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Home arrow Magazine arrow Interviews arrow The Mort Walker Interview (Excerpt from TCJ #297)
The Mort Walker Interview (Excerpt from TCJ #297)
Written by R.C. Harvey   
Monday, 13 April 2009

 

R.C. HARVEY:
In Italy — what year are we talking about, 1945?

MORT WALKER:
Yeah, the war was over in Italy. It was beginning to wind down in Europe also. I got off the ship and there was a jeep that was going to take me to my destination. I put my bag with all my belongings on the back, and we went through the crowded streets of Naples. I got to my destination and looked back — my bag was stolen. I'd lost everything. [Laughs.] I always travel with books because I was an avid reader from the time I was 5 years old. I used to check out five books from the library every week. I tried to read a whole British Encyclopedia. I think I only got to the third volume. [Laughter.] Anyway I always had books with me. I lost all of those.

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©2000 Mort Walker.

I got to my destination and it was an ordnance depot. They dropped me off and all the officers there and the colonel says, "Why are they sending us this inexperienced officer? What are we going to do with him?" So they decided to give me all the stuff that they didn't want to do. They made me fire chief, I was head of the security force that guarded the depot, and they put me in charge of the prisoner-of-war camp so I had 10,000 German prisoners of war. [Laughs.] I was the only guy doing that, and in order to guard the German prisoner-of-war camp I had a company of Italian soldiers and I was in charge of them, and they made me an intelligence and investigating officer. I investigated robberies, rapes, we had a murder... anything that went wrong in the camp, I had to sit down at my typewriter and put out a five-copy report of everything I did. And back in those days we had carbon paper, so if you made a mistake you had to go through five things and erase it! [Laughter.]

You told a story once about this time in your career when some Italian soldier was caught asleep on duty and his officer just beat him up something savage, like Sarge beats up Beetle in the strip.

That was one of the first things that happened when I took over the security office. The guards at the gate found this Italian stealing things. What we were doing, at that point, was running tanks over watches and compasses and stuff to destroy them because we didn't want to ship them back to America, and we didn't want to put them on the Italian market, because the Italians didn't want us to do that. We'd ruin their business. So we were destroying stuff. The German prisoners of war were working, and they'd take it to the dump and dump it. The Italians that worked there were stealing stuff. So they would search them every night as they went home. This guy they caught stealing something. So they took him to the back office and they were beating up on him, slapping him. And then they turned to me and said, "Your turn, lieutenant."

And I said, "No, stop that. I don't want that. I don't operate that way." And the Italians smiled. [Laughs.] So, I became friends with the Italians.

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The March 30, 1951 Beetle strip, ©2000 Mort Walker.

My first trip to the concentration camp — the German prisoner-of-war camp — I said to the officer, "Show me around." So he showed me how everything worked. I would sit down with the officers — a lot of them spoke English — and they started to ask me questions about America. I remember they said, "In America if you want to move, how do you get permission?"

I said, "We just... move."

They said, "You don't get permission?"

I said, "No. You pack up your car, and move somewhere else."

They said, "How do you keep track of everybody?" [Laughter.] We had this freedom. I talked with them too about how they put up with Hitler and they said, "Well, we had no choice. If you had a spy on every block, and if you said anything against Hitler, you just disappeared. And nobody would have the courage to try and find where you went. You just obeyed and shut up." Almost all these guys weren't Nazis or soldiers, they were just transportation people. They put on exhibits, they did a lot of handiwork in the village, projects and artwork. One night they invited me to come see a play they were putting on. They had built their own stage. So I went out and one guy was pretending to be a woman. He came out in a dress. And then I thought, "Where'd they get all this stuff?" One guy came out with a gun, and I started panicking. I said to my commanding officer, "I don't feel well." I was the only American in that audience. And the guy had a gun... [Laughter.]

Then somebody came in my office and told me, "You know, there are German guys escaping from camp."

I said, "Really?" They told me where they were escaping from. So I got some of the other officers and we went out and sat down by the road in the dark. Pretty soon, I heard this scuffling noise. You'd see these silhouetted figures running down the road. We all fired in the air and said, "Halt! Halt!" They halted. I found out they were escaping every night, spending the night with their girlfriends, and then in-scaping in the morning again! [Laughter.] And it all happened when the Italian soldiers were asleep in the towers. They never knew anything.

[Laughter.] What happened when you got out? Were you discharged in Italy, or were you sent back to the States?

I was sent back to the United States, and boy, I'll tell you — that was the biggest thrill to come through that harbor and see the Statue of Liberty. Guys had tears in their eyes. We just commandeered the Liberty ship. So there were only five officers onboard. One guy brought his jeep with him, roped it down on the deck, and he cleaned it up and painted it. We'd have dinner with the captain, and we played scrimmage and stuff like that. It took us a long time. We almost had a shipwreck along the coast, when we got near the North Carolina coast. I was up on deck throwing up, the only time I ever got seasick. I thought that ship was going down. We got to New York and they sent us to Chicago to get discharged. I got my discharge. The girl said, "I'd go stand over there, in that line."

I said, "What's that line?"

She said, "That's where you sign up to be in the reserves."

I said, "No thanks, I don't want to be in the reserves."

She said, "You're going to give up your commission?"

I said, "Yep." [Laughter.]

When Beetle went in the Army, there was a surge of interest in the strip and it increased its circulation, but it wasn't until the Pacific Edition of Stars and Stripes banned the strip in January 1954 that it really got a boost, if I recall.

Well, it gave me a lot of publicity. That was stupid for them to do that.

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The Oct. 22, 2008 Beetle strip, ©2008 King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Oh yeah. [Laughs.]

Even the Pentagon felt that I was not helping discipline or the efficiency of the Army by criticizing it. I wasn't really criticizing it; I just showed how guys could have fun, no matter where they were. [Laughter.] So finally, I went over to the Pentagon, because they did a book one time called How Not to Do Things and they used my strips in it.

How Not to Do Things?

"This is not the way we do things in the Army — don't do this! Don't do this!" And they used my strips. By then they realized that the strip is popular with the GIs and people who had relatives and friends in the Army. They began giving me big citations and medals, you know, for outstanding service to my country. [Laughter.] I got racks of stuff over there, in my office, over in the garage where I file them, stuff that they have awarded me. One time they had a whole parade for me in the South Lawn behind the White House. They honored me with a parade, marched all these people in front of me and saluted me, put me up on the stage.

You say you went down to the Pentagon.

Oh yes, many times.

To talk to them about the strip's attitude about the Army? What did they tell you?

They kinda criticized me, just said, "This is not the way we like our soldiers to behave."

Bad for discipline?

Yeah. I remember one time we had a party in the Pentagon and they asked if I'd like to have a martini. I said, "No thanks, I drink scotch."

They said, "We can't serve scotch."

So, I said, "Why not?"

They said, "Because there's a ban on liquor. They told us we couldn't have scotch or bourbon in the Pentagon."

I says, "Really?"

They said, "So we serve martinis!" [Laughter.]

I said, "You sound just like me — you're getting around the rules."

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Click image for larger version in new window. The June 17, 1969 Beetle strip, ©1969 King Features Syndicate, Inc.

I think there was a period when you felt you needed to do some research on Army life?

Yeah, it had changed quite a bit since I had been in, so I went down to Fort Dix, and they sent me around with the publicity man, who showed me the new barracks and the new tanks and everything like that. I took a lot photographs. So, this guy was very nice to me, taking me around, bought me dinner and everything like that. So, we went back to the rooms that they had for us, and they had a girl in there for me! [Laughter.] So I told the officer that brought her, I said, "No thanks. I don't do that type of thing." And we looked out the window, and he was outside packing her off. [Laughs.]

 


 

(To read the rest of this interview, please see The Comics Journal #297.)

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