sailor. He is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in WWII. Fun fact: he served in the Coast Guard first, from 1937 to 1941.
Switching over to the Navy in ‘41, Popeye filled various duties; he was a boatswain’s mate, helped process incoming sailors, and worked on the Navy’s tank program. He even defeated an entire enemy fleet that was attacking his ship.
Popeye served until 1978, and is probably now reaping his retirement benefits.
Check out this banned WWII propaganda cartoon, with a rather offensive title.
1. Willie and Joe
The coolest part about Willie and Joe is their creator. A rifleman in the 180th Infantry Regiment, Sergeant Bill Mauldin drew Willie and Joe to illustrate the hardships of life in the field.
Mauldin started drawing cartoons using anything he could get his hands on, and his fellow soldiers, starved for entertainment as they were, took a real liking to them. As he gained popularity, the Fifth Army decided to give Mauldin his own Jeep, and he used it as a traveling art studio. Mauldin worked as a full-time cartoonist for the G.I. newspaper “Stars and Stripes.”
His depiction of Willie and Joe was a grim one. Their uniforms were disheveled and their faces were caked with dirt and mud, but every bit of it was intentional. Combat soldiers loved Mauldin’s work because it was real.
Willie and Joe were hardened fighters; they didn’t like what they did, but they did it for a greater good and they did it well. It struck a real chord with soldiers and citizens alike — even if higher-ups like Gen. Patton weren’t so fond of them. While they were more obscure cartoon characters in WWII, that didn’t make them any less impactful.
Though he was a hero to many, Mauldin didn’t glamourize war, nor did he glamourize its warriors. He had this to say about them:
“They were human beings. They had their weaknesses and their flaws and their good sides and bad sides. The one thing they had in common was they were a little too young to die.”