Near Scoglitti, Sicily, Italy July 10, 1943

On this date 21-year-old Oklahoma national guards­man Bill Maul­din landed on the south­west coast of Sicily with K Com­pany, 180th Infan­try Regi­ment, 45th Divi­sion as part of Oper­a­tion Husky (July 9/10 to August 17, 1943). Maul­din is less known for his 3‑year ser­vice in World War II than for his cartoon drawings of Amer­i­can enlisted men—chiefly rifle­men like him­self—through his main char­ac­ters, Willie and Joe, who appeared in news­papers between 1940 and 1945. Though Maul­din mostly saw com­bat in Italy, where he created the major­i­ty of his car­toons, his griz­zled, mud-covered, combat-weary “dog­faces” or “doggies”—as he called combat enlistees—achieved star-status owing to their appear­ance first in the weekly 45th Divi­sion News in 1940 Okla­homa (soon syn­di­cated in dozens of national news­papers), then in early spring 1944 in the daily Stars and Stripes. The widely popu­lar 8‑page Stars and Stripes was read by hun­dreds of thou­sands of service­members in all Euro­pean and Afri­can thea­ters of oper­a­tion and, after May 1945, in the Pacific thea­ter. Maul­din was assigned to work full-time at the Stars and Stripes. He wrote about and drew humor­ous cari­ca­tures of rifle­men, medics, com­bat engi­neers, artil­lery observers, and other front­line sol­diers from close to 20 divi­sions whom he met, lived, slept, and served with. He faith­fully shared their spoken words and thoughts in his single-panel cartoons (see examples below).

Though linked together at the hip in the public’s mind, sharp-nosed Willie and pug-nosed Joe (Maul­din him­self) first appeared sep­a­rately in the cartoonist’s drawings—Joe before Pearl Harbor and general mobi­li­za­tion, Willie after­ward. Repre­senting aver­age Amer­i­can GIs, the two car­toon sol­diers became best buddies over the next several years, belly­aching about their war-weari­ness, home­sick­ness, bore­dom, monot­o­ny, rain, snow, freezing cold weather, cursed mud and wet fox­holes, K‑rations, smelly feet, and the thought that one or both of them might not make it out of the war alive. Ernie Pyle, a Pulit­zer Prize-winning Amer­i­can jour­nalist and widely read war corres­pon­dent, admired Maul­din for his “terribly grim and real” drawings and for his droll cap­tions that captured Joe and Willie’s habit­ual dog­face appear­ance (unkempt faces, their worn-out boots, wet smelly socks and feet, baggy, mud-caked uni­forms) along with some of their feelings—in other words, what it was to look like and be a foot sol­dier trapped in a miser­a­ble war for months on months or years. Maul­din’s tar­geted audi­ence roared with laughter as ser­vice men and women shared the cartoon soldiers’ pain.

Army brass, however, could and did find Maul­din annoying. Chief among the young artist’s detrac­tors was the spit-and-polish-obsessed Third U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. He cursed at the two car­toon figures over their scruffy, “unsol­dierly” appear­ance. In one of Maul­din’s car­toon panels, Willie and Joe are depicted driving a beat-up  jeep. A road sign informed the two sol­diers “You Are Entering the Third Army [area].” Under­neath was a list of fines for GIs entering the area unshaven ($10), with­out hel­met or tie ($25 each), and so on. The cap­tion had Willie telling Joe: “Radio th’ ol’ man [i.e., com­pany HQ] we’ll be late on account of a thou­sand-mile detour.” Patton’s revenge was a 45‑minute pri­vate dressing down of Sergeant Mauldin short of an official reprimand.

Unlike popular war correspondent Pyle who was killed by a sniper on the Japa­nese island of Iejima (Ie Shima) on April 18, 1945, Mauldin (1921–2003) sur­vived the war with nothing more than a shrap­nel wound and a Purple Heart. The first civil­ian compi­la­tion of his work, Up Front, a col­lec­tion of his car­toons and foxhole-level view of the war in Europe, topped the New York Times best-seller list in 1945 and 1946. Before that Willie, Joe, and Maul­din had a piece in Time maga­zine with Willie on its June 18, 1945, cover. Maul­din’s post­war attempt to show­case the ve­ter­an rifle­men back home as civilians was unsuccessful.

Bill Mauldin: Foremost World War II Cartoonist

Willie and Joe: Mauldin at work, Rome, ItalyWillie and Joe: Willie gifted Joe his last pair of dry socks

Left: This photograph shows Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, in a fur-lined moun­tain cap, seated at his desk in an office of the Ital­ian news­paper Il Mes­sagero (The Mes­sen­ger) in Rome, Italy, ca. 1945. The Stars and Stripes, like its World War I prede­ces­sor of the same name, was intended to pro­vide uncen­sored news from sol­diers for sol­diers. It was not an organ for the high brass to use. Maul­din had a regular two-column space in the Stars and Stripes, giving his simple black-and-white brush-work cartoons a promi­nent pre­sence in the news­paper. Speaking of the founder of the World War II ver­sion of the Stars and Stripes, a former pri­vate, now colonel, Mauldin wrote: “Because our paper was exclu­sively for com­bat soldiers, we didn’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of high brass hats. . . The great major­ity of gene­rals and author­i­ties who see the sheet over here leave us strictly alone.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Mauldin con­fessed that “a few car­toons I had done about gene­rals had a def­i­nitely insub­or­di­nate air about them.” Maul­din, in a dust­up with a deputy thea­ter com­mander in Italy, was accused of “under­mining some­body’s morale” in “the rear echelon.” A corps com­mander (a gene­ral) told the car­toonist to buck up: “When you start drawing pic­tures that don’t get a few com­plaints, then you’d better quit, because you won’t be doing any­body any good.” Mauldin later stood his ground when Gen. Patton tried to clean his clock (see above). Maudlin, Up Front, pp. 26–29.
Right: Caption, Willie: “Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an’ I swore I’d pay ya back. Here’s my last pair of dry socks.” Long-suffering infantry­men were forced to endure rain, mud, more rain, more mud, and so on. “The worst thing about mud,” Maul­din wrote, “out­side of the fact that it keeps armies from advancing, is that it causes trench foot. There was a lot of it that first winter in Italy [1943–1944]. The dog­gies found it diffi­cult to keep their feet dry, and they had to stay in wet fox­holes for days and weeks at a time. If they couldn’t stand the pain they crawled out of their holes and stumbled and crawled (they couldn’t walk) down the moun­tains until they reached the aid sta­tion. Their shoes were cut off, and their feet swelled like bal­loons. Some­times the feet had to be ampu­tated. But most often the men had to make their ago­nized way back up the moun­tain and crawl into their holes again because there were no replace­ments and the line had to be held.” Mauldin, Up Front, pp. 35–37.

Willie and Joe: The most important foxhole in worldWillie and Joe: can’t git no lower

Left: As Mauldin put it, for a rifleman occupying a cramped fox­hole, snug as a bug in a rug (if such a thing were even possi­ble), nothing is more pre­cious or vital than that nothing disturbs that axis. Willie weighs which axis of war is impor­tant to him and which isn’t. “Th’ hell this ain’t th’ most impor­tant hole in the world,” Willie yells to Joe over the sound of exploding artil­lery. “I’m in it.” If all hell hasn’t broken out to dis­turb the spin­ning axis, the war may be con­sidered going well no matter what is hap­pening off in the dis­tance. But if Willie and Joe are sweating out a fierce artil­lery bar­rage and Joe next to him happens to be severely injured, even killed by a piece of flying shrap­nel, then the war has gone horribly wrong. Mauldin, Up Front, pp. 19–20.

Right: Caption: Joe: “I can’t git no lower, Willie. Me buttons is in th’ way.” In Stephen E. Am­brose’s intro­duc­tion to Maul­din’s book Up Front, the famous author and his­torian wrote (pp. viii–ix): “For the infantry­men, just about the worst exper­i­ence was being caught in the open in a shelling. They would press them­selves to the earth and pray to God. . . At other times, they thought ‘this must be the end of the world.’ One veteran told me that he knew I wouldn’t believe it but that I couldn’t imagine how small a human being can make his body. ‘During a shelling,’ he said, I could get my whole body under my hel­met.’ Mauldin’s cartoon speaks to this point.” Mauldin, Up Front, p. 39.

Willie and Joe: Fugitives from the law of averagesWillie and Joe: Yank and German equally sad wretches

Left: Caption: Willie to Joe, “I feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages.” Mauldin remarked: “All the old divi­sions are tired—the out­fits which fought in Africa and Sicily and Italy and God knows how many places in the Paci­fic. . . [M]en in the older divi­sions . . . have seen actual war at first hand, seeing their bud­dies killed day after day, trying to tell them­selves that they are dif­fer­ent—they won’t get it; but knowing deep inside them that they can get it.” Mauldin, Up Front, pp. 38–39.

Right: Caption: “Fresh, spirited Amer­i­can troops, flushed with vic­tory, are bringing in thou­sands of hungry, battle-weary pri­soners . . .” Maul­din chided the States-side press for some­times being two-faced. “I drew the German sol­dier as a poor unfor­tu­nate who didn’t want to be there,” he penned in Up Front, which is just the way he had drawn Willie and Joe. In 1944 Maul­din won the first of two Pulit­zer Prizes in Edi­torial Car­tooning for his depic­tion of grimed-faced German POWs being herded by equally grimed-face GIs trudging to a holding pen in the rear. Maul­din noted for the record, “After a few days of battle, the vic­to­ri­ous Yank who has been sweeping ahead [in battle] doesn’t look any pret­tier than the sullen super­man he captures.” Mauldin, Up Front, pp. 21–22.

Medley of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe Cartoons Set to 1940s Music