Why Send Artists into Combat?

It is the intimate, personal, penetratingly perceptive touch, indeed, that is equipped to furnish a chapter that would have been missing were the camera exclusively relied upon.

--New York Times review of combat art show, 1943


In January 1943, George Biddle, a mural artist and the brother of the U.S. Secretary General, was invited by the assistant Secretary of War to form a War Department Art Advisory committee and serve as chair. The army, inspired by the success of a small war artist program in WWI, had been considering sending artists into battle since early 1942. Biddle's committee, which would be responsible for selecting the artists, included the noted artist Henry Varnum Poor, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Francis Henry Taylor, and the writer John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was an active supporter of the war art program, and wrote to Biddle: "It seems to me that a total war would require the use not only of all of the material resources of the nation but also the spiritual and psychological participation of the whole people. And the only psychic communication we have is through the arts."

A total of forty-two Army artists were eventually selected by the committee to work in twelve theaters of war around the world. In March, 1943, they were sent a memorandum by Biddle outlining their mission:

...Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; 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 countries you visit;- never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. 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 your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end.

By May 1943, artists in the South Pacific, Australia, Alaska, and North Africa were hard at work, and the other units were either on standby overseas, or awaiting departure clearance.

Unbeknownst to them, the Army art program was under fire at home. In June, the House of Representatives began to examine the Army's budget for the year 1943-44. Of the $71.5 billion budget, only $125,000 was slated for the art program. Nevertheless, the necessity of the art program was called into question and most forcefully opposed by Democratic Congressman Joe Starnes, of Alabama, who called the project "a piece of foolishness." Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia defended the program, arguing, "we can take photographs of what happens in Europe, but... it takes the vision and artistic skill of the artist to bring us the inspiration which only an artist can put down on canvas." Still, when the $71,898,425,740 war bill was passed in June, the art program was cut. Funds for the artists would cease on August 21. The artists were devastated. One artist wrote in his diary, "One of us might conceivably have had his head shot off, and at the same time Congress is giving us this kick in the pants."

Despite the cancellation of the program, most of the artists remained determined to continue their work. LIFE magazine initiated its own war art program, and picked up the contracts of many of the civilian artists. Many of the Army artists were reassigned to information offices overseas where they continued to draw and paint. Some military leaders took advantage of the stranded artists and appointed them "official combat artists" of individual campaigns and units.

In 1944, Congress changed its position and authorized soldier artists to produce artwork outside the U.S., as long as it did not interfere with their regular assignments. Army supported artists continued to cover the fronts in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Northern Europe, the South Pacific, Japan, and Korea. By the end of the war the Army had acquired more than two thousand works of art. Today the collection is stored away in the archives of the U.S. Army Center for Military History, in downtown Washington, D.C.


When war was declared, Brigadier General Robert L. Denig, the new Director of Public Relations for the United States Marine Corps, had a vision of recruiting young writers and photographers to be Marine correspondents in the field. The "combat correspondents" would be trained as Marines, given the rank of sergeant, and sent overseas with combat units.

It was not long before artists were working alongside the combat correspondents. Denig understood the importance of the artist in bringing the impact of war to the American public.

"Art at any time is food for spiritual growth. The centuries have proved it so. At peace or at war, man cannot live by bread alone. A special case for art in time of war may be made, for it is then that man's spiritual, as well as physical, being is most severely in need of sustaining strength. Whatever provides the people good cheer, material for reflection and inspiration is an essential contribution to a nation's total effort. This is a people's war. The people want to know, need to know, and have a right to know, what is going on."

The artwork was produced under extreme conditions. In a Marine landing, the artist was expected to fight like any other Marine until the beach was secured. He would take cover and make sketches during the heat of the battle, but he would usually complete his work in the rear echelons, after the fighting stopped. Always the artist tried to communicate the truth of his experience. Donald Dickson, one of the best known Marine artists, said, "I'm not interested in drawing Marines who are spick and span and smartly dressed. I don't want to gloss over life out here. It's dirty and hot and rugged and that's the way I want to draw it."

General Denig realized that these interpretations of what a Marine had just witnessed and lived through gave the artist some advantages over the combat photographer:

The combat photographer must snap his picture of an action as it happens. If he is busy taking part in the action, as he so often is; if it happens so fast he is unable to adjust his camera in time; if conditions are not good, the action is never recorded- and the picture is never made.

The artist, on the other hand, with his photographic eye, can take part in the action, and then paint any moment of it from memory at his leisure.

The painter can provide his own lighting; he can give a picture any degree of intensity he desires. He can reconstruct a scene from whatever angle he considers most dramatic, centering attention wherever he wishes.

The Marine Corps collection from World War II is housed today in the Marine Corps Museum at the Washington Navy Yard, in Washington, D.C.


In the spring of 1941, as U.S. involvement in the global conflict began to seem inevitable, the New York muralist Griffith Baily Coale wrote the Navy with a proposal. "I would like to offer my services to my country by applying for a commission as a reserve officer in the United States Navy. I propose to make paintings from sketches and drawings ashore and afloat of ships, docks, and all the intricacies incorporated in the running of a mighty navy... I would willingly give my life and the knowledge of a lifetime to have a chance to make such records for our people"

Coale's dream became a reality with more speed and drama than he had probably envisioned. In August he was commissioned as Lieutenant Commander and assigned to accompany a convoy to Iceland in waters prowled by German Submarines. On October 31, the destroyer Ruben James was torpedoed and sunk off western Iceland with a loss of about one hundred men, the first U.S. Naval vessel to be lost by enemy action, and Coale was there to witness it.

Convinced by the play given to Coale's paintings of the Rueben James disaster by many national magazines, the Art and Poster section of the Navy Department's Office of Public Relations set out to commission several other carefully selected officer-artists to be sent out on combat assignments.

The Navy director of Public Relations, Captain Leland P. Lovette, outlined the official thinking behind this decision.

"Painters...could catch the dramatic intensity of a scene and put it down on canvas. They could also omit the confidential technical details a camera might reveal, thus making many interesting subjects unavailable for publication. Subjects beyond the range of photography can be vividly depicted by painters, such as action at night, or in foul weather, or action widely scattered over the sea or in the air."

The Navy artists had to earn their officer status. They went through deck officer training and were assigned to stand watch while at sea. Like any other sailor, they took their proper turn at regular duties aboard ship. Sketching and photography on board was confined to off-hours. Navy artists were present to cover some of the most pivotal moments of the war. Dwight Shepler witnessed the Battle of Santa Cruz. William Draper painted the Japanese attacks at Amchitka in Alaska. Mitchell Jamieson took part in the invasion of Sicily. Several officer-artists were present for the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. Mitchell Jamieson and Dwight Shepler were assigned to battleships that took part in the fighting during the first days of the invasion, eventually landing on the beach themselves.

The Navy collection from World War II is housed at the Navy Art Gallery at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C.


Although primarily known as "America's Picture Magazine," LIFE magazine in its original prospectus stated the intention of "sending staff artists to make drawings of stories which cannot be satisfactorily photographed." From its earliest coverage of war preparations in 1941, LIFE editors enthusiastically incorporated the works of well-known American artist-correspondents.

When Congress cut the funding for the army program, many of the artists were stranded without assignment overseas. Daniel Longwell, LIFE's executive editor, was travelling to Washington when he read the news, and immediately went to see the assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy, with an offer to employ all of the civilian artists (nineteen out of forty-two) in the program. Seventeen of them joined the staff of LIFE war artists.

The LIFE artists were not enlisted men, but they risked their lives on battlefields all around the world. Aaron Bohrod and Byron Thomas went to great lengths to be able to paint on Omaha Beach, just two or three days after D-Day; Bernard Perlin lived and fought with the guerillas in Greece; Floyd Davis flew in a bombing raid over Hamburg; Edward Laning was seriously wounded in Italy and was awarded a Purple Heart. One LIFE artist lost his life in the war: Lucien Labaudt, a beloved artist and muralist in San Francisco, was killed in a plane crash in India shortly after his arrival.

Daniel Longwell's idea from the beginning had been to give the paintings to the government as a lasting record of the war. Despite pressure to disperse the collection through gifts to individual museums, Longwell's vision was realized on December 7, 1960, when the collection -- consisting of more than one thousand graphic paintings, water colors, and sketches -- was formally presented to the Department of Defense. Today they are part of the U.S. Army Center for Military History archive in downtown Washington, D.C.

YANK MAGAZINE: The Army Weekly

Yank magazine was founded in May 1942 by the War Department's Army Service Forces with a unique mission: to distribute an Army newspaper that would be read by enlisted men and that would be staffed, written, and edited completely by enlisted men. Candid Army coverage, news from home, cartoons and glamour pin-ups made the magazine indispensable to GI's overseas.

In 1942, with photographic reproduction still in its infancy, artist and illustrators were a vital component of any magazine staff, and they were recruited along with writers and photographers to become official Yank correspondents. Some, like Howard Brodie -- already very well known as a sports artist for the San Francisco Chronicle -- were approached in their current jobs with the offer of enlisting and joining Yank's New York staff. Others were drawn from boot camps and army outposts.

Like all Yank staffers, the artist-correspondents rotated assignments. They would be sent overseas for a period of time and then return to the New York office. Often an artist was paired with a writer -- Howard Brodie toured Guadalcanal with the writer Mack Morriss, and Barrett McGurn and Robert Greenhalgh worked together in the South Pacific - with the artist supplying the illustrations for the writer's story.

Four Yank correspondents were killed in action. Many received Purple Hearts. The magazine they worked so hard and risked their lives to produce stands as a uniquely authentic record of World War II. Through their drawings, stories, and photographs, we wee the war, not as told by generals, historians, or Hollywood filmmakers, but as it smelled, tasted, and felt to the infantryman.


Abbott Laboratories, a large pharmaceutical company headquartered in North Chicago, Illinois, was intimately involved in the war effort. In addition to shipping drugs and pharmaceutical supplies to the medical corps overseas, Abbott focused much of its research efforts towards solutions that would benefit the men fighting overseas -- testing compounds for malaria drugs, for example.

Abbott also had a long corporate history of supporting American artists, commissioning them to create works of art without commercial restriction. Charles S. Downs, art patron and Abbott's director of advertising, believed that good art-work could be a powerful took in bolstering public support for the war effort and in encouraging the public to buy war bonds. He initiated a formal agreement with the Federal Government by which Abbott would sponsor the creation of an art collection that would serve as a "comprehensive record of war activities, both at home and on the battlefield." The contract made it clear that the artwork was to be for the benefit of the American public, not Abbott Laboratories, and that the work would belong to the people.

The endeavor was actually a collaboration between three entities: Abbott paid the artists for their time and expenses; Associated American Artists (AAA) in New York secured the artists and helped to administer the project, and the War Department provided transportation and hosted the artists overseas. More than two dozen artists sponsored by Abbott Laboratories went into battle as combat artists with the Army, Navy, and Marines. Among them were Robert Beney, Kerr Eby, Franklin Boggs, Reginald Marsh, Georges Schreiber, Joseph Hirsch, and John Steuart Curry. Under the direction of Reeves Lowenthal at AAA, they were assigned to focus on particular themes such as "Army Medicine" or "Navy Aviation." The resulting collections of paintings were hung as individual shows in public art galleries and museums around the country.

After the war, the Abbott collections were donated, as promised, to the War Department, dispersed to the branch of service depicted by each piece. Numbering well over one hundred paintings, they are an extraordinary and powerful account of World War II.

** Historical text in this section adapted from the They Drew Fire companion book, published by T.V. Books.

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