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The Homefront, Then and Now

The Gift of Laughter

No caption needed: one of Mauldin's best
Bill Mauldin was only twenty when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but he quickly found his place in the chaos of war, a place that made him probably the bet-known and best-loved enlisted man in the US Army.

Sergeant Mauldin’s job was to draw cartoons for the soldiers’ newspaper, Stars and Stripes. He served beside them and knew how things were. Soon sad-faced Willie and Joe, muddy, bedraggled, often with a cigarette hanging from a lip, were personifying the woes of combat infantrymen. The cartoonist never hesitated to tweak officers’ tails, but when some officers objected, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, put a stop to complaints. “Mauldin draws what Mauldin wants,” he declared.

Uncomfortable with praise, Mauldin was always an ordinary Joe, his impish grin still in place as he returned to civilian life and cartooned for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1945, he won his first of two Pulitzer Prizes, this one for "Distinguished service as a cartoonist." His Willie made the cover of Time magazine. His book, Up Front, was No. 1 best-seller in the country.

When word got out in 2002 that Mauldin was lying, alone, in a California nursing home, enlisted men from all over the country sent 10,000 cards and letters to tell him they hadn’t forgotten. So many wanted to visit it necessitated a waiting list. They came all summer and fall, bringing mementos of their days in the service, needing to say “Thank you.”

”You had to be reading a soaking wet Stars and Stripes in a water-filled fox hole and then see one of his cartoons,” one veteran explained. Mauldin’s cartoons had given them what they needed most when things got tough: the priceless gift of laughter.

Mauldin died on Jan. 23, 2003, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. In 2010, he – and Willie and Joe – were honored on a US postage stamp, all three pictured as they were when they were buddies in 1943.
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