Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hoosier Cartoonists in World War II

Seventy years ago today, on a date that will go on living in infamy, the Japanese navy launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States was thrust into world war. Within a few days, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States as well. After suffering early setbacks, the country gained its footing with an extraordinary victory at Midway (June 1942) and an invasion of North Africa (November 1942). After Pearl Harbor, young men rushed to enlist in the armed forces. Others were drafted. Figures vary, but by war's end upwards of 10 million American men and women had served in uniform. Over 400,000 were killed.

It's rare to find a man of military age who did not serve in one capacity or other. Hoosiers in uniform who had their cartooning careers interrupted by war or who went on to become cartoonists after the war included Wally Bishop (Muggs and Skeeter), Ted Chambers (gag cartoons), David C. Eastman (Carmichael), Bill Eddy (gag cartoons), Frank O'Neal (Short Ribs), and Bill Williams (Josephine). I would like to consider another group of cartoonists here, though, the men who cartooned while in uniform, for Yank, Stars and Stripes, All Hands, and other military magazines, newspapers, and newsletters.

Time was when cartoonists were celebrities and cartooning--especially syndicated cartooning and magazine gag cartooning--carried with it a heaping helping of prestige. Cartoonists entertained the troops, kept up morale, trained men in difficult and intricate tasks, and decorated airplanes with pinups and cartoon characters, among their many duties. One of the most famous of all folklore characters to come out of the war was a simple cartoon, a man with a bulbous nose who left his mark from Kiska to Bougainville to Marrakesh to Berlin: Kilroy Was Here! Another was the Gremlin, that mischievous little saboteur made famous by Roald Dahl and a planned movie by Disney that never reached the silver screen. A little less famous was Hubert, a lumpy dogface with an enormous nose and a talent for getting into trouble. Hubert, created by Herron art grad Dick Wingert (1919-1993), appeared in Stars and Stripes and was voted more popular than Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe. After the war, Hubert returned to civilian life and lasted in the comics until 1994. What Wingert did for the army, Nicolas Pouletsos (1911?-1990)--"Nick Penn"--did for the navy in Stalemate. The title character is a diminutive, pop-eyed sailor always on the make. Nick Penn also drew Helen Highwater, featuring a shapely female, for all the men at sea.

Other Hoosier cartoonists in uniform included Wayne Campbell (Yank, Stars and Stripes), Ted Drake (The Spindrift), Charles K. Hall (Army Times, Yank), Roderick Hipskind (Beachhead News), Thomas G. Karsell (Stars and Stripes), Gilbert Sweeney (Stars and Stripes), and Pat Weishapl (The Returnee, Salty Breezes). Dave Gerard of Citizen Smith fame instructed navy men on technical drawing in his hometown of Crawfordsville during the war. In the immediate aftermath, husband-and-wife cartoonists Tom and Mary Blakley taught art to returning servicemen, while Indianapolis News staff artist J. Hugh O'Donnell--late of the 509th Military Police Battalion--illustrated Report from the Pacific by Leo Litz (1946). 

Indiana cartoonists had varying degrees of success in the postwar world. Dick Wingert, Nick Penn, and Ted Drake were among the men who stuck with cartooning. Most lived long, productive lives. But in thinking about the men who were young once and drew pictures during their wartime service, I can't help but consider those who didn't make it. What great future cartoonist or illustrator, artist or writer, lies buried under a green field in France or Italy or some other far-flung spot on the globe?

A cartoon by Ted Drake from The Spindrift.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I'm Nick Penn's great-niece. In cleaning out my mother's house, I found some wonderful wartime letters from my Aunt Laura Penn to my father and will be featuring them on my own blog, sometime soon.

  2. Hi, Ms. Johns,

    Thanks for writing. I'm looking forward to reading the letters you mentioned. I would like to know more about Nick Penn, too. You can reach me at:

    Thanks and Merry Christmas.

    Terence Hanley