EDITOR’S NOTE: Mort Walker’s comic strip “Beetle Bailey” celebrated its 60th birthday this year. In recognition of Veterans’ Day, the Daily News spoke with Walker recently about his inspiration for Beetle Bailey’s “Camp Swampy” — which was Neosho’s own Camp Crowder, where Walker was stationed for a time.
Private Addison Morton Walker humped it off the troop train and took a quick first look around at his new home.
Troops and Jeeps hustled out of the hanging haze of coal smoke that drifted from hundreds of stovepipes, splashing through the mud and muck. A steady drizzle dripped down from bleak skies. Endless neighborhoods of identical white buildings formed a maze where drab green men raced to some unknown purpose.
Walker didn’t know it then, but he was now a citizen of a virtual army city with a population of more than 45,000.
It was Neosho’s Camp Crowder and the year was 1943. Seven years later, Walker would rename it something else in a soon-to-be popular comic strip: Camp Swampy.
But for now, there was no Private Beetle Bailey to make anyone laugh and the sad 19-year-old draftee was wondering just what in the world he was doing there.
“It seemed a bit dreary,” Walker, 87, said of Camp Crowder in a recent telephone interview with the Neosho Daily News. “It was always kind of foggy and it seems we had a lot of rain and cloudy days and unpleasant weather. Just dreary. I felt like I was in the wrong place.”
Walker grew up in Kansas City and, at 18, was chief editorial designer at Halls Brothers, creating Hallmark Cards. A year later, however, he got his letter in the mail from Uncle Sam.
After basic training, he found himself stationed at Camp Crowder, which was the Midwest training center for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He was to be a radio repair technician. Walker still has no idea why.
“Of all the miscues!” Walker chuckled. “Here I was supposed to be repairing radios and I had never even seen a radio. We didn’t have one at home.”
Of course, when it was found out he was a cartoonist, some of his time was spent drawing “official” posters at the camp, Walker related.
“I don’t even remember fixing a radio!” he laughed.
Today, Walker doesn’t recall very much about Camp Crowder itself (“Uh, that was about 70 years ago,” he gently reminds). In fact, the camp was so huge Walker said he never even saw most of it. There was simply no reason to.
“We would go to church and the PX but that’s about all,” he said. “I was never exposed to the rest of it. My mission there was to learn how to repair radios, so we would march over to the classroom where they had all the radios and then back again.”
Page 2 of 5 - Walker — never exactly shy around the ladies — was even surprised to learn that there had been a contingent of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps present at the camp while he was there.
“If they were there, we didn’t mess with them,” he said.
What Walker recalls about his Camp Crowder days is not the buildings or the camp layout or even the routine duties, but some of the things that happened to him while stationed there. Like why Camp Crowder later became his inspiration for Camp Swampy in the Beetle Bailey comic strip, which he started in 1950.
As Walker noted, during his stay at Crowder the weather was particularly wet. Consequently, the entire area fell prey to flooding (or was “swamped” you might say.)
“We woke up one morning and we were in a lake!” Walker laughed. “As far as you could see was water. That’s where Camp Swampy came from.”
The men were told that school was cancelled that day. Instead, they were put on sandbag detail. Walker says they were trucked to a “river” or “creek” nearby. He might have been referring to Elm Springs Branch. Or perhaps not. Walker has no idea.
“It was more than a creek when I went down there! It was pretty wide because it was flooding,” Walker said. “It looked like it was fairly close to the camp because it was flooding the camp. We were wading around in about two feet of water — at least — and we put sandbags in the creek or whatever it was. We spent most of the day doing that.”
Another story Walker tells about Camp Crowder takes place shortly after he arrived at the camp. His new Army buddies found out he had trained to box a little. They asked him if he wanted to participate in a “play” at the camp theatre. He said sure. So they got another pal of his who had boxing experience to join him in the “ring,” which was actually only the theatre stage.
“I just thought we were going to put on a little show for them because it wasn't one of those things where we were out there to win the match or anything,” Walker recalled. “I was going to dance around and spar and stuff like that. Well, my friend walked up to me and 'WHAM!' — knocked me out with one punch. So it wasn't very much of a display at all. They carried me back to the barracks and put me in bed. When I woke up I thought 'Oh boy! That was the first time that has ever happened to me. I don't think I like boxing!' That was the end of my boxing career.”
When Walker got a weekend pass, he usually hitchhiked home to Kansas City. But he did sometimes go to Neosho, where a bus from the camp would unload the soldiers. He said he remembers attending a few dances at the U.S.O., which was located next to Central School. Walker said he danced and chatted with the young ladies there — who were heavily chaperoned, of course — but it was all very platonic.
Page 3 of 5 - “They were all very nice I remember, but I didn't form any attachments — which for me was unusual,” Walker said in dead seriousness.
There were other amusements as well. Walker kept a diary during his time at Camp Crowder, some portions of which he shared with the Daily.
In an entry dated April 10,1943, Walker talks about his typical day at the camp: 5 a.m. — fall out for reveille; 5:30-6:30 a.m. — “mop the floors, make our beds, shine shoes, etc. Then we eat and school starts at 7 a.m.” where “you sit there trying to study and gradually the page in front of you fades out of focus. You wake up when your head hits the desk.”
Farther down in the entry he is just sitting and smoking his pipe on “another rainy day.”
“I guess a soldier is consigned to be lonely,” the 19-year-old Walker wrote. “That is, if he prefers good company.”
He writes about going to Joplin with a pal, bowling eight games and then arriving too late for a U.S.O. dance.
“Frankly, I can't remember the good old times anymore,” the sad draftee writes. “There seems to be a dividing line somewhere when my memory ceased to function. Life just whirls about me now 'on the double.'”
On another line in the diary, Walker and another buddy go to Neosho “to hunt for adventure...Nothing happened.” They went to “a saloon, a serviceman's club and then a walk through the park” — almost certainly Big Spring Park.
Then Walker describes in his diary another occasion when he and four other Army pals went for a horseback ride. The Neosho stable master failed to tell them, however, that that was the first time the horses had been out since winter. Walker’s horse suddenly bolted and took him for a wild ride down a dirt road, “skidding at the turns and scaring me to death.” The horse finally stopped when she ran out of breath. One of his buddies said he could control her, but then the horse bolted with him, too, and they weren’t seen for another two miles up the road.
“Maybe it’s better if nothing happens on our trips to town,” the young Walker reflected.
Both over the phone in present day and in his diary in 1943, Walker talked about when he was promoted to acting sergeant of his barracks at Camp Crowder. He said he had no idea why he was picked, figuring himself the last person in the world for the job. He didn’t know how to handle being in a position of authority over his friends. One day, during an inspection, one of his pals was making funny faces at him and Walker laughed in his lieutenant’s face. He was confined to barracks and his pass was taken away. He was supposed to go home that weekend. The guy who made him laugh felt bad, though, and gave Walker his own pass.
Page 4 of 5 - “So I’m going home as ‘George Laskolin,’ Walker wrote. “I hope my folks recognize me.”
In the lengthy diary entry regarding Camp Crowder, Walker — suspiciously sounding very “Beetle Bailey-ish” — pokes fun of his army instructors, makes wry comparisons between Army life and the civilian one he left behind and treats his experience as a personal mission to escape from the idiosyncrasy and boredom of the Army machine.
No, Walker isn’t his own inspiration for Beetle Bailey. That honor belongs to a friend of his from high school, and later the University of Missouri, named David Hornaday (“he was tall, lanky and lazy. Everybody liked him even though he was a goof-off”). But Walker did admit to some similarities between creator and creation — namely their penchant for bucking authority.
Walker wasn’t long at Camp Crowder. He eventually saw a flyer on the bulletin board promoting the Army Specialized Training Program, which was basically college courses on Uncle Sam’s dime. Walker chose psychiatry but was sent to St. Louis to study architectural engineering instead (“typical army thinking,” Walker scoffed.) Then “the army decided they needed soldiers more than they needed college students” and the program was dissolved. Walker was sent to Ft. Benning, Ga., as an infantry instructor (another situation where Walker still can’t figure what the army was thinking) and then overseas to Naples, Italy where he was promoted to officer and ultimately given command over 10,000 German prisoners of war. His only guards were Italians — technically Germany’s allies in the war.
“It seems my whole time in the army was one big mix-up,” Walker said. “They just couldn’t figure out what to do with me.”
After the war, Walker returned to civilian life, attended MU, and before long embarked on a successful career as a cartoonist.
Since he left Camp Crowder, he has never been back to Neosho. Walker was asked if he would ever consider returning for a visit.
“I don’t have much of a reason to,” Walker said. “I try to limit my trips these days because I have so much going on.”
Last month, Walker, who now lives in Connecticut, was present in Columbia, Mo., for the dedication of “Mort’s Cafe,” based on a college hangout of his.
“That’s the closest I’ll probably get to Neosho!” Walker said.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, like Beetle, all of Walker’s characters in the strip are based off of real people, Walker told the Daily. Here are two examples:
Miss Buxley, the secretary, was inspired by Marilyn Monroe. (“Very pretty, very sexy and very available,” said Walker, who has a poster of Monroe hanging in his office.)
Page 5 of 5 - Sergeant Snorkel is a real sergeant Walker had while he was studying engineering in St. Louis. His name was Octavian Savou.
“He was a great big fat guy and we were all scared of him,” Walker recalled. “We thought he was really mean. But then one day around Christmas time we all came in after a rough day and on each guy’s pillow was a mimeographed poem written to ‘My Boys.’ The thought of him thinking of us as his children really affected us. I never knew he had a heart.”