By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 28 December 2002
It began with a call to arms from one soldier to others: help one of our own fight Alzheimer's by writing of memories from another great battle.
The letters came by the thousands, from soldiers who survived World War II and the widows of those who did not. Some were personal notes, sharing stories of survival and redemption with a man they never met. Others offered thanks to a man who brought laughter in dark times.
The letters were to the cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who became the voice of the World War II infantry soldier with his characters Willie and Joe.
From 1940 until 1945, Mr. Mauldin drew the two disheveled riflemen who lampooned the military for Stars and Stripes and other military journals. Mr. Mauldin also fought alongside soldiers, earning their respect as one of their own. In 1945, at age 23, he won his first Pulitzer Prize, for Willie and Joe. He won the second in 1959 for an editorial cartoon in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His best-known postwar cartoon came on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In it, a grieving Abraham Lincoln covered his face with his hands at the Lincoln Memorial.
Today, Mr. Mauldin, 80, no longer remembers his family, his career or his Pulitzer Prizes. But he remembers the war, and those who fought in it are helping him keep those memories alive with their letters.
One read: "From one old dogface to another. Thanks for the memories."
It started with Jay Gruenfeld, 77, who spent years wondering what happened to the man whose cartoons had made him laugh in a foxhole under fire in the Philippines. Mr. Gruenfeld was in an Army hospital when his father sent him a copy of "Up Front."
With most of his squad killed and his future uncertain, Mr. Gruenfeld was grateful for the humor. He marveled at how Willie and Joe really knew that the infantry did most of the fighting and the dying. They knew how young men felt so old.
More than five decades later, Mr. Gruenfeld self-published his memories of the war, in which he mentioned Mr. Mauldin's uplifting cartoons. He tried twice to send his book to Mr. Mauldin. Twice it was returned. The last thing he remembered hearing about Mr. Mauldin was that he had retired to New Mexico. He called a friend there and asked him to check a telephone book and see if any Mauldins were listed.
That turned up a son of Mr. Mauldin, Dave Mauldin.
"When he called," the younger Mauldin said, "I had to tell him Dad was not doing well."
His father was suffering from Alzheimer's, he said. The family does not want to disclose Mr. Mauldin's location, but says he is living in a care home in Orange County, Calif.
"I heard that and said, `Well, I have to go see him,' " said Mr. Gruenfeld, of Lompoc, Calif.
He spent hours with Mr. Mauldin, telling stories about the war and the life after. He took him his infantry patch and other memorabilia.
"He smiled this big, beautiful smile," Mr. Gruenfeld said. "He needed to know he wasn't forgotten."
Mr. Gruenfeld returned home from that trip last spring with an idea: Get other veterans to write letters and visit. He wrote to veterans organizations and contacted newspaper columnists. Soon Mr. Mauldin was receiving hundreds of letters a day
For months, another Mauldin son, Nat, has been reading the letters to his father, standing at his bedside.
Mostly, the old cartoonist remains silent.
On a recent visit, Nat Mauldin, 49, picked through a stack of mail.
"Hey, Dad, this looks like a good one," he said.
The letter, postmarked Tucson, was from John S. Barker, a 78-year-old former corporal who served in Italy during the war.
Nat Mauldin read: "Dear Mr. Mauldin, I have half a dozen grandsons, all in their early 20's, and all members of that generation that guesses Dec. 7, 1941, is somebody's birthday, Anzio is a viral disease and Cassino is a card game. They've asked about the war, but I lack the skills to make it come alive for them."
Mr. Barker went on that he had recently began trying to explain his war experience to his grandchildren by using Willie and Joe cartoons.
Nat Mauldin put the letter down, looked at his father and asked if he was feeling O.K.
"Yeah," Bill Mauldin said.
The son beamed at the first word he had drawn from his father in months. It was one of four responses that day as the elder Mr. Mauldin heard more veterans' letters.
Later, Nat Mauldin pondered whether it was just a brief moment of clarity or whether, as "a part of me wants to believe," the letters, the memories, helped break through.
"Whatever it was, I'll take it," he said.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2002 by Neil Mishalov