2010-05-21 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Remembering A Front-Line Artist
By Stephen Yaeger

For the second time the United States Post Office issued a stamp honoring the most famous front-line artist of WWII. William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was born in Mountain Park, New Mexico on October 29, 1921. His interest in art prompted him to take a correspondence course in cartooning and then to enter the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago. In 1940 he enlisted in the US Army and remained an enlisted man for the duration of the war lasting from December 7, 1941 to September 2, 1945 (formal surrender of Japan on the USS Missouri).

He participated in the Sicily and Italy invasions in 1943 all the while drawing his cartoons of two unkempt, bearded dogface soldiers going by the names, Willie and Joe. The new stamp, issued on March 31, shows a smiling, young Mauldin with his two creations just behind him.

Willie and Joe were placed in realistic but humorous situations showing the stubble-faced GIs sitting in mud, ducking enemy fire, poking fun at officers, or confronting with sympathy war-weary civilians. Mauldin said he drew such images of Willie and Joe because he “knew what their life was like and understood their gripes” and he “wanted to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable.” In time the cartoons depicting the gripes and hardships of the average GI enlisted man came to the attention of the most popular wartime journalist at the time, Ernie Pyle. His writings about Mauldin’s cartoons soon reached the home front via newspapers and the drawings became favorites of the folks at home.

Mauldin’s work meant so much to the millions of fighting men who fought in World War II. The cartoons were seen in the Army’s “Stars and Stripes” newspaper which was distributed in all of the theatres of war. Mauldin never held back in his critical depiction of officers which, when they hit too close for comfort, his superior officers attempted to hold him back. Gen. George S. Patton was especially uptight and thought Mauldin to be an upstart. He informed Mauldin he wanted the cartoons lampooning officers to stop. Mauldin continued to draw what he felt was the life of the average GI and ignored Gen. Patton. In time the dispute between a twenty-something, cartoon-drawing sergeant, with a captivating smile and an old time, cursing, “bent-for-hell” general was soon known among the fighting men who loved Willie and Joe. Finally in 1945 Gen. Patton wanted to ban “Stars and Stripes” from his Third Army, but Mauldin and the GIs had an ally and fan of Willie and Joe.

Five-star General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, did not approve of Patton’s censorship and let it be known that Mauldin could draw what Mauldin wished to draw. And so the cartoons continued and in 1945, at the age of 23, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and his book “Up Front,“ featuring his Willie and Joe cartoons, was the number one best-seller in the United States.

At war’s end Mauldin became an editorial political cartoonist. His editorial cartoon of a grief-stricken President Lincoln sitting, slumped over with his head cradled in his hands, within the Lincoln Memorial was one of the most memorable tributes to the assassinated President Kennedy…it was drawn on the spur of the moment on the day of Kennedy’s death. Mauldin also ran for congress and acted in films. (He had a part in “The Red Badge of Courage,” starring Audi Murphy, Medal of Honor winner and the most decorated soldier in WWII.)

William “Bill” Mauldin died on January 22, 2003 of respiratory failure in a Newport Beach, California nursing home. His last years were hard. He was scalded in a bathtub leading to infections and chronic illness, he came down with Alzheimer’s disease, and his health steadily declined. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery among his wartime buddies who loved him and his cartoons.

Bill Mauldin’s cartoons not only depict the fighting men of WWII, but can also show the life of every American fighting man and woman in every war. On Memorial Day remember and honor those members of the armed forces who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

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