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Bill, Willie, and Joe

By David Lamb
Summer 1989 • MHQ Magazine

The artist made two dogfaces world-famous, and they did the same for him.
 

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE WILLIE AND JOE BEING OLD. But if they were alive today—and mind you, Bill Mauldin has never announced their deaths even though he hasn’t drawn them in years—they would be pushing 70, like Mauldin himself, and I suspect they wouldn’t have led very eventful lives since coming home from Europe at the end of World War II.

The Willie and Joe I remember—bearded, sunken-eyed, unsmiling, and somehow both heroic and tragic—looked older and sadder than the GIs I encountered in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and in fact the GIs in both Korea and Vietnam were much younger on the average. Perhaps that’s why Mauldin had the good sense not to bring America’s two most famous privates back into the army in those wars. By leaving Willie and Joe undisturbed, he succeeded in making them ageless.

“You know, I had planned to kill Willie and Joe on the last day of the war,” Mauldin recalled when I visited him at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “That’s the one thing every soldier dreads, getting killed on the last day. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Most likely I would have had a shell land in their foxhole or had them cut down by a machine gun. I wouldn’t have drawn their corpses. I’d just have shown their gear with their names on it, or something like that.”

Mauldin figured he had better warn Bob Neville, the Stars and Stripes editor, of their impending death. Neville had never rejected one of Mauldin’s drawings, but this time he said, “Don’t do it. We won’t print it.” Neville may have been the only person—editor or general—who ever got Mauldin to back down. “In the end I guess it worked out about right,” he said, “but there are still times I wish I had done it. It would have been a very dramatic thing.”

When the war was over, Mauldin brought Willie and Joe home with him. He gave them a shave, put them in civvies, and found them jobs in a gas station. “That lasted three or four weeks,” he recalls. “Then I said, ‘Screw it.'” Mauldin didn’t feel comfortable drawing them without beards. He didn’t even know who they really were anymore. And much to the horror of his syndicate, Willie (who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1945) and Joe vanished into obscurity. Except for appearing at the funerals of General George Marshall in 1959 and General Omar Bradley in 1981, the two dogfaces who had made Mauldin rich and famous before his 23 birthday haven’t been seen since in a Mauldin cartoon.

To find Bill Mauldin today, you drive out of Santa Fe a few miles on the Old Santa Fe Trail, and head up the hill to the turnoff near the Anthropological Museum. It is 10:00 A.M., and Mauldin, shoeless and laughing, is out back, trying to prove to his newest batch of kids—11-year-old Kaja and two-year-old Sam—that he can get airborne on a Pogo Ball—a jumping ball with a ring. “If you break it, Dad, you owe me twenty bucks,” Kaja says. Over the years Mauldin has raised eight children in three marriages, and Kaja refers to herself, with proud glee, as “Kid Number One, Litter Three.” Every nook of Mauldin’s ranch home bears his stamp. The dining room is lined with books on World War II. The sewing room has been turned into a studio, where he still draws three political cartoons a week that are syndicated by King Features. The garage has been turned into a machine shop, and a spare bedroom is now a darkroom. A master tinkerer, he has put in new bellows and fixed the gears on his old eight-by-1o-inch Saltzman enlarger—”Crank it and see how smooth it turns,” he challenges—and plans to take a look soon at a kitchen door, which swings shut with the help of a weighted Clorox container on a piece of rope. The walls of the breakfast alcove display many framed drawings, among them the only Willie and Joe original Mauldin has left and a Rube Goldberg strip, dated 1942 and signed, “To Bill Mauldin. Good luck in the Service.”

Out in the backyard are a snowblower, a lawn mower older than his wife, a mobile home rigged into a darkroom for desert trips, a worn Chevy pickup, and a 1946 Willys jeep that Mauldin bought new in a Manhattan showroom for $1,180. Except for the spark plugs and points, every part is original, and as he clambers into the jeep’s front seat and turns the key, a bottle of beer balanced beside him, I see in my mind’s eye, like a black-and-white photograph, the young Bill Mauldin of three wars past. In this photo he wears an impish grin and his eyes speak of mischief. He looks no older than a teenager. His left hand—his drawing hand—holds a cigarette and his right arm is draped over the steering wheel of a muddy jeep named for his then wife, “Jeanie.” He is on the Anzio beachhead bound for Cassino. It is the winter of 1943—44.

Willie and Joe took on their final identities in the Italian campaign. Mauldin gave them beards, put bullet holes in their helmets, and began working with a brush instead of a pen, producing stark, bold lines that captured the grimness of the mountain war and the fatalistic exhaustion of the men who fought it. Willie and Joe weren’t gung-ho heroes and weren’t really very funny. They were simply two undistinguished GIs, inseparable only because of their shared experience, who told us what it was like to live in foxholes, get hassled by officers and MPs in the rear, and fight for survival, not ideology. They were smelly and bored and they wanted to go home.

“War humor is very bitter, very sardonic,” Mauldin says. “It’s not ha-ha humor. I asked Tad Foster, a cartoonist I admired a lot from the Vietnam War, if people came up to him and said, ‘I loved your stuff from the war—it kept me laughing all the time.’ Foster said, ‘Yup, the sons of bitches.’ I feel the same way. When someone says Willie and Joe made them laugh, I get pissed off every time. I tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to laugh.’ Maybe you grin or nod, but it’s not ha-ha humor.”

“My shtick was this. I never drew dead soldiers, but I always implied that they were lying just offstage. You felt their presence. Another thing, I didn’t treat the Germans as monsters. I drew the German soldier as a poor unfortunate who didn’t want to be there which could be said of our boys, too.”

“Psychological warfare didn’t interest me. I don’t ever remember hearing a soldier in Europe or anyplace like Sicily refer to the Germans as Nazis or fascists or anything like that. They were krauts. It was the same in Korea and Vietnam. They weren’t commie rats or any of that shit. They were gooks. They were slopes. But they weren’t mentioned in political terms.”

We had moved inside and were sitting on the sofa in his living room. I had brought along a copy of his book Bill Mauldin’s Army—which has sold 20,000 copies since being reissued in 1983 by Presidio Press—and he was thumbing through the pages, critiquing himself. “This is Anzio. It’s a great drawing. I wish I knew where the original was… I did this one the day I got hit… Here’s Willie. I think it’s the first time I drew him with a beard.” Willie and Joe are climbing a cliff, holding on for dear life, and the sergeant yells, “Hit th’ dirt, boys!”

“The main thing about Willie and Joe was that I always felt they were like two cops operating together as partners,” Mauldin points out. “They don’t particularly like each other. They aren’t cut from the same cloth. They don’t have the same friends. But they’re damned good at what they do together, and each is the other guy’s life-insurance policy. They’re not devoted to each other, but they need each other. And that makes for a damned good relationship.”

Mauldin was on the fast track by the time Willie and Joe were climbing those Cassino hills together. He had once written: “My drawing had become my Rock of Gibraltar. With it, I was still convinced the world might be mine. Without it, I felt like an insignificant jerk.” Now the war was bringing that world within his reach. He was talented, dedicated, ambitious, and his earthy depiction of the war was earning him wide recognition—even from General George Patton, who threatened to “throw his ass in jail” if Mauldin showed up in the Third Army area.

Just before Christmas in 1943, in the high mountains above Venafro, Mauldin was wounded by a German mortar while visiting the 179th Regiment of the 45th Division. It was a minor injury, to the shoulder, but it changed both him and his drawings. On the way back to Naples one of the corpsmen, who had a stack of green leatherette boxes, handed Mauldin a Purple Heart. He accepted it, but with considerable guilt, even anger, knowing that most of his friends in the unit he had shipped over with—K Company of the 45th Division’s 180th Infantry—were already dead. The next day Mauldin drew Willie at an aid station telling a medic, “Just gimme th’ aspirin. I already got a Purple Heart.”

“I was hit very lightly, but it was a shock,” Mauldin says. “It’s always a shock to anyone who gets hit. It’s like kids with automobiles: It can’t happen to you. But something did happen to me. It was something about these guys I knew really getting med, me really getting hit, and suddenly the war became very real to me.”

“So I would say that it was in the fall of ‘forty-three that I really sobered up and started realizing there were some things bigger than me and my ambition. Suddenly the drawings grew up, too. Southern Italy became sort of a Valley Forge scene for me. I was privileged to watch it as a guy who could visit a foxhole and not have to stay. I could watch a patrol take off and not have to go with it. And this fills you with—maybe not guilt but a great sense of respect for these guys and what they were going through.”

“I remember Humphrey Bogart came over on a USO tour about that time and laid the biggest egg I’d ever seen. He came out on the stage of the San Carlo Opera House [in Naples] and there was this whole goddamned crowd of guys who’d come down off the mountain for four days’ R-and-R. I think he was a little bit in the bag, and he got up on the stage and said something dumb like, ‘I’m going back to the States to put my mob back together. Any of you guys want to go with me?'”

“He was greeted with stony silence. He went on with his tough-guy act and they gave him a nice hand, but they just didn’t think he was very funny. Because not one of those guys had a prayer of going home. They knew they were going to stay right there on that mountain until they died. It was a pretty gruesome proposition, and here’s Bogart out there trying to make jokes. I got to know him later and he was really a good guy—I liked him. You know, years afterward he told me, ‘I’ll never forget all those eyes looking at me. I really put my foot in it.'”

Although Mauldin and his colleagues at Stars and Stripes were in the army, they lived a privileged existence: They moved with the freedom of civilian correspondents, and their newspaper enjoyed a remarkable degree of editorial independence. Mauldin, a nocturnal worker by choice and habit, lived and worked in a third-floor room overlooking the Galleria shopping arcade in Naples. His room had a chair, a large table against which he leaned his drawing board, and a canvas cot.

The title of his cartoon was “Up Front…with Mauldin,” a name he was never quite comfortable with because it implied that he was always on the fighting lines, which he wasn’t. “Anyone who can draw in a foxhole has my hat off,” he told Time magazine in 1945. Just after he was hit by the mortar fragment, Stars and Stripes received a letter from a soldier in the headquarters of the 179th Infantry. Mauldin still remembers his name—Blankenship. What did Mauldin know about being “up front” anyway? the soldier asked. The editors printed the letter and added a note saying Mauldin had recently received a Purple Heart for a wound received while visiting I Company of the soldier’s own regiment. Mauldin’s wound was among the first the Stripes staff suffered, and it did the paper’s image no harm.

“I have very strong ethics about taking things or getting things you don’t deserve,” Mauldin says “It’s one of the things my parents did for me. I was pissed off when the medic gave me the Purple Heart. My bandage wasn’t much bigger than a Band-Aid. But getting hit was probably the most fortuitous thing that could have happened to me. It established me as a guy who went out and got his material the hard way.”

Ernie Pyle (later killed in the war) caught up with Mauldin and wrote a column mentioning Blankenship’s letter and stating, “Sergeant Bill Mauldin seemed to us… the finest cartoonist the war had produced. And that’s not merely because his cartoons are funny, but because they are also terribly grim and real. Mauldin’s cartoons… are about the men in the line—the tiny percentage of our vast army who are actually up there doing the dying. His cartoons are about the war.”

It was the exposure from Pyle—not the Pulitzer Prize or his highly publicized confrontation with Patton—that really put him in business, Mauldin says. Soon, syndicates were after him, and in a few months he signed with Pyle’s syndicate, United Feature. Stars and Stripes printed Mauldin’s cartoons first but let him own the copyright. His monthly wages as a sergeant were $66; his weekly income as a syndicated cartoonist, about $250.

“All of a sudden Bill was a blazing success,” recalls Jack Foisie, a Stripes writer who went on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “I mean, he was making all this money. But he never lorded it over us. He was droll in his success. Most of us, if not in awe of him, were jealous of his success, in a good-natured way. But he was always popular, sort of one of the boys.”

Mauldin’s growing fame increasingly enabled him to throw barbs at the top brass and the military police. Patton wondered aloud if Mauldin wasn’t an unpatriotic anarchist. In one of Mauldin’s most famous drawings, two officers are admiring the Italian mountains, and one says, “Beautiful view! Is there one for the enlisted men?” Another drawing shows an officer in a freshly pressed uniform writing up the slovenly looking Willie and Joe. Willie tells him, “Them buttons was shot off when we took this town, sir.”

That one still makes Mauldin grin. “No matter what Patton thought, I never disliked officers. If I’d had my druthers, I’d probably have been a smart-ass little lieutenant. I’d have gone to OCS or something, because I liked the army. I never objected to the concept of discipline, but if you’re a leader, you don’t push wet spaghetti, you pull it. The U.S. Army still has to learn that. The British understand it. Patton understood it. I always admired Patton.

“Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn’t like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes. You wait around in a foxhole and you’re going to get killed. We had a lot of good officers who understood that, who knew how to lead in combat. They didn’t say, ‘Go here, go there.’ They said, ‘Come here.'”

While Mauldin’s dogfaces were scruffy and disheveled, Patton’s clean shaven troops wore neckties and polished boots (at least Patton tried to keep them that way). Why, Patton asked the Supreme Command, should Stars and Stripes make heroes of Willie and Joe? At the “suggestion” of his superiors, Mauldin headed up to the Third Army headquarters in Luxembourg one day early in 1945 to discuss the matter with the general who wore ivory-handled pistols. Patton threw down a drawing of Willie and Joe tossing tomatoes at their officers during a liberation parade. What was Mauldin trying to do, incite a goddamn mutiny? Patton’s dog, a bull terrier named Willie, glowered at the young sergeant as the general ranted on.

“The whole thing was just so funny, really hilarious,” Mauldin recalls. “The only guy who failed to see the humor was Patton. I didn’t even try to give him any lip. I knew it was going to be an embarrassment for him. I think he died without any idea that he’d lost that little battle.”

The meeting lasted 45 minutes, of which Mauldin had been given a minute or so to lay out his artistic response. “All right, sergeant,” Patton said, cutting him short, “I guess we understand each other now.”

Six months later, the man who made the cover of Time magazine was Mauldin’s Willie, not Patton, and a reporter asked the general what he thought of Mauldin’s cartoons. “I’ve only seen two of them and I thought they were lousy,” he said.

Few Americans agreed. By the time Mauldin came home in the summer of 1945—with a Purple Heart, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Legion of Merit—his drawings were appearing in hundreds of papers and his Willie-and-Joe book Up Front was a best-seller. “I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broadminded way,” he wrote in the text. “I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about.” He was 23. Up Front sold 3 million copies and was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for 18 months.

“You know, Willie and Joe weren’t really based on anyone,” Mauldin says. “They just evolved as prototypes. But once, about fifteen years after the war, a shrink came up to me at a party in Rockland County, where I was living in New York. He was sort of practicing without permission and he said, ‘Do you know who Willie and Joe were?'”

“I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘Have you looked recently at a picture of your father?’ And, my God, he was right. Willie was a caricature of my father, and Joe was a caricature of me—the round-faced, jug-eared kid. I had never thought of it. I’m not sure I appreciate the guy pointing it out to me, but who knows what family things I worked out through those cartoons?”

Mauldin had grown up poor in the hills of southern New Mexico. His father had been an artilleryman in France during World War I, and his grandfather had served as a civilian cavalry scout during the Apache Wars, so Mauldin was raised on war stories, many of them embellished over the years. He joined ROTC in high school and, as a 97-pound weakling, marched with a 1903 Springfield rifle, unloaded. “I took to ROTC like a duck to water,” he once recalled. He also was a natural artist and a feisty needler who knew early on that he wanted to be a political cartoonist. “I was a born troublemaker and might as well earn a living at it,” he wrote in his informal 1971 autobiography, The Brass Ring.

But after the war and the disappearance of Willie and Joe, Mauldin’s career stalled. His drawings became erratic and bellicose. He took on the Ku Klux Klan, the House Committee on Un-Arnerican Activities, and conservative veterans’ organizations. (In 1971 he suggested publicly that militant veterans’ organizations be drafted to finish the Vietnam War.) His syndicate started censoring him, and newspapers started dropping his cartoon.

“Military service is one of those things you do as a duty,” Mauldin says. “If you get wounded, crippled, or lose your life, the government owes it to your family to take care of you, but otherwise I don’t think anyone’s entitled to a goddamn thing. Some guy counts socks for three months at a quartermaster depot and then he’s looking for a ride on the gravy train for the rest of his life. He’s nothing but a professional sponger. At one point I joined the American Veterans Committee, which was considered very leftish. It no longer exists, but I liked its motto: Citizens first, veterans second.”

Mauldin’s old buddy Jack Foisie remembers seeing Mauldin at a Stars and Stripes reunion in New York in 1947. “There seemed to be some deflation for Bill,” Foisie recalls. “He was very high during the war, and now he had other factors to face besides generals. He had a lot of irons in the fire, but Bill looked a little frustrated.”

Foisie was right, and at the age of 27 Mauldin retired to pursue other interests. He learned to fly a plane, went hunting, free-lanced for Life magazine, and published four more books. He also went out to California and acted in a couple of Hollywood movies, including The Red Badge of Courage with war hero Audie Murphy, and then moved back to New York, where in 1956 he became the Democratic candidate for Congress from the 28th District. He was trounced by the incumbent—”a rather formidable broad”—in a campaign that personally cost him $50,000. His decade of drifting left him broke, but not washed up. He loved riding the career roller coaster.

He jumped at the chance to join the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1958, won another Pulitzer, and was the subject of a second Time magazine cover piece. He briefly covered the Korean War (as a writer, not an artist) for Collier’s; then spent a few weeks in Vietnam (where a mortar attack on his son’s base in the Highlands made him a hawk for a few months), and reported on the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War for the Chicago Sun-Times. But none of these wars was his war as World War II had been, and in 1973 he wrote an article for the New Republic entitled “Ain’t Gonna’ Cover Wars No More.” He had lost his emotional perspective and objectivity. “One of the startling things you learn in wars,” he wrote, “is how much blood can come from a human body.”

So Bill Mauldin came home, home to his roots in the peaceful silence of New Mexico. It is night now and we are mixing martinis in the kitchen. His wife, Chris, 27 years his junior, has sent out for Mexican food. Mauldin seems a contented man in a young family full of love. He passes a bottle of vermouth over the chilling gin and marvels at his creation. He is, he says, “playing out the string” on his career, and that doesn’t bother him a bit. The number of papers taking his cartoon has fallen to about 75, and he has not tried to renew his expired contract with the Chicago Sun-Times. The arthritis in his hands is troublesome, so he no longer answers his fan letters. In growing old he has found that he is no longer in a hurry.

“I never felt I was all that talented or all that good at what I did,” he says, “but I exploited whatever talent I had and gave it a good ride. That’s the important thing. I think that’s probably the reason I’m getting mellower. I don’t have that desperate feeling of what the hell have I been doing all my life? How can I make up for all this time I’ve been wasting? I don’t have any of that anymore.”

He tells me about returning to the mountains in 1967. He set up his camera on a tripod in Cassino, on the very spot where the German artillery had been, and his lens swept over the distant American positions where Willie and Joe and thousands of other GIs fought their toughest battles. “What a position the Germans had!” he recalls. “Standing up there at the abbey, you could see why nobody in history ever took Rome from the south.”

He also tells me about his return to Rome in 1984, at the invitation of the American ambassador to Italy, for the 40th anniversary of Rome’s fall to the Allies. He flew from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington as a guest of the Pentagon in a “brass-hat” special—a red-white-and-blue Boeing 707 emblazoned with the words United States ofAmerica on the fuselage. The plane carried only four passengers, one of whom was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Jack Vessey.

Flying through the darkness high above the Atlantic, meal finished and drink in hand, Bill Mauldin settled back in his upholstered seat and said to himself on that night of memories, “Soldier, you sure have come a long way.”

DAVID LAMB, a Los Angeles Times national correspondent, covered the Vietnam War for United Press International. He is the author of The Africans (1983) and The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage (1987).

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Bill, Willie, and Joe

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