Silver Star — The hard way


Part 20: More on Dad and Bill Mauldin

By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek

Bill Mauldin once wrote that he not only thought the 45th Divi-sion was the best division in the Army, he thought the 45th Divi-sion was the Army. He was careful to give praise to other divi-sions, but his sentences are usually a little longer when he refers to his beloved Thunderbirds. Also, his cartoon Army characters Willie and Joe almost never have division patches on their sleeves, but when they do, the patches are those of Thunderbirds.

In Italy, Mauldin published his second cartoon book titled “Mud, Mules, and Mountains.” Once again, he gave Dad a copy and autographed it for him. This time he knew Dad a little better so he added a little cartoon for Dad with his signature. I have this little book, which is tattered from being carried in combat before Dad could send it home to Mom.

When I look at Dad’s copy of “Mud, Mules, and Mountains,” the first thing I notice when I open it is a cartoon portrait of a mule and a note that reads, “Entire contents passed by Army censors.” Remember that Mauldin was at odds with corrupt officers in Naples and so he added this note to make sure these little books weren’t confiscated and could be sent home by soldiers like Dad.

The next thing I notice is a two-page introduction by Ernie Pyle. This introduction is written directly to the soldiers the book is about. Pyle’s words and praise for Mauldin are very interesting and I’d like to tell you more, but I must get on with this story.

In “Mud, Mules, and Mountains,” Willie and Joe now have their famous looks and unshaven faces. The cartoons show them hugging vertical cliffs, trudging through mud, and with officers who look young enough to be in grade school.

It is well known that General Patton hated Mauldin’s cartoons. Patton always wanted his troops neat and disciplined. He thought Mauldin’s cartoons were a disgrace to the Army and complained about them throughout the war. Mauldin’s career as an Army reporter and cartoonist might have been very short had it not been for the fact Patton was relieved of his command in Sicily. Because Patton had his biographers blast Mauldin’s work, many World War II veterans I have talked to think all officers didn’t like Mauldin’s cartoons. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To illustrate just how important other generals thought Mauldin’s cartoons were let me tell you what happened in Naples.


In a prior episode, I told you about how crooked officers set up a black market for supplies that were supposed to go to the front lines. I told you about how some of these officers wore jump boots meant for paratroopers. Bill Mauldin, bless his courageous heart, drew cartoons of these events. You might guess how the general in charge of the Naples operation felt about this – of course, he wanted Mauldin stopped.

Mauldin most certainly would have been stopped if it were not for the fact two famous generals came to his defense. The first was General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of a famous president. Roosevelt was one general who stuck up for the ordinary soldier. At some earlier point, he had been struck in the cheek by a rifle bullet. This bullet went in one cheek and out the other, taking out several molars in between. Roosevelt made it known that he thought Mauldin’s cartoons were good for the moral of the everyday soldier.

In Naples, Mauldin had the courage to ask for a wrecked jeep he could fix to use so he could drive around to get his stories for the Army newspaper, “Stars and Stripes.” His request was denied.

Sometime after Dad landed in Anzio, Mauldin and Pyle came there to do their reporting. Mauldin was at Anzio for two weeks before he returned to the headquarters of “Stars and Stripes” at Naples to have his cartoons and stories published.

When he got back to Naples a funny thing happened — Mauldin got a notice that his request for a jeep had been accepted. When he went to pick up his jeep, it wasn’t wrecked at all — it was brand new complete with papers that showed he owned the jeep and was authorized to go wherever he wanted. Who had the power to do this for Mauldin? No less than General Mark Clark who was commander of the entire Fifth Army. Even the license plate had Mauldin’s name and a picture of Willie.

Because Mauldin actually owned the jeep, he was able to re-model it the way he wanted to. He took out both the front and back seats. The front seat was replaced with a leather seat taken from a fancy car. The backseat area was refitted with compartments for his drawing materials and dark screens so he could work at night. It’s possible that Mauldin had the fanciest jeep in the entire Army! Mauldin had his fancy jeep loaded onto a ship and took it with him back to Anzio, but not before he had heavy steel plates welded to the bottom to help protect it from mines.

Mauldin’s special jeep and special papers shocked many M.P.s (military police) at guard stations across Europe. Mauldin covered his name on the license plate. That had an added benefit. You see, generals also covered the stars on the license plates of their jeeps to hide them from the enemy, so many M.P.s thought this was a general’s jeep. Often, Mauldin was waved through a guard gate without even stopping.

Two Hollywood movies were made based on Mauldin’s famous cartoons. The first one was titled “Up Front” and came out in 1951. The second one came out a year later and was titled “Back at the Front.” I had my wife look on the Internet for how to get copies of these movies, but she couldn’t find any for sale. I sure would like to see them. Any help finding a copy of these movies would be deeply appreciated.

Dad met Mauldin again in 1984 at the College of St. Teresa right here in Winona. Mauldin was putting on a drawing demonstration at the college. After the meeting, Dad and Mauldin talked about old times back at the front. Bill looked Dad directly in the eye and said, “You went through hell, didn’t you?” Please notice that he did not say “we” went through hell. This was not the way Mauldin was. In Winona, 39 years after the war, he was still giving credit to soldiers like Dad who saw so much action up at the front.


Hats off to Bill Mauldin. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work – twice! If you like this series, I encourage you to read his book, “Up Front.” It is one of the easiest books I have ever read and tells you the war from the point-of-view of the everyday soldier.

At some point I am going to have to catch you up on Dad’s letters to Mom from the war. But first — in the next episode — Dad and I will take you to the beachhead at Anzio, the place some historians call “the bravest stand in American military history.”


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