The Daily Heller: Bill Mauldin, WW2 Cartoon Hero, at 100

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I grew up copying Bill Mauldin's drawings, line for line, figure for figure, straight out of the book my father and millions of other World War II soldiers bought: It was titled Up Front and was the most popular book of the era (not just of the cartoon genre either). Sgt. Mauldin was the most spot-on cartoonist to represent the daily trials and travails of everyday GIs. Mauldin's gritty and witty personifications were named Willy and Joe, who—appearing regularly in Stars and Stripes—were characters that boosted morale as much as any USO show.

"The mud-spattered, butt-smoking infantrymen illustrated the bleak and absurdly comic lives of them all," wrote Nancy Montgomery in Stars and Stripes. "Mauldin's unsentimental work—teetering on the line between funny and tragic, unafraid to mock authority—spoke to and for front-line soldiers. They loved him for it. It's difficult to overstate how much."

Upon returning from active duty, Mauldin took his place as an acerbic political cartoonist. For me he was a legend. So when a New York Times editorial page writer/editor, Herbert Mitgang, brought him to my Op-Ed page office for a surprise visit, I was virtually speechless. I did, however, sputter enough to say, "I inherited my worn copy of Up Front from my dad, who told me 'if you want to learn to draw, draw like this.'" I still have the book to this day but I could never draw as well as Bill.

This year would be Mauldin's 100th birthday. To commemorate his life and work during and after the war, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago has published Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino, featuring a preface by Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) and essays by Mauldin's scholars and fans, including Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation).

Mauldin was called back to service for the Korean War, but war was not the sole focus of his work; a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Chicago Sun-Times, he advocated for the civil rights movement, against Jim Crow racism and used his editorial space as a bully pulpit to protest McCarthyism. If he were alive today, you could be certain he would not lack for raw editorial meat.

(The images below are from Drawing Fire courtesy The Pritzker Military Museum & Library.)

“I got a hangover. Does it show?”

This cartoon from January 1945 plays on ordinary civilian concerns about self-presentation in public to highlight both Willie and Joe’s disheveled and grimy appearance and their dependence on alcohol to cope with the trauma of war. It was precisely this kind of cartoon that rankled the spit-and-polish General Patton. (Originally published in Stars and Stripes, 1945.)

“It’s either enemy or off limits.”

American infantrymen in World War II encountered devastation wherever they went. The Germans demolished towns as they retreated, while the Allies did the same as they advanced. It was a war of brute force that left Italy looking, in Bill’s words, “as if a giant rake had gone over it from end to end.” Occasionally, a town escaped ruin. In that case, it would be placed off-limits to dogfaces and reserved for rear-echelon soldiers and high-ranking officers to enjoy. (Originally published in Stars and Stripes, 1944.)

“Yer a Menace to the People. It’s me duty to sink your end of the boat.”

(Originally published by United Features Syndicate, Inc., 1947)

During the Salvadorian Civil War of 1979 to 1992, the Reagan administration increased U.S. support for the military junta government fighting a left-wing insurgency. Observers like Mauldin feared a quagmire akin to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Mauldin references (or, perhaps, simply copies) a chilling cartoon by M.A. Kempf that appeared in The Masses in June 1917 during WWII. It shows the great powers of Europe dancing with death in a pool of blood. The caption reads, “Come on in, America, the blood’s fine.” (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1982.)

Originally published by United Feature Syndicate, Inc., 1947.)

The U.S. Victory in the First Gulf War left Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in power and raised a number of questions about the United States’ role in the region. Mauldin saw that despite President Bush’s proclamation of victory, the Middle East was far from won. (Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1991).