Animation Cel-ebration
February 12, 2024 posted by Michael Lyons

Duck and Cover: Donald’s World War II Short Subjects

With his short temper and lack of respect for authority, Donald Duck doesn’t seem as if he’d be the first choice to represent the patriotic American soldier during World War II. Despite this, it was precisely the role he played in several short subjects produced at Disney during the War

As America entered World War II in December of 1941, Mickey Mouse’s star began to fade, eclipsed by Donald’s popularity. As Walt and his animators looked to create animated shorts that helped support the War effort, they turned to their most famous foul fowl to star in a number of them.

As author John Baxter wrote in his 2014 book, Disney During World War II: How The Walt Disney Studio Contributed to Victory in the War: “Donald Duck had long been a vicarious outlet for his audiences’ civilized repression of uncivilized urges, and his Army stint would be no different.”


Disney did their part by allowing Donald’s feathers to get ruffled by serving in the Army in a series of short subjects.

The first of these is, fittingly, Donald Gets Drafted, released on May 1, 1942. As the title suggests, Donald receives his draft notice (and, from it, we learn a bit of Disney trivia when we see that his middle name is Fauntleroy). He enters the Army, which is ironic, as he always has worn a sailor’s suit.

When Donald comes to basic training, he clashes with his drill sergeant (played by Pete), and Donald’s ineptitude throughout the short lands him in KP duty, peeling potatoes, which leads him to spell out his catchphrase “Phooey,” in a potato peel, as the short ends.

Donald Gets Drafted features some comedy jabs at the military, particularly in the scenes during his examination, when Donald mistakes green for blue, and the examiner responds, “Close enough!’

The song in the short “The Army’s Not the Army Anymore” featured music by Leigh Harline and lyrics by Carl Barks. Harline had just won an Oscar for “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the score from Pinocchio. He also contributed to the score for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and would later score Mr. Bug Goes to Town for Disney’s rival the Fleischer Studio and also scored such “non-Disney” live-action films as The Road to Utopia (1946) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).


Barks, who worked in the Disney studio story department from 1937 to 1942, is best known for his legendary work with Disney comics, where he created Uncle Scrooge and other now-iconic citizens of Duckburg.

Despite his shortcomings in the Army, Donald’s service continued in The Vanishing Private (1942), where Donald and Pete reprise their roles (and there is even a short return of the song “The Army’s Not the Army Anymore”). In this short, Donald is charged by Pete with camouflaging a cannon when he comes across “invisible paint.” Using this, Donald can make himself and the cannon seemingly disappear to the befuddlement of Pete.

Also released in 1942 was Sky Trooper, once again starring Donald and Pete. In this short, Donald is back on KP duty, once again peeling potatoes. Now, however, he dreams of being a pilot. Sergeant Pete decides to give him a shot at this but dupes Donald into being a paratrooper.

Donald and Pete tumble out of a plane while on a practice flight, along with a bomb that subsequently demolishes the general’s headquarters.


Army life didn’t get much better for Donald in Fall Out, Fall In (1943). Without Pete beleaguering him in this short, private Donald finds himself on a long march, through almost every type of weather condition. When the march finally stops, Donald can’t get his tent set up (some creative and humorous sight gags here). Poor Donald then winds up falling asleep just before reveille the following day.

Donald was paired back up with Pete for The Old Army Game (also 1943). This time, Donald concocts a plan to sneak off the base for an unauthorized leave. Pete discovers Donald sneaking back onto the base, and the chase is on.

Donald makes it to battle in 1944’s Commando Duck, where he parachutes into the jungle of a Pacific island, with orders to find the enemy and “wipe them out.”

What follows is Donald in some dangerous situations, including Japanese snipers and a precarious waterfall.

With stereotypical depictions of the Japanese, which are offensive, but were commonplace at the time, coupled with the fact that Donald is, at times, in some real life and death situations, Commando Duck has slipped away among the “Donald Army shorts” as a product of its time.

Donald’s civilian life during World War II wasn’t much more manageable. In Donald’s Tire Trouble (1943). The film focuses on the Duck’s issues with a flat tire but references the rubber shortages that were a part of life for many during the War.

Another big part of life on the Homefront was blackouts and Civil Defense. Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie take this on in Home Defense (1943).

However, Donald’s most famous wartime short subject and one that has become an iconic example of Disney’s wartime efforts is Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943).

The short plays out like an animated political cartoon of the era. In it, Donald lives in a caricatured version of Nazi Germany (filled with startling images, such as swastika-shaped clouds). He’s employed in an artillery factory, where he is forced to work faster and faster, which results in a hallucinatory nervous breakdown.

Donald then wakes up to learn that this was all a dream. Hugging a statue of the Statue of Liberty that’s on his windowsill, he declares, “Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!’

Der Fuehrer’s Face won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and rightly so. It is filled with superb, pointed humor that lampoons and humiliates the (at the time) enemy, which was a goal of many propaganda films.

Jack Kinney, who directed some of Disney’s best-loved short subjects, handles these brilliantly in Der Fuehrer’s Face. Examples are that Donald’s wake-up call for work is a spearing by a bayonet, and he has to “Heil” to portraits of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, before eating a breakfast of bread so stale that he has to saw it like wood.

At work, Donald is offered a “vacation,” in which he can spend a few minutes in front of a painted backdrop of the Alps.

The song, “Der Fuehrer’s Face” by composer Oliver Wallace was also a big hit during the war, when popular bandleader Spike Jones recorded a version of it.

Der Fuehrer’s Face, due to its subject matter and images (Donald dresses in a uniform with a swastika on it), wasn’t available for many years. The short’s only home video release came with the “Walt Disney Treasures” DVD Walt Disney on the Front Lines, released in 2004. This excellent two-disc set features all of the studio’s wartime films and features introductions by Leonard Maltin, including one for Der Fuehrer’s Face that sets the film up properly.

In fact, as of this writing, none of these shorts are currently available on Disney+. While they are, most definitely of “another time,” and there are understandable sensitivities around them, watching them today is a portal back in history.

Baxter summed up the war years at The Disney Studio perfectly in his book: “…Walt and his staff could look back on the war years with genuine pride, knowing that they had worked as hard as any Homefront factory and that their largely anonymous contributions, though impossible to measure, really did make a difference.”


  • Donald’s wartime service also included:

    “The New Spirit” in which he learns to pay his income taxes like a responsible citizen, and its sequel “The Spirit of ’43” which re-uses some of the footage and highlights the dilemma Americans faced between donating to the war effort and spending for personal pleasure. The spirit of thriftiness in this film is a Scottish duck who bears a strong resemblance to a character who would emerge in the comics a few years later–Donald’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck.

    Furthermore, Donald was called upon to serve as a sort of goodwill ambassador through his appearances in the Latin American films “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros” plus the later “Blame it on the Samba” which was inserted into the package feature “Melody Time.”

    As well as the numerous Disney-designed insignia and propaganda posters that were used by the military forces–doubtless in addition to the “sanctioned” items, there were probably many “unofficial” uses of the Disney characters during this time. Painted on the sides of planes, boats, or other forms of military transport.

    Donald’s wartime shorts are not aimed at children, and this is evidenced in the many instances of “adult” humor. His turmoils during army training were doubtless reflective of the frustrations experienced by many newly-enlisted GIs of the time. “The Old Army Game” contains some disturbing, though mostly imagined, cartoon violence, and at one point Pete provides Donald with a gun so that he can finish himself off–both mistakenly believing that Donald has been permanently injured. While it all works out, this is definitely not fare for the kiddies. Proving that Donald was an identification point for adults at the time, and particularly for adults who had enlisted in the army. People who think that animation is strictly for kids will get a different perspective from viewing these cartoons.

  • “The Army’s Not the Army Anymore” is a cute sendup of recruitment promises, all about how friendly and fun army life will be. It’s accompanied by equally cheery posters, including a general declaring he’s your pal. Maybe an earlier version had Donald simply volunteering on the strength of these enticements.

    Grousing about army life was a beloved tradition that somehow existed side by side with patriotism and willing sacrifice. Irving Berlin’s song about hating reveille was a staple of both world wars, and dozens of wartime comedies riffed on hapless recruits versus bullheaded sergeants and silly bureaucracy. The duck was perhaps the only Disney star who’d really work in uniform, since who else could have a comically bad attitude about it all?

  • What’s been bothering me about these wartime cartoons is how other races are potrayed so “offfensively” to the point of looking barely looking human yet Hitler always looks fine.(Other than the particular gags where he’s being hit with something. First dawned on me when Dr. Seuss’ wartime stuff was shownseveral years ago, including both Hitler and the blackface characters. So even him of all people. It seems everyone, in fact, all did the same thing!) It’s like they all saw more humanity in him than these other people they portray as grotesque goons, and he was the “monster” of the times. Does anyone have any idea what that was about?

  • homefront propaganda takes on many forms and you’ll find that Disney is no stranger to interpreting the government’s needs back in its golden age when they were not so woke and designing.

  • Another interesting thing to note about Donald Gets Drafted is how closely the artists stuck to Carl Barks’ storyboard drawings for the recruitment posters that Donald passes by during the song. The pin-up girls on the posters are reminiscent of Barks’ previous work at magazines like The Calgary Eye-Opener (but of course, staying within the limits of what Disney would accept back then).

  • “In fact, as of this writing, none of these shorts are currently available on Disney+.”
    Those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it.

  • Nice article! I’m surprised that you didn’t mention “The Spirit of ’43” though, as it’s probably the most widely seen of all of Donald’s WWII shorts (or at least it was prior to the internet age) due to its appearance on so many public domain VHS and DVD compilations.

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