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WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

The Navy Art of Standish Backus

This exhibit features the work of Standish Backus. It is a selection from two of his assignments. War World II in the Pacific documents the occupation of Japan in 1945-46. Operation Deep Freeze features his works on an expedition to the Antarctic in 1956.


World War II in the Pacific

When the Japanese surrendered, Standish Backus was in Guam preparing to take part in the next operation against Kyushu. Instead he was sent to Japan with the occupation force. He remained in Japan until December 1945. He accompanied the Marines on the first landing and witnessed the first American flag raising there since 1941. He documented the state of released allied prisoners of war, Americans hunting for souvenirs, hospitalized sailors, the Yokosuka Naval Base, routine activities such as air patrols, and the unloading of supplies, damaged and destroyed Japanese ships, and the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was also present for the surrender ceremonies on board USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.

The First Wave of Japan
Standish Backus #2
Watercolor, 1945


Seal-like Higgins boats create their own heavy seas as they carry Marines of the Second Battalion, 4th Regiment, ashore for the first test of Japanese will to resist or abide by negotiated surrender terms. It is tense for the next five minutes. The Japanese would logically wait till the Marines were at the shoreline to open a withering fire that could be a massacre. Since there could be no preparatory bombing or bombardment, it seemed it had to be done the hard way - the head-on assault. The main group of boats landed here at Fort #2 while a smaller group landed at Fort #1 at the end of the spit beyond the hulk of a burned out Japanese Destroyer. The setting moon which had stood watch over the launching of the boats from the transport is now relieved by the misty rays of the early sun.


Post Mortem at Yokosuka: Damaged Bridge of Nagato, Former Japanese Battleship
Standish Backus #5
Watercolor, 1945

The Japanese battleship Nagato [16" guns] was one of the major prizes found at the Yokosuka Naval Base when the Navy and Marines took over on August 30, 1945. She had been damaged in the great battle off the Philippines last October and had also received bomb hits since. The Japanese were rebuilding her but were making very slow progress. As is the Japanese way, she seems to be a combination of fantasy and workable efficiency. Although we may readily say that her features are "certainly not the way we would do it," we cannot afford to indict as impotent so great a potential as the Nagato. Her guts and nerves are torn loose from her skeleton, although her heart still beats darkly. She lies dormant to a mooring, facing the west wind from Mt. Fuji some 60-70 miles away. Her immediate guard is the USS South Dakota, flagship of Adm. Halsey's Third Fleet.


In Line of Duty
Standish Backus #6
Watercolor, 1945


This man has been fighting two great battles. One has been against the enemies of his country and he has won a great victory. As symbol of this victory a silk flag of the conquered country has been hung by his bed. His second battle is against cancer and he is not winning. He has fought the war against Japan aboard an aircraft carrier. The day Japan surrender he took up his second great fight in a cellophane oxygen tent aboard a naval hospital ship in Tokyo Bay. Then his carrier departed for stateside. He has been in the tent thirty days in which he hasn't been able to lie down, but only to peer heavily and enviously with glazed eyes at those around him who are free to engulf great draughts of fresh air if they choose. Right now that is what he wants to do more than anything else in the world. He tries very hard at times and the strain is beginning to show in his ruddy complexion and swollen ankles. Shortly, Arnold Arvin, S 1/C, USNR, of Kentucky, age 20, died in line of duty - and I was glad.


Recent Guests of Japan
Standish Backus #7
Watercolor, 1945


You could see them up at Yokohama almost any day for the first few weeks of the occupation, at the POW processing center down on the docks. They came in by trainload and would be bathed, deloused, reclothed, medically examined and interviewed by nurses. Those who were ill or very low in weight were separated and put aboard hospital ships (Army, Navy, British) which were alongside. The rest were flown out to Manila. Their appearance varied from the unhealthy rotundity of beri-beri to mere skeletons. They had the fine features of girls; the constant urge to keep eating small tid bits and a short endurance which kept them lying down or sleeping most of the time while waiting for the next move.


The Cemetery at Sumay, Guam
Standish Backus #8
Watercolor, 1945


Completely surrounding this quiet relic of old Guam is the incredible bustle of activity and construction that goes along with the largest overseas base. The rotting skull of a former Japanese "twin-row" aircraft engine reminds one of the recent and unwelcome inhabitant and always there are souvenir hunters who pause for possible plunder. Over all settles heavy coatings of dust from the round-the clock traffic of heavy trucks.


Down Went the Gamble [DM-15]
Standish Backus #9
Watercolor, 1945


Deemed unfit for further consideration after taking a Japanese bomb directly down the funnel, Gamble, once a four-pipe destroyer, became a victim of euthanasia. Towed several miles to sea off Apra Harbor, Oran, she blew sky high from TNT in the stern and sank in one minute. Though doomed, the hulk distributed some of the personal effects of her former crewmembers over a wide area. She's down 3000 fathoms.


Loading and Unloading, Loading and Unloading
Standish Backus #10
Watercolor, 1945


Perhaps the greatest effort of the war was expended in getting supplies where they were needed and when they were needed. Here are men of a stevedore battalion, heroes in their own way, loading a Liberty Ship with the tools necessary to carry on the war at some far distant spot.


American POWs and Red Cross Girl, Yokohama
Standish Backus #14
Watercolor, 1945


The sight of the first Red Cross girls was almost unbelievable to our boys who were lucky enough to survive as prisoners of the Japanese, some of them since 1941. Most of them would just stand and gape with an awestruck attitude. They all had a big story to get off their emaciated chests and someone was always telling these gals their experiences. And she would look unbelieving and horrified. These men were young, old and ageless all at once. They never laughed. Some were bitter but nobody was cynical--not yet.

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01 August 2001