Combat Art of World War II

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"What makes the work thrilling, interesting and dramatic is the fact that these men have seen action in the Aleutians, the Pacific, Africa, Sicily and other theaters of war, and yet have found time to put down on canvas the things they have seen and experienced so that the people back home will receive not only a photographic point of view but an emotional and spiritual one as well."  Aimee Crane (Quote from Art in the Armed Forces, 1972

    In 1943, the War Department, under the guide of Secretary Henry Stimson, formed an Art Advisory Committee that was charged with selecting and assigning artists to various theaters of operation.  In all, forty-two artists were selected, nineteen civilians and twenty-three soldiers.  Below is a discussion of some of these combat artists and an exploration of some of their insightful works of art produced during World War II.  The role of the combat artist may be detailed most precisely by quoting from the memorandum that George Biddle, original chairman of the War Department Art Advisory Committee, sent to overseas art units in April of 1943.  Biddle stated,

    "In this war there will be a greater amount than ever before of factual reporting, of photographs and moving pictures.  You are not sent out merely as news gatherers.  You have been selected as outstanding American artists, who will record the war in all its phases, and its impact on you as artists and as human beings.  The War Department Art Advisory Committee is giving you as much latitude as possible in your method of work, whether by sketches done on the spot, sketches made from memory, or from notes taken on the spot, for it is recognized that an artist does his best work when he is not tied down by narrow technical limitations.  What we insist on is the best work you are individually capable of; and the most integrated picture of war in all its phases that your group is capable of.  This will require team play on your part as well as individual effort.  It is suggested that you will freely discuss each other's work and assignments, always in hope of new suggestions and new enthusiasm.  Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line; battle landscapes; the wounded; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the country you visit...the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war...Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart's content.  Express if you can-realistically or symbolically- the essence and spirit of War.  You may be guided by Blake's mysticism, by Goya's cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix's romanticism, by Daumier's humanity and tenderness; or better still follow you own inevitable star."

U.S. Army Artists in Combat---Art in the United States Army resulted primarily from the need for embellishing the blank walls of hundreds of recreation buildings being constructed during 1940.  The artists were enlisted to help make these buildings more aesthetically attractive and to work with interior decorating.  In other instances the artists were used to create visual aids for training troops or Army artists were used to create cartoons for camp newspapers.  Basically the artist provided all the artistic and visual services necessary for the military community.  Moreover, the soldier artists were transferring to canvas the subject of war, with its modern machinery, intense emotions, and grim realities.
    The first of these U.S. Army artists to be discussed is Second Lieutenant Edward A. Reep (pictured in the above photo) from the Third Engineer Amphibian Brigade.  Second Lieutenant Reep was eventually transferred to the Fifth Army Historical Section and served extensively in the armies North African and Italian campaigns from April 1943 to September 1945.  This African-Italian based unit of artists produced the most extensive documentation of the war in general.  As Edward Reep stated about his wartime experience, "I fought the war more furiously perhaps with my paintbrush than with my weapons.  And i always put myself in a position where I could witness or be a part of the fighting.  That was my job, I felt."  Below are a few of Edward Reep's significant pieces and short descriptions for each:

                  The Morning After
                   1944. Watercolor and casein. 151/2x211/4
                    Soldiers stack the uniforms and equipment of men killed in the shelling of a movie tent.

            We Move Again
            1944.  Gouache.  14x20 in.
            Produced at Anzio, Italy, this character study of exhausted soldiers on the move could apply to the entire
            Italian campaign.  Never sure what the next day would bring, always alert and ready to go, tired,
            unshaven men squint their eyes to avoid the dust and move onward.

                                   PFC Anthony J. Kohlrus
                                   1944.  Pen and ink.  191/2 x 143/4.
                                   A minor casualty, PFC Kohlrus of the 133rd Infantry Division, is "tagged" and waits for further
                                   treatment at the 3rd Battalion Aid Station.

Private Gustav Rehberger executed mural decorations in the Chicago area before being inducted into the Army in July of 1943.  His works below were inspired by the battles waged in Germany.

      Under the Wire

            Attack on Little Berlin

In addition, the work by Corporal Robert G. Doares displays the bravery brought forth during the costly war.

                                          The "Fireman's Carry"

U.S. Navy Artists in Combat---Under the Navy Department's Office of Public Relations the Art and Poster Section was created to obtain pictorial material from the combat arena for publicity and historical purposes, as well as for technical reference.  These individual's in addition to being commissioned officers, as well as artists, were assigned to additional duties as junior officers of the watch.  In all theaters of the war and in all the great Naval battles of Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Santa Cruz, Amchitka in the Aleutians, aboard convoys to Iceland and Africa, in the invasion of Sicily and Italy, these officer-artists experienced the combat events first-hand.  These artists captured the drama that unfolded and they could be in some cases more effective than photographers.  This was due to the fact that they could omit specific confidential details that would otherwise appear on a photograph.  Moreover, artists could more readily capture scenes at night or in bad weather conditions and they could portray action that was widely scattered across the sea, air, and land.  Essentially, the artist could reconstruct the scene from his memory and viewpoint, centering his attention, focus, and emotion wherever he wished.
    Lieutenant Dwight Shepler had his first Naval assignment on board a destroyer on a convoy in the Pacific.  He later saw duty on a cruiser during the Battle of Santa Cruz, and on a battleship during Guadalcanal.  His pictures truly allow the viewer to understand the perils involved during warfare and his depiction's are moving and stunning scenes of the bravery that was demonstrated by all individuals involved.

            Under Fire

         Prisoners by Rescue. Japanese survivors picked up by a whaleboat

     Lieutenant Mitchell Jamieson depicted scenes from the military occupation of North Africa (Oran, Tunis, Bizerte) as well as documenting the action that he was apart of during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Later, in Italy at Salerno he was aboard a destroyer surveying the action when our troops went in.  His paintings comprise an explicit narrative as to what our fighting troops were encountering on these European battlefronts.

            Rendezvous at Dawn

                                               Gun Crew (Sicilian Invasion)

    Lieutenant William F. Draper was commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve in June of 1942.  His first assignment took him to the Aleutian Islands where he was present when the Japanese attacked Amchitka Island.  Later, he landed with the second wave of Marines at Bougainville.  After Bougainville he was assigned to duty on the USS Yorktown and painted a series of pieces on the first attack on Palau.  Finally, he covered the invasion of Saipan and Guam aboard the USS Tennessee.  His works reveal the spirit of our fighting men with their courage, heroism, and sacrifice.

                                                    Pilots at Play:  Scene in a Yakutat hut, Umnak, Alaska

           On a puddled runway at Kodiak, Alaska, an Army B26 refuels and a Navy gas truck supplies it.

U.S. Marine Artists in Combat were primarily soldiers whom engaged in art making when they had the time away from their regular duties.  The combat artists shared equally in the hardships and dangers that surrounded every other person in their units.  Unless, his duties were to draw for a Marine Corps publication, his main responsibilities rested with winning the war.  They were Marines first, and artists, second.  This was and is the strict code of tradition for the Corps: Every man a fighting man.  A variety of methods and materials were employed in their works including oils, water colors, wash drawings, pen and ink drawings, and pencil sketches.  Their topics range from scenes from the jungles of Guadalcanal to portraits of Marine Corps officers.

    Major Donald L. Dickson was a member of the Marine Corps Reserve for fifteen years and served four months on Guadalcanal as a regimental adjutant.  He painted what he saw and as he simply stated, "That's what I want to draw! I want to picture them just as they are-tired and dirty, rough, and sometimes scared, but with the best damned spirit in the world."

Instructions to a Patrol, Guadalcanal

                           Guadalcanal Marine

Technical Sergeant Victor P. Donahue completed his recruit training at San Diego and then went overseas with the Public Relations section of a combat unit.  His keen artistic work captured the true essence of what is was to be a United States Marine during World War II.

                                    A Marine

    Captain George M. Harding was designated "official artist of the American Expeditionary Forces" in World War I, but was attached to the First Marine Amphibious Corps in the South Pacific during World War II.  His work was deeply respected by his fellow Marines because of its accuracy and sharp attention to detail.


           Night Attack
           In the foreground is a combat team already in action behind a machine-gun, as a fellow Marine prepares for a
       backward-flip in a few seconds before spilling air from his chute, disengaging himself and reporting at his battle

    Technical Sergeant Herbert H. Laidman sketched Marine life in the battle arena of the Southwest Pacific from a close and personal perspective.  His artistic talents allowed him to receive a place as Combat Correspondent with a Marine Aircraft Wing.

                   Henderson Field, Night

U. S. Coast Guard Artists in Combat recorded military action and activities from Iwo Jima to the waters of Iceland.  Though their numbers were few, these combat artists illustrated the spirit of the soldier and the nature of the war.

    Sergeant Ben Wolf was enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1942 and was assigned to Greenland as a combat artist, where he spent six months recording the events in that area of warfare.

                 Semper Paratus

    CBM Hunter Wood spent time as a combat artist aboard a cutter engaged in antisubmarine duty in the waters of the North Atlantic.  In addition, he was aboard a transport vessel that participated in the invasion of North Africa.

            Hot Moment off Sicily

            LST in Action

    CPO Norman Millet Thomas enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1942.  His works reveal to the viewer, life as it was in Greenland during World War II.

Coast Guard Commando Raid in Greenland
The first attack in the war by the United States Coast Guard was a raid on Nazi radio equipment by Coast Guard Personnel on Greenland patrol.

    The above is a brief exploration into some of the insightful and diverse works produced by combat artists from different military branches during World War II.  The combat artist played a vital role in the war, documenting events and recording the details of human sacrifice and suffering.  The artists created visual documents that may serve as both remarkable aesthetic creations as well as important educational tools for generations to come.  Capturing more than a camera, the artworks are layered with the individual artist's perceptions, feelings, and interpretations.  Their visions were transformed to illustrations which define the diverse range of the human situation that was involved during this people's war.

All pictures are from the sources located on the Bibliography Page

Links for further information regarding combat artistry:

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