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Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front

By Todd DePastino. 320 pp. W. W. Norton, 2008. $27.95.

The two most famous American combat soldiers of World War II never existed. To millions of stateside readers and, most importantly, to GIs in foxholes from Anzio to the Bulge, Willie and Joe, grubby veterans of the Italian campaign and the western front, were the spokesmen for the American soldier. This fine new biography of their creator, cartoonist William Henry “Bill” Mauldin, does full justice to the man and his work.

Mauldin grew up in troubled circumstances, in a family that today would be labeled dysfunctional. A natural gift for drawing and a response to a magazine ad for a cartoonists’ school was his ticket out of his hardscrabble existence. This in turn led to ROTC training at his Phoenix, Arizona, high school and, after several twists, to the Arizona National Guard and the 45th Infantry Division. While the outfit prepared for the coming war, Mauldin’s drawings—trenchant commentaries on the training regimen— began to appear in the 45th Division News. As Mauldin honed his wit and his brush skills, his legendary characters also began to take shape.

Mauldin’s fame spread after the division deployed to the Mediterranean for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. A move to the Mediterranean edition of the newspaper Stars and Stripes, whose circulation was much larger, followed. Soon Mauldin’s cartoons—often skewering out-of-touch officers and rear-echelon “garritroopers,” who affected the dress and mannerisms of the combat soldiers while safely ensconced in quiet sectors— drew praise and criticism.

The often unspoken comradeship of the frontlines came through in some of the drawings, while others showcased such irritations as the inequity of the army’s medals policy (in one memorable cartoon, a clean-shaven clerk sporting a Combat Infantryman Badge tells a battle-scarred medic, “Ya don’t git combat pay ‘cause ya don’t fight”). Mauldin’s 1945 book Up Front, which combined a collection of the best Willie and Joe cartoons with hard-hitting commentary on various aspects of the GI experience, ultimately reached millions of readers. Another wartime Mauldin cartoon, which contrasted a news report of “fresh, spirited American troops” with a depiction of bedraggled, bone-weary GIs, won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Although Mauldin remained an implacable foe of the military bureaucracy, there is no doubt that the same bureaucracy recognized a good thing when they saw it. Powerful patrons, ranging from his divisional commander Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton (who staunchly defended Mauldin and the 45th Division News from the criticism of Gen. George S. Patton, who was decidedly not a fan of the scruffy dogfaces) to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, offered timely assistance. The brass even provided Mauldin with a personal Jeep fitted out as a mobile cartoonist’s studio. Many senior officers recognized that Mauldin’s humor, far from being subversive, provided a healthy escape valve for soldiers’ discontent.

Though Mauldin’s fame peaked during the war, he remained a force in editorial cartooning into the early 1990s. His postwar work showed Willie and Joe struggling to assimilate back into civilian life, took on McCarthyism and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and, in one of his most memorable drawings, depicted the Lincoln Memorial statue overcome by grief at the news of the Kennedy assassination. He covered America’s conflicts through the Persian Gulf War, but remained skeptical throughout, particularly of the growing World War II nostalgia. Mauldin feared that Willie and Joe had been sanitized and glorified, and in the process stripped of much of their humanity. A late 1991 hand injury slowed him. His last years were turbulent, marked by family tragedies and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A bathtub scalding hastened his decline. In his final days, he seemed to respond only to the World War II veterans who, learning of his plight, flocked to his bedside to pay their respects.

The cartoonist was certainly no saint. His personal life was marred by infidelities and bouts of intemperate drinking. DePastino acknowledges these human flaws without allowing them to overwhelm the story. The book delivers on its promise of offering “a biography with illustrations”: a selection of drawings representing every stage of Mauldin’s career, as well as excellent photographs, accompanies the text.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of satirical blogs, videos, and songs highlighting the small absurdities of military life. A cartoon version of the army’s new counterinsurgency manual is even making the rounds. In a very real sense, their authors are Mauldin’s heirs.


Originally published in the November 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here