How Dr. Seuss Helped Create ‘Private Snafu’ To Entertain Troops During World War II

June 27, 2020Matt Fratus
Private SNAFU coffee or die

Private SNAFU, military slang for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up” — the sanitized term swaps the F for Fouled. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. military had its hands full when they entered World War II in 1941, as much of the country’s attention was on winning the war. Some animators, illustrators, and painters enlisted their talents as combat artists to document scenes of battlefield heroics and daily activities — a glimpse of a typical U.S. soldier’s experience during the war.

Some of the most famous animators and voice actors — from Dr. Seuss to Mel Blanc — lent their expertise to produce “Private Snafu,” which were dark-humored, 4-minute animated cartoons made to appease and boost the morale of American GI’s serving overseas. 

Theodor Geisel, the world-famous cartoonist known for his later works producing children’s books such as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” under his pen name Dr. Seuss, was inspired to hand-draw some 400 satirical illustrations, including those depicting Adolf Hitler and Charles Lindbergh.

“While Paris was being occupied by the clanking tanks of the Nazis and I was listening on my radio, I found that I could no longer keep my mind on drawing pictures of Horton The Elephant,” Geisel said. “I found myself drawing pictures of Lindbergh The Ostrich.”

Geisel joined the U.S. Army and arrived at Fort Fox — a vacant space in Fox Studios located at 1421 Northwestern Avenue in Hollywood — and worked alongside Oscar-winning director Frank Capra, who Geisel credits as teaching him how to be concise, and the talented Warner Bros. animation directors Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng, the masterminds behind Looney Tunes. When Geisel arrived in 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit consisted of the best filmmakers, journalists, animators, voice actors, and illustrators in the country.

One of their most renowned creations was a cartoon that ran from 1943 to 1945 and starred Private Snafu, which is also an informal military acronym for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.” Since the target audience wasn’t children but American GIs, the films did not have to follow the Motion Picture Production Code, and the censorship hurdles that humor-savvy animators normally had to follow were absent.

Deployed American troops packed inside tents filled with rows of seating in front of a large projector screen to laugh at the raunchy and crude jokes from their favorite cartoon private. Geisel experimented with short, rhyming sentences that later became the cornerstone to his post-war career as a children’s book author.

Mel Blanc, sometimes called the Man of a 1,000 Voices,” and the voice behind some of the most iconic Looney Tunes characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, and Roadrunner, helped build the persona of Private Snafu. While the War Department helped produce 27 Snafu films to entertain and resonate with the troops, they also acted to subconsciously educate and inform the soldiers about the importance of discipline and following military orders to ensure that there was no vulnerability within the ranks. Some of the episode titles include “Booby Traps,” “Spies,” Rumors, and “Fighting Tools.” 

Although the films were incredibly popular during the war, some feature outdated caricatures that pulled from stereotypical observations of the Japanese enemy. However, “Private Snafu” effectively united the average American soldier and boosted morale enough to keep them fighting against their enemies in Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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