Insignia Industry

by Kurt Rand

Walt Disney's artists work tirelessly as requests for aviation caricatures swamp special department.

WALT DISNEY, the pappy of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dumbo and an assorted collection of strange characters who cavort across the screens of a nation, has taken on a part-time job which bids fair to become an industry of itself. The new "industry" is strictly non-profit, patriotic and a help to the morale of our armed forces.

Disney is not only patriotic, but he is air-minded. He flies wherever he can. And, what's more, his huge new plant in the San Fernando valley is virtually bounded by the Griffith Park Airport of the California State Guard, Grand Central Air Terminal (on which operates a primary training school of the US Army Air Corps), Lockheed Airport and Lockheed Air Terminal, plane testing base and western terminus of all transcontinental airlines. He's come to admire the daring young men who practically blacken the skies directly above his big new studio. More than that, he's wanted to be of service to them.

And, June, 1939, a letter showed up on his desk which told him exactly how he could contribute to national defense. The letter was from Aviation Cadet Burt Stanley, USNR, who was in training at San Diego.

"During the last World War," Cadet Stanley wrote, "various aviation squadrons had their own insignia, such as the 'hat in the ring' design used by Capt Eddie Rickenbacker. Today, we don't have clever ones, the kind needed to kick up our morale and give us a feeling of personal pride in our outfit. Why don't you design us a suitable insignia'?"

He suggested that Disney might get off to a good start by designing one for an aircraft squadron aboard the new Navy carrier, the USS Wasp.

"You bet I can," Disney replied. He turned the job over to an artist named Henry Porter, better known to the hundreds of Disney artists and his boss as "Hank." One of Porter's men went to work and from his facile pen came a magnificently belligerent wasp, a wasp who really meant business.

The wasp suddenly blossomed out aboard the aircraft carrier. It went on planes, flying jackets, mechanics' uniforms, letterheads and anything else handy. And it wasn't long before the Disney insignia was known from coast-to-coast.

And what happened'? Just what you'd think. The lads who saw the wasp wanted something of their own. Requests started to pour into the Disney studio almost every day. Disney summoned Porter.

"Mister," he said, "you have yourself a job. Just settle down to it. Make as many insignias as you can. If you get overloaded with work, let me know."

At this writing, Hank Porter has outgrown one room, and he works in three. On the staff he has organized are Van Kaufman, a very talented young man from Georgia, who went to art school in Los Angeles and who has been working at the big Disney plant two and a half years; George Goepper, skilled drawer of Pluto the pooch, and Ed Parks, a Connecticut boy who has been with Disney for four years. Of the lot, Parks is the only one who actually flies, having taken instruction in Connecticut. Kaufman used to build and fly model airplanes, however, and is in the spirit of the thing.

Disney says: "Never mind what the job is costing us. That isn't important."

However, you can rest assured that the company at present is spending four figures a month on the department which Hank Porter has created. So far, more than 200 insignias have been turned out for the Army, the Navy, the Marines and for various Governmental bodies. Working as hard as he can with his three co-artists, Porter nevertheless is more than 200 behind.

"But we'll catch up," he declared, with a grin, when I went to visit him in his three-room workshop. He was very busy working on a design requested by Capt Elliott Roosevelt for the Sixth Reconnaissance Squadron. He showed me the quaint flying elephant, "Dumbo," from the full-length animated cartoon from the same name. Dumbo, a fat little dwarf elephant with huge ears, learns that he can use them to take off, zoom and do a few acrobatics.

"We have been informed that up to now no commercial characters could be used in the designs," Porter explains. "That is why, to date, Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Donald Duck and a few others in the Disney family haven't appeared. Naturally, it might look as if the various branches of Government were advertising the Disney product."

Disney certainly isn't advertising anything. He is only trying to do a good job. Dumbo was allowed to pass muster because he isn't a permanent Disney star, like Pluto, for instance. Dumbo was in for just one picture, and it has been released.

So, you are hereby notified in advance that Captain Roosevelt is going to get Dumbo for the Sixth Reconnaissance Squadron, and that Dumbo will be holding a spy-glass, which carries the thought that the Sixth, although a bit large, nevertheless is both graceful and on the alert.

At the same time, on another board, is coming into being a job for the First Defense Battalion, part of the group of heroes who received a citation for the defense of Wake Island against the surprise-attacking (to put it mildly) Japs. The design isn't far enough along to make a definite report on it.

"It seems that the designs find a lot of favor," Disney says, "because they have a tendency to knit a squadron or a battalion or whatever organization they may be drawn for, closer together. The group is just a group until there is something to 'pin it together' and then it becomes a real machine. Other groups challenge it and they too get into a fine competitive spirit. The design represents the same thing today that the red 'kerchiefs worn by General Custer's Seventh Cavalry did in the Civil War and later in Indian fighting. The general wore one, soon everyone was wearing one. The men were proud of the scarves, held those who wore them equal, and boasted that they could lick any outfit of similar size in the world. That's the kind of spirit which we need today. If the designs can help foster it, there'll be designs."

Six foot, six inch Hank Porter creates most of the designs. Sometimes the officers who request a design offer suggestions which are excellent and Porter carries them out. But he usually finds a "twist" or "topper" which surprises and gratifies the recipients.

"How do I get the ideas?" Porter asks. "Well, you tell me. They just come to me, I guess. I study the request, then I write for additional information about the duties of the organization if I need to know. Then I go to work."

The Buffalo-born Porter is very fortunate in that he can draw every character which has ever been created by Disney. Usually, an artist finds his niche with a given set of characters and draws only those henceforth. But Porter, as publicity artist, does Pluto as well as he does Mickey. And Donald is just duck soup to him!

He, of course, makes sure that no two organizations get designs which at all resemble each other. The only clue to the way he thinks up the ideas is his statement that he does "a logical treatment" of an insignia request. A fighting squadron will, therefore, get a pugnacious animal as its mascot; a newly organized squadron would get a fledgling bird.

"I should be doing this," he exclaims. "Say, the highest I've ever been in the air's a roller coaster!"

The second delivery of a design was in 1940. Lieut E S Caldwell, of the office of Chief of Naval Operations, Washington, asked for a design to be placed on the first American motor torpedo-boats. As these boats were known as the "mosquito fleet," the Disney design showed a nasty looking mosquito riding a torpedo. About this time the Alaska Defense Force got an idea that they needed something with a punch. "So we turned out a very sleek seal balancing 'ADF' on its shiny button nose, and everybody was happy," Porter explained.

This really got things under way. From then on, Disney really felt the heat. Hank Porter's six foot, six inch frame was entirely snowed under and he let out a muffled call for help from the bottom of the pile. He got it.

Porter, Goepper, Kaufman and Parks so far have done a lot of creative work, starting with aircraft and running the gamut. They've done their stuff for bombardment and pursuit squadrons, interceptor squadrons, field artillery, coast artillery, submarine bases, mine divisions, antitank companies, reconnaissance squadrons, observation squadrons, parachute battalions, the China air service and the U.S. Marines. The groups carrying Disney-designed insignias — the Air Forces predominate, of course — reach into every part of the globe. In fact, one of the latest requests has come from the Free French Forces operating in North Africa.

Porter says he never knows when a request is coming or where it will come from. Recently, Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten of HMS Illustrious (British aircraft carrier) dropped in to see how Mickey, Donald Duck and the Silly Symphonies came to life. He saw Porter at work on an insignia.

"Say!" he exclaimed. "I like that. How about one for the Illustrious?"

As the commercial angle is not a taboo in the British Navy and as Lord Mountbatten, by self-confession, is Great Britain's Number One Donald Duck fan, he got Donald Duck — standing astride the Illustrious.

Disney and Porter themselves duck when any publicity gets out about the charitable and patriotic enterprise. Recently a national magazine carried a layout of early designs and a new flood of requests came in.

The operation of the "request mill" is very democratic. A commanding officer of a group may write in, or the lowliest private. In some cases round robin requests come in from every member of an outfit. Porter frames these and puts them on the walls of the offices.

Of course, when the USS Hornet saw the USS Wasp design, there was a mad scramble for typewriters and fountain pens, and a hornet came into being, with quite as resolute and determined expression as that displayed by the wasp.

Many requests come from crews behind the scenes these days — weather squadrons, for instance, and air transport workers. They have no official designations, but are proud of the fact that they "Keep 'em Flying." To these groups go insignias as fast as to combat groups. There's no discrimination.

One recent request came from the USS Howard of Mine Division 19. Again, some red tape was cut, as the boys on board asked for Pluto. They got Pluto, who swims happily through a bed of mines, a whisk broom tied to the end of his tail. And, showing you how far a thing like this can go, Porter and his busy men are currently working on a design for a stamp to be placed on all food shipments being sent abroad under the Lend-Lease bill.

The design shows an American eagle protecting a merchant ship from an enemy plane.

Sometimes the receipt of the design requested draws an interesting letter. This was the case when the seal, balancing the ADF, was delivered to the Alaska Defense Forces. Brig Gen S B Buckner, commanding, wrote Disney: "Since the arrival of the insignia all of the seals in the Bering Sea have been out on the ice pack balancing 'D's' on their noses, sneering derisively at polar bears, expanding their chests and cavorting merrily over being chosen to represent our defense forces."

So, if you' ll look closely these days, you'll see the Disney designs everywhere, particularly on Army airports. For instance, if you live near Langley Field, VA, you' ll see a perky, pipe-smoking Scotch terrier carrying two loaded bombs on the fuselages of the planes. You'll know that this is the Seventh Bombardment Squadron. An elephant putts a shot for the 40th Bombardment Group at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. A fat-bellied little Indian shoots a bomb with a bow to designate the 77th Bombardment Squadron, Boise Air Base, Boise, ID, as any native will tell you. The Eagle Squadron of the RAF has a fighting eagle, wearing boxing gloves, in front of the shield of the United States bearing above it the initials "E S." A very happy rhinoceros wearing goggles blithely tosses bombs from a tiny airplane for the 43rd Bombardment Group, Langley Field, VA.

One of the cleverest of designs is that sent to Bombardment Training, at Ellington Field, TX. In this one, a stork is busy delivering a fledgling aviator complete with goggles, who is busy worrying the stork by dropping bombs. Sixteenth Reconnaissance Squadron, Fort Douglas, Utah, boasts of a heavily armed Indian with jutting jaw, ready for action with a bomb in one hand and a spy glass in the other.

And so it goes.

As it has been indicated, the Air Forces started the ball rolling, or the ink flowing, whichever you prefer, and now everybody writes. Just recently, the newly organized 204th Coast Artillery at Camp Hulen, TX, received an angry little kitten, riding a wooden horse and carrying a toy sword. A turtle, clubbing a snail, was the Disney version of a tank fighting a tank, for the Antitank Company of the 124th Infantry, Camp Blanding, FL.

Other recent jobs include a centaurette dressed in a military nurse's uniform for the Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps of America. Another good one is a sea horse with a patch over his eye, the insignia for the Survivors' Club. This is composed of those fortunate enough to have been saved from a sinking ship in the current war.

"Let them write and tell us what they want," say Disney and Porter, in a determined chorus, "and we'll do our part. They're certainly doing theirs, and we are more than glad to pitch in with them, even in our small way."

This article was originally published in the April, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 4, pp 39-41, 90, 92.
The PDF of this article includes sixteen example insignia and a photo of Henry Porter at work (on a 17th.)
Photo and example insignia are not credited.