Mauldin Fades Away
The Old Soldier Gets a Yahtzee
Twice the subject of a Time cover story--at least once more than any other cartoonist--Bill Mauldin created some of the most memorable cartoon images of the 20th century, and in the end, he was honored for it as no other cartoonist--and few mere mortals--ever has been.
Mauldin was perfect for a career as a political cartoonist. He could draw anything, and he was eager to take on the establishment. "If I see a stuffed shirt," he would say, "I want to punch it." From which his advice to political cartoonists everywhere follows as logically as the day follows night: "If it's big, hit it. You can't go far wrong."
Mauldin was famous as an anti-authoritarian critic by the time he was twenty-four years old. He acquired his notoriety in the most authoritarian of societies, the U.S. Army during World War II: in the cartoons he drew for military newspapers, he depicted the life of the "dogface" (foot soldier) the way it was. Rained on and shot at and kept awake in trenches day and night, the combat soldier was wet, scared, dirty, and tired all the time; and Mauldin's spokesmen--the scruffy, bristle-chinned, listlessly dull-eyed, stoop-shouldered Willie and Joe in their wrinkled and torn uniforms--were taciturn but eloquent witnesses on behalf of the prosecuted. Through simple combat-weary inertia, they defied pointless army regulations and rituals: they would fight the war, but they wouldn't keep their shoes polished.
Once we see them, in their usual state of slovenly disarray, stopped on the street of a freshly captured Italian town. They are standing outside a temporarily designated officers club while an officious-looking lieutenant in neatly pressed uniform points accusingly at the front of Willie's shirt. Willie responds, "Them buttons wuz shot off when I took this town, sir."
Perhaps in the same town a day or so later, Willie and Joe are seated, wearing garrison caps and comfortably slouching, on the stoop of a bombed-out building. Looking at them with vague disapproval is a rear echelon corporal. "He's right, Joe," says Willie, "When we ain't fightin' we should ack like sojers."
Because they so faithfully represented the average foot soldier's plight and proclivities, Mauldin's cartoons were immensely popular with the men in the trenches. And that very popularity was an affront to generally accepted notions of military propriety, but Mauldin never wavered even after the Third Army's legendary General George S. Patton leaned on him.
Old Blood-and-Guts Patton could have had an alternate moniker, Old Spit-and-Polish, so dedicated was he to spic-and-span uniform maintenance as a symbol of--and, indeed, as a significant contributor to--the highest military discipline, the sort necessary for successful battlefield operations. To Patton, Mauldin's Willie and Joe were seditious influences, and Mauldin was a dangerous anarchist.
"If that little son of a bitch sets foot in Third Army, I'll throw his ass in jail," Patton once fumed, loudly. But Patton's boss, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower, thought otherwise. It was the soldiers' paper, he said; let them alone. But he also thought it would be a good idea for Patton to meet Mauldin, and so the cartoonist had an encounter with the martinet of the Third Army
"Where did you ever see soldiers like that?" Patton asked Mauldin. "You know goddamn well you're not drawing an accurate representation of the American soldier. You make them look like goddamn bums. No respect for the army, their officers, or themselves. You know as well as I do that you can't have an army without respect for officers. What are you trying to do--incite a goddamn mutiny?"
Mauldin, however, was not much cowed by the tirade that Patton conducted for several long minutes, barely pausing to draw a breath. By the time they met in 1945, Mauldin, a baby-faced youth of 23, was celebrated throughout the armed forces as a man who spoke for the grunts in the field. He even had his own personal jeep so that he could travel easily to various venues of the battlefield, assembling material that would reflect the realities of war. His cartoons appeared regularly in Stars and Stripes, the famed serviceman's newspaper, and were syndicated stateside as Up Front by United Feature syndicate. Mauldin, although he didn't act it, was doubtless as famous as Patton. The cartoonist, in short, stood his ground.
When Patton finally gave him the opportunity speak, Mauldin defended himself.
"I knew these guys best," Mauldin said in recalling the encounter afterwards, "and [the cartoons] gave the typical soldier an outlet for his frustrations, a chance to blow off steam."
To Patton, he elaborated in terms designed to appease the disciplinarian: "The average soldier has a lot to gripe about," Mauldin said, "and if he stews long enough about it, he's not going to be thinking about his job. But he picks up his paper and reads a letter or sees a cartoon by some other soldier who feels the same way, and he says, 'Hell, somebody else said it for me,' and he goes back to his job."
Mauldin knew, as few cartoonists do, exactly how his cartoons worked.
But his explanation didn't change Patton's mind: if the soldiers in the field were "stewing" about their lot in life, the general opined, it's because they didn't have enough to do.
Patton didn't change Mauldin's mind either. Willie and Joe remained bedraggled in the extreme and unshaven in perpetuity.
Even in the hospital. Here's Willie, bearded, at full-length slouch in bed. One of the army doctors in attendance says to the others, "I think he should at least try to lie at attention."
And Mauldin persevered in depicting the numbing boredom and menacing danger and foxhole mud of the soldier's life, poking fun at army brass and exposing regulations as clueless whenever they meet reality as he bumped along the frontlines in the jeep assigned to him by General Mark Clark, commander of the forces in Italy, so that he wouldn't have to hitchhike wherever he went.
In one of Mauldin's classics, we see two officers standing on a bluff looking at a majestic mountain vista beyond which the sun is setting in glorious color. One officer turns to the other and says, "Beautiful view! Is there one for the enlisted men?"
But soldiers must live with their officers. A car with a three-star license plate pulls up next to the officers' mess tent, and the mess cook standing at the door of the tent says, "Another dang mouth to feed."
Willie and Joe found comfort where they could. During a cold downpour, they take shelter under a tarp they've rigged between trees, and Joe has opened the flap to see a shivering, starved-looking mutt whimpering at them in the rain. "Let 'im in," Willie says, "I wanna see a critter I kin feel sorry for."
By the time Mauldin arrived in the European theater of the war, he was no longer, strictly speaking, a rifleman, a frontline foot soldier. He was assigned to division headquarters and worked full-time as a soldier cartoonist, but he spent much of his time out in the field, squatting in dugouts listening to G.I.s tell their stories. Stories about jeeps and other primitive conditions.
Willie is squatting in front of a jeep, filling his helmet by draining the jeep's radiator into it. Joe and another dogface stand nearby, towels and shaving gear in hand. "Run it up the mountain agin, Joe," Willie says, "It ain't hot enough."
Maudlin's jeep was outfitted to function as a traveling studio: the cartoonist produced his six cartoons a week for Stars and Stripes from wherever his expeditions took him. And they took him everywhere in his passion to keep his work authentic.
guys eat my tail if I muff a point," he told Frederick Painton of the
Saturday Evening Post, which did a story about him in the
Maudlin remembered his safaris for accuracy years later in writing The Brass Ring: "I kept learning over and over that real-life experiences were necessary to my drawings. When I begged off field trips during maneuvers and hung around the 'office' more than a few days, my mud stopped looking wet and my pen-and-ink warriors lost authority. When a dogface carries a rifle upright at sling position, he hooks his thumb through the juncture of stock and leather strap. What about when he slings it muzzle down in rain? It would not be so comfortable to stick a thumb where the sling joins the other end of the forepiece from the stacking swivel--and yet it doesn't look natural to have the guy hold the strap elsewhere. How did I hold my own rifle? I couldn't remember. Embarrassed, I had to go borrow somebody's weapon and find out. If a drawing lacked authenticity the idea behind it became ineffectual, too.
"This was especially true in the infantry, where a man lived intimately with a few pieces of equipment and resented seeing it pictured inaccurately. Once I drew the safety ring on the wrong side of a hand grenade hanging from a man's belt. It was a tiny thing, and I couldn't find a razor blade to scratch out the detail for a correction, so I was tempted to let it go. In the end, though, I signed my name backward and asked the engraver to reverse the whole drawing. I never regretted it."
Mauldin's drawing style for the wartime cartoons was wonderfully evocative of the ambiance of the dogface's life. He drew with a brush, and his lines were bold and fluid but clotted with heavy black areas, clothing and background detail disappearing into deep trap-shadow darkness that gave the pictures a grungy aspect that approximated visually the damp and dirty feelings bred by the miserable field conditions of a soldier's life on front lines everywhere. Willie and Joe looked like they needed a bath, and so did many of their readers.
appropriateness of the style, however, was not entirely the result of
a deliberate decision. Mauldin was merely adapting to the conditions
of his "workplace"--whatever printing facilities the military newspapers
he drew for could find as they moved up the Italian boot from
The images of Mauldin's reportage of the raw ironies of battlefield life--relieved, thankfully, by the sardonic sense of humor that found a common humanity alive and well amid the tedium and hazards of combat life--won Mauldin the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1945.
That was the year the book Up Front was published, and it was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 18 months. In the prose he wrote to accompany his cartoons, Mauldin talked about the inspiration for this cartoon and that. He also wrote about life in the military--his life and the lives of the soldiers he knew.
Some of his discourse is amusing in a sort of sarcastic "ain't life funny" way. He writes about the inequities inherent in the military hierarchy: officers have separate latrines which enlisted men can't use, but if the officers' latrine is further away and it's raining, the officers feel no compunction about using the nearest enlisted men's latrine. Medics didn't get combat pay, but they were under fire as much as their rifle-toting comrades.
Reading Mauldin, you get a good sense of what combat infantrymen live through, what they gripe about, and what makes them tick. You also find out what makes soldiers laugh. And you laugh, too, and then shake your head in wonderment if not disbelief. As a personal account of his adventures as an observer on the front lines during war and, hence, as a record of the things most soldiers thought about when not keeping their heads down, Up Front may be the best book about war there is.
to popular belief, Mauldin wasn't with the daily Stars and Stripes
for the entire War. He didn't join the S&S staff until the
allied campaign reached
Born in 1921, he'd grown up in a somewhat haphazard fashion in New Mexico and Arizona, a cheerfully mischievous youth, survivor of a broken but loving home, who, at the age of 17, made his way to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts with money loaned him by his maternal grandmother. He met gag cartoonist George Lichty (short for Lichtenstein) of Grin and Bear It fame who shared a studio with Paul Battenfield, editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Times. He also met Joe Parrish who did political cartoons for the Chicago Tribune, and he took a course in political cartooning taught by Vaughn Shoemaker of the Chicago Daily News.
Mauldin sold a few gag cartoons from time to time but subsisted by drawing restaurant posters in exchange for meals. After a year in the Windy City, he returned to the Southwest, settling, briefly, in Phoenix, where he did posters and political cartoons for various politicians, simultaneously in the case of both candidates in the gubernatorial race, referencing Thomas Nast's successful attack on Boss Tweed as a recommendation for hiring a political cartoonist as a campaign factotum.
He started with the challenger and then applied to the incumbent: "I was able to state for a fact that the governor's enemies had hired a political cartoonist to attack him. Would he care to fight fire with fire?"
As it turned out, he would. And Mauldin did.
This hand-to-mouth existence ended, finally, when he joined the Arizona National Guard, which was almost immediately "federalized"--made a part of the regular Army. He was in the quartermaster corps of the 45th Division, which was made up of Guard units from three other states, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. One of the Oklahomans had been editor of the Daily Oklahoman in civilian life, and he decided to start a weekly newspaper, a venture without precedent on the divisional level anywhere in the American military. Noticing there were no cartoons in the paper, Mauldin arranged to be introduced to the editor and soon thereafter found himself assigned to the paper on Friday afternoons to draw cartoons. The rest of the week, he continued scrubbing pots and pans and toilets in typical Army fashion. Realizing that a soldier's life consisted of more than KP duty, Mauldin asked to be transferred to the more army-like infantry so he'd encounter more viable material for cartoons (and escape KP). As a rifleman in the infantry, Mauldin was closer to the experiences most soldiers have.
He married Norma Jean Humphries, a girl he met while the 45th was training in Texas, and entered the Italian campaign when the 45th invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943. The appearance of his drawings, at first embellished with the gray tones of grease-crayon shading, changed as he mastered graphic mannerisms that the printing equipment couldn't erode. And the soldiers in the pictures changed, too, becoming hard-eyed, hollow-cheeked and lethal. And always in need of a shave.
Willie and Joe, his durable duo, weren't much in evidence at first. They were there, occasionally, but they were not recognizable. At first, as far back as training camps, Joe was the hook-nosed character, "a smart-assed Choctaw Indian," Mauldin said, and Willie was "the red-necked straight man." The Native American ploy was undoubtedly an appeal to Mauldin's own unit, K Company, which was composed of men from Oklahoma, many of them Indians.
"As Willie and Joe matured overseas," Mauldin explained, "during the stresses of shot, shell, and K-rations, and grew whiskers because shaving water was scarce in the mountain foxholes, for some reason Joe seemed to become more of a Willie and Willie more of a Joe."
As the 45th progressed up the Italian peninsula, Willie and Joe showed up more and more often in Mauldin's cartoons, and quickly endeared themselves--and their creator--to their brethren on the front lines. Mauldin, when he thought about it, wasn't surprised:
"They're the little people in peace," he said of his comrades in arms, "and they're the little people who always have to win a war. I'm a little guy myself. I was in this man's Army when it was an infant, and we kinda grew up together. All I know--as a grown up--is Army life. Everything that has happened to them has happened to me--except the final pay-off."
He understood his readers. "They wish to hell they were someplace else, and they wish to hell they would get relief. They wish to hell the mud was dry and they wish to hell their coffee was hot. They want to go home. But they stay in their wet holes and fight, and then they climb out and crawl through minefields and fight some more."
Mauldin knew them because he took considerable pains to spend time with them. But on his tours of the frontline, he began avoiding his old outfit, K Company. He'd developed a "complex" about visiting it because, he said, "most of my friends were getting killed in prosaic ways by impersonal, random rounds of mortar, howitzer, or machine-gun fire. The 45th was a well-trained division and lost its men in dribbles, not floods, but the dribbling went on day after day. It's much easier to see this happening to strangers rather than your old friends. Besides, I had a special sense of guilt because I had been conniving for several years to end up with a sketchbook in my hand instead of a weapon.
"It could be argued that this was a sensible allocation of talent since I was a hell of a lot better with a pencil than with a gun. But I knew that nine out of ten guys getting killed out there were also better at doing something else than getting killed. My guilt was compounded by the fact that when I did visit K Company, my surviving friends were proud to see my stuff in the paper and not a bit resentful."
Probably because they could so thoroughly identify with Willie and Joe, here crouched in their foxhole, sitting in water, the night sky behind them filled with the explosions of distant shell fire. Joe says, "Wisht I could stand up an' git some sleep."
To say that Mauldin was beloved by the common soldier may not be putting it too strongly. He was also flagrantly admired.
CBS's Andy Rooney, who served on the Stars and Stripes during the war, said of Mauldin: "He was a genius--and I don't use the word lightly. He was sharp, bitter and funny all at the same time."
On one of his forays into battle, Mauldin was wounded--a minor scratch, but he received a Purple Heart for it, as do all similarly wounded soldiers, regardless of how serious or insignificant their injury. Shortly afterwards, someone wrote the S&S a scornful note, asking what right the cartoonist had to call his cartoon "Up Front." What did he know about the front?
The S&S editor published the letter, appending a laconic notation that Mauldin had just been awarded the Purple Heart.
"Although a reporter and an artist from the paper were later killed in the course of the war, and there were more wounds among the staff, mine was an early one and good for the paper's image," Mauldin said.
Then the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote about the incident, and Mauldin's cartoons were soon syndicated to stateside newspapers nation-wide. Mauldin refused to give up ownership of Willie and Joe, though, and in the compromise deal with United Feature, he took a cut in pay as a result.
But civilians got a taste of life at the front. Here's Willie, looking his unkempt bearded self, slouching in front of a field table where a seated medic is holding a medal out to him. "Just gimme th' aspirin," Willie says, "I already got a Purple Heart."
Willie and Joe are digging their foxhole when a tank rolls by. Joe turns to watch the tank, perhaps somewhat enviously, and Willie says, "I'd rather dig. A movin' foxhole attracks th' eye."
Mauldin never drew cartoons about dead soldiers or death, but at the end of the War, he considered killing off his dogface pair but gave up the idea when the S&S editor told him he wouldn't publish a cartoon about their deaths.
Mauldin returned to civilian life a celebrity, and United Feature wanted him to continue with cartoons about soldiers returning to civilian life. Under a succession of titles (Sweatin' It Out, Willie and Joe, Bill Mauldin's Cartoon), Willie and Joe shed their shabby uniforms and dressed in mufti. But they didn't look very comfortable. Mauldin's bold brush strokes and trap-shadow shading, ideally suited to depicting the gritty life at the front, made his civilians look like bums. But that wasn't all that was going awry.
Initially, the circulation of his feature doubled, but Mauldin soon found that his approach to cartooning wasn't working in civilian life. He had started by reflecting the returning G.I.'s experience--their anger at shortages, no housing for themselves and their new families and few goods and fewer jobs, and at unthinking yahoos who failed, apparently, to appreciate sufficiently the sacrifices the erstwhile dogfaces had made. His ire up, he went on to assault segregation and racism, the Ku Klux Klan, and then right-wing veterans' organizations and politicians. While taking essentially the same satirical stance that he'd taken in the service, his cartoons were now seen as "political" rather than "entertaining," and newspapers dropped his feature quickly, saying they had their own political cartoonist.
Mauldin's personal life was falling apart, too. Lew Sayre Schwartz told me of his introduction to Mauldin. It was at one of the early meetings of the National Cartoonists Society. Mauldin stayed long after the meeting, playing pool with Schwartz and others and consuming vast quantities of adult beverages. He was consoling himself. He's spent the entire day ripping the dedication page out of a freshly published book, Back Home, a post-war follow-up to Up Front, text and cartoons. He'd dedicated the book to his wife, and just as it was published, he found out she'd been unfaithful to him.
In the wee hours of the morning, Schwartz told me, they finished playing pool, and Mauldin offered to take Schwartz back to his hotel. They drove there in Mauldin's jeep. It was a wild ride that ended with Mauldin driving the vehicle up the hotel steps and nearly into the lobby.
Some years later, Schwartz met Mauldin again and reminded him of that midnight ride. Mauldin didn't remember anything about it, Schwartz said, but admitted that it sounded like something he'd do.
Back Home is an extraordinary opus of self-examination. Mauldin writes about his post-war cartoon, about how difficult it was for soldiers to adjust to civilian life, about post-war social evils, and about how baffled he was by his own failure to achieve success. Willie and Joe's caustic laid-back humor just didn't work on the home front.
"I really didn't know who they were anymore," Mauldin said when interviewed in 1995. "They lost their identity when the war was over. They were a flop at home, and I stopped drawing them."
Mauldin realized he couldn't cope with what was happening to him and be a good cartoonist. So he dropped out for about a decade, writing books, acting in movies, and running for Congress in 1956. Milton Caniff lived in the same district, and the two became good friends. Caniff drew campaign posters for Mauldin, and Caniff's wife, Bunny, was Mauldin's treasurer. But Mauldin didn't win: it was a densely Republican district, and he was a flaming liberal Democrat.
One of the books Mauldin wrote during this period is about his growing up in New Mexico, Sort of a Saga; illustrated by the author but with wash drawings not cartoons, it may be one of the best books about growing up. Mauldin wrote as well as he drew, and he eventually produced over a dozen books, all of them illustrated, some being reprints of his political cartoons. He revisited the autobiographical landscape of his youth in the Southwest and his rise to fame in the Army in The Brass Ring in 1971. But in Up Front, his first endeavor in prose and pictures, he produced a classic about men in war.
In 1958 on one of his wanderings through the wilderness, Mauldin dropped in to visit Daniel Fitzpatrick, the political cartoonist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and learned that Fitz was retiring. Mauldin promptly applied for the job. He got it, and suddenly, Mauldin's liberal voice had a home again. Winning his second Pulitzer in 1959 and the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben as "Cartoonist of the Year" in 1961, Mauldin continued the battle he had begun in the army. "I'm against oppression," he said, "--by whomever."
In 1962, he made an unusual agreement to join the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, "not as its editorial page artist," he explained, "but as a sort of 'cartoon commentator.'"
He wanted to be on the op-ed page rather than the editorial page because he didn't want anyone to think he endorsed the newspaper's opinions. And he didn't work always in the office. "I was free to say what I pleased," he wrote, "and travel where I wanted, so long as I got my stuff in on time." His WWII experience seemed to be kicking in again:
"It has always seemed to me that a cartoonist who stays desk-bound and does not get out, like any other reporter--or recorder--of events, and sniff the world about him, is in danger of falling back more and more upon drawing elephants, donkeys, Uncle Sams, and other devices of our craft which haven't changed much since Thomas Nast invented most of them nearly a century ago."
At the Post-Dispatch, Mauldin had taken up the grease crayon again--perhaps seeking to soften the visual blow that the change of cartoonists would otherwise inflict on the paper's readers, Fitzpatrick being addicted to grease crayon. But he soon changed as he began sending his cartoons back to Chicago from hither and yon, "first by telecopier and then by laser-photo"--devices, he said, which, "at best have approximately the reproductive capability of a Sicilian copy camera dug from the rubble." Suiting his style, once again, to the means of reproduction at hand, he reverted to his wartime mannerisms, the heavy lines and solid black shadows.
Still, he felt this style was "too harsh and uncompromising" for politics and other civilian subjects, and when Federal Express made overnight delivery possible, he resorted again to the soft tonal qualities a crayon could produce.
Mauldin was away from the office--albeit not far--on November 22, 1963, the day he would produce his most memorable cartoon. He had finished his week's work before noon and went with Ralph Otwell, the paper's managing editor, to a luncheon speech on foreign policy. The speech was never given.
"Halfway through dessert," Mauldin wrote, "the news that President Kennedy had been shot spread through the room."
Soon, they knew Kennedy had died of his wound. Mauldin and Otwell headed back to the newspaper office, but Mauldin didn't go into the building right away.
"He took a stroll around the neighborhood," Otwell remembered, "trying to get over his personal grief. And then he went back to his cubicle. Some admirer had sent him a bottle of Jack Daniels that had been gathering dust in his desk drawer." And before he went to work, Otwell said, Mauldin "reached around his drawingboard, pulled out the bottle, and took a big snort. That's what he told me later."
"I was amazed at how upset I was," Mauldin wrote. "There is nothing like doing familiar chores in familiar surroundings to keep your keel under you. I started working at 2 p.m., one hour after the President had been declared dead.
"What to draw? Grief, sorrow, tears weren't enough for this event. There had to be monumental shock. Monument--shock--a cartoon idea is nothing more-or-less than free association. What is more shocking than a statue come alive, showing emotion. Assassination. Civil rights. There was only one statue for this."
Maudlin drew the now familiar picture of the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, bent forward in his seat, head in his hands, a perfect posture of grief, an emblem of national mourning.
It was so effective a device that it would inspire a generation of editorial cartoonists. Henceforth, tragedy and death were often symbolized by an inanimate artifact weeping. The most celebrated, perhaps, being the Statue of Liberty, shedding a tear as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned in the distance on September 11, 2001.
"I started the drawing at 2:15 p.m.," Mauldin said, "and finished at 3 p.m.--the fastest I had ever worked. An average cartoon takes three or four hours. I almost threw it away (after all, my week's work was done, and nobody expected this one) because I couldn't get his hair right. No matter what I did with it, it looked more like Kennedy hair than Lincoln hair. This might confuse some people who weren't familiar with the statue. Then I decided that if they didn't know the statue, they wouldn't get the cartoon anyway."
In an unprecedented move, the Chicago Sun-Times published the cartoon on the back page, giving the tabloid an alternative cover.
"Our first edition was on the street at 4:45 p.m.," Mauldin said. "Later I was told that most Chicago news dealers sold the paper with the cartoon side up."
Mauldin easily ranks in the top ten American political cartoonists of the 20th century. He's in that pantheon because he hit his subjects hard, pulling no punches in presenting his opinion, and because he did it by yoking words to pictures for emphatic, memorable statements that were often powerful visual metaphors. But with Willie and Joe, Mauldin did something more: he created myth. At least a score of the cartoon images of Willie and Joe are iconographic, imprinted with every wrinkle and whisker intact into the cultural consciousness of American popular arts.
He cartooned for the Chicago Sun-Times for almost three decades. Eventually, Mauldin moved back to New Mexico where he grew up. He settled in Santa Fe, where, for amusement, he worked on old automobiles and a 1946 Willys Jeep, exactly the vehicle he toured Europe with while in the Army. He sent his cartoons to Chicago electronically, but it wasn't just technology that was changing.
Speaking in October 2001, the great Pat Oliphant, a worthy colleague of Mauldin's, recalled a sad, puzzling day in the late 1980s when he was with Mauldin:
"Bill Mauldin turned to me in anger and disgust--or maybe it was anger mingled with dismay--or maybe it was just plain anger--and he said to me, 'This business has had it. I'm outa here.'
"I couldn't imagine he was serious," Oliphant went on. "I thought there was plenty of life in the old art yet. There were still dragons a-plenty to slay, inequities to address, and a smorgasbord of politicians we haven't got to yet. In the last 200 years at least, there hasn't been a single national emergency or hard-fought battle or bought election that has not be commemorated, by popular and editorial demand, with the political cartoon. Surely, I thought, this most combative of our breed was not resigning his commission now and leaving the field.
"But this was Mauldin, and his words demanded consideration. His main complaint was newspapers themselves--what they were becoming, what they had become--their lack of moral character, their sell-out to the unholy bottom line. He mourned the death of controversy, and he detested the feeling of having his horse shot out from under him by the people he thought were on his side.
"Although I may have doubted his prescience then, the words I carried with me, and I now believe that he was more correct than I cared to admit. True to his word, Mauldin quit a short time later, leaving behind sterling works of surpassing worth as inspiration to others."
Disheartened as he was at the moment--Oliphant was bemoaning the impossibility of smashing President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy--he nonetheless vowed to soldier on, to try to achieve something to leave behind that might match the worth of Mauldin's legacy.
Officially, Mauldin retired in 1991. In a perverse way, his retirement, at last, was forced upon him: pursuing his avocation as auto mechanic, he had dropped a large car part on his drawing hand.
Then, sadly, in the early years of the 21st century, he developed Alzheimers. By the spring of 2002, he was in a nursing home in Orange County, California. He was very frail: he'd been badly burned in a household accident, and his cognitive skills were, mostly, gone. Much of the time, he lay in his bed, not speaking, just staring ahead.
He was not by any means abandoned. He had seven sons from his three marriages, and numerous grandchildren. Those who lived nearby were regular visitors, and the private care facility was a good one. But about this time, another WWII vet, Jay Gruenfeld, found out where Mauldin was and what condition he was in.
Gruenfeld drove 200 miles to visit the cartoonist. He showed him some of his old cartoons but got no response. Then he pinned a replica of a combat infantry badge on Mauldin's pajamas.
"He smiled," Gruenfeld said. "He had the biggest, most beautiful smile on his face. It made my day. I hope it made his."
Gruenfeld decided that there were doubtless others who felt, as he did, "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." Said Greunfeld: "You have to understand: Bill Mauldin was a paragon for us. He needed to know he wasn't forgotten."
He wrote letters to veterans groups, urging them to write to the old soldier in the nursing home. Word spread. Newspaper reporters and columnists heard about it, and wrote about it.
Letters started pouring in--from veterans and widows of WWII soldiers and children whose fathers and grandfathers had been in the war. Hundreds every day. "This is payback," said Gruenfeld.
Mauldin no longer remembered his family, his career, even his two Pulitzers, reported Chelsea Carter of the Associated Press. "But he remembers the war, and those who fought in it are helping him keep those memories alive with their letters."
According to Diana Schilling, director of the facility, the cards and letters seemed to cheer up the man who waded ashore with the troops in the invasion of Sicily, armed only with a sketchbook and pen and ink. "He just lights up," she said. "He gets a twinkle in his eye, and you can tell that he is feeling good."
They read the letters to him and then posted them on the walls, even on the ceiling of his room. "He can't respond verbally," a staff member said, "but he knows what's happening, and that is very good for him."
"You never forgot us," wrote an 80-year-old veteran of the 94th Infantry Division, "and we will never forget you."
Joe Carrigan, 77, who worked in field hospitals during the war, wrote that he would describe Mauldin's cartoons to the wounded, then read the caption. "You can't believe how the men wounded or sightless would look forward to Willie and Joe because that was their life at the time."
Richard Klein wrote: "You were someone who knew and understood us as no outsider could."
"Your cartoons gave us about our only memories of pleasure," wrote another.
"Hey, Bill," said yet another, "you kept me going during WWII."
"For decades, my dad was not wanting to hear all that," his son David said about his father's reaction through the years to the accolades his wartime cartoons earned him. "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."
A former pilot, David Nelson of Massachusetts, wrote about his flying hundreds of wounded soldiers from battlefields to hospitals. "In spite of their horrendous wounds, those who could speak would always ask if we had a copy of Stars and Stripes because they wanted to see what Willie and Joe were up to. Bill Mauldin brought smiles and laughter through buckets of tears. He is forever in the hears of anyone who wore a U.S. uniform in that war."
And from Richard Strickland: "You would have had to be a part of a combat infantry unit to appreciate what moments of relief Bill gave us. You had to be reading a soaking wet Stars and Stripes in a water-filled foxhole and then see one of his cartoons. Bill, I know that enlisted men are not supposed to salute each other, but as a former infantry combat platoon sergeant, I salute you and wish you well."
In one of Mauldin's many cartoons about the dampness of the war, Willie and Joe are down in their foxhole and it is raining, huge drops flying off their helmets. Willie growls, "Now that you mention it, it does sound like the patter of rain on a tin roof."
Another time, sitting next to Joe on a mudbank, the water up over their ankles, Willie, holding a pair of neatly clean socks in one hand, puts his other arm around his buddy, and says, "Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an' I swore I'd pay ya back. Here's my last pair o' dry socks."
Wherever the Stars and Stripes arrived, there would be Willie and Joe, and when the soldiers in the foxholes found the cartoon, they knew they weren't alone. No matter how bad it was, someone understood--and here was the evidence. Bill Mauldin understood. And he had found something that could make them smile, if only for a moment. Now all the former dogfaces were returning the favor, putting a smile on his face, doing for him what he had done for them.
Old soldiers who lived nearby came to visit. The staff noticed that his outlook would improve during such visits--as if hearing stories of those distant days in Italy momentarily revived his faltering capacity to remember and somehow reconnected him to the world.
Another campaign started to recruit vets to visit Mauldin. To prevent a deluge of well-wishers all at once, visitors were assigned days and times to arrive. "It seems right," wrote Gordon Dillow of the Orange County Register, "that before he leaves this life, Bill Mauldin should get to spend a little time with the guys who used to be Willie and Joe."
In the last six months or so of his life, Mauldin had visitors every day, sometimes a nearly steady stream of them.
"Some of the men cry," Schilling reported. "One man said--walking down the hallway, tears streaming down his face--'I'm not supposed to do this. I'm a man.' Those 60-year-old emotions are just pouring out. Some guys stand in the lobby and cry. They can't believe they are finally going to meet Bill Mauldin. They have a connection to him that's extraordinary--a connection that I didn't anticipate."
"Some are a little sad when they leave his room, because of his condition," another staffer said, "but they are thrilled. This is Bill Mauldin."
Bill Thomas, 78, explained: "Combat is a time when men get closer than brothers, closer than family, because you have to rely on each other so much. We relied on Mauldin to break the tension for a moment, just a moment. He meant an awful lot to a lot of us."
Another 78-year-old, Roland Landrigan, like many other visitors, brought mementoes of his time in the war and showed them to Mauldin, sitting next to the old cartoonist's bed. Landrigan recalled how rough some of the combat had been and how much Mauldin's cartoons meant to him and his friends.
"I talked about anything that I could think of that I thought he might want to hear," Landrigan said.
Just as he was leaving, Landrigan went up to the bed and put his hand on Maudlin's shoulder.
"Bill," he said, "are you on board?"
There was no response. Landrigan waited a minute and then turned and left, not knowing if his visit had done any good. But he knew Mauldin had done something for him long ago, and he knew, too, that he'd be back to try to connect on another day.
When Mauldin died, at last, on January 22, 2003, of pneumonia, a complication arising from Alzheimers, his departure was widely heralded by the nation's editorial cartoonists, whose drawings commemorated the achievements of a highly regarded member of their inky-fingered fraternity. And then came the reader response.
Stacy Curtis of the Times of Northwest Indiana was surprised at the number of phone calls he received "from people who he touched deeply with his army cartoons. One phone call this morning was from a guy who said he was absolutely miserable during the war and Mauldin's cartoons were the only thing that made him smile during that time in his life."
The editorial cartoons memorializing Mauldin's death created what cartoonist Daryl Cagle calls a "Yahtzee." A Yahtzee, named after the popular game, happens when five or more cartoonists draw the same cartoon at the same time. In this case, it was a drawing of a soldier's helmet on top of a giant pen thrust into the ground, evocative of the traditional rifle-and-helmet battlefield grave marker of WWII. The greatest Yahtzee recently was the aforementioned depiction of the Statue of Liberty weeping after September 11, an image that appeared in nearly every newspaper. The Yahtzee of the grave marker for Mauldin was a greater tribute than most of its viewers realized: Mauldin set the fashion for the kind of cartoon of which Yahtzees are made when, years ago, he made Lincoln grieve at the death of Kennedy.
Bill Mauldin was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on January 29. It was a cold and rainy day. As Mark Sherman noted for his AP story, "Willie and Joe would not have been surprised." It was somehow supremely fitting that the champion of the always soaked and chilled dogface should be laid to rest on a wet and chilly day.
An honor guard carried his flag-draped coffin. Seven riflemen fired three volleys, and a bugler played taps. "They were all soaked by the rain," Sherman wrote, "standing at attention for a man who disdained the pomp and ceremony of military life."
But his son David was sure his father would have appreciated the precision of the ritual.
Talking to Sherman afterwards, David spoke of the mounds of mail he'd opened in recent weeks. One package in particular had moved him to tears, he said. It contained a clean, dry pair of socks from a WWII vet.
FOOTNOTES: The account of Mauldin's last months is compiled from numerous newspaper reports, and I sometimes quoted verbatim without attribution because I didn't want to break the mood of the narrative. In addition to the writers whose names I was able to splice into the story, I used the work (and sometimes appropriated the words) of Mike Anton (Los Angeles Times), Bob Greene (Chicago Tribune), and Richard Severo (New York Times).
If you liked reading about Maudlin, you might enjoy exploring other niches of this website, all of which are mapped out on the main page that you can reach by clicking here. My books are listed there, too, and are described just another click away.