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BILL MAULDIN: 1921-2003

GI Cartoonist Drew It Like It Was in Foxholes

January 23, 2003|Mike Anton | 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.

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