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Mauldin, William Henry (“Bill”)

Mauldin, William Henry (“Bill”)

(b. 29 October 1921 in Mountain Park, New Mexico; d. 22 January 2003 in Newport Beach, California), Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist whose fictional soldiers Willie and Joe provided a candid view of combat in World War II from the perspective of the infantrymen on the front line.

Mauldin, the younger of two sons of Sidney Albert Maul-din, a handyman, and Edith Katrina (Bemis) Mauldin, a homemaker, spent his youth in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. His father, a World War I veteran described as a hard-drinking jack-of-all-trades, earned a meager living. A scrawny, bowlegged adolescent, Mauldin attributed his physique and physical limitations to rickets, from which he suffered as a child. Shortly before his parents divorced in the mid-1930s, Mauldin decided to become a cartoonist and enrolled in a $20 correspondence course. His father introduced him to a local cartoonist, who provided a few lessons and encouragement. Mauldin immediately began creating posters and banners advertising area businesses and drew cartoons for high school publications in New Mexico and Arizona. A self-described “pop-off,” he was expelled from a high school biology class in his senior year (1939) because of his antics. He thus lacked the credits necessary for graduation from Phoenix Union High School. Rather than completing the requirements for his high school diploma, Mauldin borrowed $500 and enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. After a year of study, he returned to Arizona and found limited work drawing cartoons for political candidates, including opposing gubernatorial aspirants.

With war raging in Europe, in September 1940 Mauldin enlisted in the national guard and was assigned to a quartermaster company of the Forty-fifth Infantry Division. A few days later the division was called into federal service and assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for training. Mauldin did not adjust well to service in a quartermaster unit, particularly after he antagonized several key noncommissioned officers, in part because he scored second-highest in the division on the army’s general aptitude test. Part-time duty every Friday afternoon as the cartoonist for the Forty-fifth Division News provided a productive outlet for the teenager’s talent. His work attracted the attention of Daily Oklahoman editors, who paid him $5 a week to reprint his drawings from the division newspaper. Because of the young private’s growing dislike for his quartermaster assignment, the officer in charge of the newspaper arranged for him to transfer to K Company, 180th Infantry Regiment. Duty in the infantry was more taxing physically, but Mauldin enjoyed the challenge and found his new unit a better source of material. Men whom Mauldin met in K Company inspired the creation of cartoon characters who evolved into Willie and Joe. In early 1941 the Forty-fifth transferred to Camp Barkeley near Abilene, Texas. Cartoons drawn during the Louisiana summer maneuvers of 1941 became Mauldin’s first book, Star Spangled Banter, published before the exercise ended in late September.

Several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, on 28 February 1942 the young soldier married Norma Jean Humphries, a Hardin-Simmons University sophomore he had been dating since the Louisiana maneuvers. They had two children. In early June 1943, after further training in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, the Forty-fifth sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, to participate in the invasion of Sicily. By the time of the July 10 landing, Mauldin’s part-time assignment as cartoonist for the division paper occupied most of his time. Following the Allied invasion of Italy, Willie and Joe, the fictional infantrymen of Mauldin’s weekly cartoon Up Front, completed their transformation from irreverent but clean-shaven critics of army life to scruffy cynics giving voice to complaints and observations of the men on the front line. Drawn from the perspective of the enlisted foot soldier, Willie and Joe aroused the ire of a few high-ranking officers, including General George S. Patton, but were popular with most of the men, including General Mark Clark and General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Mauldin’s cartoon panels were reprinted in the Mediterranean edition of the Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for servicemen overseas, and in many newspapers in the United States. By February 1944 the cartoonist had joined the staff of Stars and Stripes, where he continued to serve until the end of the European war. Promoted to sergeant, Mauldin earned a Purple Heart for a wound received while covering action below Monte Cassino, south of Rome. In the final days of action in Europe, the young enlisted man was sent to explain his cartoons personally to General Patton. The meeting was cordial, but after Patton learned he had not persuaded Mauldin to clean up Willie and Joe, the general threatened to arrest the cartoonist if he ever entered the Third Army’s sector. Selected for a 1945 Pulitzer Prize, Mauldin was awarded a Legion of Merit before he was discharged in mid-1945. At that time his book Up Front (1945) was on the best-seller list, Willie had been featured on the cover of Time, and his creator learned that over 200 newspapers had agreed to run his cartoons.

Mauldin found the transition to civilian life difficult. The twenty-five-year-old veteran’s wartime marriage ended in divorce in 1946. The views Willie and Joe expressed about problems they faced as civilians found less resonance with the public than their wartime observations. Scores of newspapers dropped the cartoon, and its creator did not try to renew his contract with United Feature Syndicate when it expired in 1948. As his social and political commentary became more strident, Mauldin seemed to have lost the insight that had catapulted him to fame. He later acknowledged that he had become a bore. The cartoonist considered himself a progressive champion of the little man, but his drawings drew fire from both wings of the political spectrum and prompted the federal government to place him under surveillance.

After leaving United Feature, Mauldin found work with the New York Star for a year. He then freelanced, submitting cartoons to the New Yorker and other national publications, and covered the Korean War for Collier’s. In 1951 he earned good reviews when he appeared in John Huston’s movie adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage and in Teresa, directed by Fred Zinnemann. A second marriage on 27 June 1947 to Natalie Sarah Evans produced four more children. During the mid-1950s Mauldin moved his family to Rockland County, New York, where he made a 1956 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite a vigorous campaign, the left-leaning cartoonist stood little chance against a conservative Republican in a heavily Republican district.

Mauldin returned to full-time cartooning in 1958, when he accepted a position with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The next year he won his second Pulitzer Prize for a panel satirizing the Soviet treatment of the Nobel Prize–winning author Boris Pasternak. In 1961 Time placed Mauldin’s image on the cover of its July 21 issue and called him “the most promising political cartoonist on the U.S. scene.” A dispute over the terms of syndication of his work prompted Mauldin to accept a position with the Chicago Sun-Times in 1962. The following year he drew one of his most memorable cartoons, a captionless panel of the Lincoln Memorial with the sixteenth president, head in hands, grieving over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Sigma Delta Chi, later the Society of Professional Journalists, gave Mauldin its Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism for the drawing, and the former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked the cartoonist for the original, which she donated to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

During his years with the Sun-Times, Mauldin covered the war in Vietnam in 1965, the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Persian Gulf War of 1991, but his scope was wider than military conflict. His cartoons chided opponents of civil rights, questioned American leaders’ decisions to commit troops to combat, and skewered bureaucrats. Mauldin characterized himself as a “stirrer-upper” and criticized colleagues for being soft on their subjects.

In 1971, shortly after the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Natalie Mauldin was killed in an automobile accident. On 29 July 1972 Mauldin married Christine Lund, a twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant at the Chicago Daily News. They had two children. In 1991 an accident with a jeep Mauldin was working on injured his left (drawing) hand and prompted him to retire after almost thirty years with the Sun-Times. During his career Mauldin produced thirteen books, including Back Home (1947), Bill Mauldin in Korea (1952), What’s Got Your Back Up? (1961), The Brass Ring (1971), and Let’s Declare Ourselves Winners—And Get the Hell Out (1985).

After Mauldin’s retirement, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of Willie and Joe in 1992. By mid-decade Mauldin had begun displaying symptoms later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease, but he continued traveling and speaking for several years. As the disease progressed, his public appearances diminished, and his third marriage ended in divorce in the late 1990s. In 2002 he entered a nursing home in Newport Beach. When Jay Gruenfeld, a World War II veteran, learned of Mauldin’s condition, he mobilized other admirers of the cartoonist, who besieged his nursing home with over 10,000 letters. The eighty-one-year-old cartoonist died after contracting pneumonia. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on a gray, rainy day reminiscent of those Willie and Joe endured in Up Front.

Mauldin’s career spanned half a century, and his postwar work placed him among the best political cartoonists of his era. Nonetheless his legacy rests predominately on the images of Willie and Joe he drew between 1943 and 1945. They captured the outlook of citizen soldiers willing to do their duty to overcome the enemy but unwilling to surrender their right to criticize elitism, inefficiency, and stupidity. Although Mauldin was only twenty-four when the war ended, Howard J. Langer included him in his book The World War II 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Figures of the Second World War (2001).

In 1975 Mauldin donated his papers, including 1,700 original cartoons, to the Library of Congress. The material covers 1938 to 1965. The Forty-fifth Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has a collection that includes more than 200 of Mauldin’s original cartoons, most drawn in 1944 and 1945. Many of the cartoonist’s books contain autobiographical material, particularly The Brass Ring (1971), which covers his life from birth until his discharge from the army in 1945. Back Home (1947) describes problems he and other veterans faced in readjusting to life after the military. Time ran two cover articles featuring the cartoonist; the 18 June 1945 issue provides an overview of his service in World War II, and the 21 July 1961 issue concentrates on his postwar career. Obituaries are in the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and Stars and Stripes (all 23 Jan. 2003).

Brad Agnew

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