No one captured the essence of American GIs during World War II better than Bill Mauldin did. He personally followed soldiers through the battlefields, sketching on the hood of his jeep, and experiencing the same fear and discomfort they did. His characters Willie and Joe were shown tired, hungry, and cold, slogging through mud and being shot at- reflections of the grungy life of the average soldier.
Mauldin, a twenty-four-year-old anti-authoritarian, incurred the displeasure of his commander, General George Patton, who called him into his office to complain that he was “sabotaging military discipline.” Mauldin left convinced more than ever that he was on the right coordinate. “When I see a stuffed shirt,” he proclaimed, “I want to punch it.” He was “against oppression… by whomever.” It took General Eisenhower’s intervention to keep Mauldin’s work circulating. Ike new it was good for morale.
Born in Mountain Park, New Mexico, on October 29, 1921, William Henry Mauldin grew up on a ranch near Phoenix. In his early teens he decided he wanted to be a cartoonist and upon graduation attended the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago. After joining the army in 1940, he produced cartoons for the 45th Division News. Three years later, he took part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, where he received the Purple Heart, and by 1944 he was a full-time cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, the armed services newspaper. Through his cartoons he became the spokesman for the downtrodden combat soldiers in their wrinkled and torn uniforms, unshaven and weary of war. His characters were the taciturn but eloquent witnesss of the conflict who “defied army rituals and regulations.” They knew they had to fight the war, but they refused to shine their shoes.
His adoration of the dogfaces and their slogging existence made Maudlin one of the star performers in the newspaper. After Ernie Pyle, the nation’s most popular war correspondent, wrote about him, United Features Syndicate picked up his “Up Front with Bill Mauldin”, which was featured in newspapers throughout the United States. In 1945 he received the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished service as a cartoonist.” His book Up Front was a best seller and he also appeared in two movies: John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage in 1951, with war hero Audie Murphy, and Teresa. He was famous.
Mauldin always did his work with a bursh because of the primitive conditions under which he worked- his paper was often damp, and the type of newspaper presses that were used didn’t process pen lines well. He decided his bold brush strokes depicted the strength and vitality of his message. His work is credited with helping the GIS blows off steam and having their plight revealed to the public. People today still remember World War II with Maudlin’s images in their minds.
After the war, Maudlin tried to continue the same themes during the Korean War, but it wasn’t the same. Although his stance hadn’t changed, his work was seen as political instead of entertaining. Back home, he attacked racism, the Klu Klux Klan, and McCarthyism, but found his views were unpopular with some small-town papers. Disillusioned, he gave up cartooning for a time and tried other pursuits, even running for Congress without success.
In 1958 he returned to the field as the editorial cartoonist at the St.Louis Post Dispatch, a paper willing to run his strong opinions. The following year he received his second Pulitzer Prize, and in 1961 the National Cartoonists Society presented him with their Reuben award for “Cartoonist of the Year.” In 1962 he moved to The Chicago Sun Times, where he covered social and political conflicts here and abroad. His famous image of the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial weeping over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will forever evoke that dark moment in American history.
Married three times and father of seven sons and a daughter, Mauldin retired from the Sun Times in 1992 at a time when his cartoons were syndicated in 250 papers nationwide. In addition, he wrote sixteen books and over the years received countless awards for his work.
When the public discovered that Mauldin was in a nursing home in Newport Beach, California, suffering from Alzheimer’s, thousands of letters poured in from people wishing to share wartime memories with him. Ex-soldiers still wanted to thank him for portrayals of their plight. Mauldin couldn’t see the letters but responded when they were read aloud to him. His understanding was clear by the smile on his face. He died at 81 years of ago on January 22, 2003.
Editorial cartoonists commemorated his death with a drawing of a GI helmet with a pen stuck into the ground next to it, evoking the image of a battlefield grave marker.