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Drawn to a Comrade Who Helped Them Through War

September 14, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the strangers come to visit the old sergeant, they offer keepsakes from more than half a century ago: Faded black-and-white photos of themselves in uniform, yellowed newspaper clippings and dog-eared cartoons of GIs Willie and Joe. They recount a war story or two. They say how much they appreciate what he did for them.

Sometimes the sergeant answers with a smile or a flash of recognition. Other times not. When they leave his room at a Newport Beach nursing home, some of them cry.

Bill Mauldin is one of the most famous veterans of World War II, although he never led troops, never took a hill and never flew a mission. He drew cartoons--darkly humorous takes on life as seen from a muddy foxhole.

His sketches told of fear and fatigue, death and a desire to finish the job and go home. They earned him a Pulitzer Prize and the admiration of millions of soldiers who saw their struggles in his characters.

Now, at 80 and battling Alzheimer's disease and other ailments, he is being honored again by a parade of men he has never met--veterans making a pilgrimage to his bedside to say thanks for helping them.

There's the man with the multiple heart bypass who remembers how Mauldin's cartoons offered respite to men building a bridge under enemy fire. A retired salesman recounts seeing, from atop a utility pole in Anzio, Italy, Mauldin driving by in a Jeep. A Navy vet says Mauldin helped inspire him to become a cartoonist after the war.

"This is payback," said Jay Gruenfeld, a 77-year-old Lompoc vet who, with help from two newspaper columnists, started the movement that has drawn a steady stream of aging visitors.

Gruenfeld served in the Pacific. While recovering in an Army hospital from wounds that nearly severed his spine, his father sent him Mauldin's best-selling book, "Up Front," which combined the New Mexico native's cartoons with a narrative about life in the trenches.

"I couldn't get over his common sense and the way he captured the life of the infantry guys in his prose," Gruenfeld said. "He made fun of things that really aren't that funny."

Mauldin--who would go on to further fame as an author and editorial cartoonist, winning a second Pulitzer in 1959 while at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch--was an Army sergeant who drew from the front lines in Europe for the military newspaper Stars & Stripes. He immortalized the combat soldier in his characters Willie and Joe, two ordinary "dogfaces" who battled both the enemy and know-nothing officers who were safely sequestered from the action.

When, under heavy fire, one of Mauldin's soldiers tells another, "I feel like a fugitive from th' law of averages," Gruenfeld understood. He grew up in Illinois as an avid outdoorsman, and joined the Army at the age of 18.

"People thought I was crazy to want to go into the infantry," he said. "I wanted to see the jungles."

He did. In his first month of combat, 600 of the 4,000 men in his division were killed and hundreds of others were wounded. In 20 months of fighting, Gruenfeld was wounded four times.

Later, he became a forester, and in retirement wrote and self-published an autobiography.

"Mauldin was 22 when he wrote his first book," Gruenfeld said. "When I finally wrote a book in '97, I wanted to send it to Mauldin."

Eventually, he tracked down Mauldin's son in New Mexico, one of eight children from three marriages. The request came as no surprise to David Mauldin. For years, the son has averaged a call a month from vets trying to locate his father, the legend.

"For decades, my dad was not wanting to hear all that," he said of his father's reaction to accolades of his wartime work. "His feeling was, 'That was then, this is now.' He knew it was the basis of his fame. But he was also smart enough to know that he was in the right place at the right time."

The veterans shake loose in Mauldin deeply buried memories from the closet of his mind, making him more lucid more often.

"Don't you remember being 22?" David Mauldin said. "He seems to be temporarily brought back by all these vets."

When Gruenfeld was told of Mauldin's fading health, including complications from burns suffered in a household accident a few years ago, he drove 200 miles to see him. He showed Mauldin some of his old cartoons, but got no response. Then he pinned a replica combat infantry badge on Mauldin's pajamas.

"He had the biggest, most beautiful smile on his face," Gruenfeld said. "It made my day. I hope it made his day."

Gruenfeld crafted a letter in May that he mailed to veterans' groups. "Hopefully," it read, "there are ... people left feeling as I do, that Bill Mauldin did enough to lighten the grim burden of WWII for those in service and at home, that he deserves some special treatment during his final years."

In July, Orange County Register columnist Gordon Dillow made a similar appeal. That led nationally syndicated columnist Bob Greene, a former colleague of Mauldin's when both worked at the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1970s, to do the same.

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