Local Identifier: 57-GH-PRIND-477, Photograph of Dock in Dawson City, Yukon, June 13, 1906, Geologist L.M. Prindle
Local Identifier: 57-GH-WOOLL-1-19A, “Party at camp about 3 miles below Green River, Wyoming, July 13, 1922”, Photograph by Hydraulic Engineer Ralf R. Woolley (Taken during the USGS survey of the Green River from July through September, 1922)
Local Identifier: 57-GH-LEE-2295, “Washington, D.C., View of Great Falls of Potomac River from Virginia side, April 1922”, Photograph by Geologist Willis T. Lee
With the 110th anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birth, we are reminded of his enormous impact on children’s literature. Less remembered, however, was his time spent serving in the US Army’s Information and Education Division. During World War II, Theodor Seuss Geisel inspired thousands of soldiers and honed his storytelling skills. And, before there were cats wearing hats, turtles named Yertle, and Wockets in pockets, there was Private Snafu.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of young Americans flocked to join the war effort. While the support was generally welcomed, Army officials were faced with a problem. How could they turn masses of ordinary teenagers into trained soldiers?
One possibility was training films. Training films were used during World War I, but became even more popular during World War II. Career soldiers, however, found the films unhelpful, and young recruits found them boring. Desperate for a solution, the Army turned to Hollywood.
Under the supervision of Oscar-winning director Frank Capra - It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it with You (1938) – the Army commissioned a newsreel specifically for military personnel. The Army-Navy Screen Magazine (ANSM) was a biweekly production that featured a variety of short segments including propaganda, entertainment, and training films.
In order keep soldiers’ attention, Capra recruited talented men such as Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and Private Snafu), Chuck Jones, and Theodor Geisel to create humorous, sometimes raunchy, cartoons. This team of creative minds partnered with Warner Brothers studios to create the character, Private Snafu. An example a full length ANSM newsreel can be seen below, Private Snafu’s “The Home Front” can be seen at 11:23.
Private Snafu was intended to relate to the non-career soldier. In most of the cartoons, Snafu (an acronym for Situation Normal All Fouled Up) learns a valuable lesson when he disobeys basic army protocol. For example, in the cartoon, “Censored” (111-M-1076), Snafu sends a letter to his girlfriend back home describing an upcoming attack on a Japanese Island. When Snafu’s girlfriend gets the letter, she talks to her mom, who continues to pass along the message. The information eventually gets back to the Japanese and the army’s operation is thwarted. Snafu wakes up from this nightmare with the realization that he should be more careful about what he writes in his personal letters.
Some of the cartoons, such as “Going Home” (111-M-1085), clearly have Seussian influences. Others are more reminiscent of Chuck Jones and Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny even makes a cameo in “Gas” and “Three Brothers.” While Geisel was more involved in some episodes than others, his overall influence on the cartoons was invaluable.
As you may realize, Snafu tends to be more provocative than a typical cartoon, especially by 1943 standards. Geisel and his team believed that scantily dressed women, mild foul language, and sexual innuendoes would help keep soldier’s attention. Because the Snafu series was only intended for Army personnel, producers could avoid traditional censorship.
Additionally, the cartoons often have negative depictions of the Japanese. While it is hard to condone the racist images from a modern perspective, the cartoons attempted to unite soldiers against a common enemy in order to instill basic army knowledge. While modern scholars can debate whether the means justified the ends, most accounts show that the Snafu cartoons were well-received at the time.
Between 1943 and 1946, there were a total of 28 Snafu cartoons. They would be the last black and white cartoons produced by Warner Brothers Studios. During this time, Geisel also developed a life long friendship with Chuck Jones. Jones would later go on to produce the classic adaptation of Geisel’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
It is likely that Geisel’s experience with the Snafu cartoons influenced his career. Throughout these cartoons, Geisel began to use limited vocabulary and rhyme. Nine years later, he would write The Cat in the Hat using just 236 words. It is one of the best selling books of all time with over 11 million copies sold.
As we look back on the legacy of Dr. Seuss, we should not merely think of his whimsical rhymes and children’s books, but also on the men he influenced during his military career. He will certainly not be forgotten any time soon.
A playlist of more Private Snafu cartoons and Army-Navy Screen Magazines can be seen here.
This week in Universal News, New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras. Be sure to look closely at 0:40 to catch a glimpse of a Beatles fan surrounded by a gaggle of clowns.
From the release sheet:
THE ANNUAL NEW ORLEANS STORY: The charming, old City of New Orleans, forever young in spirit, whoops it up for Mardi Gras…the annual celebration that precedes the austere days of Lent. Tourists and townspeople let inhibitions fall where they may as they eat, drink, and dance in the streets and at famous jazz joints like Pete’s Place. “Let us be gay,” and for Pete’s sake who can blame them.
One of the 19 kings of Mardi Gras, surrounded by revelers.
The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.
In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).
While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.
With the Marines at Tarawa hit theaters March 2nd, 1944. Sunday’s Oscar broadcast marks the 70th anniversary of the film’s release.
The Unites States Marine Corps fought the Battle of Tarawa over four days in November, 1943. At the end of the battle, nearly a thousand Marines were dead, and over two thousand were wounded. Of those holding the island, there were nearly 4700 casualties. Only seventeen Japanese soldiers surrendered; of about a thousand Korean forced laborers, 129 survived the battle.
Beyond the strategic value of the victory, the battle is significant today because so much of it was caught on film by our combat cameramen. Seeing the footage made the experience real for those on the home front, and serves as a record of the horror of war for those of us who watch it now.
With the Marines at Tarawa was carefully crafted to bring viewers into the experience, from the somber mood during preparation, through the chaos of battle, the overwhelming sadness of counting and caring for the dead, and the sense of accomplishment as the American flag was raised on the island.
In addition, the film focuses on how lives were saved by competent medical personnel and the possibility of blood transfusions, a fact that would have provided hope to those with loved ones on the front lines. Viewers are left with a sense of grief, as well as patriotism in knowing that “our boys” were bravely fighting this “war we did not want.”
The story of the Battle of Tarawa was also told in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a newsreel series produced by the U.S. military and presented only to the troops. In comparison to With the Marines at Tarawa, “I Was There—Tarawa”, presents a more graphic view of the battle and a more upbeat tone in the conclusion. “I Was There” also focuses on the usually invisible combat cameramen, men who put their lives at risk to record the war for history.
In the newsreel story, combat cameraman Norman Hatch recounts the story of the battle as he shows the footage to other cameramen. Hatch “went in with the first wave on the landing at Tarawa, armed with a pistol and a hand-camera” It’s Hatch’s 35mm black and white footage that you see in With the Marines at Tarawa, starting at about 6:20.
22-year-old Staff Sgt. Norman Hatch (far right) tells other combat cameramen about filming during the first wave of the Battle of Tarawa.
When compared to what the public saw in 1944, the footage in the Screen Magazine story is unflinching and gruesome at points. The dead bodies of Japanese soldiers are hit with more bullets, and Hatch narrates as they are hit and brought down, action that was generally obscured or edited in the public version.
Toward the end of the piece, there is an abrupt switch to a light-hearted story about a kitten that Hatch found under a tank. The background music as the flag is raised is much brighter than in With the Marines at Tarawa. Unlike the public, the troops could not take the time to mourn losses; they needed to be ready to move on to the next battle.
In “I Was There—Tarawa”, we see a different element of the story of battle, one tailored for the men that were fighting the war. This is the story as the troops needed to see it.
I highly recommend that you to watch both films. When viewed as companion pieces, you will learn not just about the Battle of Tarawa, but about the experience of watching battle from the American home front.
With the Marines at Tarawa and the Army-Navy Screen Magazine newsreels are preserved at the National Archives. You can see this year’s nominated shorts at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater in Washington, D.C. Thanks go to Susan Strange for alerting me to the existence of the Screen Magazine story about Norman Hatch.
Local Identifier: 121-BCP-137C-6, “Photograph of the Foundation of the Department of Justice Building”, July 9, 1932
Local Identifier: 121-BCP-133C-9, “Photograph of the U.S. General Services Administration Building Being Constructed”, November 23, 1915 (Originally housed the Department of the Interior from 1917 until 1937)
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