Bill Mauldin came to fame in WWII drawing cartoons showing the human dimension of the war in characters he named Willie and Joe. He was himself a soldier, and was able to bring a sympathetic character to readers at home, and some relief to the troops around him.
While in the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin volunteered to work for the unit’s newspaper, drawing cartoons about regular soldiers or “dogfaces“. Eventually he created two cartoon infantrymen: Willie, who was modeled after his comrade and friend Irving Richtel, and Joe, who became synonymous with the average American GI.
During July 1943, Mauldin’s cartoon work continued when, as a sergeant of the 45th Division’s press corps, he landed with the division in the invasion of Sicily and later in the Italian campaign. Mauldin began working for Stars and Stripes, the American soldiers’ newspaper; as well as the 45th Division News, until he was officially transferred to the Stars and Stripes in February 1944. By March 1944, he was given his own jeep, in which he roamed the front, collecting material and producing six cartoons a week. His cartoons were viewed by soldiers throughout Europe during World War II, and were also published in the United States. The War Office supported their syndication, not only because they helped publicize the ground forces but also to show the grim and bitter side of war, which helped show that victory would not be easy. Willie was on the cover of Time Magazine in the June 18, 1945 issue, and Mauldin himself made the cover in the July 21, 1961 issue. While in Europe, Mauldin befriended a fellow soldier-cartoonist, Gregor Duncan, and was assigned to escort him for a time. (Duncan was killed at Anzio in May 1944.)
Those officers who had served in the army before the war were generally offended by Mauldin, who parodied the spit-shine and obedience-to-order-without-question view that was more easily maintained during that time of peace. General George Patton summoned Mauldin to his office and threatened to “throw his ass in jail” for “spreading dissent” after one of Mauldin’s cartoons made fun of Patton’s demand that all soldiers must be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat. But Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander European Theater, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone, because he felt that Mauldin’s cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. Mauldin told an interviewer later, “I always admired Patton. Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn’t like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes.”
Mauldin’s cartoons made him a hero to the common soldier. GIs often credited him with helping them to get through the rigors of the war. His credibility with the common soldier increased in September 1943, when he was wounded in the shoulder by a German mortar while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino. By the end of the war he also received the Army’sLegion of Merit for his cartoons. Mauldin wanted Willie and Joe to be killed on the last day of combat, but Stars and Stripes dissuaded him.
In 1998, Mauldin drew “Willie and Joe” for publication one last time, as part of a Veterans Day strip for the popular comic, Peanuts. The creator of Peanuts and a World War II veteran himself, Charles M. Schulz, had long described Mauldin as his hero. He signed the strip Schulz, and my Hero, and then had Mauldin sign his name underneath.
His cartooning after the war turned to civil liberties and put off his editors. He never succeeded in equaling the following and fame he had during the war. Buried in Arlington Cemetery, Mauldin joined his Willie and Joe in the end.