- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

The novelists, historians and social scientists have no doubt done a fine job of telling us what the American GI was like during World War II, but have probably done it no better than a cartoonist who was himself a soldier at the time and close enough to the scene of battle to get wounded and earn a Purple Heart.
He was Bill Mauldin, who died this week at the age of 81. What he did for the Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper was draw Willie and Joe doing their mud-splattered, unkempt duty. They were heroes, these two characters exemplars of an extraordinary, even noble spirit but theirs was a heroism and nobility the sentimentalists among us might not recognize.
For one thing, Willie and Joe did not figure officers were always God's gift to the fighting man. Their view of authority was that it should not get too much in the way. These were not the kind of men who would ever say "heil" to a Hitler.
And Willie and Joe did not go around spouting patriotic slogans as a means of bucking themselves up. They were doing what they had to do, and they were doing it well, but they did not pretend they were having anything other than an awful experience. A wisecrack, reports remind us, would issue quickly from their lips, but never a platitude.
In other words, they were independent, egalitarian, pragmatic, decent, competent and down-to-earth, not so bad a description of the American character as it expressed itself during those war years.
Mr. Mauldin, in his early 20s then, did superb work throughout a career that brought him two Pulitzer prizes. His was a talent of large importance, and should be recognized as such, just as cartoons of that type should be recognized as having a special kind of evocative power in the hands of those with his skill and insight.
Willie and Joe disappeared long ago, and now Mr. Mauldin is gone, but the three taught us a great deal, and for some battlefield soldiers more than a half-century ago, they were out-and-out lifesavers, as obituary writers recall. And that thought brings us to a line one obituary writer plucked from a wartime Mauldin cartoon.
Willie says, "Joe, yestiddy ya saved my life an' I swore I'd pay ya back. Here's my last pair of dry socks." In the circumstances of the war, few things mattered more than dry socks, although two cartoon characters mattered quite a bit.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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