National Geographic : 1944 Oct
Painting History in the Pacific PAINTING the Japanese torpedo that missed him was the task of Lt. William F. Draper, USNR, a Navy on-the-spot artist. Airborne, the torpedo was intended for a newly commissioned American aircraft carrier, a unit of mighty Task Force 58. Draper was aboard to paint the Navy's record of an air strike against Japan's Palau Islands. The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE pre sents the results (Plates I to XVI). Draper was working under fire when he saw the torpedo. An enemy plane, having made a long straight run for the carrier through a funnel of converging antiaircraft fire, veered up and over just as it reached the carrier's bow. There in its belly was exposed the sinister weapon it did not deliver (Plate X). A moment later it crashed flaming into the sea. So close was the pilot that gunners swore they could see his face. They could not understand why he failed to drop his charge or make a suicide crash on deck. Perhaps he was dead or stunned. A Black Pencil Gets Every Color "Though night action is nerve-racking enough, because you never can tell when you will be hit," says the combat artist, "a day light attack can sometimes be more hair-rais ing, because you can see what's aimed directly at you." During night action, when the deck was too dark for painting, memory and pencil served as the artist's tools. A rough map locating each object and describing its color was sketched on paper. Thus a mark for a plane shot down in flames was penciled "red" (Plate III). A shell's explosion above a carrier was labeled "yellow-green." Fire's glare against carrier-borne wings was indicated as "cad mium orange." Later these impressions were transferred to canvas. To one officer, Plate III appeared incredible. "Your tracer bullets don't follow a true trajec tory," he told the artist. Draper, confident his eyes had not deceived him, took the pic ture to a carrier veteran. Tracers Shot as from a Waving Hose "Exactly correct," affirmed the latter. "When the gunners grope for diving planes, their tracers resemble the twisting pattern of water shot from a waving garden hose." Dawn tests the artist's ability as does noth ing else. In Plate II Draper caught the sunken deck lights, the firefly glow of planes aloft, and night's gloom mingled with day's first rays. Ironically, shafts of the rising sun light the way for American planes. Draper disclaims any striving for irony-"it just hap pened that way." Actually the sun rose in the direction of the United States, and, facing it, the carrier turned her back on Palau to launch her planes into the wind. Brilliant sunshine bathed the task force on the day it was detected by enemy planes. Everyone dashed to his battle station (Plate I). Draper's post was in the ship's island structure, a good observatory for action, color, and perspective. He left his kitelike canvas below deck, for a 30-mile wind made paint ing impossible. An Air-conditioned Seagoing Studio Pilots of Torpedo Squadron 5 invited Draper to use their ready room as his studio, an invitation he readily accepted, as the room was air-conditioned. There he transferred his sketches to canvas, and there he painted his hosts (Plate XVI). A crash on deck presented unusual action (Plate XII). A Hellcat, its wing torn by Palau's flak, struck a gun turret and lost its fuselage. Fire fighters in red jerseys and plane spotters in yellow quenched the fire with clouds of white chemicals. Ghostly white figures, men in asbestos suits braved the burn ing cockpit. One may be seen under the left wing. Miraculously, the pilot escaped with out a scratch. As opportunity offered, Draper worked on land. Captured Munda interested him be cause its palms still bore the scars of Ameri can shells (Plates VII and XV). While wait ing for the task force, he painted Espiritu Santo (Plates VI and XIV). Task Force 58 an Eye-filler "Rendezvous at sea was a sight never to be forgotten," he says. "Ships of all descrip tions stretched as far as the eye could see." The artist in Draper likes a carrier. "She offers many activities, a variety of color, and bulky masses for composition," he asserts. "There is one drawback: you can't find a quiet place to work." It is difficult to mix colors as five-inch guns roar at wing-borne machine guns diving your way. For history's purposes, paint and brush are ideal chroniclers. "Artist's license" permits the telescoping into a single panorama of events separated by minutes. This generation's readers will prize Draper's work as skillful and informative. To their great-grandchildren, treasured copies of THE GEOGRAPHIC will be history indeed! Too bad the world cannot thus see Nelson's and Drake's destiny-shaping naval battles portrayed by a combat artist!