Happy Birthday, Bill Mauldin!

Bill Mauldin in 1945

A few weeks ago a few of our volunteers and I read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino.  No doubt that you are probably familiar with cartoonist Bill Mauldin and his two most recognizable figures Willie and Joe.  His cartoons span many generations; however, it was what he was able to accomplish with those cartoons that make him much more of a legend.

William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was born on October 29, 1921 in Mountain Park, New Mexico.  Growing up was not easy for Bill out west; however, he was viewed by his grandmother as the salvation of the family.  Both his mother and grandmother encouraged the academic advancement for young Bill, and although money was something they did not have a lot of, books were always around the small farmhouse.  He found his calling in art, painting signs for towns that he traveled to.  Supported by his grandmother, Bill eventually took one year of classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. 
In 1940, Bill, with persuasion by his old friend Jack Heinz, joined the Arizona National Guard.  It did not take much to convince Bill to join, he fully believed the United States should come to the aid of Great Britain and Western Europe in their struggle against Hitler.  Four days after he joined, the Arizona Guard, part of the 45th Infantry Division, was federalized.  Bill volunteered to be a truck driver for Company D, 120th Quartermaster Regiment and was shortly on his way to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, headquarters of the 45th Infantry Division. 
Bill in his Jeep, 1944-1945
While in the 45th Infantry Division, Bill volunteered to work as a cartoonist for the division’s newspaper.  His early work focused on a number of military characters depicting daily life for enlisted men.  During his training and work for the newspaper, the United States joined in the fight in the Pacific and European theaters.  In July 1943, as a Sergeant of the 45th Infantry Division’s press corps, he landed in the invasion of Sicily. 
Although disliked by his superiors for the content of his cartoons, enlisted men loved him.  He was a hero, someone who could relate to and voice their frustrations.  He was transferred in February 1944 to work for Stars and Stripes magazine.  By March, he was given his own jeep to travel around the frontlines collecting new material for six cartoons a week.
General George Patton once summoned Bill to his office after a new cartoon made light of Patton’s demand that all soldiers, including those on the frontlines, must be clean-shaven at all times.  Patton threatened to throw Bill in jail for “spreading dissent” among the men.  General Eisenhower believed Bill’s almost daily cartoons played an important role as an outlet for the frustrations of soldiers, and told Patton to leave him alone and let him do his job.
Returning home in 1945, Bill published his wartime work in Up Front, a collection of cartoons and reminisces about the war.  He became the youngest Pulitzer Prize recipient for this work at the age of 23.  Continuing with cartoons, he shocked his fans by using his syndicated feature to protest racial discrimination and anti-communist hysteria.  In 1948, after battling the United Features Syndicate over its censorship of his work, Bill retired from cartooning. When asked what the most important issue that he tackled during his career, Bill replied “The one thing that meant the most to me and that I got involved in was the whole civil rights thing in the sixties.”  
Bill used the dilapidated school house as a metaphor for the broken state of U.S. public education in this comment on the actions of Little Rock to establish private schools to circumvent the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ November 10, 1958 order to integrate, November 11, 1958*
Reaction to Kennedy Assassination, November 23, 1963
Over the course of the next decade, he spent time writing articles and books, starring in movies, and covering Korea as a war correspondent.  In 1956, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for US Congress in New York.  In 1958, he returned to cartooning at the Chicago Sun-Times.  His syndicated cartoon now reached over 300 newspapers.  One of his most famous post-war cartoons appeared in 1963 when he depicted the Lincoln Memorial reacting to the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. 
After injuring his drawing hand in 1991, Bill once again retired.  However, in 1998, Willie and Joe appeared one last time when he and Charles Schulz, a WWII veteran himself, joined together to produce a special Veterans Day comic strip.  Charles considered Bill one of his heroes, the signature on the piece having “Schulz and my hero, Bill Mauldin.” 
Bill Mauldin died on January 20, 2003 from complications of Alzheimer’s.  In the months before he died, he received over 10,000 cards and letters from veterans across generations and their families thanking him for keeping their humanity alive during war.  These letters and tributes stand as a testament to the lasting legacy of this small town cartoonist from New Mexico.  In 2005, Bill was inducted into the Oklahoma Cartoonist Hall of Fame. 
Schulz and Mauldin celebrate Veterans Day, November 11, 1998
Until next time, 
*image courtesy of the Library of Congress  

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