Happy Birthday, Smokey Bear

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Oracle Fire Department celebrates the 70th birthday of Smokey Bear.

Hitler and Tojo propaganda campaign poster c. 1940s

Smokey Bear Campaign Poster c. 1944

Oracle Towne Crier

Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear) turned 70 years old this year. The usage of Smokey the Bear is incorrect and was the product of a successful song in 1952 titled Smokey the Bear. The “the” was added to Smokey’s name to keep the rhythm in the song. Smokey Bear was created out of a World War II propaganda advertising campaign which began in 1942 and was created by the War Advertising Council. The advertising was created to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. It is the longest running advertising campaign in ad council history. The goal of the program was to have communities educated about wildfires enough so they could work to prevent them from happening. It was something similar to the Firewise communities that exist now such as Oracle.

In 1942 most of your able bodied American men had joined the military depleting the number of fire fighters in the country. The country’s forests were considered a strategic resource. Timber was used for gun stocks, in battleships and for crating military supplies for transport. Americans feared that an enemy attack or sabotage could severely damage our forests.

During the spring of 1942 a Japanese submarine shelled an oil field near Los Padres National Forest in southern California. Although it did not start a forest fire it alerted officials to the need for preventative actions. Later it was discovered that the Japanese had plans to target forests and use wildfires as a weapon. In September 1942 a Japanese seaplane launched from a submarine off the Oregon coast dropped two incendiary bombs on a forest hoping to set off a wildfire. Thanks to a fire spotting patrol that was in the area and light winds the fire was quickly discovered and controlled.

Between late 1944 and April 1945 the Japanese launched over 9,300 incendiary balloons towards North America. One of them landed in Oregon killing a pregnant woman and five children who were out in the country about to enjoy a picnic. They are the only known deaths by enemy hands to have occurred in the continental United States during World War II. Over 350 incendiary balloons are known to have landed in the U.S. but did little damage.

The advertising campaign initiated in 1942 to educate the public began with a series of patriotic propaganda posters. The posters featured the images of Adolf Hitler and/or a caricature of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo with slogans such as “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon”.

In August 1942 Walt Disney released his animated motion picture Bambi. Shortly after the premiere he allowed the U.S. Forest Service and the War Advertising Council to use the characters from the movie in their forest fire prevention campaign. It proved popular and showed that a forest animal could be used in a successful ad campaign. Disney only allowed the use of the Bambi characters for one year. The War Advertising Council then came up with a bear wearing jeans and a campaign hat similar to the park rangers. They named the character Smokey Bear after “Smokey” Joe Martin a New York Fire Department hero.

On Aug. 9, 1944 the first Smokey Bear poster appeared. It showed Smokey bending over pouring water from a bucket on a campfire. The slogan read “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest fires”. The nine out of 10 figures came from statistics that showed nine out of 10 forest fires were man made. After World War II the War Advertising Council became the ad council. In 1947 the slogan changed to become one of the most recognized sayings in advertising “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” which would last for over 50 years. It would be amended in 2001.

The Smokey Bear Campaign became popular in the 1950s. Dolls, books, songs, comic books, coloring books, cartoons and collectible merchandise using Smokey was being marketed in such large quantities that the Secretary of Agriculture took Smokey out of the Public Domain and copyrighted the use of Smokey Bear. They used the money they made from royalties to finance continued fire prevention education.

In Oracle the fire station has a cutout of Smokey standing in front of the station by the electronic message board. There is also a sign warning residents of the fire danger conditions which are HIGH at this time. It is a reminder that, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

John Hernandez (439 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.


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