GI Cartoonist Drew It Like It Was in Foxholes

Times Staff Writer

Bill Mauldin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose characters -- two downtrodden GIs, Willie and Joe -- spoke to a generation of soldiers who fought in World War II, died early Wednesday. He was 81.

Mauldin died at a nursing home in Newport Beach where he had lived since mid-2001 while battling Alzheimer's disease. More recently, he had contracted pneumonia. Cause of death was respiratory failure.

A self-described "hillbilly from New Mexico," Mauldin rose from small-town obscurity to popular hero as a baby-faced Army sergeant working for the armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes in Europe.

His darkly funny and irreverent cartoons captured the mood of a changing military made up of citizen soldiers who questioned the leadership skills of their own officers even as they battled the enemy. Mauldin went on to become one of the best-known and best-loved newspaper cartoonists in America.

Mauldin's Willie and Joe, infantrymen who survived on a diet of ironic humor, were dirty and unshaven, slogging through mud and snow and sleeping in foxholes filled with water. They dodged enemy bullets as well as the poor morale brought on by incompetent officers.

"Beautiful view," says one officer to another while gazing at the French Alps in a Mauldin cartoon. "Is there one for the enlisted men?"

"Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an' I swore I'd pay ya back," Willie says in another sketch. "Here's my last pair of dry socks."

The caption on a drawing of exhausted soldiers walking hunched over in the rain reads, "Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners." It's hard to tell which are the prisoners.

"I haven't tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I'm not old enough to understand what it's all about," Mauldin wrote in 1945. "My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings."

Mauldin's characters offered a counterpoint to the clean-cut, gung-ho fighting man put forth by the Army publicity machine. There was no gauzy sentimentality in Willie and Joe, no chest-thumping heroics. They were just doing their job and wanted only to finish it and go home. It was an apt description of America's new military.

"The old professional soldiers didn't care for these new people, these wiseacres who talked backed and didn't show them the proper respect," said Lee Kennett, professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia and author of "GI: The American Soldier in World War II."

"Mauldin captured the basic attitudes of the GI. He spoke for them in a very clear way."

Mauldin's detractors said he was sowing seeds of discontent. Gen. George S. Patton -- whom Mauldin lampooned in a sketch about his insistence that soldiers be cleanshaven and wear ties, even in combat -- was so infuriated he tried to stop Stars and Stripes from being circulated among his 3rd Army. Patton called in Mauldin, dressed down the sergeant and threatened to throw him in jail.

But Patton's boss -- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower -- interceded. Eisenhower, himself part of the Army's old guard, thought soldiers needed an outlet to vent their frustrations. He told Patton to leave Mauldin alone.

Mauldin's embrace of the average "dogface" on the front lines earned him the undying love of soldiers. For decades, veterans sought out Mauldin to thank him for helping them get through the war.

While battling Alzheimer's in the Newport Beach nursing home where he died, Mauldin was inundated with visitors and thousands of cards and letters.

"I don't use this word lightly, but he was a genius," said Andy Rooney, the "60 Minutes" correspondent who worked as a reporter for Stars and Stripes during the war. "He was sharp, bitter and funny all at the same time."

Yet Mauldin was often uncomfortable with the adoration showered on him because of Willie and Joe. Despite becoming wealthy and famous, he never abandoned his shy country sensibility.

"Mauldin was obviously special because of Willie and Joe. I guess that's how he will be remembered," said Stephen Hess, author of "Drawn & Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons."

"But he's more complicated and important to the history of cartooning than that."

Indeed, Mauldin would go on to write and illustrate more than a dozen books and become one of the 20th century's most influential editorial cartoonists, sticking up for the little guy and skewering the powerful.

"Dad's philosophy in his work was always, 'If it's big, hit it,' " said his son, Nat Mauldin, who lives in Los Angeles. "He grew up a little guy. He understood the little guy."

School of Hard Knocks

William Henry Mauldin was born Oct. 29, 1921, in Mountain Park, N.M., the son of a hard-drinking jack of all trades who moved the family around the Southwest and northern Mexico during the Depression in search of work.

Mauldin's childhood was marked by his bickering parents and the family's scrabble for cash. He was a rebellious kid, a scrawny brawler who rarely won a fight, and was known to his teachers as a smart-aleck.

But he was also a voracious reader -- something his mother encouraged.

"He is one of the most phenomenally self-educated people I've ever met," said Jon Gordon, a longtime family friend and attorney who managed Mauldin's business affairs. "He got an entire classics education simply by reading. He was a self-taught mechanic. He built his own machine tools. If he wanted to learn how to do something, he'd order a book and learn how to do it."

At 13, Mauldin saw an ad for a correspondence course in cartooning in Popular Mechanics magazine that claimed the profession could earn one as much as $100,000 a year. Worried that his parents' crumbling marriage could leave him and his older brother, Sidney, to fend for themselves, Mauldin borrowed the $20 tuition from his grandmother and enrolled.

Mauldin's first published work was in his Alamogordo, N.M., high school newspaper -- comic sketches of some of his teachers, none of whom recognized themselves. He then tried advertising, sending an unsolicited sketch to an animal medicine company that depicted two children grieving over a dog's grave. The company said it couldn't use it but sent Mauldin a dollar anyway.

At 17, living in Phoenix with his by-then-divorced mother, Mauldin was kicked out of a high school biology class for sticking a lighted cigarette in the mouth of a skeleton. He never made up the credit so he didn't graduate. Instead, he left home and enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Again, Mauldin's grandmother came through, lending him the $300 tuition.

He found work illustrating restaurant menus and political posters and drawing gag cartoons. But the money was meager, and Mauldin couldn't break through to the better-paying national magazines.

In 1940, at age 18, Mauldin enlisted in the National Guard, enticed by the steady paycheck. Within days, his unit was federalized and Mauldin was suddenly in the Army. He quickly made his mark as a guy who didn't conform to authority.

"I was a smartass, always expressing my opinion," Mauldin said later. "So I got on the wrong side of the company commander ... who kept assigning me to KP and latrine duty."

While training for the infantry in Oklahoma, he got a job drawing cartoons for the 45th Division's newspaper. Mauldin later called his early work "latrine humor." In 1943, he was shipped to Italy and assigned to Stars and Stripes. It was there, in the crucible of war, that Willie and Joe began to take shape.

On the Front Lines

Mauldin got his material from the front lines, where he was wounded and awarded a Purple Heart. His biggest difficulty, though, was obtaining supplies. He was constantly scrounging for pens, brushes, ink and paper.

"The best paper I found to draw on was the double-thick photo prints," he said later. "I would rip a picture of Mussolini off the wall, or Hitler, and draw on the back."

Mauldin intended to kill off Willie and Joe in a final sketch at war's end but was persuaded by editors not to. Instead, they came home with him.

Mauldin entered the war unknown and broke. He left it famous and well off. In 1945, at age 23, he won a Pulitzer Prize, the first of two, for his wartime cartoons. His work was syndicated in more than 300 newspapers. His book "Up Front," a collection of cartoons, was a bestseller. He also was astute enough to retain the copyright to his wartime cartoons.

But like many returning veterans, Mauldin had difficulty readjusting. Willie and Joe's caustic take on civilian life just didn't work.

"I really didn't know who they were anymore," Mauldin said in 1995. "They lost their identity as soon as the war was over. They were a flop at home, and I stopped drawing them."

His celebrity also was a problem. The distractions of fame clouded his artistic vision. He lamented that it left him out of touch with the average man.

"I have sat up late at night sometimes, counting my dollars and bemoaning the quirks of a fate that rewarded me ... [with] success that damn near ruined my cartoons," he wrote in "Back Home," published in 1947.

It would take Mauldin a decade to reinvent himself. He quit cartooning for several years and wrote magazine articles and books, including one from the front in Korea.

In 1950, he went to Hollywood and worked briefly behind and in front of the camera, including a role in John Huston's adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage." Later, he turned to politics, losing a 1956 race for Congress as a Democrat in New York state.

In 1958, he returned to cartooning full time on the editorial pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There, Mauldin brought a strong liberal point of view to the issues of the day, particularly civil rights.

Within a year, he had won his second Pulitzer for a drawing on the Soviet crackdown on author Boris Pasternak. "I won the Nobel Prize for literature," one Siberian prisoner tells another in the caption. "What was your crime?"

"He was an excellent writer, as strong with the words as he was with the drawings," said Mike Peters, a cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News. "That's what made him so special."

Peters was a 13-year-old budding illustrator when his mother, an employee of the company that owned the Post-Dispatch, introduced him to Mauldin. Peters was invited to watch Mauldin at work, sketching his signature dark lines with the sharpened back end of a paint brush.

"It was like watching one of the old masters at work," said Peters, who later won a Pulitzer Prize and credits Mauldin with landing him his first newspaper job.

In 1962, Mauldin moved to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he got a lucrative syndication deal. He would stay there three decades, pumping out cartoons from ideas that came to him each morning while soaking in a hot bath. He retired in 1991 after injuring his left hand, his drawing hand, while working on a vintage Army jeep.

It was in Chicago that Mauldin drew what many consider to be his most memorable cartoon: Abraham Lincoln, as depicted in the Lincoln Memorial, head in hands and weeping on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. It was a superb example of his ability to touch the masses.

"What made him great was the uncommon -- almost intuitive -- feeling he had for the common man," said James F. Hoge Jr., now editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, who was Mauldin's editor at the Sun-Times during the 1970s. "He didn't change when he became famous. He knew what he was, and what he was was a man of common virtues."

An avid outdoorsman who loved to tinker with old cars, Mauldin lived well below his means.

Nat Mauldin, the cartoonist's son from his second marriage, said that when he was growing up in Chicago, the family car was "a plain Buick station wagon -- no whitewall tires, no power windows. We didn't have a color TV until 1970."

For years, Mauldin owned just one suit. But he sent his kids to private school and indulged his hobbies, photography and flying.

Mauldin's iconic image belied a messy personal life. He was married three times and divorced twice. His second wife, who struggled with severe depression, died in an car crash. He was father to eight children by his three wives: Bruce, Tim, Andrew, David, John, Nat, Kaja and Sam. All but Kaja survive him. He is also survived by brother Sidney, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

To millions of veterans, Mauldin was simply one of them: a soldier, but one who fought World War II with a pen instead of a rifle.

For decades, veterans reached out to Mauldin, calling him on the phone, stopping by unannounced at the New Mexico home where he lived for many years, sending him letters and copies of books asking for signatures. The stuff piled up -- unopened -- in a spare bedroom.

"By necessity, he had become quite reclusive," said Jon Gordon, his friend and attorney. "Because he became a folk hero at such a young age, there were people who thought they owned a piece of him. He kind of bristled at that. His feeling was, 'I want to live my own life.' He didn't share a lot of people's glorification of the war. He felt that a lot of people misinterpreted who he was and what he really stood for."

Gordon said that when a TV network invited Mauldin to visit American troops preparing for the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, he was asked what impressed him most about the nation's high-tech military. The little tripods that soldiers had nowadays to help them fill sandbags -- those, Mauldin said, would have come in handy during World War II.

It was what Willie and Joe would have said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World