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Behind the lines
When Mauldin met Patton
Almost every day in the summer and fall of 2002, they came to the Park Superior nursing home in Newport Beach, California, to honor Army Sergeant, Technician Third Grade, Bill Mauldin. They came bearing relics of their youth: medals, insignia, photographs, and carefully folded newspaper clippings. Some wore old garrison caps. Others arrived in uniforms over a half-century old. Almost all of them wept as they filed down the corridor like pilgrims fulfilling some long-neglected obligation.
Sergeant Mauldin never led men in battle. Only once during World War II did he discharge his weapon, killing a diseased bull to feed starving Italian peasants. He had fought the war with an ink brush, on the pages of the U.S. Army’s 45th Division News and the Stars and Stripes, and in hundreds of home-front newspapers and magazines. And now the 80-year-old cartoonist was dying, his body ravaged by infection and his mind succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.
The first old soldier at Mauldin’s bedside was Jay Gruenfeld, a 77-year-old veteran of the 43rd Division who had been wounded five times in the Philippines. Gruenfeld was lying in an Army hospital in 1945, a scared, lonely 21-year-old, when his father sent him Mauldin’s best-selling book of cartoons and text, Up Front. The book featured Mauldin’s signature characters, the infantrymen Willie and Joe—two surly and alienated footsloggers—and it spoke to Gruenfeld like nothing else. More important, it seemed to speak for him, expressing his grief, exhaustion, and flickering hope.
After leaving Mauldin’s bedside, Gruenfeld wrote to newspapers and veterans’ organizations, urging other old soldiers to visit the cartoonist and boost his spirits the way Willie and Joe had buoyed theirs during the war. The result was immediate. In hundreds of cards and letters, in shaky handwriting, veterans told Mauldin that his cartoons “saved my soul in that war” or “kept my humanity alive” amid the slaughter. Widows thanked the cartoonist for comforting their husbands before they were killed in battle. Columnist Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune took up Gruenfeld’s call that August, and mail began arriving at the nursing home by the sackful, topping 10,000 letters by autumn. So many veterans sought to drop in on Mauldin that the staff had to turn most of them away.
To a newspaperman, one veteran explained: “You [had] to be part of a combat infantry unit to appreciate what moments of relief Bill gave us. . . . You had to be reading a soaking wet Stars and Stripes in a water-filled foxhole.” It was Bill Mauldin’s great talent to transform the lowly, disaffected infantryman’s ragged appearance and sardonic attitude into marks of pride and respect. It was his great achievement to convince many of the Army’s leaders by dint of his humor, honesty, and popularity, that this “work[ing] off of [the men’s] complaints vicariously through a Mauldin cartoon,” as one two-star general put it, was a good thing. Not every general was a fan, and certainly not General George S. Patton, Jr., who bristled as much at Willie and Joe’s “unsoldierly” dishevelment as at Mauldin’s subversive humor. A spit-and-polish three-star (at the time), Patton made it his goal beginning in 1943 to “get rid of Mauldin and his cartoons.” Eventually, for the good of the Army, the cartoonist and the general would have to meet.
In January 1945, on an airfield in the east of Italy, 23-year-old New Mexico native Bill Mauldin, “a thin, intense, pale fellow,” as one acquaintance described him, drove his jeep into the hold of a C-47 transport and settled back in the cushioned leather driver’s seat for the flight to France. After a year and a half in the Mediterranean campaign, he was headed to the European theater.
In Lyon he picked up an edition of Stars and Stripes and discovered that the Battle of the Bulge was over. The Americans had finally pushed the Germans back to their pre-battle lines, at a cost of nearly 80,000 U.S. casualties. Mauldin was supposed to be joining the American Seventh Army, but the Seventh was resting up before its assault on the Siegfried Line, Germany’s last western defense.
With nothing pressing, Mauldin headed for Paris. This, he said, “made me technically AWOL, but when you are driving your own jeep with a pocketful of trip tickets, Paris is within reach, and your original mission is blown, what can you do?” What he could do was get arrested.
M.P.s manning the Paris roadblock had never seen anyone like Mauldin. First, there was his generous supply of open-ended trip tickets and his customized jeep, its comfortable seats cannibalized from a Lancia, its interior plastered with photos of his wife and child, its license plate sporting his name and the cartoon face of a scruffy soldier.
Then there was his fashion statement. Mauldin was dressed for a war zone, not Paris, and his getup bore no relationship to a complete uniform. On his head he wore a furry Russian-style rabbit hat unique to the 10th Mountain Division. He wore a tank crew jacket and high-laced paratrooper jump boots, but no insignia. The big patch pockets of his combat fatigue pants held pencils and paper. And in solidarity with the men of the lines, his hair flowed longer than regulation allowed.
The M.P.s took him into custody, but Mauldin managed a concession. Instead of transporting him to jail, they agreed to deliver him to the Paris offices of Stars and Stripes, where the staff vouched for him and he was released.
If Paris greeted Mauldin with a frying pan, it also had a fire waiting. The local edition of Stars and Stripes had been running his cartoon feature “Up Front” for a few months, and a French staff officer from General Charles de Gaulle’s headquarters had exploded in fury over a gag about the notoriously reckless French army truck drivers. A stream of complaints was also bearing in from American brass. Lieutenant General John Lee, the European theater’s quartermaster in chief, was campaigning to have Mauldin’s cartoons removed from the paper.
Lee was perhaps the most hated American general in Europe. Defying an Army directive, he had requisitioned for himself and his supply men the choicest hotels in Paris, while combat soldiers on leave scrambled for barracks space at the Red Cross. A stickler for the dress code, he routinely walked the Paris streets looking for uniform violations. Under his command, pilfering and black marketeering became rampant. Thousands of gallons of gasoline were siphoned off each day, leading to a fuel crisis for advancing American armies, and inspiring a caustic Mauldin cartoon in which a jeep is shown rigged to run on charcoal (and a soldier says, “Sorry. Now we’re outta charcoal, too”). Lee retaliated by threatening to cut off the paper’s supply of newsprint.
Just as Mauldin reached Paris, General George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the Third Army, wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes repeating his earlier objections to Mauldin’s grimy characters. If the editors refused to move “Up Front” out of the paper, Patton warned, he would block distribution of Stars and Stripes to his troops. Though famously erratic and combustible, Patton was also a full-fledged national hero, having led the Allied counteroffensive in the Ardennes. The editors at Stars and Stripes immediately passed their delicate problem on to the Army’s Information and Education Division, directed in Europe by a former White House aide, Oscar N. Solbert.
A consummate fixer, General Solbert invited Mauldin to a meeting in his office. “The room reeked of good fellowship,” the cartoonist recalled.
“I hear you’re having a little trouble with George,” Solbert said with a smile after asking Mauldin about his time in Paris. “I’ll be frank with you, son,” he continued. “A lot of us around here are worried about the way he keeps getting himself into peculiar situations, publicity-wise.” The general was doubtless referring to a well-publicized incident in which Patton had visited patients in a field hospital in Sicily and slapped two privates he’d suspected of malingering. Solbert noted that Patton’s threat to “Up Front” was “just the sort of thing that might make a story.”
The general assured Mauldin that most officers at Supreme Allied Headquarters, including Solbert himself, enjoyed the cartoons and thought they were good for morale. But, he suggested, Mauldin might want to consider cleaning up his characters somewhat. Their appearance, he said, was affecting replacement troops, who now “think they’ve got to roll in a muddy ditch and grow whiskers before they’re socially acceptable.” Besides, he added, only a small portion of the Army ever saw the frontlines. Could Mauldin broaden his scope and include other characters besides combat infantrymen? Finally, playing his trump card, Solbert told the cartoonist that a reformed Willie and Joe would help the war effort by easing Patton’s unstable mind.
Solbert’s words placed Mauldin in a familiar predicament: To sanitize or not to sanitize? Fortunately, Mauldin had friends in Paris. Reporter Will Lang of Time-Life and Sergeant Bill Estoff, the circulation manager at Stars and Stripes, met with him in a bar around the corner from the Stars and Stripes office. There they plotted to take Mauldin’s cause all the way to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Estoff was the plan’s indispensable man. Balding and heavyset, the middle-aged sergeant cut an unimpressive soldierly profile. Before being drafted, he’d been a bookie in Syracuse, New York, a history he eventually came clean about while languishing in a replacement depot in England. When the need arose for a circulation manager in the Mediterranean, the depot’s officer in charge figured “bookmaker” meant “publisher” and sent him to Stars and Stripes.
The streetwise Estoff put the situation succinctly to Mauldin. The problem was that Patton “made a threat about you and it’s all over town,” he said. “He keeps sticking his foot in his mouth . . . and now it’s freedom of the press that’s involved.”
“I’m not looking for trouble with Patton,” Mauldin said.
“That’s not the point,” countered Estoff. “The issue is a lot bigger than you are.”
“You’ve got the Army in a bind,” he explained again a day or two later. “If they make you change your stuff, everybody will ask how come your dogfaces [infantrymen] got creases in their pants all of a sudden. If they leave you alone, they’ve still got old Georgie chewing the rug and trying to push the paper around.”
Estoff’s solution was to approach Navy captain Harry Butcher, General Eisenhower’s aide and confidante who in civilian life had been vice president of CBS Radio. Estoff enjoyed ready access to Butcher through Butcher’s mistress, whom Estoff had somehow met early on in Paris.
A discreet inquiry from Estoff to Butcher triggered a quick response. The supreme commander wished to have the Mauldin dispute settled. Would Sergeant Estoff please escort Sergeant Mauldin to Butcher’s office for a meeting?
Butcher greeted the little group warmly and asked Lang and Estoff to wait outside while he spoke with Mauldin. The captain appeared just as friendly as General Solbert had, but took a blunter approach. He explained the Patton situation as General Eisenhower saw it. “We’ve all decided,” he said flatly, “the best solution is for you to go have a talk with the general [Patton] himself.”
Mauldin was scared, he admitted later. “I remember thinking that I had come a long way in a few years but that I had finally overplayed my hand.” Clearly required to say something in reply to Butcher, he managed a weak promise to “think it over,” while also respectfully questioning the value of driving 180 miles to Patton’s headquarters in Luxembourg just to get chewed out. The shaken cartoonist left Butcher’s office to consult with his friends.
Lang and Estoff explained that the proposition wasn’t optional, and Mauldin returned to Butcher’s office saying, as Butcher noted in his diary, that “he had mustered up his courage and if I’d make the appointment, he would go to Third Army headquarters and see old Blood and Guts himself.”
“Morning, General,” Butcher chirped in his phone call to Patton, with Mauldin standing by. “How’s Willie?” he asked, referring to William the Conqueror, Patton’s pet bull terrier.
As the two men exchanged pleasantries, Butcher waved to Mauldin to pick up the extension and listen in. The cartoonist heard a shrill, squeaky voice that he first ascribed to France’s antiquated telephone system. As Butcher explained the reason for his call, the high-pitched voice on the other end took unmistakable form:
“If that little son of a bitch sets foot in Third Army, I’ll throw his ass in jail.”
Butcher was not Ike’s aide for nothing. He merely shifted into the first-person-plural mode of address.
“General,” he said plainly, “we feel around here that it might be a good thing to do.” The debate was over. Butcher casually laid out the terms. The meeting would be private, face-to-face, man-to-man, no rank.
Mauldin and Lang set out for Luxembourg on the afternoon of February 27. Pulling off the road as they neared the Third Army’s territory, the young sergeant prepared himself, as instructed. Both he and his jeep had to conform to the Third Army’s strict code of appearance, Butcher had warned, or the interview would go badly. Mauldin cleaned and standardized his jeep as much as possible, slipping a hood over his personalized license plate and, though it was cold and rainy, folding down and covering his windshield. The furry hat was gone, replaced by a helmet. He also wore a necktie, neatly creased shirt and pants, and a polished sidearm to match his regulation boots.
Nonetheless, in Luxembourg Mauldin encountered the usual trouble with M.P.s, who took him down a muddy road to the provost marshal. The officer tried to make sense of his papers. It appeared that Sergeant Mauldin, though from the Mediterranean theater, was now on detached duty with the Seventh Army in Alsace, that he’d stolen a jeep, gone AWOL in Paris, and was now in Luxembourg claiming a meeting with General Patton. Thinking Mauldin deranged, the provost marshal ordered the M.P.s to treat the “looney bastard” gently, and he humored the visitor by placing a call to Patton’s public relations officer, Major James T. Quirk, who confirmed Mauldin’s mission. The provost coolly apologized for making the sergeant late.
“Oh, that’s all right,” the cartoonist responded nonchalantly, “the appointment was pretty well open, depending on when I got there.”
Mauldin drove slowly to the palace Patton had requisitioned for his headquarters. Inside, “a small task force of vitamin-packed M.P.s with mirror-toed shoes and simonized headgear” looked him over, he later recalled, and then he was passed to Major Quirk and General Hap Gay, Patton’s chief of staff, who subjected the guest to more scrutiny. “Undoubtedly Sgt. Mauldin is a great cartoonist,” Gay wrote in his diary, “and much to the surprise of the Author, he is merely a boy.” Quirk led Mauldin upstairs to the gilded room that served as Patton’s office. At the end of what seemed like a football field’s length of baroque carpeting, sat the general behind his desk, “big as life,” Mauldin recalled, “even at that distance”:
His hair was silver, his face was pink, his collar and shoulders glittered with more stars than I could count, his fingers sparkled with rings, and an incredible mass of ribbons started around desktop level and spread upward in a flood over his chest to the very top of his shoulder, as if preparing to march down his back, too. His face was rugged, with an odd, strangely shapeless outline; his eyes were pale, almost colorless, with a choleric bulge. His small, compressed mouth was sharply downturned at the corners, with a lower lip which suggested a pouting child as much as a no-nonsense martinet. It was a welcome, rather human touch. Beside him, lying in a big chair, was Willie, the bull terrier. If ever a dog was suited to master this one was. Willie had his beloved boss’s expression and lacked only the ribbons and stars. I stood in that door staring into the four meanest eyes I had ever seen.
Then Patton’s high squeaky voice broke the spell. “Come in, Major,” the general said, addressing Quirk in his upper-class Southern accent. Mauldin marched with his escort across the carpet, came to a swift halt, and flashed his smartest salute since basic training.
“Hello, Sergeant,” said Patton, grinning weakly (“an impressive muscular feat,” Mauldin noted, “considering the distance the corners of his mouth had to travel”).
In defiance of the deal struck with Butcher, Patton told Quirk to stay. “Now then, Sergeant,” he said abruptly, “about those pictures you draw of those god-awful things you call soldiers. . . . You make them look like goddamn bums. No respect for the Army, their officers, or themselves. . . . What are you trying to do, incite a goddamn mutiny?”
If Mauldin had a reply in mind, he never got to use it. Patton brooked no interruptions while on an oratorical roll
“The Bolsheviks made their officers dress like soldiers, eat with soldiers, no saluting, everybody calling everybody Comrade—and where did it get ’em? While they ran an army like that they couldn’t fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag. Now they’ve learned their lesson. They put uniforms back on their officers. Some men are born to lead and don’t need those little metal dinguses on their shoulders. Hell, I could command troops in a G-string. But in wartime, you’re bound to get some officers who don’t know how to act without being dressed for it. The Russians learned you had to have rank and if some comrade looks cross-eyed at a superior today he gets his teeth kicked in. . . . How long do you think you’d last drawing those pictures in the Russian army?”
It was another rhetorical question, prelude to another lecture-cum-diatribe, about the need for military discipline, larded with examples reaching back to antiquity. Though clearly the object of Patton’s scorn, Mauldin sat enthralled. It was, he said afterward, “as if I were hearing Michelangelo on painting.”
Mauldin absently reached out with his drawing hand to pet Willie, then quickly pulled it back as the bull terrier poised to strike. Had he not done so, the cartoonist mused years later, Willie “would have put me out of business, accomplishing in one snap what his master was trying to do the hard way.”
Finally, winding down, Patton opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small stack of clippings from Stars and Stripes. “I’m going to show you what I consider some prime goddamn examples of what I mean by creating disrespect.”
On top of the stack sat a cartoon of Willie and Joe pelting their commander from behind with ripe fruit as civilians throw flowers during a parade through a liberated French village (“My, sir—what an enthusiastic welcome!” the general’s aide says, unaware). Another sample, which the general held up “by the tips of his thumb and forefinger as if it were contaminated,” Mauldin recalled, depicted enlisted men lined up outside a theater for a USO show. Around the corner, at the stage door, neatly dressed officers wait for the dancing girls.
“Where are the words under this one?” stormed Patton. “Somebody cut off the goddamn words!”
“Sir, there wasn’t any caption under that one,” Mauldin replied, starting at the sound of his own voice.
He tried to explain what the drawing meant—that enlisted men can only look at the girls, but officers get to take them out.
“You think the soldiers ought to get laid instead of the officers, don’t you?” challenged Patton, managing a slight grin.
Then, in what was for Patton an astonishingly gracious move, the general sat back in his chair and gave Mauldin the floor to answer a question: “Why did you draw this picture if it wasn’t to create disrespect for officers?”
Mauldin responded with the “letting-off steam” theory of morale that had justified his career for four and a half years. Combat soldiers, he explained, stewed constantly about getting “the short end of the stick in everything, including women.” They might not blame the women for the situation, or the officers, Mauldin hastened to add. But the inequity planted a powerful sense of injustice.
“Jesus Christ, Major, does this make any sense to you?” Patton asked his public relations officer. Then he allowed the cartoonist to continue.
Mauldin concluded his short speech saying that when the aggrieved soldiers open Stars and Stripes and see a cartoon that expresses their gripes, they feel validated and are thus less likely to cause problems within the ranks.
“I don’t know where you got those stripes on your arm,” Patton stated as if Mauldin had never spoken, “but you’d put ’em to a lot better use getting out and teaching respect to soldiers instead of encouraging them to bitch and beef and gripe and run around with beards on their faces and holes in their elbows. Now I’ve just got one last thing to say to you: You can’t run an army like a mob.”
“Sir, I never thought you could—” the young man started to reply. But the general looked at his watch. The meeting was over.
Mauldin rose, snapped another sharp salute, and marched toward the door. Behind him, he heard Willie jump up and reclaim the chair.
Back on the road, Mauldin recounted the events to Lang, who asked Harry Butcher for permission to publish an account. Butcher approved the idea so long as Lang “didn’t embellish it with too much color,” Butcher’s diary records. Ten days later, Time magazine ran a 165-word article titled “G.I. Mauldin v. G. Patton.”
“After 45 minutes with Old Blood & Guts,” the article said, “Young Gags & Grime emerged grinning, report[ing] last week: ‘I came out with all my hide on. We parted good friends, but I don’t think we changed each other’s opinions.’ Mauldin G.I.s remained unwashed, unsquelched.”
Patton of course went nuts when Butcher read the article to him over the phone, threatening once again to throw Mauldin in jail if he ever ventured into the Third Army area.
But Eisenhower had had enough. Officers, Ike stated plainly in a letter sent throughout the European theater, are “not to interfere” in “such things as Mauldin’s cartoons,” nor in other controversial materials published in Stars and Stripes.
“It looks to me,” wrote Butcher in his diary, “as if General Patton . . . has lost the battle of Mauldin.”
Todd DePastino ’88 is the author of the 2003 book Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America and the general editor of the cartoon collection Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (2008). His essay is drawn from Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front copyright © 2008 by Todd DePastino, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.
Read more by Todd DePastino