The Stamford Historical Society Presents
Pride and Patriotism: Stamford’s Role in World War II
Mort Walker was drafted initially into the Army Air Corps in 1941, and later was part of the Signal Corps and Infantry before being shipped to Italy in 1945 on board the Mariposa, a converted luxury liner that also carried 100 nurses. Once there, he became of head of security for Ordnance Base #1 in Naples in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. In addition to guarding ordnance, Walker oversaw 10,000 German POWs, mostly regular army and signal corps men. Upon his return to the States, he began Beetle Bailey first as a college strip, but later he had Beetle enter the Army, where he has been ever since. Beetle is currently the #3 strip in the world, and Walker was recently presented with a Distinguished Service Award by the Army.
From Mort Walker's Scrapbook 1945/46
I am the cartoonist and creator of Beetle Bailey as well as other comic strips. My military career is almost a comic strip in itself. First of all I got an appointment to West Point and Annapolis and they wouldn’t let me in because of my eyes. So I tried to enlist in the Navy and they wouldn’t let me do that. In the middle of this I got drafted to become part of the army. They sent me down to Clearwater, Florida, and all of the sudden I was in the Army Air Corps. We were in this wonderful old hotel on the golf course and we used to drill on the golf course. I remember one time it was my turn to drill everybody and I marched everyone into the sand trap. We had a lot of fun. I was on the boxing team down there and put on a number of demonstration bouts. Next thing I knew they sent me off to the signal corps in Camp Crowder, Missouri, where I had no ability whatsoever at mechanics. Mainly, I drew posters for everyone telling them to stay awake and be sure they did their bit. I was not learning an awful lot.
In the meantime, I got an opportunity to apply for this so called Army Specialized Training Program so I thought I would like to go into Psychiatry or something like that, that interested me, instead they sent me off to Wyoming and enlisted me in the Engineering Program. I ended up in St. Louis at Washington University studying Engineering and I had never even taken math in high school, I tried to avoid it and took Logic instead, and here I was trying to bone up on all this stuff. The theory was if you flunked out, you got sent straight to the front so that was an incentive. I studied pretty hard and ended up majoring in architecture of all things, I don’t know how that would help the army at all. My father was an architect and I was good at it, I had worked in his office in Kansas City, so anyway I graduated in Architecture. So what do you think they did with me? They sent me to the Infantry.
So, from there I went to California, got my bags all packed and we were all ready to go to the South Pacific, when the Battle of the Bulge took place, I guess they lost a lot of officers and they needed some more officers…and they were giving tests. I told my sergeant I would like to take a test and he said, “They don’t want guys like you, they want sergeants, they want people who had been through the ranks and know something about leadership.” I said, “You can’t prevent me from going, can you?” And he said, “No, if you feel that way about it go on over.” So I went over and here’s this Quonset hut with about two or three-hundred guys in it. I looked at the test and said, I think I’ve seen this test before. I went zip zip zip and I was the first one out and everyone was looking at me saying what is he doing? Is he leaving already?
Well, an hour later I was being interviewed by a board of officers who asked me stupid questions like where is President Roosevelt’s spa? And I said, “the Atlantic Ocean”. They said, “We were thinking about Atlanta, Georgia”. I don’t know how this all happened, but an hour later my bags were packed and I was in a train going to Fort Benning, GA. I tell you, I didn’t even know what I was doing anymore or who I belonged to or anything. Anyway, I got to Ft. Benning and they had a real rush program to train these officers to go into battle. So, three months, I was graduated and all of the sudden I was an officer and they didn’t know what to do with me there, so they sent me to teach weaponry in Arkansas. I was there for a while and all of the sudden I got the orders to go overseas. This was about 1945, I had been drafted in 1941. I had been all over the place, putting on boxing exhibits in various cities and things like that, getting my nose punched and finally I said I don’t think I like boxing, I didn’t like getting beat up. So of course I was in the Naples, Italy. We did not go in convoy. I was on a boat with a bunch of nurses. We had 100 nurses on board ship and I will tell you that is tough passage being on board ship with 100 nurses. We played bridge…some troop ship.
It was called the Mariposa and was an old cruise ship and we’d go down and they had the chandeliers and the waiters in tuxedos and I tell you it’s tough. My job was to go down every couple of days and make sure that the enlisted men didn’t overeat or come through the lines too often, I had to punch their tickets. I got down there, found out that all the seats were taken and nobody was coming through at all. So I would stand there for a while then go away. So anyway we got to Italy and they picked me up to drive me to my destination and we were driving through these crowded streets of Naples and when I got to my destination, I turned around and my bag with all my belongings was gone. They just took it out of the back of the jeep, so I arrived without anything and they sent me to an ordnance depot.
Here I’d been in the air force, the signal corps, the infantry, the engineers, you name it, now I was in the signal corps and they didn’t know what to do with me. So they said well put him in charge of the security. So I found out my security was I had a whole cadre of American GIs to help guard the gate. Ordnance Base Depot #1 was my station, we had jeeps, binoculars, watches, equipment. I was a 2nd Lieutenant and got out as a first Lieutenant. I also had a whole company of Italian soldiers, the war was over by that time with Italy, so the soldiers were working for us, so I was in charge of a whole company of Italians guys. I spoke Spanish, not Italian, which was really confusing. I was also in charge of 10,000 German POWs. These weren’t Nazis, they were just signal corps guys and you know supply troops and stuff like that, so they were all pretty benign. So I went over to look around and a guy showed me around the whole place. He spoke perfect English, until he turned around and I found out he was a POW. I didn’t have any help at all, they sort of ran the camp and we caught a bunch of them escaping one night and we found out they had been escaping every night coming back in the morning, they’d spend the night with girls and come back in the morning to be there for roll call. So what do you do with a guy who’s already in jail? How do you punish him? So I put them to work digging a ditch with a spoon. After I left, I thought, gee, you know its out there in this terrible sun at the foot of the Vesuvius Mountain digging in that rock. I said, I’d better see how they’re doing, I don’t want any of them to expire or anything like that. I found out the trench had already been dug. The minute I left all their friends came out with shovels and did it all for them. I said Hell, I’m not going to win with these guys so I just said, “Fill it in”.
The only battles I got into were handgun battles with robbers who were trying to steal from the depot. They would get inside these warehouses and hide inside a pile of tires so you couldn’t see them. Couple times we’d find them and shoot at them. I hit a guy in the butt one time, that’s about as accurate as I could get. They were locals trying to make a buck. The terrible part was, we were trying to destroy this stuff. The war was over in Italy and even in Europe so we had to destroy this stuff. They did want to let binoculars and watches and stuff like that get on the Italian market, because that would hurt their market, so we were running tanks over it and my job was to keep people from stealing stuff until it could be destroyed and taken to the dump. There were a lot of Italians and Germans working for us that were selling things at the dump, they’d let stuff get through and sell it and then I would confiscate the money and the major wanted me to split it with him but I wouldn’t do it.
When I got over there, I figured this is a free trip to Italy, I’ve got an interpreter, I’ve got a Jeep, I learned how to speak Italian while I was over there, and I thought I am going to see everything I can, and I went around to all the museums, churches, monuments, statues, fountains. I was able to buy a big bellow camera that took beautiful pictures. I found a closet and projectors and made an enlarger out of it. I found a German who knew something about photography, so I had my own dark room and I was making prints for everybody. I have a whole stack of photos and did drawings of everything. I educated myself. I didn’t drink, so what else was there to do but get educated, I was only 18 when I got drafted.
I drew the adventures I had, the things I saw that I thought were funny. I was my own boss on the base and no one ever paid any attention to me. I just made sure all my guards were on guard duty and all my Germans were behind the stockades. I had one murder. When the Germans took the dump trucks to the dump they would go with the guards and I guess a couple of the guards thought it would be funny to use the Germans for target practice so they had them running around the perimeter of the dump and they were firing at them and one of them fired and “missed” and hit the German and killed the guy. It hurt me to have to take him and have him arrested, but I had to do it, it was the humane thing to do. Then I had a rape case where two guys raped this girl. So here I was, a teenage kid with no training and no one supervising me, I was dumped into these jobs. I stopped things like those that happened in Iraqi prison camps from happening. I found people beating up on people and I said, “Stop that now, I m not going to have any of that”. They would beat up on someone and say, “Hey, Lieutenant, it’s your turn” and I would say, “Stop this now, this is not the way I want to run the place.” There was no instruction, no one told me that. The tendency of a lot of people is to use power when they have it and it isn’t pretty.
I feel very lucky I didn’t have to see the horrible side of war.
When the war was over, I repatriated all of them, went with them on box cars and took them up to Switzerland and gave them to the Red Cross, so my job was done over there and I got aboard ship, got back, sailed into the New York harbor, cried when I saw the Statue of Liberty, ran off the ship and got myself a hamburger.
So that’s pretty much the end of my army career. I used to joke, somebody who asked, “What did you do in the army?” “What did I do?” I said, “I won the war!” After a while my wife says, “You know a lot of people don’t get the joke, they think you’re bragging so you better stop doing that.” So I said, OK so I started responding: “Well I didn’t win the war, but I was in the war and we didn’t lose it.” So I started my comic strip, it started as a strip about college. And the Korean War heated up and my editor said they are drafting college guys just like Beetle Bailey, you got to put him in the army. At first I didn’t want to do it, because after the war all the army cartoons like Willy and Joe and Hubert and Sad Sack all kind of faded away and I thought gee, I don’t know if I want to do that. But anyway they talked me into it and the college sequence lasted about 6 months until I put him in the army and then he really started to take off and become well known. But I had a lot of problems even with the army. They thought that after the war was over in Korea I was hurting discipline. I was showing an undisciplined soldier that would rather take naps than dig ditches and stuff like that. So they banned me from the Stars and Stripes. There’s nothing like being banned. All of the sudden people all over the world started writing editorials about it, I was on television, controversy just…well anyway, if you’re going to be banned by anybody, be banned by the army, it really works. So all of the sudden my circulating started to climb until now, Beetle is about the number three comic in the world. The army just gave me its highest award for distinguished service to the Pentagon or something like that. I guess the Army and I are ok now.
Mort Walker was Honorary Chairman of the Exhbit and Opening Event Speaker
Stamford Service Rolls