G.I. Joe and G.I. Elmer, as Ducks

This cute G.I. Joe “Unbeaten Team” toy sold at our last QBO estate sale. Don’t be misled by the visible 1918 date, it was patented around 1945. Push it along the floor by its long handle and the duck duo amusingly bobs up and down. As you can see, one of the ducks is wearing an army green military uniform. So what does G.I. Joe Duck here have to do with the American-owned multinational conglomerate Hasbro, Inc. and their extensive and extensively accessorized line of military-themed G.I. Joe dolls (sorry, action figures). Answer: absolutely nothing!

Before Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toys, and the G.I. Joe comic books, G.I. Joe T.V. cartoon series and G.I. Joe action movie franchise, “G.I. Joe” or just “G.I.” was slang for the average American soldier, and more specifically, the average American infantryman who fought in World War II. 

What the initials “G.I.” actually meant morphed over time. “G.I.” was first used on Army documents in 1906, where it stood for the “galvanized iron” that was used in making parts. During World War I (1914 – 1918), “G.I.” came to mean “government issue”, “general issue”, “garrison issue” or “general infantry”, i.e. pretty much anything infantry soldiers were issued. By 1935 the term “G.I.” was applied to the men themselves, becoming so commonplace during WWII (1939 – 1945) that both Allied troops and civilians in the foreign countries where the American military fought called American service members “G.I. Joes” or just “G.I.s” while American women service members in the Women’s Army Corps were called “G.I. Janes”.

But THIS particular G.I. Joe, this duck in the helmet with private’s chevrons on his shoulders is modeled on a real WWII soldier named Joseph Charles Ruehle. He was 21 when the war began and served as an Army Air Force radar operator in Europe. He survived to return to California, get married and have kids and grandkids, as did his brother Paul who also served as a Marine. 

The toy was designed and patented by Paul and Joe’s father, Elmer C. Ruehle, AKA the second duck here wearing overalls, bandana, and safety goggles as a factory worker on the home front producing munitions. These ducks’ hang tag is missing but it originally read “This toy symbolizes the spirit of both world wars: the fighting man and the defense worker, who, together formed the team that so valiantly kept our way of life, and is dedicated to their honor. G.I. Elmer 1918, G.I. Joe 1945, Made by Vets.”

In real life most World War factory workers were women, and in spite of portraying himself as a factory worker in duck form, Elmer Charles Ruehle was an Army private who served in WWI at the age of 23 as the world was being ravaged by the Great Influenza Pandemic. The Ruehle family’s military service is made more remarkable by the fact that Elmer’s parents (the sons’ grandparents) had immigrated here from Germany, America’s bitter enemy in both wars. 

Like his sons, Elmer survived the war, married, had kids (2 boys and a girl, Rosemary) and lived a long life but he was not actually a toy designer and had no association with toy maker Ruehl Products Inc. of Wisconsin. He and his brother Adolph planted what was possibly America’s first pistachio orchard on the Ruehle Ranch in Terra Bella, CA, and Elmer’s other patents besides the Unbeaten (duck) Team are for a belt sander, a ditch-digging auger and a new variety of pistachio tree. Here is the real G.I. Joe Ruehle, and here’s his dad Elmer marrying his mom Rose.