From the S&S archives:The real Mr. Breger stands up
May 25, 1969
TOKYO — "How did it happen, son?" Dave Breger asked in a friendly, casual way, not even looking up from his sketch pad.
"Well, sir." The young soldier sat up in his hospital bed and looked around sheepishly. (In other beds, there were young men who were terribly shot up.)
"It's like this ... I fell off a truck."
Breger finished his drawing of Mr. Breger, the owlish, freckled cartoon character who was first a miscast civilian in uniform and then a fumbling, lifetime loser who never quite made it anywhere. He autographed it. He moved away — and had to cover a smile.
Breger, a plain, quiet and very likeable man, leaned on a cane — and recalled what had happened to him, when Mr. Breger was Pvt. Breger and came off a drawing board at the World War II Stars and Stripes in London.
Breger spared no risk to get authentic background and atmosphere for a soldier cartoon. He went on an air raid over Germany, with a B17 bomber crew that was lost on a mission a week later. He rode in a tank in Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army.
Nothing ever happened — Breger was sort of a Job Bftslk in reverse.
Then, one quiet afternoon, lie was in an apartment in London — talking with friends and enjoying himself.
Suddenly, there was a sputtering noise overhead, "like the putt-putting of a motorcycle" — then a deafening roar and a crushing wave of impact. Breger collapsed with a jagged fragment from a Nazi V1 rocket in his hip.
"Imagine it," he says. "I had to go into a hospital with all these kids — all wounded and just off the line — and tell them that I got mine sitting in an apartment in London. I know how that kid felt."
Two years ago, Breger went back into a hospital to get an artificial replacement for an arthritic right hip — perhaps a delayed complication from the old wound.
One of four American cartoonists on a USO tour of American military hospitals in the Far East, Breger has been reacquainted with something he first saw from a hospital bed in 1944 — the inspiring spirit of young men who have been through something terrible and are gamely making the best of agony and lifetime handicap.
"These kids are incredible," he told Pacific Stars and Stripes — one of 350 or 400 worldwide newspapers who carry his cartoon. "Their morale is so damned high. You can be talking to a kid with one leg — and he'll tell you, 'I was lucky. My buddies around me were all killed.'"
Traveling with Breger are three fellow members of the National Cartoonists Society — William Gallo, Tom Knowles and Andy Sprague.
Breger talks little of his cartoon — which he considers the combined result of hard work and accidental success.
He never went to art school — only got a degree in psychology from Northwestern University and wound up the manager of a sausage factory in the Chicago stockyards.
He quit that — went to New York to become a struggling young cartoonist and to wonder what the uncertain future held.
In late 1941 — at the age of 33 — he was drafted.
"They sent me to Camp Livingston, La." he relates, "and put me in motor maintenance — never mind that I didn't know a damned thing about it. I'd go back to the barracks at night and draw this soldier character. I sent some off to the Saturday Evening Post."
Breger had neglected to title his cartoon. The Post editors called it simply "Pvt. Breger" — and Breger still has to correct misimpressions that he draws himself and egotistically titled his own cartoon.
After Pearl Harbor, he and another man were the first to be assigned to newly-born Yank Magazine in London. Breger later came to the Stars and Stripes. For a time, he drew another cartoon — a harassed and hopeless character like Pvt. Breger, who spent all his time dodging howitzer shells, detail rosters and irascible first sergeants — "all the military gags dating back to the Punic Wars."
He called the character GI Joe — and a permanent phrase fell into the American language.
"I saw Ernie Pyle on his way from Europe to the Pacific," Breger recalls. "He waved this telegram at me and said, 'Look at the title they're putting on the movie made from my book. The Story of GI Joe!"
"What's the matter with it?" Breger asked.
"It's too synthetic," Pyle stormed.
"It's mine," retorted Breger.
"I still don't like it!"
By the time Breger and his character took their discharge, the one who sat at the drawing board would never have to worry about going back to the sausage factory.
He will go from the Far East to Nyack in upstate New York, where he lives with his wife, Dorothy. Breger has three grown children — Dee, a 26year-old oceanographer who recently spent eight weeks in Antarctica; Lois, who is 24 and works in a library at Berkeley, Cal., and Harry, a 21-year-old University of Wisconsin student.
Breger is 61 — but still finds that the drawing board is as demanding as the detail roster once was. He won't even talk of retiring.
"Rube Goldberg is still going at the age of 85," he says.