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Willie and Joe Come Home

By David T. Zabecki
11/30/2016 • World War II Magazine

Bill Mauldin’s legendary dogfaces kept faith with returning veterans of every generation.

Wars never really end for veterans., Those who make it home return to a world they do not recognize, and that does not recognize them. So it was for Willie and Joe, World War II’s most famous fictional GIs. Creations of Pulitzer Prize-winning Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a sergeant in the 45th infantry division, the two were so popular willie made the June 18, 1945, Time magazine cover. That year, a collection of Mauldin’s wartime cartoons appeared in a bestseller, Up Front.

After his discharge Mauldin began editorial cartooning, and continued advocating for soldiers and veterans by following Willie and Joe into civilian life. just as in wartime, not every cartoon featured Willie and Joe, but the characters were the foundation of Mauldin’s veteran-related drawings. One theme he carried over from his days in uniform was the age-old friction between officers and enlisted men. In a parting shot at General George S. Patton, who famously scorned Mauldin’s depictions of, Mauldin drew a swaggeringly familiar figure he called “Gen. Blugget”—an unmistakable variation on Patton’s nickname, “blood and guts.”

Reconnecting with wives and girlfriends was a key topic. Willie was married when he was drafted, and now his wife doesn’t seem to understand him. Joe, the younger of the two, bluntly learns why his girlfriend broke off their engagement while he was overseas. Equally disturbing, once back in civvies, the men find that fellows still in uniform no longer see them as members of the fraternity of arms. Then there is the generation gap. Despite their experiences, veterans of World War I regarded World War II vets as snotnosed kids—ironically, the same way Vietnam veterans felt treated by World War II veterans.

Mauldin’s fierce sense of social justice came out most strongly in a cartoon depicting postwar America’s attitude toward Nisei veterans. Despite being members of America’s most decorated military unit and having a composite purple heart rate of a staggering 68 percent, the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd regimental combat team were often “the enemy,” as far as fellow citizens were concerned. That tune has changed, but back then Mauldin was bucking public opinion.

Mauldin’s early postwar cartoons appeared in a nearly forgotten 1947 memoir, Back Home. by then Mauldin had pretty much retired Willie and Joe, to address broader social and political issues. In 1959 he won a second Pulitzer Prize for a cartoon featuring Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak in a Soviet prison camp. “I won the Nobel Prize for literature,” the caption reads. “What was your crime?”

Mauldin occasionally revived Willie and Joe: when generals George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley died, for example, and in 1988 to memorialize fellow cartoonist Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.

The pair made one more major appearance during Mauldin’s lifetime, although Mauldin had nothing to do with it. In 1998 cartoonist Charles M. Schulz— who as a machine-gun squad leader in World War II had been one of Mauldin’s beloved combat infantrymen—integrated one of Mauldin’s wartime drawings into what has since become an iconic Veterans Day image. It was the only cartoon where Schultz did not draw every line personally. He signed it, “Schulz and my hero, Bill Mauldin.”

 

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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