“Situation Normal, All … All Fouled Up!”: Meet the U.S. Army’s worst soldier, Private Snafu

By on August 18, 2015

During World War II, Private Snafu was probably the U.S. Army’s worst soldier. He sounded like Bugs Bunny and looked a bit like Elmer Fudd, and he was also sloppy, lazy and prone to shooting off his mouth to Nazi agents. He was hugely popular with his fellow GIs, however, and in every episode, he taught soldiers what they should not being doing, from blabbing about U.S. Army troop movements, and helpful bits of intel, like what happens to you when you don’t take your malaria medication.

Private Snafu was, of course, was not real, he was an animated cartoon character produced by the 834th Photo Signal Corps in Hollywood, CA during the war, between 1943-1945, for the sole purpose of educating and boosting the morale of the troops. Private Snafu cartoons were also a top military secret, meant for the armed forces only. The shorts were classified government documents, in fact.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone that the name “Private Snafu” comes from the unofficial military acronym SNAFU (“Situation Normal: All Fucked Up”), with the opening narrator merely hinting at its usual meaning as “Situation Normal, All … All Fouled Up!” When the series was launched in 1943 (with the debut short “Coming! Snafu,” directed by Chuck Jones), the movie opens with a deadpan voiceover explaining that, in informal military parlance, SNAFU means “Situation Normal All…All Fouled Up,” hinting that the usual translation of the acronym includes a popular Anglo-Saxon word. Use your imagination.

Later, it shows Private Snafu daydreaming about a burlesque show – complete with a shapely exotic dancer doffing her duds – as he obliviously wrecks a plane.

Private Snafu learns about the hazards of enemy booby traps the hard way.

The idea for the series reportedly came from Frank Capra — the Oscar-winning director of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and, during WWII, he was also the chairman of the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit. He wanted to create a cartoon series for new recruits, many of whom were young, unworldly and in some cases illiterate.

Capra gave Disney the first shot at developing the idea but Warner Brothers’s Leon Schlesinger — a man who was as famous for his hard-driving business acumen as he was for wearing excessive cologne — offered a bid that was two-thirds below that of Disney, putting Warner Brothers in partnership with the War Department.

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The Snafu shorts are notable because they were produced during the Golden Age of Warner Brothers’s animation. Directors such as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin worked on the cartoons, and writers like Phil (P. D.) Eastman penned the scripts (he was also a storyboard artist for the Snafu shorts). Another of the main writers was none other than Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.  The music was typically composed and performed by the legendary Carl Stalling.

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Voice characterizations were provided by the celebrated Mel Blanc. Private Snafu’s voice was similar to Blanc’s Bugs Bunny characterization, and Bugs himself actually made cameos in the Snafu cartoons, “Gas” and “Three Brothers” – in the cartoon “Three Brothers,”  incidentally, it is revealed that Private Snafu had two brothers, a carrier pigeon keeper named Seaman Tarfu (for “Things Are Really Fucked Up”) and another brother was a dog trainer named Fubar (for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”).

Private Snafu imagines the good times his family is having back home while he’s stationed in the Arctic. Technical Fairy First Class shows that even his family is helping with the war effort – his dad building tanks, his mom planting a Victory Garden, Grandpa riveting battleships, and his girl joining the WAC’s and even the family’s horse is pitching in.

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A proto–Snafu does appear, unnamed and in color, in Jones’s cartoon “The Draft Horse,” released theatrically one year earlier, on May 9, 1942. This appearance would serve as the basis for Snafu’s character in the series.

Surveys to ascertain the soldiers’ film favorites showed that the Snafu cartoons usually rated highest or second highest. Each cartoon was produced in six weeks Though there were no writing credits for each individual episode, just listen to the voiceover for “Gripes” (1943), directed by Friz Freleng. Dr. Seuss’s trademark singsong cadence is unmistakable including lines like: “The moral, Snafu, is that the harder you work, the sooner we’re gonna beat Hitler, that jerk.”

Private Snafu and a Japanese sailor simultaneously land on a deserted island, discover each other and fight it out until the private kills the sailor and attempts to sell his sword as a souvenir.

“Going Home,” directed by Chuck Jones, was slated to come out in 1944 but the War Department never released it. The premise was about the damage that could be done if a soldier on leave talks too much about his unit’s military operations.

In the film, Snafu discusses a “secret weapon” with his girlfriend which was unnervingly (and probably unintentionally) similar to the massive, top-secret weapon being developed, the Manhattan Project; those atomic bombs, in development at the time, were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which, we have to say, was no laughing matter.

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In 1946, a series of cartoons for the Navy featuring Private Snafu’s brother Tarfu were also planned, but the war had come to a close and the project never materialized, save for a solitary cartoon entitled “Private Snafu Presents Seaman Tarfu in the Navy.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.