|Vietnam Veterans of America|
BY TODD DePASTINO, IMAGES COURTESY OF THE PRITZKER MILITARY MUSEUM & LIBRARY
When famed World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin took off for Vietnam in early 1965, the Chicago Sun-Times pulled out all the stops in promoting its two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s return to war. Headlines and billboards trumpeted the news: “Bill Mauldin Invades Vietnam!” and “Bill Mauldin Goes Up Front Again!”
In anticipation, 275 newspapers in the Sun-Times’ syndicate ran old Willie and Joe cartoons from 1944 and 1945. No one, including Mauldin, could have guessed just how ferocious his flashback to war would be.
On February 7, after a few days taking notes and making sketches in and around Saigon, Mauldin hitched a helicopter ride north to Camp Holloway near Pleiku in the Central Highlands. The detour was personal. He wanted to visit his oldest son, Bruce, who had been born in 1943 while Sgt. Mauldin was in the Army with the 45th Division in Sicily.
Now, Bruce was a helicopter pilot with the 52nd Aviation Battalion at Pleiku. In deference to Bill Mauldin’s fame and age (he was 43), battalion commander Lt. Col. John C. Hughes insisted that the cartoonist take a vacant cot in his hooch at the southern end of the base.
That night, shortly before 2:00 a.m., Mauldin awoke with a start. Incoming 80mm mortars rained down around his hooch.
“Get to the bunker!” roared Hughes before dashing out to take command of his battalion.
Mauldin, barefoot and in his underwear, instinctively did as ordered. Blinkered by the drumming barrage, he was about to head down into the sandbagged dugout when a young soldier named Harry Prindle, a clerk typist, approached him, covered in blood.
“Help me,” he said faintly.
Mauldin led the soldier to his cot and examined the wound. The mortar, which had exploded just outside Prindle’s hooch, had hit him in the abdomen while killing his two bunkmates, one on either side.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to die in a minute,” Prindle said. Then he asked Mauldin to hold his hand as he said The Lord’s Prayer. It was an awkward moment for the agnostic cartoonist who, if he prayed at all, addressed it “To Whom It May Concern.”
When the barrage let up, soldiers appeared and helped Mauldin carry Prindle to the battalion infirmary. The two-block camp street was lined with destroyed and riddled hooches. Wounded men staggered toward the infirmary, which looked like a slaughterhouse. Mauldin’s shoeless feet slipped on the bloody floor. Medics, themselves wounded, assisted the worse off. In between the moans and screams, Mauldin could hear the occasional thumps of TNT in the distance—charges left underneath helicopters by members of the infiltrating Viet Cong 409th Sapper Battalion.
With Prindle under care, Mauldin headed back to his hooch to grab his camera and sketchbook. Silhouetted by the glow of the burning airstrip, he realized that in his bare feet and undershorts he might be mistaken for VC. He made a point of bellowing obscenities in clear American English as he walked, the mark of a true GI.
The only correspondent on the scene at Pleiku, Mauldin shot six rolls of film and sketched seven drawings by sunrise. Then he helped his son load casualties onto a C-123 diverted from Danang. From the airstrip, he cheered as a pair of fighter-bombers thundered low overhead. Ordnance hung down from their wings like ripe fruit. They were headed north for revenge.
A TURNING POINT
The attack at Pleiku, which saw nine Americans killed, 126 wounded, and 25 aircraft damaged or destroyed, marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. Within days of the attack, President Lyndon Johnson launched the sustained bombing campaign named Rolling Thunder. Three weeks later, the first ground troops authorized for offensive operations, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, came ashore at Red Beach in Danang. The U.S. presence in Vietnam quickly ballooned, as draft notices flooded home-front mailboxes, 35,000 a month by August. After the Pleiku attack, President Johnson’s little war in Vietnam got big.
Pleiku was also a turning point for Bill Mauldin. He’d been skeptical of the American venture in Indochina since the French loss at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. One of his earliest cartoons on the subject, from October 1962, depicts a close-up of a .50 caliber machine gun labeled “Viet Nam.” An ammo belt studded with little soldiers labeled “U.S. Troops” feeds the machine. The caption reads: “Live Ammunition.”
Vietnam was a war cloaked in abstractions: Appeasement, the Domino Theory, Peace with Honor. Mauldin trusted none of it. For him, war was always personal. It always came down to the lives at stake, combatants and civilians. He had fought World War II with an inkbrush for Stars and Stripes, fiercely advocating for the suffering infantrymen he knew in the thick of the fighting. The whole purpose of the war, from his point of view, was to get those men home.
After victory in 1945, he asked himself, “Was it worth it?” and had a tough time answering. No democratic sloganeering or promises of a new world order could justify the carnage he’d witnessed in Italy, France, and Germany.
The attack at Pleiku made the war personal for Mauldin, awaking his avenging reflexes. Bruce and Harry became the Willie and Joe of the Vietnam War. Mauldin had once again seen blood, and he wanted blood in return.
“Before I went to Vietnam,” Mauldin wrote in one of his final dispatches from Saigon, “I wondered how we got into the situation there. Now that I’ve been there, I still wonder, but the question has become academic. We are there.” Therefore, he concluded, the U.S. must fight to win.
Mauldin returned home to a cascade of publicity, even puffery. His photos, sketches, and 2,000-word dispatch of the attack at Pleiku had run in hundreds of papers, as well as in Time, Newsweek, Life, and just about every other newsmagazine. The Sun-Times published an editorial boasting of Mauldin’s heroism. The American Legion and the governor of Illinois bestowed awards on him for bravery and service to the troops. When asked for comment on what he thought of being back up front, Mauldin said, “I like it even less than I did in World War II.”
His cartoons took a hawkish turn, cheering the U.S. escalation and lashing out at the bloodthirsty enemy. He increasingly depicted Vietnam as a battleground between the United States and Communist China. President Johnson, who generally distrusted the media, thanked Mauldin for his support.
It didn’t last. Mauldin’s natural skepticism about war crept back to the drumbeat of bad news about the American effort in Vietnam. Then, on a trip to Israel in May 1967, he witnessed the birth of another war. Dug in with the Israeli infantry overlooking the Sinai Peninsula, he saw Israel’s surprise invasion of Egypt that launched the Six Day War. No slogans, no swagger, no rhetoric. His Vietnam cartoons started to betray his disillusionment. President Johnson stopped inviting him to the White House and the LBJ Ranch.
Just after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, Bill Mauldin announced, “I ain’t gonna cover war no more.” It wasn’t his lack of objectivity that was the problem. Rather, it was the very expectation of objectivity that Mauldin couldn’t abide. War’s proper and most important truths are always subjective. They’re felt and lived.
Mauldin broke that pledge in November 1990 when he visited American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War. They had no idea who he was. They’d never heard of Willie and Joe. But he knew them.
“I love these guys,” Mauldin said. “I feel like they’re all my kids and my grandkids, every one of them. I really do. And I want to see them come home in one piece.”
As always, for Bill Mauldin, war was personal.
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