Bill’s Wartime Cartoons, 1944-46

ENLISTMENT & BASIC TRAINING


Before I spent time in the military during World War II, I found the attitudes of the upper Army echelons ludicrous. My experiences during the war confirmed my disdain for all things military. The regular army’s officers and non-coms were men with rigid minds. Most served in stateside training camps. Few of them saw combat.  Civilian soldiers who were drafted or enlisted after the war began formed the bulk of the non-coms who saw combat.


The above cartoon was drawn shortly after I was discharged in the summer of 1946. A few were drawn when I was in basic Infantry training. Of course, none were drawn while I was in combat. Some were drawn while I was still eighteen, some after I turned nineteen.


In 1943 at the beginning of my senior at Pottsville High School (PA), I was asked to do a large mural at the newly opened downtown USO Club. The invitation came because I was known for the cartoons I drew in high school. Later I will add a section containing some of these early cartoons.


Below is a rough sketch for the mural. When the mural was finished it was between fifteen and twenty feet long and five or six feet tall.



Pottsville USO Mural Sketch (pencil rough)


I don’t have a copy with the colors I used, so I have to make do with this black and white pencil rendering.


A HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT


Shortly after I painted this mural, I dropped out of high school at 17. I tested high on the Army ACTF examination and was sent to Virginia Military Institute to study basic engineering. I have always been amused to think that I may be one of the few PhDs who is a high school dropout.






















VMI  Roll Call Formation (I am in the first row, center)


VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE (VMI)

(Spring, 1944)


















Here I am, a 17 year-old soldier, armed and dressed in fatigues. We were about to march 20 miles to a bivouac area outside of Lexington, Virginia.






It was near this time I made my first stage appearance in a USO production called Ercspoppen. I had a minor role, but one of the lead comedians was a young New Yorker named Melvin Kaminsky. Later he was better known as Mel Brooks.


This is the chapel where I made my first stage appearance.















VMI Chapel











    At VMI the study and training was rigorous. There was little time to draw. After the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944 – a day before my 18th birthday – there was little need for engineers. I finished the term and was sent to Infantry Basic Training at Camp Wheeler, GA.


    On arrival, we were issued heaps of clothing and other military equipment.









THE BASICS OF BASIC TRAINING







There were medical exams where the most private areas of our bodies were probed. “Turn your head and cough.” “Bend over and spread your cheeks.“









Shots











We also endured a series of shots. Often these were administered clumsily and painfully by low ranking non-coms.


Thus my cartoon:







A Shot In The Arm














        Regular Army non-coms and officers ran our basic training battalion. Most were men who couldn’t make it in civilian life and took refuge in the Army during the Depression. They were the objects of several of my cartoons.





Regular Army Non-Coms


This one represents my attitude toward them. A Southern Corporal whose name I have forgotten generated some of this attitude. He labeled the handful of us who had a semester of college under our belts as “college-educated sumsabitches.” He was a mean, profane, vindictive little man. He was shipped out early during our basic trainings. We were glad to see him go.




There was one exception. Corporal Schuler – I have forgotten his first name – was a fine instructor and an intelligent man. He was transferred overseas before our basic training cycle ended. We staged an epic farewell bacchanal for him that I will leave to your imagination. I had never been at a full-blast drunken party before. It was a unique experience for an eighteen year old who had never drunk more than one glass of wine. I stayed sober. In fact, I never drank until I was in combat. Then we liberated wine, beer, and schnapps.


Our training was intense. We learned to use all the weapons available to a rifle company. To a boy of 18 this was exciting. Shooting all those weapons and tossing grenades was like a sport. Only the bayonet training frightened me. Being quick in bayonet fighting is helpful, but being very strong was even more helpful. At the time I weighed no more than 140 pounds and stood at 5 feet and 8 inches. I was still growing.


Later in our training we encountered a sense of the reality of combat. There was the night infiltration course where we crawled in mud for a hundred yards as machine gun tracer bullets whizzed two feet above us. I went through the course at least three times. During the last time I skidded along on my back so I could watch those tracers streak above me. There was a town-fighting course, too. During it cut out figures of German soldiers popped out from behind doors and buildings as we snapped off shots from our rifles. I became good at this. Later, my ability to react quickly helped me survive some street fighting.





One part of basic training was barracks housekeeping. Jobs were cycled through the barracks. More menial tasks were assigned because of rules infraction or the enmity of the non-com in charge.

















Army food was basic American food. We were fed a lot because our young bodies demanded calories in abundance. Of course this cartoon is an exaggeration.


    The quality of our food depended on the chef assigned to a particular mess hall. Each kitchen was issued the same food. The quality was in the preparation.











    We all served our time on KP – Kitchen Police. Our assignments were made alphabetically. There were mandatory ten-minute breaks on the hour. Many worked very hard at getting out of work. I am not guiltless in that respect. The Army term for this was “gold-bricking.”

  

This drawing was made after I returned Stateside. Then German POWs did much of the menial KP tasks we had to do during our basic training.



















This cartoon is an impression of a mess line. To be fair, servings were usually much larger; and there were seconds.
















This actually happened one day. The non-com who was victim of this private’s (me) lack of accuracy didn’t realize that his uniform had been soiled. I wasn’t about to remind him that he needed a change of uniform. I heard him cursing loudly outside the mess hall when he discovered what had happened to him. Fortunately, he did not remember who was opposite him in line as we scraped the refuse off our trays into garbage cans.















There were running blackjack and poker games in our barracks. Crap shooting, appropriately, took place in our latrine.

















One favorite prank was throwing a bucket of cold water on someone in a warm shower. The feet at the top were of those of a Hollywood entertainment lawyer who was an avid body builder and a very strange man whose vivid stories of the sexual practices of budding starlets boggled our minds. As a lawyer he claimed access to their favors as they clambered their way to fame.





   

    Townspeople worked the counters of our PXs (Post Exchanges). Some were attractive young women that we tried to date.


   After the war was over, and I was assigned to duty with JAG as an occupation counselor, I had an extended romance with such a clerk. She came down from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to my college graduation dance at Slippery Rock, and I visited her there the following winter. After frequent exchanges of letters, we drifted apart.





There were several pinball machines in the PX. There was no payoff. The best we could do was to win free games. Pinball machines appeared early during World War II. I remember playing them for a nickle a game as  young teenager.









There were pool tables in rec halls. Sharks dominated these. I knew better than to play with them or take their side bets (which were discouraged in PXs). They were hustlers with amazing skills.


I have little else to represent my basic Infantry training. We learned to use all the weapons that were used by an Infantry company. There were bivouacs, forced marches, infiltration courses, and simulated street fighting – all the live ammunition.


After basic we had a two-week leave. I reported to Camp Meade near Baltimore. There, we received our basic equipment. It was discovered that I had not received a second pair of glasses so I remained there while I waited for a second pair. No one who went into combat went into battle with just one pair of glasses.


There was no more training, and we had a lot of free time. For once the Army was generous with passes into Baltimore and Washington. I went to my first burlesque show.


There I saw the great comedian Billy “Cheese and Crackers” Hagan, and some of the major strippers of the day. By today’s standard it was seedy entertainment, but rather tame by today’s standards. The strippers peeled down to a g-string and pasties before they did the last of three erotic dances. The comedians were experts in making slightly ribald material evoke laughs from an audience that was there to see the strippers.


One of the headliner strippers was a stout young woman, Baby Dumpling, whose skill was twirling tassels attached to her breasts and buttocks. She stripped to bra and panties before she began her revolutionary dance. Her real name was Rosa Chagnon. Many years later she lived in Des Moines and worked in the Drake student union and did costuming for our two community theatres. We had several conversations about her years in burlesque. I wish I had taped her memories of her life in burlesque. For a while she occupied a small corner of the history of pop theatre.


One evening I took a train into Washington and saw my first professional production of a stage play – former University of Iowa students, William Berney and Howard Richardson’s Dark of the Moon, a powerful and imaginative folk play based upon the Barbara Allen legend. The dialog was heightened poetry and the actors sang and danced. Its content was shocking at times. At one moment Barbara gave birth to a bat after being impregnated by a witch boy. Several angry theatergoers stormed out of the theatre before there was an intermission. The theatricality of the evening thrilled me. I was not shocked. I was impressed that theatre could take on controversial material that movies then never approached. The seed of my desire to be involved in theatre was planted. I was not aware of that at the time, but that was the beginning.


SHIPPING OUT


After being processed and supplied we moved on to Fort Dix, a POE (Port of Embarkation) in New Jersey. It was just across the river from New York so again as we waited for a troop ship, I had three passes into New York. There I saw three Broadway plays – a mediocre musical, A Lady Says Yes, starring Carol Landis, a fast-paced George Abbott farce called Snafu (named after the GI acronym for a bad situation, Situation Normal, All F---ed Up), and Oklahoma! The later was well into its long run, so I did not see any of its major stars. Even so, it was a magical theatergoing experience. I did not realize at the time that I had begun my lifelong love affair with that most difficult of mistresses, theatre.


I remember that Lucky Strike cigarettes had a radio commercial that started with the letters, LSMFT – “Lucky Strikes mean fine tobacco.” One wag turned this into LSMFT, TSPOE. TS was an abbreviation for another GI expression, “Tough shit.” That described a bad and unavoidable situation. Now we would say, “Deal with it!”


One night with only short warning we took a train to the New York docks and boarded the British liner, the Aquitania. We were not reassured when we learned it was a sister ship of the Titanic. It carried more than 10,000 soldiers. The ship loomed several stories above, and there were several gangplanks. We struggled up into the ship with our heavy backpacks as a band played “Over There.” 

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