By Matthew T. Eng
I have a tendency to read into things. I ask too many questions Ask anyone who has been to the movie theater with me. It’s just in my nature. I was always taught to ask freely and think rationally. Isn’t that the mark of any good historian?
When it comes to matters of naval history and its relationship to popular culture, I always go the extra mile. If I can fit it into a conversation, I will. I cannot begin to explain how many times I argued how rebel blockade runners originated from the American Civil War, not the Star Wars film franchise. I once spoke at a film festival about the role of the Navy and Marine Corps in the 1990s sci-fi epic Starship Troopers. As a testament to my curiosity in my current position at the Naval Historical Foundation, I publish a weekly factoid about the Navy’s ties to popular culture on our social media sites. The posts sparked some interesting and insightful debate over the course of the last year. Every cornerstone of popular culture, from comics and novels to films and television, are analyzed. I’ve tackled everything from the creator of the Slinky to the use of and inspiration of the Navy in Pixar films. What would I read too much into next?
I ultimately decided to tackle one of my favorite breakfast cereals from childhood (and adulthood): Cap’n Crunch.
Created by television producer and animation pioneer Jay Ward of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, the Cap’n Crunch persona grew among the mass appeal of children throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Ward found a way to compete with Kellogg’s lucrative brand tie-ins of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound in the commercial market. According to the Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns, cereal owner Quaker Oats (now PepsiCo) once used eighty percent of their advertising budget solely on Cap’n Crunch. It worked. He was heavily advertised as a man born on Crunch Island in the Sea of Milk, whose sole duty was to sail the seven seas with his precious cargo of sweet corn nuggets with his First Mate Sea Dog and crew of hungry kid sailors. The only thing stopping him from delivering his tasty breakfast treat to a store nearest you was his dreaded enemy, the shoeless pirate Jean LaFoote.
Children identified with the lovable style of Ward’s cartoon production and the vocal stylings of voice actor legend Daws Butler. By the turn of the century, however, Quaker Oats shifted focus on the brand in response to a decrease in sales. They soon relied on nostalgia to attract adults back to the cereal they once loved.
Times got even tougher for Cap’n Horatio Magellan Crunch in recent years. The delightful cereal mascot came under fire in June 2013 when news agencies and social media sites like Gawker and The Consumerist reported on a scandal that shook the breakfast world: was Cap’n Crunch really a Captain?
The initial series of reports specifically questioned the character’s rank. In the most recent portrayal of Cap’n Crunch on cereal boxes, he is sporting a blue uniform with three stripes on his sleeve. Under U.S. Navy uniform regulations, that would make him a Commander. Gawker went so far as to call him “potentially [. . .] a criminal and a traitor.” The story even made it to the pundits at CNN. Foodbeast blogger Charisma Madarang wrote a slanderous article about the cereal mascot that ran with the headline “Cap’n Crunch is a Liar and a Fraud.” This was not exactly the kind of reception one might expect from a man who promised that the cereal cargo aboard his ship SS Guppy would remain crunchy ’til the end, even if it were drowned in a sea of milk.
The uniform debate dates back well before the 2013 scandal. When the first Cap’n Crunch commercial aired in 1963, he is shown wearing three stripes on a blue naval uniform and Napoleonic-style bicorne hat. Yet the same cereal box that debuted with the original commercials show him with only one strip on his sleeves. There was never any cohesion between the two. In subsequent years, Cap’n Crunch has oscillated between primarily two and three stripes on his uniform. If you take U.S. Navy uniform code to heart, the cereal could easily be called “Ensign Crunch,” “Lieutenant Crunch,” or “Commander Crunch,” given what the artists were drawing on that given day:
Some articles went so far as to include responses from official U.S. Navy representatives on the claim of Cap’n Crunch’s stolen valor. Public Affairs Officer Commander Chris Servello, who headed up the Navy’s news desk at the Pentagon (Servello currently serves as a spokesman for Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson), weighed in on the matter for The Consumerist:
“We have no Cap’n Crunch in the personnel records [. . .] we have notified NCIS and we’re looking into whether or not he’s impersonating a naval officer.”
That is surely a very serious accusation. LCDR Sarah Flaherty echoed a similar sentiment to Foreign Policy:
“You are correct that Cap’n Crunch appears to be wearing the rank of a U.S. Nav commander [. . .] our records do not show a ‘Cap’n Crunch’ who currently serves or has served in the Navy.”
In a deep and dark of the Internet, there is actually a site dedicated to signing a petition for Quaker Oats to promote Cap’n Crunch to an Admiral. The website petition felt it necessary to promote a man whose sole mission to deter pirates and deliver crunch corn flavor to kids around the world was worthy of such an honor. According to the out-of-date Geocities site, over 1,500 individuals signed the petition. Despite the grassroots campaign, Horatio remains just a “Cap’n.” Apparently, Quaker Oats might do good to read about the troubles that the United States Navy had in the early to mid-19th century with promotions based on seniority as opposed to merit. Then again, we don’t need a Civil War over cereals to rectify that – there is no need to get a combined Army-Navy operation with General Mills here. We already have a definitive answer from the company on what they feel is the reasoning behind Cap’n Crunch’s name and rank:
— Cap’n Crunch (@RealCapnCrunch) June 17, 2013
As many veterans and active duty sailors know, Horatio Crunch is absolutely correct. According to a Navy website on terminology for Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, “Any naval officer who commands a ship is addressed by naval custom as “captain” while aboard in command, regardless of their actual rank.”
There you have it. Is the story over? Not quite.
This debate opens up an entire world of childhood-ruining possibilities: Is Count Chocula really a Count? Is King Vitamin truly cereal nobility? Who REALLY is Cap’n Horatio Magellan Crunch? Is he a product of stolen valor? Is the issue not with the man, but the uniform? What is his true connection to the United States Navy? I was ending my search with more questions than I began with. I had to know more.
As it turns out, it’s never been about the cereal. It’s the man behind the sweet corn crunch and the symbol he represents as a pop culture icon that gives him such a unique place in naval history.
Cap’n Crunch’s ties with the Navy go back to the very beginning. As previously stated, Cap’n Crunch was originally portrayed by celebrated voice actor Daws Butler. Butler is best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera voicing characters like Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, and Huckleberry Hound. In 1963, he found another avenue for success portraying the intrepid Cap’n Crunch. Prior to his meteoric rise as a voice actor, Butler served in the United States Navy during World War II. Most print sources about his wartime career are unfortunately scarce. One source on the Internet, the military network Together We Served, offered up some interesting information about him. According to records posted on the website, Butler barely met the requirements to join the Navy, as he was initially screened as too short for active duty. An amusing anecdote from Butler’s childhood friend Bill Hamlin about his strange path to service is included in his biography in Tim Lawson and Alisa Parson’s book, The Magic Behind the Voices:
“One day I walked in and Daws was hanging in the doorway with bricks tied to his feed. I said, ‘What in the heck are you doing?’ he said, ‘Doc says I can stretch an eighth of an inch this way.’ And, you know, he did! He became a navy man.”
Butler joined the Naval Reserve in 1942. After training at RTC Great Lakes, he went on to the Naval Intelligence School and the Officer of Naval Intelligence (ONI) where he served from 1943 to 1945. He left the Navy in 1946 as a Petty Officer Second Class Communications Specialist (Q-ESR-Communications Specialist). Butler’s page noted that he earned an American Campaign Medal, Navy Good Conduct Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. After leaving the Navy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he rose to stardom as a recognized voice actor for some of the most iconic figures in animated television, including the beloved Cap’n Crunch. Butler died in 1988 at the age of 71.
Perhaps the character drew inspiration from Butler’s naval service? The Cap’n always knew trouble was at hand when Jean LaFoote, who was undoubtedly inspired by the War of 1812-era Privateer/Pirate Jean Lafitte, was nearby. In over fifty years, the Guppy’s precious cargo of cereal has remained firmly in the hands of the Cap’n and his crew. It’s the kind of long-term anti-piracy operation any country would be proud of. Is the cereal war between Cap’n Crunch and LaFoote simply an illustrated example of guerre de course strategy? A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy (Princeton University Press, 1942) explains it very clearly:
“The guerre de course (war of the chase), as strategists all the technique of commerce raiding, is ordinarily the recourse of the belligerent who is inferior generally, or at least inferior in the particular area where he practices it [. . .] It represents an attempt to deny in part to the enemy what that enemy has already succeeded in denying completely to one-self.”
Cap’n Crunch’s naval intelligence network won’t make the CNO’s yearly Navigation Plan, but it is nonetheless impressive.
A Character of Cruise Books
Cap’n Crunch’s naval connection cropped up again several decades after the end of World War II. Cold War Navy veterans may remember the cereal icon appearing in their cruise books during the 1970s and 1980s.
Here is a sample list of cruise books that included an image of Cap’n Crunch in its pages:
- USS Morton (DD 948) – 1974
- USS Rogers (DD 876) – 1974
- USS Lang (FF 1060) – 1975
- USS Mauna Kea (AE 22) – 1979
- USS Nicholson (DD 982) – 1980-1981
- USS Merrimack (AO 179) – 1983
- USS Elmer Montgomery (FF 1082) – 1986-1987
Apparently, Horatio Crunch prefers to be seen in destroyers, frigates, oilers, and ammunition ships. Most of the cruise books listed above show him alongside other hand-drawn images from crew members, or as a standalone centerpiece on the page. The image of Cap’n Crunch is the same one drawn from the original artist conception in the early 1960s. The majority of these cruise books were printed by Walsworth Publishing Company in Norfolk, VA. I have yet to personally find a representative from the company to speak on behalf of the Cold War cruise books or the connection with his inclusion amongst the crew. Was he seen as a mascot? Was he a popular cereal amongst the crew?
Cap’n Crunch is still around today, regardless of the controversy. In fact, he openly embraces the criticism and moves forward in the sea of milk, full speed ahead. I couldn’t help but take it upon myself to figure out WHO (if anyone) Cap’n Crunch is supposed to represent. I combed through books on U.S. Navy uniform history without any true matches. The distinctive blue uniform of the cereal officer never completely matched anything wore by the United States Navy. If we just take his sleeves and appearance into consideration, however, there is one person who may fit the description: Admiral of the Navy George Dewey.
Placed side by side, there are some parallels with his appearance and uniform. The white walrus mustache, button placement, and epaulettes share a striking similarity to uniforms worn by naval officers during the Spanish American War-era. Perhaps the white pants worn by Crunch are a throwback to the white ones worn by Dewey during the Battle of Manila Bay (The real Jean Lafitte was once a spy for the Spanish during the Mexican War of Independence). Is Sea Dog Charles Gridley?
Although they are not similar in size, an Admiral of the Navy’s uniform sleeve has three stripes and a single gold star: just like Cap’n Crunch’s. Could that be you, Admiral Dewey?
Am I “crossing the line” with this assumption? Yes. In all likelihood, it is a stretch. Yet it is always fun to use a figure of popular culture as a way to write about history. Forget the naysayers: Cap’n Crunch does have a place in naval history.
Cap’n Crunch sails under a flag of taste and crunch. He may not fly a United States ensign on the Guppy, but he is distinctly American. It is the man who represents the name, not the uniform. Whether he is a Commander, a Captain, or a facsimile of the highest ranking officer in U.S. Navy history, he will always be a leader amongst fans worldwide. O Cap’n, my Cap’n, I salute you with an open heart and an empty stomach.
You may crunchitize when ready, Gridley.
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Lawson, Tim and Alisa Parsons. The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who’s Who of Cartoon Voice Actors. Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi (2004).
Mansour, David. From Abba to Zoom: A Pop Culture Encyclopedia of the Late 20th Century. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing (2005).
Riggs, Thomas. The Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns, Volume 1. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group (2000).
Quirk, Mary Beth. “We Don’t Know How To Handle The Fact That Cap’n Crunch Has Been Living A Lie.” The Consumerist (June 17, 2013). consumerist.com/2013/06/17/we-dont-know-how-to-handle-the-fact-that-capn-crunch-has-been-living-a-lie/.
Quirk, Mary Beth. “U.S. Navy Weighs In On Cap’n Crunch Scandal: Oddly, He’s Not In Our Personnel Records.” The Consumerist (June 20, 2013). consumerist.com/2013/06/20/u-s-navy-weighs-in-on-capn-crunch-scandal-oddly-hes-not-in-personnel-our-records/.
Any use of Cap’n Crunch and Jean LaFoote are copyright Quaker Oats Company/PepsiCo.