William “Bill” Mauldin is known for his WWII cartoons – Willie and Joe – portraying US soldiers. His two characters “Willie and Joe” took on the persona of the weary infantry soldiers who, despite the war’s challenges, stoically endured the challenges and dangers they faced as members of the US military. These two characters became well-known and appreciated and were published and distributed throughout the US army both here and abroad.
The Journey to Willie and Joe
Bill Mauldin was a member of the 45th Infantry Division where he volunteered for the unit’s newspaper. He began drawing cartoon characters depicting everyday soldiers – or “dogfaces”. In time, Mauldin began creating “Willie and Joe”, two infantrymen cartoon characters destined to become synonymous with the average American soldier.
In July of 1943, Mauldin was a sergeant of the 45th Division press corps. He found himself with the division in Italy during the invasion of Sicily and then eventually found himself in the Italian campaign. During this time, he was also working for the Stars and Stripes, a newspaper designed for the American soldier. In February of 1944, he was transferred over to the Stars and Stripes. A month later he was given a jeep, which he used to roam about the front to collect material for his characters and cartoons, which he was now producing at the rate of six per week. His work spread throughout the United States and Europe and was supported by the War Office. The War Office felt these characters accurately depicted the difficulties of war and reinforced the message that victory would not come easily.
The Road of Willie and Mauldin
Willie, whose character was modeled after Bill Mauldin’s friend and comrade Irving Richtel, appeared on the cover of the June 18, 1945 issue of Time Magazine and the cover of the July 21, 1961 issue of Time showed the artist himself, Bill Mauldin.
Though the cartoons grew in notoriety and were loved by the soldiers, officers who served in the army prior to the war did not care for Mauldin’s work. In fact, they took offense as his cartoons satirized the pre-war “obey without question”, “spit and shine” authority to which they were accustomed. In fact, General George Patton confronted Mauldin and threatened to throw him in the brig. Patton was upset after Mauldin published a cartoon making fun of Patton, who demanded soldiers be clean shaven at all times – including in combat. Dwight Eisenhower, then the Supreme Commander of the European Theater, disagreed with Patton and instructed him to leave Bill Mauldin alone. Eisenhower respected the outlet these cartoons provided soldiers who often found themselves frustrated during the war.
To the everyday soldier, Bill Mauldin was a hero. They noted that oftentimes, it was Mauldin’s work that helped them tolerate and get through the rigors of war. Mauldin and his work gained credibility in 1943 when he was wounded by a German mortar. And by the end of the war, Bill Mauldin had rightfully received the Army’s Legion of Merit. It was Mauldin’s intention to have Willie and Joe killed on their last day of combat, but he was dissuaded by Stars and Stripes.
After the War
Mauldin’s notoriety did not stop at the end of the war. In 1945, when Mauldin was only 23 years old, he won the Pulitzer Prize. As a civilian, his first publication – Up Front – became a best-seller. In the period after the war, Mauldin began drawing political cartoons portraying groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Newspaper editors were not, however, pleased with this work. Though they were hoping for more on Willie and Joe, Mauldin was unable to carry them into civilian life.
Bill Mauldin won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his cartoon creation portraying the author of Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak – in a Soviet GULAG. The caption: “I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?”
Mauldin abandoned his cartoon creations for a period of time and was unsuccessful in 1956 when he ran for the US Congress. In 1958, he returned to creating cartoons. The following year he won another Pulitzer Prize and an award from the National Cartoonist Society for Editorial Cartooning. He received their Reuben Award as well. One of Mauldin’s most famous cartoons during this time appeared in 1963 in the Chicago Sun. The cartoon gave life to the statue of Abraham Lincoln – at the Lincoln Memorial – with him sitting with his head in his hands.
Mauldin continued with a number of accomplishments in the years to follow. His last cartoon drawing of “Willie and Joe” appeared in 1998 as part of a Veteran’s Day strip for the well-known comic strip Peanuts. The creator of Peanuts, Charles Schultz, was a long-time fan of Mauldin’s having been a WWII soldier himself.
Just five years later, on January 22, 2003, Bill Mauldin the infamous cartoon creator of the World War II “Willie and Joe” died after scalding himself in a bathtub. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.