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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
1 Apr 2023

NextImg:Cartoonist of World War II: Bill Mauldin

Bill Mauldin once said, “Humor is really laughing off a hurt, grinning at misery.”

Increasingly, awareness heightens that few of the 16 million who served during World War II are still living. At least a half dozen wars have occurred since Japan surrendered in 1945, but some surviving veterans recall details as if they happened yesterday. Among the highlights and horrors of the World War II experience, Bill Mauldin’s cartoons are remembered by many.

At 19, when the New Mexico native joined the Army in 1940 as a rifleman in the 180th Infantry Regiment, Mauldin was already leaning toward a career as an illustrator, having studied political cartooning at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. So, when an opportunity opened up for him to illustrate for military newspapers, including Stars and Stripes, he landed it.

Fairly quickly into his service, Mauldin established the cartoon characters Willie and Joe, and these quirky, often haggard infantrymen, sketched in pen and ink, became the recognizable visual images of the World War II era.

The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana, expresses to visitors regarding Mauldin: “Although surrounded by the brutality of battle, his main characters, Willie and Joe, reflected the inextinguishable spirit of America’s citizen soldiers who overcame the hardships of war with resilient humor.”

Mauldin’s cartoon following increased after 1943 and his involvement in the Italian campaign. He traveled regularly by jeep to observe and sketch soldiers. The Library of Congress noted, “Bill mostly worked at night, until the wee hours, on drawings made from innumerable sketches made up [during his time on the] front with the combat troops.”

Bill Maulden’s cartoon: “Me future is settled, Willie. I’m gonna be a perfessor on types o’ European soil.” First published in Stars and Stripes (Mediterranean edition), Oct. 25, 1944. (Public Domain)

By 1944, six Mauldin cartoons were published weekly and, because the cartoons featured the average soldiers’ daily rigors, they were relatable. For example, one cartoon shows two rain-soaked, exhausted GIs squatting in a mud-filled ditch. Willie says, “Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an’ I swore I’d pay ya back. Here’s my last pair of dry socks.”

He turned his considerable talents (not to mention his wry wit) to capturing the gritty and absurd reality of life in uniform,” noted Military History Now in a March 2015 report.

Another Mauldin cartoon of a GI digging a trench reads: “Me future is settled, Willie. I’m gonna be a perfessor on types o’ European soil.”

Traversing with pen and ink around battlefields was not without its dangers. The Library of Congress documented that “around Christmas 1943, while sketching at the front, a small fragment from a German mortar hit his shoulders. ‘My only damage was a ringing in my ears and a fragment in my shoulder. It burned like a fury but was very small,’” Mauldin said. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin sits in his World War II-era Jeep at his home April 9, 1992 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Neil Jacobs/Getty Images)

Mauldin received a Purple Heart for his injury, yet he supposedly protested that he had “been cut worse sneaking through barbed-wire fences in New Mexico.”

Military History Now pointed out, “While Mauldin’s wounds were non-life-threatening, the experience only added to his comic strips’ authority. No one could say the artist behind Willie and Joe didn’t know soldiers’ sufferings. He shared them.”

Although many of the cartoons may not have produced laugh-out-loud reactions from readers, they did convey to soldiers that their service was noticed. In the Stephen Ambrose biography of Mauldin’s life, Mauldin is quoted as saying, “When you lose a friend [in battle] you have an overpowering desire to go back home and yell in everybody’s ear, ‘This guy was killed fighting for you. Don’t forget him—ever. Keep him in your mind when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Don’t think of him as the statistic which changes 38,788 casualties to 38,789. Think of him as a guy who wanted to live every bit as much as you do.’”

Mauldin’s cartoons garnered so much notoriety that in 1945 he received a Legion of Merit citation as well as a Pulitzer Prize. Time magazine devoted its June 18, 1945 cover to Mauldin’s “Willie” character; that same year, Mauldin released a compendium of the best of his 600 cartoons entitled “Up Front.” It was a bestseller.

After the war, Mauldin continued work as a cartoonist, even winning a second Pulitzer Prize in 1959. His sketches evolved from communicating soldiers’ lives to addressing decades of political issues. For example, one cartoon depicted Soviet author Boris Pasternak in a gulag, asking another prisoner, “I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?”

Mauldin’s 1958 cartoon for which he received his second Pulitzer Prize showing Soviet author Boris Pasternak in a gulag, asking another prisoner, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 30, 1958, via (Public Domain)

While Mauldin attempted to keep Willie and Joe “alive” in his cartoons after World War II ended, he decided their civilian lives would not have the same appeal. However, Willie and Joe did resurface in Mauldin’s cartoons around the time of the deaths of Gen. George C. Marshall in 1959 and Gen. Omar Bradley in 1981.

Mauldin left behind a legacy of ironic visual creations when he died in 2003. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.