Part 19: Dad and Bill Mauldin
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
Of all the many people who were made famous by World War II, none is more special to me than Bill Mauldin. Both Dad and Mauldin were members of the 45th Division. Before they were sent overseas, Mauldin wrote a column called “Quoth the Dogface” in the Thunderbirds’ newspaper, “45th Division News.” The last half of the last page was reserved for Mauldin’s cartoons and was called, “Star Spangled Banter.” I have several copies of this very old newspaper. Without these papers, I wouldn’t know that Mauldin started his defense of the everyday soldier and the sarcasm in his cartoons before he and Dad were sent overseas.
I have not yet found any evidence that Dad ever met Mauldin before the war. I do have several hundred letters Mom and Dad wrote back and forth before Dad was sent overseas, but I have not read them. The only letters I have read so far are those from the battlefields. As far as I am aware, the first time Dad and Mauldin met face-to-face was in Sicily.
There are many famous cartoonists whose names you probably know — Charles Shultz and Walt Disney, for example. Even though he was the most widely read editorial cartoonist of his day, you probably never heard of Bill Mauldin because his work was from another generation. But, if you have a relative who served as a soldier in Europe during World War II, I guarantee that Mauldin was much more important to him than Shultz or Disney are, or ever could be to you. I don’t say this lightly. Mauldin’s cartoons showed the front-line soldier that someone understood him and the hell he was going through every day. I will go so far as to say that many more soldiers would have committed suicide or lost their will to fight had it not been for Bill Mauldin. By comparison, how many lives did a Disney cartoon ever save?
Dad was 24 years old when he fought in Sicily. Mauldin was two years younger but looked much younger than that and, except for his size, could have easily passed for a young teenager. Like Dad, Mauldin was married. Mauldin’s wife was pregnant when he left for the war and his son Bruce was born while Bill was in Sicily.
Mauldin’s famous cartoons featured two Army characters, Willie and Joe. The features of these two cartoon characters developed while Mauldin was overseas. I have a very rare and very special little cartoon book that Mauldin gave Dad in Sicily titled, “Sicily Sketch Book.” This little book is the first book Mauldin ever published and is not usually listed among the many books he wrote. It was published in Palermo, Sicily, using special engraving plates made with zinc taken from the lining of coffins. In this book, cartoon characters Willie and Joe have not yet fully developed their famous looks and unshaven faces. It is signed, “for Marvin, with regards, Bill Mauldin.” What makes this book even more precious is that it is also signed by many of Dad’s men, some of which shared a foxhole with him many times throughout the war.
Dad’s men who signed this book are Al Bacon, Beulah, Mich.; John R. Tropman, Buffalo, N.Y.; Roy E. Leach, Quaker City, Ohio; Henry Hills, Bowling Green, Ky.; John H. Smith, McAlester, Ok.; James Dunphy; and Horace A. Gaily. (I am not sure of the spelling of the last man because his writing is hard to make out.) I include these names here because, in the world of the Internet, someone might know of them or their families.
Not all of Mauldin’s cartoons were humorous. Some have no punch-line. One, from the book made in Sicily, shows American soldiers scaling a steep mountain where two dead mules are lying. There are only two words under it — “Bloody Ridge.” Another cartoon has no words at all, just Joe sitting outside a first aid station with his arm in a sling. Next to Joe sits a small boy with bandages on his head, leg, and foot. There is no humor in cartoons like these, but certainly a tremendous amount of meaning to which the men up front could relate.
Dad and his men often met Mauldin when he came to the front so he could report on the action and get ideas for his cartoons. Mauldin asked them for ideas, and Dad and his men obliged. Whenever the latest edition of “Stars and Stripes” came out, Dad’s men eagerly looked to see if Mauldin used one of their ideas. Up at the front, Mauldin had a rifle and saw some action. He was once wounded and received a Purple Heart.
Many writers refer to Mauldin’s cartoons as sarcastic views of the Army. But they are much more than that. Each one is based on a real-life event that Mauldin either witnessed himself or was told about by soldiers like Dad. You probably would see very little humor in most of them without knowing the story they are about. If you want to read them, I highly recommend you get a copy of “The Brass Ring” in which Mauldin himself explains their meaning. To show the special, hidden meaning of these cartoons, I’ll use as an example a cartoon from “Sicily Sketch Book.” This cartoon shows a soldier offering a small boy a cigarette. The boy is telling the soldier, “No thank you. My mother says I’m too young to smoke.” This is funny to the soldiers because they were constantly being pestered by small boys for a cigarette. The soldiers at the front knew these cartoons were for their benefit and Mauldin even re-named the space they occupied in the Army newspaper, “Up Front.”
The majority of what I write is from what Dad told me and from his many papers. But I must add that I read the books Dad had that Bill Mauldin wrote. When I am writing about Mauldin, much of the information comes from two of his books, “The Brass Ring,” and “Up Front.”
When I write Dad’s stories I carefully edit each one several times and take out hundreds of words that I think are unnecessary. Even so, I knew I would not be able to get the story of Dad and Bill Mauldin in one episode. I will try to finish it next time, although I know there will be more to add when Dad and Mauldin get to France.