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The Legacy of Pulitzer-Prize Winning Cartoonist Bill Mauldin: An Interview with Biographer Todd DePastino

Bill Mauldin couldn’t help himself. Ever since his hardscrabble childhood in the Southwest, the renowned cartoonist championed the oppressed, the underdog.

As an enlisted soldier in Europe during World War II, Mauldin braved Army censors and the wrath of Gen. George S. Patton to depict the grim reality of war with his iconic drawings of Willie and Joe, “dogface” combat infantrymen who slumped in contrast to the Hollywood stereotype of eager, handsome, high-spirited American soldiers. Instead, Willie and Joe were weary, disheveled, bearded, often rain-soaked and mud-caked, in dread of death beyond their fetid foxholes, dependably irreverent and ironic, and real.

Willie and Joe made Mauldin a hero to his fellow grunts, won him a Pulitzer Prize by age 23, and set him on a course of drawing, writing and activism for fairness and justice.

In the sweeping first biography of the celebrated cartoonist, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W. W. Norton), historian Todd DePastino recounts Mauldin’s unsettled childhood, wartime exploits, early fame, personal struggles, and his post-war commitment to civil rights and justice. Artist Jules Feiffer said the biography portrays “a twentieth century life that reads like Huck Finn transplanted.”

DePastino also wrote the acclaimed history Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, and edited the new cartoon collection, Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (Fantagraphics). He’s currently working on a history of the 1877 labor unrest and the railroads. He teaches at Waynesburg College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

DePastino recently discussed his Mauldin biography from Pennsylvania.

Robin Lindley: Did your work on Bill Mauldin grow out of your earlier history of homelessness, Citizen Hobo?

Todd DePastino: Two illustrations for that book were Bill Mauldin cartoons. The problem of that book was writing a history of this wide-ranging, homeless subculture, a counterculture, of mainly young men that rambled over the country from the Civil War until World War II. This huge subculture of homeless men existed for 75 years, then vanished after Pearl Harbor. And a couple laughed and said they didn’t disappear, they went into the army, like Willie and Joe.

I wasn’t familiar with Bill Mauldin or Willie and Joe. I went to my library and found a yellowed, 1945 edition of [Mauldin’s book] Up Front, thumbed through it, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. The drawings pulled me in, captivated my attention like nothing has for a long time. I’d never seen anything like these cartoons. They weren’t about highly motivated paratroopers or Marines or flyboys. They were sardonic. They were dark. They were anti-establishment, anti-war. They seemed to tell a whole other story, like a hidden transcript of the war: the extreme fatigue, the extreme hardship, the extreme trauma of combat. These cartoons captured that and were published in Stars and Stripes, an official publication of the United States Army. How did these anti-Army cartoons end up in an Army publication? That was the scholarly question that animated my research at first.

Then I learned more about Bill Mauldin. I learned he lived for almost 60 years after the war, and lived with the great celebrity. I learned of his involvement in left-wing politics after the war, and of his dropping out of cartooning, then coming back to cartooning and winning another Pulitzer, running for Congress, going to Vietnam and being at Pleiku, going to Korea. He had such an adventurous life. I said there’s more here than a scholarly article on his cartoons, there’s really a biography, and I couldn’t believe no one had written a biography of him.

When I start work on a book, I try to find a reason not to write it. It was more frustrating than Citizen Hobo because in a biography, you’re trying to crack the code of a human life, to render a life in its contradictions, complexity, randomness into some coherent narrative, and it’s very hard to do. You’re also trying to plumb the depths of a personality and find out what’s the secret to this character. You keep believing just a little more research, one more interview, one more archive, and you’ll discover the secret. You never do, and that’s the humbling thing about writing biography. All you can do is tell what you know with as much coherence as you can, and a lot is left to the reader to connect the dots of the character.

And in looking for a reason not to write the book, I asked people why there has never been a biography of Bill Mauldin, and they said people don’t write biographies of cartoonists. That made me want to write it even more.

RL: And he was also a journalist and commentator.

TD: Yes. One of the best conversations I had was with Stanley Meltzoff. He’s about 88, was an illustrator on Stars and Stripes, and was responsible for discovering Mauldin. He has tremendous insight on twentieth-century cartooning, book illustration and art. He said, “To call Bill Mauldin a cartoonist downgrades what he did, what those pictures meant to people.” To call him an artist almost reifies him–we think of artists as alienated, detached, contemplating the eternal verities, working alone—and Mauldin wasn’t like that. His art was meant to be consumed that day by the people around him. He was drawing what he saw and publishing it on a daily basis. That is not what we think of as art, and to call it art thinks abstracts what he was doing.

Stanley Meltzoff said [Mauldin] was a “picture maker”—making pictures of people lives in extremely traumatic situations. And he was making pictures that had a therapeutic effect. These combat soldiers would see themselves depicted and were somewhat cheered because they got the sense that somebody understood, and that the person who understood, Bill Mauldin, was making his understanding public and showing others what their lives were like.

When Mauldin's cartoons first hit the home front, Americans had never seen Army infantry soldiers depicted this way. In all the Hollywood movies and magazines they might be a little dirty but they were rugged and handsome and motivated and gung ho for victory. And Willie and Joe weren’t like that at all. They were just trying to survive and get through.

RL: They never made the recruiting posters.

TD: No. But Mauldin was amazed to learn that rear-echelon soldiers were scruffing up their clothing to look like Willie and Joe, so they had a fashion impact. Before Willie and Joe, it was fashionable to look like you were in the Air Corps.

RL: Doesn’t Mauldin’s work resonate now as we fight yet another war?

TD: We seem to have to learn the lesson in each war that it takes—I hate the phrase—“boots on the ground.” It takes armed individuals taking territory to win war, whether you’re talking about World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq.

It isn’t generally discussed, but our game plan for Europe in World War II failed. We had expected to win that war through long-range artillery, through aerial bombardment, naval power. It turned out that we discounted the number of combat troops we would need on the ground, so we never had enough men in Europe, which is why the war took as long as it did, and which is also why Willie and Joe were on the frontline for so long. Those guys should have been taken out after 14 days, and they weren’t. They were kept in 30, 45 days in combat straight. We didn’t have enough replacements. We hadn’t planned for a long, intense ground war. Does that sound familiar?

I would like to go back through the cartoons. Some are universal because the experience of combat [holds] universal truths. “I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages.” That’s a universal feeling in combat. You wonder when your number will be up.

RL: Mauldin’s overarching themes of fairness and justice seem to arise from his childhood.

TD: He was so shaped by his environment, the rugged, desert southwest. He had seen plenty of people pushed around and bullied by cattle barons and land barons—more powerful people, including his poor farm family. He learned a powerful lesson: to maintain your independence you have to push back against authority. He had a reflexive sympathy for the underdog that nothing could squelch. He was always ready for a fight. Some of that came from his unstable family background. He valued independence more than anything. Growing up close to the dust bowl, he saw a lot of people just fighting to survive, and he assimilated that perspective into his life and work. He identified with people who were oppressed. Willie and Joe were oppressed. You could imagine them unemployed or on a picket line before the war.

I live in Pittsburgh, and come from here, and I see them as Pittsburgh steelworkers. I talked with the animator Ralph Bakshi the other day, and he comes from Brooklyn, and he always sees them as Brooklyners. Wherever you’re from, you imagine Willie and Joe as the representative outsiders.

Mauldin always identified with outsiders. He was an outsider in his community in New Mexico. He was scrawny. He didn’t have the skills to be a rough, tough rural entrepreneur. He had a bookish quality that wasn’t valued there.

RL: His father also treated him as an outsider.

TD: Exactly. And his father was an outsider in his own right. His father was abandoned at age eight, and raised in a brothel. He was a hell raiser, and an unstable but charismatic, very smart, and raised himself, and Mauldin followed in his footsteps and raised himself.

RL: And Mauldin’s work ethic was so strong. He worked day and night at drawing, even during the war.

TD: Yes. He was fastidious and extremely disciplined about his work. He said many times that he did not think of himself as an artist. To him that term connoted things he didn’t like: the sense of an alienated genius waiting for inspiration to strike. That wasn’t him.

His ethic in terms of cartooning came from Hillbilly Larry Smith, a local Alamogordo cartoonist who has gone down in history as the creator of the jackelope postcards. If Hillbilly Larry wanted to eat, he’d bat out a few cartoons and take them to a restaurant and trade them for a meal. That’s what he taught Bill. Bat it out. Every second you waste is money you’re losing.

He never treated his art as precious or timeless. He viewed himself not as an artist but as a craftsman. He was fastidious. He felt he had to get every detail right. The captions were as important to him as the drawings. He needed to get the right tone and texture of the discourse in the captions.

He always saw himself in working class terms as a craftsman; as somebody who traded his work for money and for a position in society; as somebody whose craft entitled him to have a voice. And for him, it was always a voice for those who didn’t have voices—the silent majority of the down and out who had no voice in society—he saw himself speaking for them.

RL: Who were his influences as an artist?

TD: His initial influences were cartoonists, then he learned about Hogarth and Daumier from Rayson Billey, a Chocktaw Indian in the 180th Infantry Regiment of the 145th Infantry Division. Rayson Billey was the biggest, meanest soldier you could imagine, and yet he was also one of the most educated, intellectual men Mauldin had ever met. The combination fascinated Mauldin. Here was an American Indian who was fighting for his citizenship. That spoke to Mauldin—it fired his conscience and imagination. He identified with these Chocktaw warriors in his company. He wanted desperately to get their approval, and to be a good soldier for them. Rayson Billey was one of his heroes through his life, and it was Rayson Billey who taught him about pictorial satire. He had taken a class on it at Oklahoma University, and Mauldin hadn’t been to college.

RL: And for years, Mauldin thought Rayson Billey had been killed in the war, then he met him years later.

TD: Yes. Rayson Billey is listed in a few official histories of the regiment as being killed in action, and he wasn’t. He was missing in action. He was captured a couple times. He killed his captors, and was subsequently wounded at Anzio, and removed. He was wounded several times. Through all the wounds and captures, he was lost in the shuffle. He went back home Oklahoma and didn’t travel much. Then he made his way to the 145th Division reunion in 1982, I believe, and surprised Mauldin there.

RL: What was Mauldin’s relationship with Gen. George S. Patton?

TD: I never say this in the book, but hope it comes across. Patton in many ways was Mauldin’s doppelganger, his double. That is, somebody who is like you in a significant way, and yet different. From day one when he first saw Willie and Joe, Patton was gunning to have Mauldin removed from [Stars and Stripes], and Mauldin was protected by his division commander.

Patton hated the cartoons as much for the disheveled appearance of the characters as for the insubordination expressed in the cartoons. Patton was a spit and polish guy and he didn’t like soldiers looking sloppy. I think Patton didn’t have much of a sense of humor, and didn’t understand a lot of humor, but he understood the pictures well enough to know these guys were disheveled and therefore insubordinate.

But what Patton had that Mauldin admired was an expertise, a craftsmanship and a passion about all things military. Mauldin shared that passion. Mauldin loved anyone who was passionate about their craft, and he also loved the military. He loved the military like many love their families: there’s nothing you love more and nothing infuriates you more than your family. In many ways the army was his family. He was a young man, and the army was an early home for him, and he never quite escaped its reach and influence.

His relationship with Patton was fascinating because he saw a lot of himself in Patton. Both had a secret sense of his own importance and his own destiny. Mauldin had this will to power. He wanted to be a spokesman for the GI. He embraced the role as a kind of leader of enlisted men in Europe. He loved being a leader, though he would deny it at times.

RL: He must have relished his role as a voice for the downtrodden.

TD: Definitely. He was spokesperson for the downtrodden, for outsiders who had been forgotten by mainstream society. The home front had no idea what these guys were going through. He relished that role of a lifetime. And Patton had a similar sense of his importance and destiny.

You have these very different characters from very different backgrounds meeting on February 27, 1945 at the ducal palace in Luxembourg, and they are confronting each other. It’s mainly a top-down confrontation with Patton lecturing Mauldin for 45 minutes on the importance of military discipline with examples reaching back to antiquity, and Mauldin is given five minutes to rebut. It’s one of those great poignant moments in a lifetime when you face your adversary who has a lot in common with you.

How Mauldin behaved afterward is so telling because, although he was dressed down by Patton, when he emerged from the meeting and ran into Time-Life correspondent Will Lang, Lang asked for Mauldin’s version of the meeting for an exclusive. Mauldin said, “He said his piece, I said mine. I don’t think we changed each other’s mind, but we parted as friends.” And that infuriated Patton when he heard about it later. But Mauldin had to get the last word in, and he got the last word in with that comment. And on the day of the meeting, he published a cartoon criticizing Patton, and so that if he was silenced at the meeting, he would still get the last word in.

RL: My dad was in the infantry in the South Pacific and survived terrible fighting in New Guinea, and Bill Mauldin struck a chord with him.

TD: I can imagine. And it’s interesting that Mauldin’s cartoons weren’t reprinted in the Pacific Stars and Stripes, and Douglas MacArthur made sure that they weren’t. MacArthur didn’t like Mauldin any more than Patton did. Pacific soldiers had heard about him, and read Ernie Pyle’s column about, but they hadn’t seen the cartoons. Often, the people from home would mail soldiers in the Pacific cartoons, or late in the war they began mailing servicemen’s editions of Up Front.

RL: And Mauldin’s work became important in 1943 when President Roosevelt and Gen. George C. Marshall decided to show civilians the reality of the war so they would understand the seriousness of the war.

TD: Yes. Before then, every battle was a victory; every step a soldier took was a step toward the end of the war. Expectations on the home front ballooned that the war would be over by Christmas 1943. Of course, the war planners and the president knew better than that, and [by] the summer of 1943 they had to dampen expectations. And they also wanted to raise money through bond drives, and they had to protect themselves from criticism about wage and price controls, rationing, and the scarcity of goods.

The idea was to begin publishing images of American war dead, and of soldiers in grim situations. You think you’re sacrificing by only getting three gallons of gas a week and not getting butter every week, but these soldiers are living in foxholes and encountering artillery fire and fighting a very lethal enemy, and we need to give them all the support we can muster.

Mauldin was part of this new publicity campaign—a campaign of selective truth. Certain images would be released. American war dead would be shown, but they’d be face down in the sand, not in twisted or grotesque positions. This is still Hollywood’s version of war dead.

Mauldin knew he couldn’t get away with everything he wanted to say about the gruesomeness of combat, and especially about battle fatigue—what we now call post traumatic stress disorder—where soldiers literally forgot their own names, couldn’t respond, couldn’t hear, were nearly catatonic. He’d seen this time and again. He had seen men walk to the front as though they were going to the gas chamber, and this is something he couldn’t [show] in cartoons.

There’s one wonderful cartoon of Willie in a hospital bed. He’s unbandaged, and he’s staring straight ahead. There’s officers standing around him, and one says to another, “Couldn’t he at least lie at attention?” The cartoon captures so much. That is one of Mauldin’s comments on battle fatigue. Willie is catatonic, and the brass won’t acknowledge the trauma these guys are experiencing.

RL: Do you think Mauldin was affected by posttraumatic stress disorder?

TD: He certainly had a special survivor’s guilt. Not only did he survive, but he became a rich and famous celebrity. He’s everything he ever wanted because of the war, and very rapidly. And it didn’t escape his notice that the worse the war got, the more popular he became.

Eric Severeid said, “Combat gives men new eyes. They see things with a clarity they’ve never seen before.” That was true for Mauldin throughout his career. Whenever he’s at a crisis moment, his art is the best, as in World War II. As you trace his development, the captions are sharper and the drawings much more vivid.

He carried that paradox his whole life. On the one hand, he had connived to escape combat by working on the paper. He knew if he failed he would be given a gun and sent to the lines, and he didn’t want that. So he abandoned his comrades who he admired so much to work on this newspaper. He survived combat and his whole company got wiped out. He felt that he exploited these people, and he could have been one of them.

And he had never told the whole truth. The whole truth was unpalatable, so by drawing Willie and Joe he made it palatable. He allowed Willie and Joe to survive the war. They never would have survived. By the end of the war, he was distraught and bitter about this. He told his editor he was going to kill Willie and Joe—have a mortar explode and [show] pieces of clothing and helmet. His editor said we’ll never print it, so he didn’t do it. He took Willie and Joe home with him, and I think he regretted that.

RL: That must have been very painful for him.

TD: Yes. He couldn’t stand going to Memorial Day services or reunions. The older he got, the more affected he became by memories of the war.

RL: Mauldin’s interest in justice carried over to his work after the war.

TD: Red baiters and racists were his main targets. Civil rights was one issue that defined his cartooning all along. He so identified with outsiders. He was part Native American, and an outsider himself.

It infuriated him when he saw discrimination. He first thought about it when he saw Japanese-American soldiers from the 442nd Regiment fight with valor in Italy—the most highly decorated unit in American military history—and he saw them return to the United States and be denied access to restaurants, bars and home ownership. That infuriated him. When he heard anti-Semitism from Southern senators after the war, that infuriated him. Black soldiers returning to segregated schools and neighborhoods outraged him.

He came home bitter and disillusioned, thinking that nothing could justify the slaughter he witnessed; nothing could justify the catastrophe of the war. He was desperate to find some meaning for the war. He ultimately hit on the idea that if we’re not living up to the American ideals of freedom and democracy, the war was true hypocrisy and an unmitigated catastrophe. So he [was] a crusader for civil rights very early on in 1945, not only for African-Americans, but for Jewish Americans, Nisei, Mexican-Americans, Native-Americans. He was at the forefront of all this.

The Red baiting he saw also infuriated him. He knew, as all the soldiers in Europe knew, that the Red Army had defeated Nazi Germany. Most American soldiers were grateful that the Red Army had absorbed the Wehrmacht’s hardest punches [and] the Americans were spared the slaughter of the Eastern front.

Bill Mauldin, like many Americans, came home very grateful for the Red Army and with warm feelings for the Soviet Union. He couldn’t stand the idea of the war being over just a week, and already there was talk of a Third World War with the Soviet Union. He couldn’t stand the lack of diplomatic initiative. Eventually, when he [learned of] the actions of Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union and the imperialism and unilateral territory grabs in Eastern Europe, he was upset, and he couldn’t stand American communists defending that.

He was a sort of man without a country for a while. He was caught between the left, which he saw as apologists for the Soviet Union, and the right, which he saw as [having] a fascist enthusiasm for a catastrophic war with the Soviet Union. He was a lone voice of independent liberalism for a while.

RL: And he soon gained an adversary in J. Edgar Hoover.

TD: It didn’t take long. By late 1945, the FBI opened a file on him, kept him under surveillance, collected his cartoons, kept a record of speeches he gave, and the groups he joined. All of that was used in his 1956 congressional race by his opponent who had access to that raw FBI data.

RL: Did you review the FBI files?

TD: I did. Informants were sending in cartoons that they read in papers. He was under surveillance at an El Paso, Texas, army base in 1949. All his contacts with organizations are listed: American Youth for Democracy, the Anti-Fascist Joint Refugee Committee. And things were added into the early Seventies.

RL: And he ran for Congress in 1956 in a very conservative district in New York as a liberal Democrat.

TD: He ran an exhausting campaign. He flew his own airplane and drove his own jeep, and he outscored any Democrat before him. He took it very seriously, and didn’t want to be just a celebrity candidate.

RL: Mauldin went back to cover both the Korean and Vietnam wars, and survived a mortar attack at Pleiku when visiting his son.

TD: Yes. His son just happened to be stationed at Pleiku [in 1965], a little base, and no one expected that the Vietnam War as we know it would start there, but it did. This was the first direct Viet Cong attack on American troops. Mauldin just happened to be there with his son at the wrong time. The mortar attack came, and he saw the dead and wounded. He was the only correspondent there. He took some photographs, did some sketches, and helped with the dead and wounded.

He wouldn’t say this, but I think he avoided combat in Korea. He didn’t want to hang around the front lines. He’d had enough of that in World War II. He was reluctant to go to begin with, but he was offered so much money, he couldn’t pass it up. He went to Korea but went back and forth between Japan and Korea a lot, and on a naval ship. The same in Vietnam. He stayed in Saigon, except for a day or two in Pleiku. He just happened to be there at the wrong time, saw combat again, and he didn’t like it. He said he didn’t like it any more than the first time, and he wasn’t eager to do it again.

RL: Didn’t Mauldin support the war right after the attack on Pleiku?

TD: He did. As Mauldin put it, the war was personal. He saw friends of his son hurt and killed, and he went through the terror, and he was outraged. He believed the American effort there was right then, and he liked President Johnson, and he trusted him for a while, but was always skeptical. In fact, an early cartoon from 1964 on the Gulf of Tonkin showed prescience and a real skepticism about the war effort. He was hawkish after Pleiku for a while, but he said it didn’t take him long to realize it was an ill-defined adventure that would cost a lot more in life than [they were] hearing. By 1968, he was radically against the war.

RL: And Mauldin was a friend of LBJ?

TD: Yes. As long as he embraced the war, LBJ liked him. In some way he was a kindred spirit with Mauldin. Two smart, ambitious “shit kickers,” as LBJ put it, from the Southwest, with a shared fierce sense of humor. They were two men with a sense of grievance toward those who were better bred. But when Mauldin turned against the war, he was frozen out, and never invited back to the LBJ Ranch or the White House.

RL: He also challenged the machine of Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago.

TD: He said Daley reminded him of Mussolini—a real bully in how he ran the city. He saw it as his mission to puncture Daley’s authority whenever he could. The 1968 riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago re-radicalized him. He entered his last great renaissance in 1968, and his art dramatically improved.

RL: Did you meet Bill Mauldin?

TD: No. I began work on this book just months after he died. But his family was wonderful. They were extremely helpful, and this couldn’t have been done without their cooperation. His sons that I worked with and Chris Lund, his third wife, not only shared memories but also offered interpretations, and some were quite strong. One son really wanted to pull back and not impose an interpretation on me. He wanted me to figure it out for myself and let the chips fall where they may. They didn’t want a whitewash or elegy to him. They wanted a serious, probing book about his life and work.

RL: I met him briefly in 1982 at a Washington, DC art gallery group show of editorial cartoons, and he was very charming and warm.

TD: He was one of the most charismatic people a lot of his friends had ever met. Even later in life when he was at a detox center for alcoholism and other problems, his son said he had the patients and the staff wrapped around his finger with his charisma, and that helped keep people at arm’s length, strangely enough. He used his charisma to keep people from probing too deeply, getting too close. He had a contradictory personality. He was garrulous, charismatic, extremely engaging, and great observer of people and human nature, but he was a loner, very private, and insisted on keeping many things to himself.

RL: It was very moving to read of his last years. He had a lot of medical issues, but veterans admired him and sought him out. Have you heard from many veterans?

TD: I have, and it’s heartbreaking. These old men with a deep connection to Mauldin’s work thanking me for writing the book. These people have incredible traumatic memories from 60 years ago.

And Mauldin got hundreds of letters on his deathbed. One was in shaky, spidery scrawl from a woman who thanked Mauldin for drawing for her husband who was killed in action in 1944. She was writing about a trauma that occurred to her 60 years [earlier]. It taught me how those traumas are so fresh, and how intimately connected Mauldin is with that generation’s grief.