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World War II Navy Art: A Vision of History

Seeing that historic events were unfolding in the rising tension of the "undeclared war" of the North Atlantic, New York muralist Griffith Baily Coale convinced Admiral C.W. Nimitz to send Navy artists into action to record military activities in ways that cameras and the written word could not. The Navy Combat Artist Program was approved and in August 1941 Coale became the Navy's first combat artist on active duty.

Eventually the Navy sent eight artists to serve in combat areas and record their impressions of the action. This small number produced over 1,300 drawings, watercolors, and paintings, which were used to illustrate books and magazines, and toured the country in exhibitions designed to inform and raise public morale. They documented a variety of actions in the European and Pacific theaters, including the Normandy invasion, campaigns in North Africa, and the invasion of Okinawa. Their art captures the experiences of war and the men and women who fought in it.

The captions you see here are the artists' own words, oftentimes written on the reverse of the paintings, giving their unique insight into the events as they saw them.

Standish Backus, JR. (1910 -1989)

Commander, USNR

Born in Detroit, Backus graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Art and Architecture. He later studied painting and art in Europe and developed the style of the California watercolorists, who were receiving national acclaim in the 1930s. When he reported for active duty with the Navy early in 1941, Backus became a specialist in Net and Boom Defenses; in May 1945 he was assigned to cover naval operations in the Pacific as an artist. Arriving in Japan with the Fourth Marine Regiment, he participated in the entry into Tokyo Bay and witnessed the surrender ceremonies aboard USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. In 1955-56 he returned to duty at his own request to go with Admiral Byrd to the Antarctic.

Backus explained why the Navy sent artists to cover Naval activities: "The Navy appreciates that the artist, in reporting his experiences, has the opportunity to convey to his audience a large sense of realization of a subject, than has the photographer with his instantaneous exposures, or the writer, who lacks the advantage of direct visual impact. This artist is limited only by the degree of his skill in portraying his sensitivities. Concurrently, it is to be understood that the artist is obliged to contemplate the subject reflectively, seeking to penetrate beyond the surface of factual representation, in order to present the true nature of the experience".

In civil life he engaged in illustrating, painting, and teaching at his home in Santa Barbara, California, until his death in 1989.


Standish Backus #12
Watercolor, 1946
24 1/2h" x 30 1/2w"


The process of winning the ground from the enemy so that a great base for future operations might be built, developing it as a harbor, constructing the base facilities, and using it as a base, all had to go on simultaneously at Guam. Bottlenecked, as always, was cargo handling in a very limited docking area. The rains came and went many times a day. Traffic sank into the muck, units dropped out to be hauled out later. Huge cats pulling loads of coral kept the causeways going. And the air hung with moisture and sweat.


Garden at Hiroshima, Autumn
Standish Backus #23
Pen and ink drawing, 1946
24 1/2h" x 30 1/2w"


When Naval investigation teams went into Hiroshima City after the bombing about a month later, inhabitants generally stayed away. This sense of isolation amid the ruins left the teams with an eerie feeling as they worked.


Ise was Hyuga's Sister
Standish Backus #25
Watercolor, 1946
30 1/2h" x 38 1/2w"


Torn and seared she seemed a part of the rugged upheaved terrain -- and the handy rice workers would gaze out over her -- perhaps toward distant Hiroshima. Then they would turn again to their task, night soil had to be spread, the crops reaped.

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1 June 2001