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When Willie and Joe’s Creator Met “Blood and Guts” Patton

By 1945, Stars and Stripes cartoonist Sgt. Bill Mauldin was famous, and his creations, the G.I.s Willie and Joe, were popular with troops throughout the European Theater of Operations – with one singular and vocal exception: Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

For the spit-and-polish Patton, Mauldin’s unshaven and unkempt fictional G.I.s that were a regular feature in Stars and Stripes and several newspapers in the United States, were “a disgrace” that subverted discipline.

For the spit-and-polish Patton, Mauldin’s unshaven and unkempt fictional G.I.s that were a regular feature in Stars and Stripes and several newspapers in the United States, were “a disgrace” that subverted discipline. Mauldin’s characters had been a bone of contention for Patton since 1943, when Mauldin, then a member of the 45th Division in Patton’s Seventh Army, drew them for the division newspaper during the Sicilian campaign. An incensed Patton demanded that its commander, Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, fire Mauldin. Middleton, who knew how to handle his mercurial boss, said he would … provided Patton put the order in writing. Patton backed down.

Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe Cartoon

Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin was unafraid of lampooning anything or anyone in his Willie and Joe cartoons. In this one he is taking aim at Gen. Patton by mocking his requirements for parade ground order even in the midst of combat operations. Star and Stripes cartoon by Bill Mauldin

But that didn’t mean Patton had given up the fight. Since that time, Patton had periodically complained to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters, SHAEF, about Mauldin’s creations, demanding that they be banned. Things came to a head in late February 1945 when Mauldin, on assignment for Stars and Stripes, visited Patton’s Third Army area and promptly ran afoul of the MPs for being “out of uniform.” Mauldin had forgotten his helmet. Things quickly went downhill from there. After returning to the Stars and Stripes office, an incensed Mauldin responded with a biting cartoon skewering Third Army and its commander’s nit-picking regulations and fines.

Looking to smooth things over before they got completely out of hand, Eisenhower’s Navy aide, Capt. Harry Butcher, suggested to Patton that he and Mauldin meet and clear the air between them. After threatening to throw Mauldin “in jail for thirty days” if he came back into the Third Army area, Patton agreed that Butcher’s idea sounded reasonable and a meeting was scheduled.

After threatening to throw Mauldin “in jail for thirty days” if he came back into the Third Army area, Patton agreed that Butcher’s idea sounded reasonable and a meeting was scheduled.

Butcher personally briefed the nervous Mauldin on how to look. Butcher recalled, “I told him that when he went to Patton’s office to make certain his uniform was neat and tidy and that he was in proper dress for the Third Army area. . . . He must stand at attention and salute smartly. If he did less, the interview was doomed to failure.”

A few days later Mauldin, a frightened, baby-faced twenty-five-year-old, was ushered into Patton’s office, convinced he was on “a suicide mission.” Mauldin promptly snapped to attention and delivered his best parade ground salute.

Lt. Gen. George Patton

Lt. Col. Lyle Bernard of the 30th Infantry Regiment, discusses military strategy with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, near Brolo, Sicily, 1943. Gen. Patton’s adherence to spit and polish clashed with Bill Maudlin’s depiction of the average G.I. National Archives photo

Patton, in full medal-bedecked uniform, with more general’s stars on his collar and shoulders than Mauldin could count, rose from behind his desk and motioned Mauldin to sit on a nearby chair. Patton then took for himself a large chair beside Mauldin that Patton’s pet English terrier, Willie, had vacated.

For forty-five minutes, Patton fulminated about “those god-awful things you call soldiers,” complaining that, amongst other things, they look “like goddamn bums.” Glaring at Mauldin, he growled as deeply as his high-pitched voice allowed, “What are you trying to do, incite a goddamn mutiny?”

At one point during Patton’s tirade, which included, Mauldin later admitted, an inspirational military history lesson, Mauldin unconsciously reached out to scratch Willie’s ear. Then he stopped. Mauldin was reaching out with his drawing hand, and he was convinced that a snap of Willie’s powerful jaws would accomplish for Patton what all the general’s letters to SHAEF had failed to do – put an end to Willie and Joe cartoons.

At one point during Patton’s tirade, which included, Mauldin later admitted, an inspirational military history lesson, Mauldin unconsciously reached out to scratch Willie’s ear. Then he stopped. Mauldin was reaching out with his drawing hand, and he was convinced that a snap of Willie’s powerful jaws would accomplish for Patton what all the general’s letters to SHAEF had failed to do – put an end to Willie and Joe cartoons.

Patton had so dominated their appointment that Mauldin had only a couple of minutes to give his side that, needless to say, left Patton unmoved. They parted, agreeing to disagree.

But Patton still could not let the issue lie, and SHAEF again was the recipient of his complaints regarding Mauldin’s creations. Finally, Eisenhower had had enough of this distracting tempest in a teapot. He wrote an official letter to Deputy Theater Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Lear that said, in part, “A great deal of pressure has been brought on me in the past to abolish such things as Mauldin’s cartoons. . . . You will make sure that the responsible officer knows he is not to interfere in matters of this kind. If he believes that any specific violation of good sense or good judgment has occurred, he may bring it to my personal attention.”

On April 11, 1945, an amused Butcher wrote in his diary, “It looks to me that General Patton may now admit he has lost the battle of Mauldin.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-23408">

    I loved and admired George S. Patton…. from afar, at least what I knew of the man through biographies, history books and of course the movie starring George C. Scott. I don’t know what he would have thought of me as a soldier as I am to this day, an unconventional type.
    My Dad brought me home a book one day as i was an eight year old recovering from a bad case of the measles. It was Up “Front” the classic Bill Mauldin paperback filled cover to cover with the antics of those two ragpickers, Willie and Joe. It gave me so much cheer and I’m certain it helped me recover. Thanks Dad. I love you

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-23474">

    I, too, remember reading Up Front as a kid. I was still very young when I read Mauldin’s The Brass Ring. You can admire both men and understand that there just wasn’t any way they were ever going to see eye to eye.