Combat Artists of Guadalcanal

By Colonel H. Avery Chenoweth, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

Navy Artists in Combat

Propped against a sandbagged bomb shelter on the edge of Henderson Field, Dwight Shepler transferred the scene before him through his artistic eyes to his practiced fingers, executing a light pencil sketch onto his watercolor pad of what was code-named the Cactus Air Force. Then, oblivious to the thunderous racket of the busy airfield, with a few deft strokes of his brush, he began to form the shape of a parked twin-boom, olive drab Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighter plane. He then popped in a couple of Marine F4F-3 Wildcats roaring up to intercept the daily Japanese bomb run over Guadalcanal, silhouetting them in billowing cumulus clouds against a blazing blue tropical sky. This was an on-the-spot color sketch; he would paint it in final form back on board ship.

A professional artist, 37-year-old Shepler maintained that if he always kept his art materials with him, he could accomplish great things. The stare from a passing Marine, incredulous to see someone drawing a picture of what he thought a god-awful mess, went unnoticed. Having just debarked from the fast Atlanta-class antiaircraft cruiser USS San Juan (CL-54), where he had recently witnessed and painted watercolors of some of the fierce naval battles off Guadalcanal, the young artist was probably unaware that the luster of his silver junior grade collar bars was gone. They were as salty as he was now. He had mused how flag secretaries' jaws had dropped on seeing that new bright stripe and a half on his sleeve and reading his orders to Admiral William F. Halsey's South Pacific Command to take him wherever the action was.

With his Navy khakis now sopping with sweat, soiled, and his smelly helmet—Marine issue, from some casualty, no doubt—Shepler must have pondered: "What the devil did I come ashore for? I'm a Sailor, not a grunt." Japanese bombers pounded the airfield and the Marine perimeter positions daily, and the enemy's heavy naval 14-inchers pelted those targets all night long. At sea, at least, there were sporadic cataclysmic clashes and then break-offs. And showers and clean bunks.

Witnessing the first counteroffensive of this new Pacific war in the early fall of 1942, however, was the experience of a lifetime—especially for an artist. This new subject matter was to test all his abilities. They surely hadn't taught this at the Boston Museum School. He was grateful his friend and fellow artist Griffith Bailey Coale had located him shortly after he signed up and was in midshipman training to ask if he would be interested in putting his art talents to good use for the Navy.

Lieutenant Commander Coale himself had witnessed and sketched a U-boat sink the American destroyer Reuben James (DD-245) in the Atlantic just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He had assured him that the Navy's Combat Art Section, which he was forming at the Navy's Office of Information under former National Geographic Magazine Editor Reserve Commander John Long and the Corcoran Gallery of Art's former deputy director, Reserve Lieutenant Commander Robert Parsons, was important. Such work would amplify historical writing and photographic efforts. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy was the first military service combat art program to get under way in this war.

Lieutenant Shepler did not envy the Marine grunts around him. Warfare on land was a far cry from life on board ship. Even there, though, billeted as a combat artist, he had been considered a line officer first, and combat duties took priority. His watches, sensibly, had been altered to accommodate his work: Instead of 4-and-8, Mister Shepler was given 4-and-12 so he could paint during the extra time off. One of his first watercolors depicted the destroyer USS Smith (DD-378) taking a Japanese hit on her forecastle, a searing sight he had witnessed.

While on board the San Juan accompanying the USS South Dakota (BB-57), Shepler had done a masterful painting of the battlewagon under daylight aerial attack. One thing he could have said about all this was that it certainly made the 8,000 miles he logged around Cape Horn on a sea-going sloop just prior to the war seem like a Sunday outing.

Conscious of his orders to go where the action was, Shepler did not stay in the rear areas—if any could be found in the Marine perimeter. He sought the fighting, covering artillery firing positions, and even accompanying patrols outside the perimeter. His art shows a good cross section of the overall battle.

And Shepler hardly could have foreseen at the time that he would also go to the Mediterranean and to the waters off Normandy to capture combat action there, then return to the Pacific and be subjected to and portray kamikaze attacks on the replacement Hornet (CV-12) in the battles for the Philippines. Nor could he have known that he would reach the rank of lieutenant commander, be awarded a Bronze Star for valor, and that his 300 sketches and watercolors would constitute a major portion of the Navy's great Combat Art Collection.

Marine Artists Doing Double Duty

On the other side of Henderson Field from Lieutenant Shepler, in the coconut-palmed boondocks of the southern defensive perimeter, another artist was doing double duty, too—Marine Corps Reserve Captain Donald L. Dickson, the 1st Marine Division public information officer. Noted for his popular nationally syndicated comic strip, "Sgt. (Marine, of course) Stoney Craig," Dickson had been called to duty when the division was formed. His combat art was not exactly official—that is, not under Brigadier General Robert Denig's newly created Correspondents-Photographers-Combat Artists program at Headquarters Marine Corps.

Dickson's natural inclination was to sketch whatever he saw, whenever he could. Fortuitously, his sketches got published and distributed widely. Noted author John Hersey, covering the battle, had befriended Dickson and honored him by using many of his sketches to illustrate the writer's best seller about Guadalcanal, Into the Valley. That book and Dickson's sketches actually introduced the American public to the new war—and to its new look.

These Marines were not holdovers from World War I, like those at Pearl, Wake Island, and Bataan. Gone were the British-type tin-pot helmets, replaced with a new style, more protective and practical, cloche steel helmet that fit over a lighter, plastic liner. They wore a loose-fitting tropical utility uniform with big pockets and rough-side-out high-top field shoes. At the beginning of the campaign, though, they had all the familiar earlier-war weapons: the Colt .45 1911 pistol, the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), and the trusty, revered, bolt-action .30-caliber 1903 Springfield rifle. The rifle, however, would later be replaced by the newer, 8-round clip, semi-automatic M1 Garand.

Captain Dickson did not portray these Marines as spit-'n-polish-on-parade but as combat-weary, bedraggled, hot, sweaty, miserable, wounded grunts fighting in a hostile jungle in a grueling type of warfare, winning against a fanatic enemy who would fight to the death. Some drawings showed the so-called "thousand-yard stare" that results from exhausting and bloody fighting. Malaria and jungle rot caused more casualties than combat. It was all a shock to the American public but nevertheless truthful.

Dickson also portrayed the grungy life in bivouac in the fetid climate, rain-drenched battle lines, the bitter nighttime fire fights on Edson's Ridge, the deadly patrols in the jungles, and the constant planning sessions for attacks and reconnoiter forays.

Before the protracted battle ended, General Denig had managed to send some of his so-called "Denig's Demons" to Guadalcanal: combat artists Technical Sergeants Hugh Laidman and Vic Donohue, and Sergeant Elmer Wexler. A budding artist in the ranks, Private First Class Anthony Jones, did some painting on his own as well. Thus the Marine Corps combat art collection got its own illustrious start in this campaign.

Yank, the "GI's newspaper," dispatched artist-sergeant Howard Brodie later to cover especially the Army's 164th Infantry Regiment, which had augmented the Marines.

Thus, the combat-art efforts of both the Navy and the Marine Corps were well under way before the end of the first year of the war. Government and Army efforts followed shortly thereafter in the European theater, as did the artistic efforts of Life magazine and Abbott (medical) Laboratories.

Guadalcanal was a watershed in more than a military sense; it was that also for combat art as a viable factor of military historical reporting.

Retired Reserve Colonel Chenoweth is a veteran of the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, serving in the last two as a combat artist. In civilian life he was a television and advertising art director and illustrator. Author of Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the Twentieth Century (2002), and Semper Fi: The Definitive Illustrated History of the U.S. Marines (2005), he is a frequent contributor to Leatherneck and the Marine Corps Gazette.

The Evolution of Combat Art

Visual "reportorial"—eyewitness combat art done by actual observers or participants—had been virtually born during the U.S. Civil War, when infant photography had not been perfected to the necessary point of freezing action. In World War I, the U.S. Army commissioned eight professional illustrators to officially cover the American Expeditionary Forces in France, while a few others (Marine Captain John Thomason and Army Engineer Sergeant Kerr Eby) had sketched on their own initiative.

From such experience and the foresight of Navy Chief of Information Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, the Navy's combat art program for World War II was first to be created. By war's end, reserve artist-officers such as Albert K. Murray, Mitchell Jamieson, Standish Backus, William Draper, Edward Grigware, and Edward Millman, and Petty Officers Alex Russo and Lawrence Urbscheidt had contributed excellent works.

Prominent commercial illustrators were also commissioned and assigned to the Combat Art Section: Jon Whitcom, Howard Scott, John Falter, Fred Freeman, and Lieutenant Commander McClelland Barclay, who was listed as missing at sea on board a tank landing ship.

After the war, Navy artists Coale, Shepler, and Draper were commissioned to paint murals of the war for the midshipmen's mess at the U.S. Naval Academy. The Marines' mixture of enlisted and officer artists totaled 60 and were referred to by the press as "Pistol and Palette" Marines. Some of the most notable were Harry Jackson, John Fabion, Richard Gibney, Hugh Laidman, John McDermott, Howard Terpning, Vic Donohue, George Harding, and Sherman Loudermilk, to cite a few.

The combat art collections of all the military services offer a unique and important view of the nation's military history up to artists now in Iraq. Much of this eyewitness Navy and Marine combat art is on display at the Navy Museum's Combat Art Gallery at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, and at the Pentagon.

—A. Chenoweth
 
 

 
 

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