The Army had a lot of training to do during World War II, and not all of its newly-enlisted soldiers were on the same level. Some 16 million Americans from all around the country would serve during the war, and the Army needed to find a way to get them onto the same baseline, no matter what level of literacy they were on.
The military called on some of its animation heavyweights to produce a cartoon series about the average soldier himself. Like many cartoons of the time, they came with a funny but subtle lesson. Unlike many cartoons of the time, they also came with racy language, mildly sexual situations and were directly concerned with some of the most important issues of the war. Private Snafu became a cautionary tale about spies, sexually-transmitted diseases and chemical warfare.
“SNAFU,” as many veterans know, is military slang for “Situation Normal: All F**ked Up,” and like his name implies, Pvt. Snafu was going to show enlisted troops the consequences of doing things the wrong way. He was going to do that through a team of early cartoon legends that were brought together by the U.S. military.
Created by legendary motion picture director Frank Capra, of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and the “Why We Fight” series of films, Pvt. Snafu, the cartoons were produced by Chuck Jones. Jones is best known for his work with Warner Bros. Cartoons on the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series that featured Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of the Warner Bros. gang.
Jones would later create cartoon adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” written under the name Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodore Geisel. Geisel was also one of the writers of Private Snafu, along with P.D. Eastman. Eastman would later become the author of some of some of America’s most celebrated children’s books, like “Go Dog, Go!” and “Are You My Mother?”
Coming from Warner Bros. Animation Studio with Chuck Jones was the legendary vocal talent of Mel Blanc, who contributed his voice to Private Snafu. The still-popular Warner Bros. and Merrie Melodies characters Jones brought to life, like Bugs Bunny, were all voiced by Blanc. Carl Stalling, whose musical work provided the score of these cartoons in the civilian world, composed and arranged the music for the military’s cartoon tales.
In six weeks, this cartoon dream team could produce an entirely new story about some important aspect of serving as an enlisted soldier in World War II. They covered the importance of taking malaria pills, maintaining one’s gas mask, how to spot a spy, booby traps, camouflage, the weapons of war, and what to do when coming home. In all, 24 cartoon shorts were made, but only 23 were ever released – the final one on coming home never made it to screens.
Eventually Private Snafu came with a cast of more characters, including a brother who was serving in the Navy, Seaman Tarfu and a dog trainer named Fubar. He was also helped along by a fairy, a cigar-chomping NCO named Technical Fairy, First Class. Technical Fairy First Class enables Snafu’s corner cutting lazy methods of getting the job done, helping get the private into most of his sticky situations.
Most of the Private Snafu cartoons are publicly available to watch on YouTube, and are today a little snapshot of history, revealing some of the biggest problems facing World War II-era enlisted soldiers at the time.