Smokey the Bear's First Job Was Warning Americans about Japanese Fire Balloons


Generations of Americans have learned how to build a campfire from Smokey Bear, but not many realize he was created to help fight a Japanese threat during World War II.

(Note: He became popularly known as Smokey the Bear, but his real name is just Smokey Bear.)

The U.S. Forest Service faced a crisis during World War II. Able-bodied firefighters were joining the military, and there were fewer experienced men left behind to put out wildfires.

Japan also tried to start fires on the West Coast first by firing shells into oil fields, then by launching more than 9,000 fire balloons laden with bombs or Molotov cocktails that were carried to U.S. soil by the jet stream. Hundreds landed, and one managed to kill a mother and her five children in Oregon in 1944.

After Walt Disney's "Bambi" was a massive success in 1942, Disney licensed the character to the Forest Service for a year since [SPOILER] fire plays an important part in the deer's story. The deal was for one year only, so we needed a more permanent character to symbolize the fight against forest fires.

Smokey Bear was named after Smokey Joe Martin, a hero New York City firefighter who suffered burns and went blind during a 1922 rescue. Aug. 9 is celebrated as Smokey's birthday because that's when the Forest Service ordered his creation. Artist Albert Staehle worked quickly and delivered a Smokey image on Aug. 10.

Smokey Bear's debut poster. Art by Albert Staehle (Wikipedia)

All the elements Americans love about Smokey were there from the beginning: He's wearing his blue jeans and ranger hat. However, it took three more years before the War Advertising Council came up with the slogan that's lasted more than 70 years: "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."

Smokey Bear, playing in his pool at the National Zoo, sometime during the 1950s. (Wikipedia)

"WAIT! I saw Smokey the Bear at the National Zoo when I was a kid in the '50s/'60s/'70s, and that's not the story at ALL."

Sorry, kids. The truth varies sometimes. The "Smokey Bear" who lived at the National Zoo until the mid-1970s had a great story, but he wasn't the original. Originally named "Hotfoot Teddy" as a cub after being rescued from a 1950 wildfire in New Mexico, the bear was renamed "Smokey" and became a sensational news story. The State of New Mexico arranged for him to be flown to Washington, D.C., and he entertained millions of visitors for the next 25 years.

Zoo officials tried to arrange for Smokey to reproduce by giving him a "wife" named Goldie, but the two bears never managed to get it together to create a cub. If you saw "Little Smokey" when you visited the zoo, we're sorry to report that the smaller bear was "adopted."

Smokey has taught generations how to site, build and put out their campfires. He's also been a source of information on farm vehicle and tool maintenance (sparks cause fires) and offered advice on how to maintain a safe burn pile in your yard.

The U.S. Forest Service licensed the character, and he's been used for stuffed bears, pajamas, bed sheets and hundreds of other products.

Smokey also got his own Rankin/Bass animated special in 1966, just a couple of years after the production company made "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Narrated by movie icon James Cagney, the musical special tells a story about how we got Smokey. 

The forest service has tried to update Smokey's image to keep up with what it perceives as the tastes of younger generations, but it's Original Smokey who keeps resonating with the American people.

Modern Smokey just doesn't capture the hearts and minds of Americans.

As you're building a campfire on your next wilderness trip, remember Smokey's tips and be thankful he helped save the western USA from a Japanese inferno in 1945.

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