Books, History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

UP FRONT by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles. Like every family, we have our ongoing health and relationship struggles that may not end this side of heaven. Still, once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these.

At least my family has a home.

At least my loved ones can get medical care.

At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from.

At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

After a while, my husband noticed that some of the topics were starting to weigh heavily on me. (He’s a good one 🙂 ) He encouraged me to pick up some fiction again, and he also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front is a different sort of history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

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He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids,) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress (though not exactly chronologically) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

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While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.


Have you enjoyed Bill Mauldin’s work, or found other stories that help you appreciate the quiet times in life?

Many thanks for visiting!


19 thoughts on “UP FRONT by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War”

  1. Anne, thank you so much for this post. I’m not sure if you know, but I was a combat Marine rifleman (“grunt”) during the Vietnam War. My first published book was a memoir of my boot camp/combat experiences. Happy to say it remains in print since 1990. A few years back I wrote an “after-the-war” novel which is largely autobiographical.
    UP FRONT has long been a favorite of mine. Around twenty years ago at a used book sale I came across a first edition of this book. I was astounded. I believe I paid a dollar or two for it. Although the dust jacket was rather tattered, the book itself was in good condition overall. Published in 1945, the paperstock used was thin and of not the highest quality (due to wartime rationing, etc.). It remains one of my prized possessions.
    I just visited and purchased the sequel, WILLIE AND JOE BACK HOME. So, thanks again for the post and for reminding me it’s time to visit with Will and Joe again!
    Oh, by the way, did you know that Bill Mauldin was cast as a union soldier along with the star, Audie Murphy, in the 1951 movie THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE? Great movie, so if you haven’t seen it check it out. Take care. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your service. I’ve been planning to check out your books. My dad did a tour over there (Army) and a friend from church was a Marine over there as well- I would like to read more about it all.
      Let me know how “BACK HOME” is, if you think of it! I’ve wanted to read more of his- my book queue is much longer than I have hours in the day for :p
      And NO, I didn’t know that! I’m reading Red Badge of Courage for the first time right now- planning to do it with my 7th and 8th reading class this year- I will have to see if I can find the film!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you written about Mauldin before? If not, I suspect I’ve read at least some of his cartoons — these seem very familiar! Learning to deal with terrible things with humor is a good skill (though obviously it has it’s times of use). Looks like Mauldin was a talented man.

    Liked by 1 person


        Unless his wife is around and she tells everyone the truth that he can really miss a lot.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good wife’s job, isn’t it? 😀
        Yeah, I’ve been working on one brand new post a week, but just plugging in a second one periodically- older ones that could use a shine up and were around when my followers were single digits. Of course, there are those like you, friend, who’ve been hanging out here from the get-go. So. Thanks for the visit anyway! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing that extract Anne, and to E. Michael Helms for the name of the sequel to ‘Up Front’ and the film. Although clearly American (we are ‘divided by a common language’ are we not?!) I guess the experience of soldiering is shared wherever the soldier hails from. The reference to a ‘humdrum job’ was interesting – the British soldier I am writing about was longing for a ‘humdrum’ life as a civilian (on ‘civvy street’) too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Divided by a common language- that’s perfect 🙂 Mauldin commented on some of those barriers in his book- he only did one cartoon (I believe) involving British troops, because the troops he was serving with on Anzio “got it” and thought it was funny, while the higher-ups were pretty sure they ought to be offended by it. Ah well… Thanks for the visit!


  4. Oh gosh, there’s a reason I can only read the heavy stuff (such as a memoir on sexual abuse) a little at a time. After a while it just hurts too much, and I just feel angry aaaaaaaall the time. Finding the light to shine in the dark is just so, so crucial to the sanity. xxxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. Stories are powerful- handle with care 🙂 Even Mauldin’s funny bits don’t really hide all of the darkness that they lived through- but then, the book wouldn’t be so great if he did. xxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

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