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Back Roads

Camp Hood cartoonist captured 1940s military life

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Cartoonist captured 1940s military life

Tech. Sgt. John Russell Cross (1901-1964) was plucked straight from the newspaper funny pages into the serious world of Army green.

While serving as a military cartoonist at the newly created Camp Hood during World War II, Cross displayed a deft hand with pen and ink — as sure a shot as a rifle.

Only a few examples of his work remain in vintage postcards and archived issues of camp newspapers. A rare souvenir cartoon book “Under the Hood” with 19 of his best cartoons was published in an accordion-fold mailer during his Army service in the early 1940s. He penned a regular comic strip, “Private Bolo, Officer Material,” in the Hood Panther, a weekly paper for tank destroyers as well as provided other artwork and editorial cartoons.

Cross was one of a coterie of artists recruited into the military during wartime to boost soldier morale. He had extensive newspaper experience in civilian life and the ability to wring clever observations onto blank pages.

The military recruited other artists known for their work with Disney, Timely Comics (now Marvel Comics), the New Yorker and Madison Avenue.

“Faced with thousands of green, but not uneducated, troops in World War II, the military had to transform its training methods — finding ways to quickly teach tedious information to anxious young men and women, explaining not only the how but also the why. Receptive to entertainment media, the government soon learned to use cartooning in educational materials,” said historian Christina M. Knopf, who wrote “The Comic Art of War: A Critical Study of Military Cartoons” (McFarland & Co., 2015).

Benjamin Franklin is considered to have published the first political cartoon in 1754. By the 20th century, cartoonists, particularly those who honed their skills at newspapers, could reflect and articulate soldiers’ stress and anxieties, especially during wartime. If an army marched on its stomach, it endured wearisome training with hammy humor on wry.

Cross was one of many recruited during the war to summarize the young recruit’s “new normal” in black-and-white on newsprint. His pen was as sharp as a rapier.

Born in Clarksville, Tenn., Cross showed early talents for art. Shortly after turning 21, he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute in fall 1921. Upon graduation, he worked as an illustrator for several publications before landing a job as full-time editorial cartoonist at the Nashville Tennessean newspaper.

He won widespread admiration for a 1925 four-panel illustration decrying the lynching of a black child, racism and mob violence. Besides his editorial page cartoons lambasting national and local politics, he also penned several comic strips, among them “Dippy, “Lulu” and “Cross Sections.” Those strips revealed his amusing insights into everyday human foibles and mishaps.

By mid-1942, Cross radically changed careers from his comfortable job at the Nashville Tennessean and magazines. By late June, shortly after his 41st birthday, he boarded a train for Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. Traveling with him were other draftees between the ages of 36-45, part of the third selective service registration earlier that year. They came from various fields to serve specific professional duties in the military — among them newspapermen, lawyers, business executives and bankers. Some were World War I veterans; others, like Cross, were not.

After basic training, he was transferred from the lush verdant hills of northern Georgia to the dusty brown expanse of Camp Hood. Here he found fertile fields for his wit and commentary:

  • Traffic jams as soldiers on leave are anxious to leave camp, even for a few hours.
  • The overwhelming sea of khaki uniforms in Temple shops, where soldiers tried to “get away from it all,” only to find their buddies downtown.
  • A hapless captain who needs a sergeant’s constant reminders of military life — even to put on his pants.
  • A private’s lament to the chaplain that the sergeant “doesn’t understand me.”
  • A big-city recruit confusing Killeen’s outhouses for telephone booths. “Wise up. Dat ain’t no telephone booth. You ain’t in da Bronx.”

Cross’ cartoons gave a young draftee a chance to release his frustrations and to discover his own resilience — all with a knowing wink and chuckle to his barracks mates who shared his pains.

After the war, Cross returned to the Tennessean while continuing his work as an illustrator for magazines and advertising agencies. He remained a peripatetic newspaperman. Eventually he worked as an editorial cartoonist for Chicago and Los Angeles newspapers before retiring and returning to his Clarksville hometown.

Although he was listed as married in the 1940 federal census, by 1942, when he went into the Army, his status was “separated with no dependents.” Throughout his life, he had created a jovial community of admirers with his art and observations, but he died alone in a Clarksville hotel room from a heart attack.

His Tennessee colleagues recalled his quick wit and needle-sharp insights. Few in Tennessee knew of his contributions to soldier morale at Camp Hood during World War II.

Cross’ quick wit and canny observations helped GIs cope with the tedium, arduous training and impending horrors of battle fronts. His cartoons educated, healed and gently poked readers while reminding them of their humanity amid the absurdities of war.