"So here was a human being as human as they get. Growling, disgruntled,
dismissive, disgusted - hey, hell, he was a cartoonist. But when he smiled his eyes squinted up and a beam spread across his broad face from one jug ear to the other. Not many people can smile like that." - Pat Oliphant
by lyle e davis
On March 31, 2010, the United States Post Office did a good thing. They released a first-class denomination ($.44) postage stamp depicting Bill Mauldin with Willie & Joe in Mauldin's honor. The Bill Mauldin stamp honors the grunts' hero ...
Mauldin died at age 81 in the early days of 2003. The end of his life had been rugged. He had been scalded in a bathtub, which led to terrible injuries and infections; Alzheimer's disease was inflicting its cruelties. Unable to care for himself after the scalding, he became a resident of a California nursing home, his health and spirits in rapid decline.
He was not forgotten, though. Mauldin, and his work, meant so much to the millions of Americans who fought in World War II, and to those who had waited for them to come home. He was a kid cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper; Mauldin's drawings of his muddy, exhausted, whisker-stubbled infantrymen Willie and Joe were the voice of truth about what it was like on the front lines.
Mauldin was an enlisted man just like the soldiers he drew for; his gripes were their gripes, his laughs were their laughs, his heartaches were their heartaches. He was one of them. They loved him.
He never held back. Sometimes, when his cartoons cut too close for comfort, his superior officers tried to tone him down. Those officers who had served in the army before the war were generally offended by Mauldin, who parodied the spit-shine and obedience-to-order-without-question view that was more easily maintained during that time of peace. General George Patton once summoned Mauldin to his office and threatened to "throw his ass in jail" for "spreading dissent," this after one of Mauldin's cartoons made fun of Patton's demand that all soldiers must be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat. But Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander European Theater, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone, because he felt that Mauldin's cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. Mauldin told an interviewer later, "I always admired Patton. Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn't like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes."
How It Started
While in the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin volunteered to work for the unit's newspaper, drawing cartoons about regular soldiers or "dogfaces." Eventually he created two cartoon infantrymen, Willie (who was modeled after his comrade and friend Irving Richtel) and Joe, who became synonymous with the average American GI.
During July 1943, Mauldin's cartoon work continued when, as a sergeant of the 45th Division's press corps, he landed with the division in the invasion of Sicily and later in the Italian campaign. Mauldin began working for Stars and Stripes, the American soldiers' newspaper; as well as the 45th Division News, until he was officially transferred to the Stars and Stripes in February 1944.
By March 1944, he was given his own jeep, in which he roamed the front, collecting material and producing six cartoons a week. His cartoons were viewed by soldiers throughout Europe during World War II, and were also published in the United States. Willie was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, and Mauldin himself made the cover in 1958.
Mauldin's cartoons made him a hero to the common soldier. GIs often credited him with helping them to get through the rigors of the war. His credibility with the common soldier increased in September 1943, when he was wounded in the shoulder by a German mortar while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino. By the end of the war he also received the Army's Legion of Merit for his cartoons.
If, in your line of work, you've ever considered yourself a young hotshot, or if you've ever known anyone who has felt that way about himself or herself, the story of Mauldin's young manhood will humble you. Here is what, by the time he was 23 years old, Mauldin had accomplished:
He won the Pulitzer Prize. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His book "Up Front" was the No. 1 best-seller in the United States. The cartoons are interwoven with an impassioned telling of his observations of war.
All of that at 23. Yet when he returned to civilian life and he grew older, he never lost that boyish Mauldin grin, he never outgrew his excitement about doing his job, he never big-shotted or high-hatted the people with whom he worked every day.
After World War II, Mauldin turned to drawing political cartoons expressing a generally civil libertarian view associated with groups such as the ACLU. These were not well received by newspaper editors, who were hoping for more apolitical Willie and Joe cartoons. But Mauldin's attempt to carry Willie and Joe into civilian life was also unsuccessful, as documented in his memoirs, Back Home, in 1947.
He abandoned cartooning for a while, working as a film actor, freelance writer, and illustrator of articles and books, including one on the Korean War. He drew Willie and Joe only a few times afterwards: for the funerals of Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall, both of them considered "soldiers' generals"; for a Life Magazine article on the "New Army"; and to memorialize fellow cartoonist Milton Caniff. (Mauldin had wanted to have Willie and Joe be killed on the last day of combat, but Stars and Stripes dissuaded him.)
In the mid-1950’s he moved to Rockland County in New York. In 1956, he, a clearly left-of-center candidate, decided to run for Congress against the incumbent conservative Republican Katharine St. George in the 28th District. Mauldin had this to say about his run for Congress: "I jumped in with both feet and campaigned for seven or eight months. I found myself stumping around up in these rural districts and my own background did hurt there. A farmer knows a farmer when he sees one. So when I was talking about their problems I was a very sincere candidate, but when they would ask me questions that had to do with foreign policy or national policy, obviously I was pretty far to the left of the mainstream up there. Again, I'm an old Truman Democrat, I'm not that far left, but by their lives I was pretty far left."
His opponent, Mrs. St. George, was quoted as saying "I will not say that all Democrats are horse thieves but it would seem that all horse thieves are Democrats," won handily.
Mauldin roamed the hallways of the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1960s and early 1970s with no more officiousness or air of haughtiness than if he was a copyboy. That impish look on his face remained.
He had achieved so much. He had won a second Pulitzer Prize, and he should have won a third, for what may be the single greatest editorial cartoon in the history of the craft: his deadline rendering, on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial slumped in grief, its head cradled in its hands. But he never acted as if he was better than the people he met. He was still Mauldin the enlisted man. During the late summer of 2002, as Mauldin lay in that California nursing home, some of the old World War II infantry guys caught wind of it. They didn't want Mauldin to go out that way. They thought he should know that he was still their hero.
Gordon Dillow, a columnist for the Orange County Register, put out the call in Southern California for people in the area to send their best wishes to Mauldin; I (Columnist Bob Greene) joined Dillow in the effort, helping to spread the appeal nationally so that Bill would not feel so alone. Soon more than 10,000 letters and cards had arrived at Mauldin's bedside.
Even better than that, the old soldiers began to show up just to sit with Mauldin, to let him know that they were there for him, as he, long ago, had been there for them. So many volunteered to visit Bill that there was a waiting list. Here is how Todd DePastino, in the first paragraph of his wonderful biography of Mauldin, described it:
"Almost every day in the summer and fall of 2002 they came to Park Superior nursing home in Newport Beach, California, to honor Army Sergeant, Technician Third Grade, Bill Mauldin. They came bearing relics of their youth: medals, insignia, photographs, and carefully folded newspaper clippings. Some wore old garrison caps. Others arrived resplendent in uniforms over a half century old. Almost all of them wept as they filed down the corridor like pilgrims fulfilling some long-neglected obligation."
One of the veterans explained to me why it was so important:
"You would have to be part of a combat infantry unit to appreciate what moments of relief Bill gave us. You had to be reading a soaking wet Stars and Stripes in a water-filled foxhole and then see one of his cartoons."
Mauldin is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This kid cartoonist made it onto a first-class postage stamp. It's an honor that most generals and admirals never receive.
What Mauldin would have loved most, I believe, is the sight of the two guys who are keeping him company on that stamp.
David Mauldin recalled a cartoon in which his father captured the camaraderie of soldiers at the front.
Sitting down in the reeds, their feet lost in the muck, Willie thanks his buddy with the best gift he could give, given the circumstances.
“Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an’ I swore I’d pay ya back. Here’s my last pair of dry socks,” reads the caption.
“One person sent me a pair of socks,” David said. “A guy named Bill Ellis sent the socks after [Dad’s] death. That moved me to tears.”
And he started to cry.