It was a comic strip about little kids in a neighborhood that was so obviously American that no one questioned its roots.
“Peanuts,” created and illustrated by Charles Schulz, praised America by remembering patriotic holidays, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, frequently waving the flag, and sending well-known fighter pilot Snoopy off to fight the Red Baron.
“ ‘Peanuts’ is certainly a patriotic strip,” said Derrick Bang, an author and historian of the popular comic strip. “Charles Schulz found ways to recognize the great service that soldiers gave to the United States during the 20th century.”
Patriotism in “Peanuts” rang true as Charlie Brown’s favorite sport was America’s pastime – baseball – and Snoopy, Woodstock and their gang of bird friends were part of a scout troop. The terrorizing cat next door was named World War II.
“Peanuts” reminded Americans to love their country and honor the military throughout its 50-year run. It was arguably the most successful newspaper comic strip in history, read in more than 2,200 newspapers, including The Herald, in 75 countries and 25 languages.
Schulz’s work is being exhibited in a traveling show at the Museum of York County until Sept. 3. “Peanuts … Naturally” explores the connection between the famous comic strip and the environment and nature.
The illustrator was known for turning complicated issues into simple, clever funnies through his elementary school-aged characters – Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus – and a very imaginative beagle – Snoopy.
Schulz was a World War II veteran, drafted into the Army in 1943. While in basic training, his mother died of cancer. He served in the 20th Armored Division as a machine-gun squad leader in Germany, France and Austria. He sketched daily army life in his sketchbook.
“The army taught me all I needed to know about loneliness,” Schulz wrote.
One biographer, David Michaelis, said the unit saw combat only at the very end of the war. Schulz said that he only ever had one opportunity to fire his machine gun, but it was not properly loaded. Fortunately, the German soldier willingly surrendered.
“As a veteran, that endeared him to me,” said retired Maj. Van Harl, who served in the Air Force and now writes a military-related column in the Altus (Okla.) Times. “He had been there. He was in combat. He saw his comrades die.”
‘Curse you, Red Baron!’
Schulz was discharged in 1945, and spoke proudly of his wartime service.
Near the end of his life, a reporter asked him, “Out of all the awards you have received over your glittering career, which one means the most to you?”
Schulz replied, “The Combat Infantry Badge.”
“That’s a very telling answer,” said Bang.
On Oct. 10, 1965, he put his love for military service into his work when Snoopy went to the top of his doghouse for the first time as one of his most famous alter egos, a World War I flying ace.
By then, Snoopy had evolved from comic strip pet to human-like form, walking on two feet, sleeping on top of his doghouse and excelling all around.
He battled his archenemy, Manfred von Richthofen, a real-life German flying ace known as the Red Baron. Snoopy wore a scarf, goggles and a flying helmet and pretended his doghouse was a Sopwith Camel fighter plane.
When shot down, Snoopy would cry, “Curses! Foiled again!” The Red Baron was never drawn in the strip, his presence shown through the bullet holes left on the doghouse. Snoopy would shout, “Curse you, Red Baron!” Occasionally, Snoopy’s house would crash during the aerial assaults. Woodstock, Snoopy’s closest friend, began acting as the Flying Ace’s mechanic on July 12, 1967.
The idea for Snoopy to pretend to be a World War I fighter pilot came when one of Schulz’s children was building model airplanes, said Bang, co-author of www.fivecentsplease.org, a resource for “Peanuts” information, trivia and history. Details vary by accounts, but in the end, Snoopy was put on top of the gabled doghouse, pretending to fly.
“No one had any idea that this persona would become so popular,” said Bang. “It was preposterous. It was silly enough that a dog was a fighter pilot, but extending it so far that his doghouse was a plane – that’s absurd. It caught everyone’s imagination.”
Over the years, the World War I character has shown up on everything from military patches and mugs to a U.S. postage stamp, TV specials, a Thanksgiving parade balloon and video games.
The Royal Guardsmen, a Florida-based band, wrote the song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” in 1966. The single made it to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart by the end of the year.
Chuck Bartley, a longtime friend of Schulz, remembers hearing the hit song for the first time with Schulz. The friends and their wives were playing bridge together when it played over the radio.
“I said, ‘Have you ever heard this before?’ He hadn’t,” said Bartley. “He loved it. We all loved it. It played 10 times a day after that. That’s all anyone would sing.”
An infantry beagle
In World War II, Snoopy was a G.I. in the Army. He landed on Omaha Beach and fought his way through France.
“‘Snoopy versus the Red Baron’ was mostly a light-hearted outlook at war, but the Snoopy of World War II was not. Snoopy’s infantry soldier persona is a much more serious character,” Harl said.
World War II was Schulz’s war. Friends believe he thought it was the great war, immensely important as the war that made America the world leader.
“He thought we saved the world, and it was manifested in his cartoon,” said Gaye LeBaron, a longtime columnist for The (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Press Democrat, the hometown newspaper where Schulz resided.
But it came at a price.
One strip has Snoopy in a foxhole. It is cold and rainy and he is manning a .30 caliber machine gun. Snoopy writes, “Dear Mom, Just a note to tell you I am well. They say we will be home by Christmas. I hope so.”
“‘Home by Christmas’ – every G.I. understands that,” said Harl. “He was using his influence of the mass media to show the sadness and high stress factor that a combat troop endures in war. You could easily take Snoopy out of his World War II foxhole, place him in a desert camouflage uniform, riding atop a Hummer vehicle in Baghdad and the above caption would still convey the same meaning. Charles Schulz understood the infantry soldier in combat.”
Schulz believed the war made him a man and gave him confidence, LeBaron said.
Root beer and war stories
On patriotic holidays – Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, D-Day – “Peanuts” remembered the military men and women of past and present.
Year after year, Snoopy dressed as a soldier on Nov. 11 to go to the home of Bill Mauldin, who was famous for his “Willie and Joe” cartoons during World War II, to “quaff root beer and tell war stories.”
Schulz signed the original artwork and sent it to Mauldin, who he did not meet until years later.
In one of his final tributes to Mauldin on Nov. 11, 1998, Snoopy meets Willie and Joe. “I think the new replacements are getting smaller all the time,” the infantrymen said, referring to Snoopy. The beagle recognizes the characters and calls them his heroes and wishes them a Happy Veterans Day.
In May that year, Schulz drew Snoopy in an Army uniform against a photograph of World War II soldiers to honor the anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, France.
The photo shows Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower giving orders to paratroopers before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault. The famous photo was taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England at about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944.
Schulz said, “I believe D-Day is the most significant day for mankind in modern history.”
Bartley remembers his friend, Schulz, as a jokester, but the two veterans had serious conversations about World War II.
They were members of what has been coined “The Greatest Generation” – growing up during The Great Depression and fighting in World War II.
To Bartley, who spoke at Schulz’s funeral service, the cartoonist was clean-living, honest and unpretentious. The two enjoyed playing golf together and talking about life.
“When they played the Star Spangled Banner, we got tears in our eyes,” he said. “He used to teach Sunday school. He never swore. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He was a veteran. He believed in the flag, he believed in the president and he believed in the country.”
LeBaron believes the cartoonist lent the values he learned as a child growing up in Minnesota to his comic strip.
“He had real Midwestern values – home and duty and moral obligations,” said LeBaron, who befriended Schulz through his wife, Jean. “He was grassroots, feeling that America was an exceptional country and we had wonderful freedom and it had to be protected.”