During World War II, Warner Bros. was contracted to produce instructional animated shorts to be shown exclusively at US Army bases. The result was Private Snafu, a 26-part series released from 1943 to 1946. Rather than dryly educate, these films utilised visual gags and lowbrow humour to entertain the troops. Instead of offering an ideal figure to emulate, they were given a cartoonish cautionary tale at which to laugh. Snafu, of course, being an acronym for “Situation Normal, All F—ed Up.”
Most shorts would feature a narrator (Robert C. Bruce) trying to instruct the worst soldier ever, Pvt. Snafu (Mel Blanc, sounding a lot like Porky Pig). From the character’s disastrous bumbling and failures, the soldiers watching would learn what NOT to do.
If this is the first time you’re hearing about this cartoon series, here are some highlights to start off with. But be warned, like the nose art on B24 bombers, some of these shorts may cause offence.
Spies (Chuck Jones, 1943) – Germany and Japanese spies are everywhere. If Pvt. Snafu isn’t careful keeping a secret, then they are all in trouble. As they say, “Loose lips sink ships.”
Fighting Tools (Bob Clampett, 1943) – Pvt. Snafu learns that the Americans have the superior technology, but only if he can remember to take care of his equipment. This short is notable for its depiction of a German soldier as both formidable and comic.
The Home Front (Frank Tashlin, 1943) – As a morale boost for the soldiers watching, Technical Fairy First Class shows Pvt. Snafu how his family and friends back home are helping the war effort. When watching, pay attention to how the cartoon depicts women.
Booby Traps (Bob Clampett, 1944) – Pvt. Snafu must learn to avoid more than one type of booby trap in the North African desert. The risqué humour characteristic of the series is on full display here.
Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike (Chuck Jones, 1944) – Malaria and other diseases can be real killers in an army. Will Pvt. Snafu take the necessary precautions to protect himself and his fellow soldiers? Probably not.
If you want to learn more about how artists contributed to the war effort, be sure to check out Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Suess Geisel (Richard H. Minear, 1999) from the 2AD Memorial Library. Geisel was one of the writers for Private Snafu. Private Snafu in now in public domain, so you can also watch almost every short on the Internet Archive.