World War II Cartoons Come To Soldiers' Aid

In World War II, Bill Mauldin created two cartoon soldiers named and Willie and Joe. His drawings are now starring on t-shirts sold to benefit a nonprofit for military personnel and their families called The Soldiers Project. Host Scott Simon speaks to Sam Mauldin about his father's illustrations.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Willie and Joe are back on the battlefield, in new wars. The two rumpled, unshaven dog faces, as theyre called, came to symbolize the American infantryman and his discontents during World War II, as they grumbled about busted equipment, incomprehensible orders and officers who seemed to get the best food and driest socks. Most telling of all, Willie and Joe appeared in Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for U.S. soldiers. They were drawn by a young U.S. Army sergeant named Bill Mauldin. Now, Patton hated his cartoons, but Ike liked them and thought they gave enlisted men an outlet for their frustrations and a chance to laugh. Of course, Bill Mauldin went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and was the long time editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Sun Times, but he spent a career hearing from veterans how much his first characters had meant in their lives.

Bill Mauldin died in 2003. Now his youngest son, Sam Mauldin, is permitting Willie and Joe to appear again on T-shirts to benefit the Soldiers Project; thats a non-profit organization that offers free psychological treatment to military service members and their families. Sam Mauldin joins us now from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Sam, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SAM MAULDIN: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And what prompted you to put Willie and Joe back into service?

Mr. MAULDIN: Well, it started - as I was reading a New York Times article back in August about a sergeant named Jacob Baylock(ph), who had a very traumatic experience during his service in the Iraq conflict, and after he got out of the war, he was very psychologically troubled and the VA wasnt very helpful to him. Be it understaffing or underfunding, they let him down and couldnt give him the psychological treatment that he needed and that led him to commit suicide. And once I read the story, I looked deeper into it and I was very shocked by the amount of veterans that were committing suicide and I felt very helpless and sad and troubled.

I didnt know what I could do, but I went back to all the soldiers who had written my father and told them how much Willie and Joe meant to them, and so I thought maybe they could come back and help out the people who are serving these wars currently. And the best way I figured they could do that would be to benefit a charity.

SIMON: In this case, The Soldiers Project.

Mr. MAULDIN: Exactly.

SIMON: As I understand it, these T-shirts will meet U.S. military regs, wont they?

Mr. MAULDIN: (Unintelligible) does, definitely.

SIMON: Which means soldiers can wear them?

Mr. MAULDIN: Mm-hmm. That would be something that would bring a big smile to my dads face, that people on active duty can wear Willie and Joe.

SIMON: My late stepfather and your father were very good friends indeed.

Mr. MAULDIN: Uh-huh.

SIMON: What images will be on the T-shirts?

Mr. MAULDIN: One of them is an image of just Willie and Joe that I took out and then the other one is an image of Joe sitting down, staring at his gun; the original caption of the cartoon was: I gave you the best years of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But I gather there is no captioning on these T-shirts, right?

Mr. MAULDIN: No, there isnt. I think that his drawing so eloquently captured the raw emotion of the soldiers that I dont think that the words are necessary at this point, at least for T-shirts. For what I am trying to convey is I'm just trying to convey that our soldiers are exhausted right now.

SIMON: Are there still veterans that seek you out or your family members these days?

Mr. MAULDIN: Absolutely.

SIMON: What do you think touches todays soldiers about those characters, Willie and Joe, and those images your father drew so long ago?

Mr. MAULDIN: I think they're just timeless. I think that as times goes on and technology advances, I think the culture of the military and the experiences that the soldiers have to go through on the battlefield, thats timeless.

SIMON: Yeah, even though today they can send iPhone messages home instantaneously and talk to their families and keep up in a certain way and it's possible to helicopter fresh hot meals into the field, there is still something thats very consistent about those times separated by so many decades, isnt there?

Mr. MAULDIN: It doesnt matter if you are sending an instant message or a picture message or even a video chat. No, there's no replacement for actual human contact with your family.

SIMON: Sam Mauldin. He's involved with an effort to reprint some of his fathers images of Willie And Joe, his famous World War II grunts on T-shirts to benefit The Soldiers Project that helps returning veterans and their families with emotional counseling. Sam, thanks so much.

Mr. MAULDIN: Absolutely.

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