Bill Mauldin, the voice of the grunt

Those who served in the United States military as enlisted men and women — particularly from World War II through Vietnam — have a particular affinity for Bill Mauldin.

Mauldin was an artist whose cartoons depicted, with brilliant perception, brutal honesty, and insightful humor, the life of the everyday “grunt,” the guy who dug the ditches, moved the equipment, and generally got things done while the officers were taking the credit. No one knew the grunts better than Willie and Joe, the characters that Mauldin created to depict the lives of these weary and bedraggled guys.

Mauldin joined in 1940 the Army after taking some art courses at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and he soon volunteered to draw cartoons for his division’s newspaper. That’s when he developed the Willie and Joe characters. Mauldin’s division participated in the invasion of Italy in 1943, and Mauldin started submitting cartoons to Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper that served the armed forces in Europe.

Eventually, newspaper readers back in America began seeing Mauldin’s cartoons — something the U.S. War Office supported since they indicated that final victory for the Allies would be slow, grinding work.

Mauldin never shifted his point of view, always seeing life from the eyes of the enlisted man. His characters were unshaven, weary, and irreverent; they did not fit into the spit-and-polish image that many officers believed the Army should be showing to the public.

That irritated many officers, of course, and one of those officers was General George Patton. When Mauldin satirized Patton’s order that everyone in his army should be clean-shaven, Patton threated to jail Mauldin and ban Stars and Stripes. General Dwight Eisenhower, understanding that Mauldin’s cartoons were good for morale, told Patton to back off and leave Mauldin alone.

“I know that the pictures in this book have offended some people, and I don’t blame a lot of them,” he wrote after the war. “Some men in the army love their profession, and without those men to build the army we’d be in a sad fix. Some of them I do blame, because the pictures don’t offend the pride in their profession — they only puncture their stiff shirt fronts. I love to draw pictures that offend such guys, because it’s fun to hear them squawk.”

At the end of the war, Mauldin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the body of his work. He was 23 years old.

Mauldin continued to draw cartoons and work in journalism for the next 40 years. He worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Sun-Times, but his cartoons were widely syndicated. He also drew for Life magazine and wrote and published a number of books. He received a second Pulitzer in 1959.

He died in 2003, and in 2010 the U.S. Postal Service honored him with a stamp depicting him and his most famous characters. So, when you next celebrate Veterans Day, think a bit about Willie and Joe.

The best collection of Mauldin’s wartime cartoons is his book Upfront, which was published right after the war. Several editions are still available.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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