When I was a boy I was obsessed with the great event of my parents’ lifetime—World War II. It was hard not to be. Almost every house I ever visited had at least one framed photo of a handsome young man in uniform proudly displayed. Sometimes more. Husbands, brothers, fathers. Most came home. Some didn’t
The survivors of those photos were still mostly youngish men in the prime of their lives—my father and the fathers of almost all my friends. They were serious, hard working men. They were very busy doing things, sometimes big things. To a man those I knew best, my father and uncles, could hardly be made to talk about their experiences. If pressed they would say, “Well, I was in Europe for a while.” Or “I was a Seabee.” Further details were seldom forthcoming.
They belonged to the Legion or the VFW, but seemed neither super-patriotic nor querulously eager for the next war. They took comfort in being around other men who had been there, but they distrusted the occasional braggart and blowhard at the bar. Their contempt for that ilk was summed up years later in a Bill Mauldin cartoon in the Chicago Sun Times showing one of the bellicose Legion leaders of the Vietnam era beginning and ending his World War II service, “folding blankets in Texas.”
For real information on what our dads did in the war, we had to turn to our mothers. Mine was glad to share her meticulously kept scrap books with photos, postcards, newspaper clipping, maps, V-mail letters, and even un-used ration stamps. And she dug out the well buried footlocker in the basement chocked full interesting stuff. I claimed a khaki overseas cap, which for a season or two I wore everyday in lieu of my customary cowboy hat, a web belt, canteen, mess kit, ammo pouches, a gas mask bag, and a helmet liner. I was outfitted well for the endless games of war the neighborhood boys played in backyards among hedges and window wells.
On Sunday afternoons I was glued to the TV documentaries about the war that were still a staple of the air—the Army’s The Big Picture, Victory at Sea, Silent Service, and most episodes of Walter Cronkite’s The Twentieth Century. And then there were the old movies that played on the daily movie matinee show which came on just as I got home from school. I thought I knew what war was about.
But of course, I didn’t know squat. Until I found in my mother’s bookshelves well-thumbed editions of This is Your War, a collection of columns by the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle and a couple of collections of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons for Stars and Stripes.
Both Pyle and Mauldin rose to fame covering the brutal, unglamorous Italian campaign as troops slogged slowly north through the Boot against stubborn German resistance, treacherous mountainous terrain, rubble strewn street fighting, supply shortages, and often incompetent leadership. So much for Winston Churchill’s “soft underbelly of Europe.” Fighting there dragged on after it was relegated to a side show and Allied troops, liberated at last from the Normandy beaches, were racing across France far to the north.
The two both talked about the war from the front line perspective of the G.I. dogface—exhausted, bitter, cynical, stripped of all illusions of glory, immune to patriotic exhortations, and suffering as much at the hands of clueless generals and idiot second lieutenants as from the usually unseen Nazis. Pyle drew the picture with words. Mauldin just drew the picture.
And remarkably, he did so in the official GI newspaper Stars and Stripes as a sergeant in the Army he chronicled. Willie and Joe were his creation to represent the lives of the grunts on the ground. They were unshaven, slovenly, and perpetually exhausted. They looked in those drawings like old men. But Mauldin, who was only 22 and looked years younger, pointed out that Willie and Joe were the same age he was. War did that to them.
The old spit-and-polish brass hated Mauldin and often tried to get him banned from the paper or refused to issue passes to their front line units—where he went anyway, regardless of any stinking passes. General George Patton called him to his headquarters and threatened to have him arrested for disturbing morale. Dwight Eisenhower had to personally intercede with orders to leave Mauldin alone. He thought the comics helped his men “let off steam.”Stuff like this jab a Old Blood and Guts got Mauldin personally called on the carpet by George Patton. General Eisenhower had to personally intervene to keep him out of trouble and in print.
Mauldin was born on October 29, 1921 in Mountain Park, New Mexico. His family was no strangers to the military. His grandfather was a cavalry scout in the campaigns against the Apache. His father was an artilleryman in World War I.
The family moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Mauldin finished high school and became interested in art. He enlisted in the Arizona National Guard, but was able to go to Illinois where he attended classes at Ruth VanSickle Ford’s Chicago Academy of Fine Art.
He never completed his studies. He was called up from the Guard to active duty in 1940. He was assigned to the 45th Division, the first all-Guard unit activated prior to America’s entry into the war and made up units from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma including many Native Americans.
Mauldin was a good soldier despite his almost childish appearance. He advanced to the rank of sergeant quickly and began contributing cartoons to the Division newspaper. While still training stateside he created Willie and Joe, based on his best friend and himself. When the unit deployed overseas he was assigned to the Division Press Office. He did not consider that to be behind the lines duty.
When the Division landed in Sicily in July of 1943 for its first combat operations, Mauldin was right there with the front line infantry. He stayed there. He was with them again on September 10 when the Division landed at Agropoli and Paestum, the southernmost beachheads of the Salerno campaign. Thus began the long, grinding inch-by-inch slog up the length of the Italian Boot.
Mauldin’s cartoons were being reprinted in Stars and Stripes and in February 1944 he was transferred to the Army newspaper, issued a Jeep and given nearly a carte blanche to cover the front as he thought best. His reputation among GIs was high and everywhere he went they welcomed him even if officers were usually mortified. Recognition that he often took the same risks as infantrymen won him credibility, especially after he was wounded by mortar fire while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.Bogged down hopelessly in Italy, Willie and Joe were a tad cynical about all of the glory of D-Day.
He returned to the front and his drawings, which were now also being circulated by the Army to civilian papers in the States. The Brass felt that the cartoons would make clear to the public the realities of the war and explain the slow pace of advance in Italy to a public which expected quick victories.
Mauldin was awarded the Legion of Merit, an award usually given to field grade officers in combat operations. At the end of European operations, Mauldin wanted to have Willie and Joe killed on the last day of combat, a final thumb of the nose to the futility of war. The horrified Brass quickly nixed that idea.
Back in the States and out of the service, Mauldin found himself something of a celebrity. He had even made the cover of Time. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. His first book Up Front, one of the books I purloined from my mother’s selves, was a best seller. It contained many of the best Willie and Joe cartoons along with no-holds-barred essays that stripped all glory from war.
A defiant liberal, Mauldin found it difficult to fit into an America in the throes of Red Scare paranoia and hardening conservatism. His attempts to establish a career as an editorial cartoonist were stymied as newspapers shied away from “controversial content” especially when he echoed the views of the American Civil Liberties Union and its opposition to witch hunts, blacklists, and attacks on individuals for their political opinions.
He tried to transition Willie and Joe to civilian life and chronicled the hard times they had fitting in. The public wasn’t interested.
Discouraged, Mauldin turned to illustrating magazine articles and books. He even tried his hand at acting, appearing with another youthful looking veteran, Audie Murphy in the Civil War film, The Red Badge of Courage.Mauldin starred with another young vet, Audie Murphy who was the most decorated soldier of World War II, in John Huston's adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.
Mauldin also struggled with his personal life. He married three times and fathered eight children.
In 1956 at the height of the Cold War Mauldin ran for Congress in a rural Upstate New York District as a peace Democrat. He campaigned hard and was personally well received by local farmers—until his foreign policy positions failed to match to staunch conservatism of the district.
In 1958 he finally got steady work as staff editorial cartoonist for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and the national syndication that went with it. Ironically, Mauldin’s still struggling career got a boost when he won a second Pulitzer Prize 1n 1959 for a cartoon that was acceptable to the anti-Communist crowd. It pictured Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago in a Soviet Gulag asking a fellow inmate, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?” In fact, the cartoon was in line with Mauldin’s consistent defense of the rights of free speech and civil liberties.
Mauldin moved in 1962 to the Chicago Sun-Times, Marshal Field’s liberal challenger to Col. Robert McCormick’s hyper-conservative Chicago Tribune. It gave him a supportive home for outstanding political cartooning for the rest of his career. Mauldin’s editorial page panel was one of the big reasons I became a dedicated reader of that paper for years.
Among his famous Sun-Times cartoons is the picture of Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial burring his face in his hands the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy—which inexplicably failed to win a third Pulitzer. He was a bitter opponent of the Vietnam War and supporter of anti-war protestors. His cartoons during and after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 featured Mayor Richard J. Dailey as a Keystone Kop, which made Hizonor apoplectic.
Mauldin retired in 1991. He was missed. He occasionally contributed a cartoon and did several interviews. He entertained old friends and admirers.
But his fine, sharp mind was fading. Suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease Mauldin was badly scalded in bathtub accident and died in great pain in Newport Beach, California on January 11, 2002. He was buried with so many of his fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery.
Willie and Joe endure.