If you have ever stopped by the post office to buy a special type of stamp for a wedding invitation or a holiday card, then you have had the pleasure of admiring the various stamp designs that the U.S. Postal Service offers.
As we increasingly communicate by e-mail, we are losing something special that we take for granted--these delightful pieces of miniature artwork that commemorate our American heritage. The United States postage stamp should be considered a national treasure.
Americans did not always use stamps to send a letter. Government-issue stamps were not required in the United States until 1856. Up until that time, various payment methods were used. Sometimes the recipient paid for the letter once delivered; other times the postmaster would stamp or mark a letter to indicate pre-payment.
In 1893 Postmaster General John Wanamaker came up with the idea of creating a special stamp to honor something, and the first commemorative stamp honored the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago that year. Since that time commemorative stamps have been created to immortalize a wide variety of things including the states, the presidents, American heroes, great inventions, monumental days in history, and popular icons.
The most recent commemorative stamp, issued last week, honors editorial cartoonist William Mauldin (1921-2003). During World War II, Mauldin created two mud-covered, combat-weary characters, Willie and Joe, who brightened the spirits of U.S. soldiers and gave Americans at home a better understanding of the day-to-day life of an infantryman. In 1945 he received a Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Mauldin experienced firsthand the life of which he drew. Mauldin was a rifleman in the 45th Infantry. He started drawing cartoons of training camp, and his work began appearing in a newspaper that was distributed to his division. When his unit shipped overseas to Sicily, the cartoons began appearing in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Soon Mauldin was assigned to work full-time covering the war as an editorial cartoonist.
Willie and Joe are often wet and cold, and the cartoons capture the grubbiness of fighting, while infusing it with a degree of humor. A typical cartoon shows Willie and Joe ducking artillery fire, and Willie says: "I feel like a fugitive from th' law of averages."
The increased circulation of Mauldin's front-line soldiers brought Mauldin's work to the attention of top brass, many of whom understood that the cartoons gave release to the GI's pent-up feelings. A few, among them General George Patton, strongly objected to the depiction of the grimy bedraggled fighting men. Patton had threatened to halt distribution of Stars and Stripes because of the "unsoldierly" appearance of Willie and Joe, but General Eisenhower believed in a hands-off policy on the newspaper, and he enforced it. His headquarters requested that Patton and Mauldin meet to discuss their differences.
Mauldin wrote of the meeting in his book, The Brass Ring, and his version of the story is that Patton berated him for depicting soldiers who "looked like bums." Mauldin was able to explain his thinking. According to Mauldin, the meeting concluded with Patton telling Mauldin "they understood each other now." Mauldin did not change what he was drawing, and the Stars and Stripes continued to be published. Later, Patton reportedly said he would "throw Mauldin in jail" if Mauldin ever came back again.
Tom Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits at the National World War II Museum, in New Orleans confirms: "The cartoons were not always appreciated by regular officers but the citizen soldiers ...enjoyed [Mauldin's] look at the war from their perspective." And Mauldin's role in the war was significant enough that he is included in "Beyond all Boundaries" a 4-D experience at the museum that engages all of a viewers' senses; Mauldin's words are read by Brad Pitt. http://www.nationalww2museum.org/
According to the obituary that appeared in Stars and Stripes on January 23, 2003, Mauldin started drawing in his early teens after he spotted an ad for a correspondence course in cartooning in Popular Mechanics magazine and borrowed the $20 tuition from his grandmother. He went on to attend the Academy of Fine Art in Chicago.
After World War II ended, Mauldin stopped drawing Willie and Joe, but he went on to a long and successful career as an editorial cartoonist working at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and later for the Chicago Sun-Times. He won another Pulitzer Prize in the late 1950s but one of his most poignant cartoons appeared on November 23, 1963. It depicted the statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, slumped over in grief with his head in his hands. It was the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination.
According to a column written by Bob Greene, who worked with Mauldin at the Chicago Sun-Times, word got out during the summer of 2002 that Mauldin was quite ill. Soon so many WWII veterans began stopping by the Southern California nursing home where Mauldin lived that someone put together a sign-up sheet. Day after day, volunteers arrived wearing parts of their World War II uniform or bringing mementos to share with the man whose view of reality and dry sense of humor helped get them through the war.
If Mauldin hadn't been honored on a postage stamp in 2010, we wouldn't have had occasion to be reminded of what a little humor could mean to Americans during wartime.
While American ingenuity will doubtless find many other ways to honor our heritage, the very simplicity and beauty of honoring some aspect of our country on a beautifully designed postage stamp will be hard to match.
Willie and Joe were credited with lifting the morale of the soldiers. What other things have lifted morale of those fighting for our country? If you're a veteran, share with me your memories. Specify the war, your rank, and your dates of service and tell me about the things that made you smile during tough times: email@example.com
For a delightful sample of other Willie and Joe cartoons, check out the short collection put together by the American World War II Orphans Network: http://www.awon.org/willie/willie2.html
Follow Kate Kelly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AboutAmerica