CATHEY: Southeastern Oklahoma soldiers inspired 'Willie and Joe'

A 2010 U.S. Postage Stamp honoring Bill Mauldin, Willie and Joe.

As our area pays its annual tribute to the Armed Forces this weekend, it seems important to remember possibly the two most famous area soldiers to serve during the Second World War — Willie and Joe.

During the war, Bill Mauldin — then just a New Mexico farm boy turned cartoonist — joined up with the Arizona National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division, which was about to be nationalized. The Guard was “federalized” two days after Mauldin was sworn in and the troops moved to Oklahoma.

In September 1940, Walter M. Harrison, former editor of the Daily Oklahoman and Oklahoma City Times, established the 45th Division News. Mauldin noticed it lacked a cartoonist, and soon worked his way into the job. Harrison set up a drawing table in his office, and gave Mauldin complete access to it when he was off-duty. In 1943, Mauldin headed to Italy with the rest of the 45th Division, participating in D-Day in Sicily on July 10, 1943. It was during this time that the characters Willie and Joe were created and for well over a year were primarily viewed by only the 45th Infantry. Later Mauldin joined the staff of the Stars and Stripes, which caused his work and Willie and Joe to become known to the entire military and the world.

Who really were the inspirations for Willie and Joe? Mauldin shared the following in his 1971 memoir, "The Brass Ring":

“Most of the men in my new company were from McAlester, Oklahoma and environs. They were a rugged bunch of small-town and rural boys at home with weapons and outdoor living. We had a lot of Indians. By and large, these were our best-educated soldiers. In fact, I learned that the only two men in the outfit who lacked high-school diplomas were the first sergeant and me, both white.”

Mauldin had all but finished his high school work a decade before the War when he lit off to study at the Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts. He continued:

“A number of our Indians had been to college. One of my tentmates, a big private first class known as ‘the Medicine Man’ because it was rumored that was his father’s tribal rank, had the eyes of a turkey buzzard, a broken beak, a slit mouth, a lantern jaw, a deadpan sense of humor, a degree from the University of Oklahoma, a talent for memorizing and reciting epic poems, and a conviction that there would never be peace with the white man until it was legal for Indians to buy whiskey.”

Further, a Haskell County, Oklahoma, document shares, “Bill Mauldin immortalized Rayson J. Billey, a native of Keota as Willie in Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons and the book Up Front. Billey, a Choctaw was a Sergeant in the 45th and received numerous medals including the Purple Heart.”

Willie and Joe were darkly funny and irreverent cartoons which captured the mood of a changing military made up of citizen soldiers who questioned the leadership skills of their officers even as they battled the enemy. Willie and Joe were dirty and unshaven, slogging through mud and snow and sleeping in foxholes filled with water.

Mauldin’s cartoons often reflected his ant-authoritarian views and this got him in trouble with some of the senior officers. In 1945, General George Patton wrote a letter to the 'Stars and Stripes' and threatened to ban the newspaper from his Third Army if it did not stop carrying “Mauldin’s scurrilous attempts to undermine military discipline."

In 1945, Mauldin’s cartoons on the Second World War won the Pulitzer Prize. The citation read, “for distinguished service as a cartoonist, as exemplified by the series entitled 'Up Front with Mauldin.'” Mauldin, the youngest person to be awarded the prize, was now one of the best-known cartoonists in the United States. Mauldin later won a second Pulitzer while working for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and while working for the Chicago Sun Times drew the famous cartoon of the crying Lincoln Memorial Statue upon the 1963 death of President John F. Kennedy.

Later in his life, Mauldin shared with a reporter, “You know, Willie and Joe weren’t really based on anyone, they just evolved as prototypes. But once, about 15 years after the war, a shrink came up to me at a party. He was sort of practicing without permission and he said, ‘Do you know who Willie and Joe were?' I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘Have you looked recently at a picture of your father?’ And, my God, he was right. Willie was a caricature of my father, and Joe was a caricature of me—the round-faced, jug-eared kid. I had never thought of it. I’m not sure I appreciate the guy pointing it out to me, but who knows what family things I worked out through those cartoons?”

But even later, Mauldin told Studs Terkel in an interview about his experiences during the Second World War for Terkel’s 1985 book, The Good War, “Willie and Joe were really drawn on guys that I knew in this infantry company. It was a rifle company from McAlester, Oklahoma. There were Indians in it and a lot of laconic good ol’boys. These two guys were based on these Oklahomans I knew. People like that really make ideal infantry soldiers. Laconic, they don’t take anything too seriously. They’re not happy doing what they’re doing, but they’re not totally fish out of water, either. They know how to walk in the mud and how to shoot. It’s a southwestern sort of trait, really. Don’t take any crap off anybody.”

I have been a fan of Bill Mauldin (both as a cartoonist and a writer) even before 2002 when I moved into Chicago’s Carl Sandburg Village where Bill Mauldin at one time had his artist studio and where while waiting for his turn in the village barbershop would sketch on a “ongoing mural” on a whiteboard on the wall of the barbershop. I was honored to have been able to view that mural when I sat in the same barber chair. Several years back the old barber joined Mauldin in death and that mural was purchased for a significant sum by the Chicago Sun-Times. A visit to the Oklahoma City 45th Infantry Museum is well worth trip and there you will find many examples of Mauldin’s work and his time with the 45th Infantry Division paid tribute. Before his affliction with Alzheimer’s and his 2003 death Mauldin’s estate made certain that a significant amount of his work found its way back to Oklahoma and the museum.

Were the characters of Willie and Joe really based upon southeast Oklahomans? When I look at the cartoons and their captions and read about the service and sacrifice of the men of the 45th I like to think so.