Bill Mauldin’s timeless characters captured the lot of the common soldier of World War II—and every war.
In late September 1943, the 45th Infantry Division’s 180th Regiment was in Naples, embroiled in the brutal, soul-deadening fighting typical of Italy at that time. In the midst of it, twenty-one-year-old cartoonist Bill Mauldin, assigned to the regiment’s K Company, did a drawing of the two infantrymen who were his main subjects, Willie and Joe, slouching against a ruined doorway and looking utterly bone-weary—so disheveled you could almost smell them. As a young, fresh-scrubbed corporal levels his gaze at them, Willie says, “He’s right, Joe. When we ain’t fightin’ we should ack like sojers.”
The day after the cartoon appeared in the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, a flesh-and-blood colonel entered the newspaper’s office and presented Mauldin with what he thought was a brilliant idea. “He wanted, so help me,” Mauldin remembered, “to take the original drawing and have thousands of huge poster copies printed. He planned to plaster them on every wall and telephone pole in Italy, as an admonition to GIs to ‘ack like sojers.’”
Mauldin knew he was in a delicate position: he didn’t want to go out of his way to point out that the colonel didn’t get it, that the cartoon verged on the seditious, and that making a poster of it was the last thing the officer should do. So Mauldin did the only thing he could, and handed him the drawing. The poster, of course, never materialized.
“People who make cartoons, according to legend, are supposed never to laugh,” Mauldin said of the incident shortly afterward. “Perhaps I’m too young at the game to have the proper attitude, because I got a whale of a laugh [out of it].”
There’s little doubt when looking at Mauldin’s work where his sympathies lie. While Willie and Joe “are no compliment to young American manhood’s good looks,” Mauldin wrote in Up Front, a collection of his cartoons that was published in 1945,“their expressions are those of infantry soldiers who have been in the war for a couple of years.
“Look at any infantryman’s eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen. If he is looking very weary and resigned to the fact that he is probably going to die before it is over, and if he has a deep, almost hopeless desire to go home and forget it all; if he looks with dull, uncomprehending eyes at the fresh-faced kid who is talking about the joys of battle and killing Germans, then he comes from the same infantry as Joe and Willie.”
Mauldin entered the army as an infantryman himself, enlisting in 1940 and assigned as a rifleman to the 180th. During training he indulged a boyhood interest in cartooning and drew depictions of life in camp featuring Willie and Joe for the division newspaper, the 45th Division News. Once the division was shipped overseas, Stars and Stripes began publishing his drawings. In early 1944, Mauldin was officially transferred to the Mediterranean edition of Stars and Stripes. One year later, his work won him a Pulitzer Prize.
“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,” wrote correspondent Ernie Pyle, who himself was killed a short time later at Okinawa. “His cartoons are about the war.”
Mauldin’s work became hugely popular with those “men in the line”—and occasionally loathed by those in command. One prominent detractor was Gen. George S. Patton. In early 1945, Mauldin was summoned to Patton’s Third Army headquarters in Luxembourg.“Now then, sergeant, about those pictures you draw, where did you ever see soldiers like that? You know damn well you’re not drawing an accurate representation of the American soldier,” Mauldin recalled Patton saying. “You make them look like bums. No respect for the army, their officers, or themselves.”
But Mauldin’s work only grew in popularity. The cartoons were carried in hundreds of newspapers and Up Front held the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list for eighteen months. Mauldin, who professed an admiration for Patton, said of the general much later in life, “I think he died without any idea that he’d lost that little battle.”
After the war, Mauldin returned home to a career as a political cartoonist, winning a second Pulitzer Prize in 1959. He died in 2003 at age eighty-one.
The cartoonist planned to kill off his two downtrodden infantrymen the last day of the war, thinking that would be a dramatic conclusion, but the Stars and Stripes editor begged him to reconsider. So Mauldin’s two soldiers did not die. But though they appeared after World War II only rarely—they held civilian jobs at gas stations for a few weeks after the war, until Mauldin decided that didn’t feel right, and then surfaced again on the deaths of Gen. George C. Marshall in 1959 and Gen. Omar Bradley in 1981— neither did they fade away.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.