World War II: The Debut of G.I. Joe

Berger, balding, with glasses, in full uniform looks up from a sketch of his alter-ego, G.I. Joe

David Breger with his alter-ego, G.I. Joe. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Meg McAleer, a historian in the Manuscript Division. It ran in the Nov.-Dec. issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

The “Private Breger” cartoon was born under mosquito netting in densely humid Louisiana. David Breger, a successful freelance cartoonist, drafted into the Army in 1941, created the cartoon during his off-duty hours at Camp Livingston. It quickly caught on, and  “Private Breger” became a popular feature in the Saturday Evening Post, one of the most popular magazines of the day. That’s where the Army discovered it and wanted it for its own — just under a different name.

That was how “Private Breger” acquired an identical twin, “G.I. Joe,” Breger’s name for his new cartoon character. It appeared in Yank, the Army Weekly, and then Stars and Stripes, while “Private Breger” remained stateside. As David Breger had to explain repeatedly, the “G.I.” in G.I. Joe stood for “government issue.”

American soldiers quickly adopted the G.I. Joe moniker as their own, but not because the cartoon portrayed an ideal warrior. The Private Breger and G.I. Joe characters bore a striking resemblance to Breger himself with comic embellishments — freckles, soft bodies of short stature, wide eyes encased in round glasses, upturned faces, forward-leaning postures and innocent expressions that occasionally betrayed mischievousness, but never cynicism.

A sketch of G.I. Joe, looking back over his shoulder, and giving the "peace" sign with his left hand.

G. I. Joe, as drawn by Breger. Prints and Photographs Division.

Breger’s G.I. Joe was the antithesis of the muscled Hasbro action doll of the same name in the 1960s, yet he was somehow more. He represented a generation that found itself in unimaginable situations and yet went all in, summoning all that it had, not always performing to perfection, yet giving its best.

Breger’s children recently donated their father’s collection to the Library, where it is housed in the Manuscript Division and Prints and Photographs Division. The gift was one of many donated during the pandemic, the result of people having more free time to sort through attics, but also from a desire to give generously during a world crisis. This particular gift has renewed American memories of an old hero who bore tough times with resilience, humor and imperfect humanness just as we grapple with our own challenging times.

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