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The Rockwell Files: Willie Gillis Comes Home

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Willie Gillis in his college room

Attacking the books: His war over and a new life ahead, ex-sergeant Willie Gillis gets his college education from a grateful nation, October 5, 1946.
© SEPS

When Norman Rockwell chose to portray a typical American draftee in 1941, he created the character Willie Gillis, using the features of a local boy, Robert Buck. The beloved anti-hero — Willie was never portrayed in battle and seemed more a passive victim of circumstance than a warrior — disappeared from the Post’s cover during the last year of the war. It was no mystery: Buck was off serving in the South Pacific, and Rockwell refused to portray Willie in action without his model.

Willie’s reappearance, shown here, was as a civilian. Post readers would have recognized that Willie, like 7 million other veterans, was off to college, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. Along with the stacked textbooks and nearby golf clubs, Rockwell acknowledged the experience that helped shape veterans like Willie. Trophies from the German foe appear on the wall above the window. Behind him, Willie proudly hung his framed discharge papers. He also tacked up his Army service patch, master sergeant’s insignia, and campaign ribbons. Some day they would share a place of honor in Willie’s home alongside his college diploma.

This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives. 

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  • Ima Ryma

    Willie Gillis of World War II,
    The Norman Rockwell ev’ry guy,
    As portrayed American who
    Served the nation as a G.I.
    The public thought Willie was real.
    He gave a human face to war.
    With Willie the public did feel
    Connection and supported more.
    Through the art series, Willie went
    From freckle face to manly brow.
    In the last work he did present
    A growing up from then to now.

    Willie Gillis last did instill
    Future dreams on the G.I. Bill.