Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann: Veteran Artists of World War II / by Chris Hall

Today I want to honor two artist veterans of the Second World War, Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann.  Mauldin was an Army veteran in the European Theater of Operations and Westermann was a Marine veteran in the Pacific Theater of Operations, aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Bill Mauldin

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Bill Mauldin was an editorial cartoonist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.  Prior to the outbreak of war, Mauldin took art classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Army and was present for the invasion of Sicily and the Italy campaigns.  During his tour of duty with the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin was inspired to create his “Willie and Joe” cartoons, depicting two struggling and war weary soldiers of the ETO.  Mauldin's cartoons are clearly sympathetic toward the ground pounding enlisted men and they resonated with his fellow GI's.  

In February 1944 Mauldin was officially transferred into Stars and Stripes magazine and by March 1944, he was given his own jeep, in which he roamed the front, collecting material and producing six cartoons a week.  The War Office supported the syndication of Mauldin's work, not only because they helped publicize the ground forces but also to show the grim and bitter side of war, which helped show that victory would not be easy.  

Nevertheless, those officers who had served in the army before the war were generally offended by Mauldin, who parodied the spit-shine and obedience-to-order-without-question view that was more easily maintained during times of peace.  General George Patton once summoned Mauldin to his office and threatened to "throw his ass in jail" for "spreading dissent" after one of Mauldin's cartoons made fun of Patton's demand that all soldiers must be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat.  But General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander European Theater, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone, because he felt that Mauldin's cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. Mauldin told an interviewer later, "I always admired Patton.  Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy.  He was insane.  He thought he was living in the Dark Ages.  Soldiers were peasants to him.  I didn't like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes."  

Mauldin's cartoons made him a hero to the common soldier.  Many GIs often credit him with helping them to get through the rigors of the war.  His credibility with the common soldier increased in September 1943, when he was wounded in the shoulder by a German mortar while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war he also received the Army's Legion of Merit for his cartoons.  

Mauldin wanted Willie and Joe to be killed on the last day of combat, but Stars and Stripes dissuaded him.  In 1945, at the age of 23, "Sergeant Bill Mauldin" of United Features Syndicate won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.  

After World War II, Mauldin turned to drawing political cartoons expressing a generally civil libertarian view associated with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. These were not well received by newspaper editors, who were hoping for more apolitical Willie and Joe cartoons.  In 1956, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress as a Democrat in New York's 28th Congressional District.

H.C. Westermann

Acrobat and aspiring artist H.C. Westermann served aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise during World War II as a Marine Corps anti-aircraft gunner, where he was witness to deadly Kamikaze attacks the sinking of several ships.  Covered in tattoos, Westermann was a larger than life character with a tendency to swear like a sailor.  In 1947 Westermann attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he developed his talents for drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, but left in 1950 to re-enlist in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.  Westermann finished his degree upon his return.  

The war violence he witnessed, along with its psychological effects, greatly informed his work.  In a letter and drawing from 1978, Westermann relives his 33 year old nightmare of how he discovered his friend’s body, identifiable from the eagle tattoo on his chest, after a naval battle, on top of a pile of dead sailors:

I looked down on the fantail of the ship and they had all the dead people stacked there like cordwood.  It was a pretty ungodly sight.  Well the moon was bright and the dead sailor on top of the pile was a good pal of mine.  That’s him in the drawing . . . he was naked and on his chest was a huge beautiful tattoo of an eagle that he was so proud of . . . Well the next morning the placed each dead man in a mattress cover with a five inch projectile tied between his legs and we buried them at sea.

Westermann was a master craftsman in the wood-working arts and prided himself on the quality workmanship of his sculpture.  A frequent subject in sculptures were his “Death-Ships.”

In time, Westermann become a well known artist, and in 1967 he was one of the celebrities featured on the cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Westermann resisted giving interpretations of hiw work.  In one interview, when asked what an object meant, Westermann replied, “It puzzles me, too.”  In 1978, Westermann was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Westermann’s work is known for its honesty, cathartic expression, and humor, but equally important is his anti-materialistic, anti-militarism message.  Westermann was able to transmute his nightmarish memories of Kamikazes and “Death-Ships" into artistic gold.