Born in 1921, Bill Mauldin came of age in the People’s Century,when ordinary men and women grappled with the global crises of depression and war. He chronicled their lives in cartoons and, in so doing, ennobled both his subjects and his craft.
Then, in 1940, the unemployed cartoonist joined the Army. There, he cartooned one afternoon a week for the 45th Division News. Some brass bristled at the insubordination of his humor,but enlisted men loved it. Bill Mauldin was already a 45th Division celebrity when he landed in Sicily in July 1943.
The strain of combat soon engraved itself on his cartoons, as it did the men. After his transfer t o the Stars and Stripes in early 1944, Bill created two war-weary “dogfaces” named Willie and Joe who captured the sardonic humor of the front. When “Up Front …by Mauldin” was syndicated back home in April of that year, it caused a sensation. Arm chair followers of the war had never seen their fighting men depicted as anything but pious, clean-cut warriors.
In 1945, the twenty-three-year-old cartoonist returned home the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner in history, the author of a best-selling book, and the most famous enlisted man in the United States Army. He stunned fans by using his syndicated feature as a bully pulpit to protest racial discrimination and anti-communist hysteria. In 1948, after doing battle with United Features Syndicate over its censorship of his work,Bill Mauldin retired from cartooning altogether.
Over the next decade, he wrote articles and books,starred in Hollywood movies,covered Korea as a war correspondent, piloted airplanes, ran for Congress, and raised a family. In1958, here turned to cartooning at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Within a year, he won his second Pulitzer Prize.In 1962,he moved to the Chicago Sun-Times and saw his syndication reach 300 papers. Hisbold cartoons for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War made him a legend to a whole new generation of fans.
Bill Mauldin retired from cartooning in 1991 after an injury to his drawing hand. Stricken by Alzheimer’s disease, he entered a nursing home in 2002 . In the months before he died, old veterans and their relatives sent him over 10,000 cards and letters They thanked him for keeping their humanity alive during that most savage of wars. These tributes, more than any honor or award, rank Bill Mauldin as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.
Bill Mauldin died on January 22, 2003. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Todd DePastino is the author of The Man Who Lived His Life Backward: A Biography of Bill Mauldin to be published by W.W. Norton in October, 2007, among others. He lives and works in Pittsburgh.