He’s one of the most recognizable GI’s of all time, and he never even saw active duty. Conceived by Norman Rockwell in 1941, as a recurring character during Rockwell’s turn as cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post, Willie Gillis Jr.’s story spanned eleven covers (with one rejected cover depicting Gillis nearing actual combat) and five years. Gillis was the everyman soldier, a fresh faced boy that gave Americans near and far hope throughout World War II. Rockwell painted Gillis’ tale from enlistment to college, showing both Gillis and his not one, but two girlfriends, as they made their way through the war.
Rockwell used Gillis to portray the more picturesque aspects of the war, providing peace of mind for the four million Americans the subscribed to the Post. Like many of Rockwell’s paintings during this period, the Gillis posters helped to bolster the war effort, and inadvertently boost the sale of war bonds. Gillis was like a blank canvas for Americans back home. They could look at him and see their own soldier, and so as the war raged on, Gillis’ tale helped to keep spirits up, ensuring that many of those GI’s did make it back home to college, just like Willie.