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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

World War II Navy Art: A Vision of History

Griffith Baily Coale (1890-1950)

Commander, USNR

A native in Baltimore, Maryland, Coale spent three years studying art in Munich, Paris, Italy and Spain. Subsequent to his return to the United States, he resided in New York City and became nationally known through his many famous murals and paintings. Sensing the imminent onset of world conflict, Coale convinced Admiral C.W. Nimitz to establish the Navy Combat Art Program and in August 1941, he was commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

He immediately left for an assignment in the North Atlantic, where he witnessed the sinking of the USS Reuben James. Several months later, after the attack of Pearl Harbor, Coale traveled there to gather material for a mural commemorating the tragedy. In his six and a half years with the Navy, Coale witnessed action in every ocean, including the Battle of Midway and British operations in Southeast Asia. Life magazine reproduced the "North Atlantic Patrol" series which was later published in book form, and he also wrote another book based on his experiences, "Victory at Midway."

Coale retired from the Navy in 1945 with the rank of Commander. He returned to his home and studio at Stonington, Connecticut, and resumed private work until his unexpected death in 1950.

 

Vanishing Farm, Naval Air Station, Newfoundland
Griffith Baily Coale #2
Pastel drawing on board, 1941
29 1/2h" x 27 1/4w"
88-188-B

 

 

Newfoundland is a bleak and violent place with comparative calm changing to roaring winds, with people struggling against horizontal rain and sleet in the half light of the underworld. With tact and diplomacy, the Navy bring their bulldozers, stone crushers, lumber, steel, and concrete, and create the miracle of a modern base on land that is a saturated bog thirty feet deep.

 

Bridge of Destroyer
Griffith Baily Coale #11
Charcoal and pastel drawing, 1942
21h" x 27w"
88-188-K

 

Before we are officially at war, destroyers escort convoys across the North Atlantic. A ship's roll from the bridge is unbelievable, screws racing out of water, and ship falling on seas like thunder. A message was received "Convoy being attacked three days astern of us" and the next day the Reuben James is torpedoed as the Nazi submarines are after destroyers this trip and not the convoyed merchant ships.

 

Ship's Search Lights, Pearl Harbor
Griffith Baily Coale #20
Oil on canvas, 1942
48 1/2h" x 42 1/2w"
88-188-T

 

 

Without warning, tall stilts of light vault into the sky, careening stiffly about as they cross and re-cross crazily, ships searchlights in practice for things to come, learning to stab aloft for the flying menace.

 

Pacific Convoy from 12,000 Feet
Griffith Baily Coale #21
Oil on canvas, 1942
40h" x 52w"
88-188-U

 

The sun sets below the billowed clouds, and twilight dyes them with deep violets and gray blues, against the flaming red of the western sky. A dark cavern appears, below and under the vast bridge of clouds above it. Down there, placed on the dull steel of the ocean, is a convoy of minutely reduced ships. Without movement, they are tiny models with painted wakes, as motionless as toys.

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1 June 2001