Humanity Within War – Stories from WW II
by Chris Demarest
“I wouldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” – Griffin Holland, P-47 fighter pilot, Pacific Theatre, WWII.
In 2011 on a wall of a Bethesda, Maryland home, a black and white photograph of a WWII fighter pilot caught my attention. I was visiting the home of middle age couple when the husband took me into his den and proudly showed me a photograph of his father. This 8×10 black and white photograph of a 19-year-old pilot standing on the wheel of his fighter plane reminded me of photos of my own father from WWII. Both men looked like they owned the world. Cocky.
Consumed by that image, two weeks later I returned to the couple’s house and expressed a desire to capture it in color on canvas. For me—just because. But when the husband mentioned his father’s upcoming 88th birthday and desire to buy it, things changed. A month later I got word of his father’s reaction to the gift, “I’d never seen my father cry before, but he teared up when he saw the portrait.” It was that reaction that created the idea for celebrating this remarkable generation—through portraiture.
Within a few weeks I began working in public at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, my easel set up in the main hallway. Instinct said, “work in public”. What started as a three day week quickly expanded to five, then seven days. Talking to people from all over the world, it was clear there was a cornucopia of stories waiting to be heard, some for the first time in over sixty years. My career as a children’s book writer and illustrator was put on hold. For two years, I worked almost non-stop.
In May 2013, the project took to the road—curious how the rest of the country would react. The first stop was my home town of Amherst, Massachusetts, long the bastion of anti-war sentiment. I wondered how this would play here. But a month-long gig at the town’s library quickly expanded after the first week. “You’re not going anywhere,” the director directed me. “I’ve never seen such life-blood in here before.” One month became four before needing to head west to additional scheduled arenas.
What I observed from the very beginning was how people felt safe opening up to me. Surrounded by colorized versions of themselves from the Second World War hanging near my easel, conversations developed. Seldom were they about the atrocities. Most were about humanity. Some even found closure. And serendipity became a reoccurring presence.
Griff Holland, whose photograph began this project, found closure for his decades-long hatred of the Japanese while visiting the Women’s Memorial a few weeks into my residency. As Griff and I walked toward the collection, I spotted a woman in front of his portrait. Seizing the moment, I raced ahead and asked if she would like to meet the man in the painting. The two of them conversed for a few minutes before she reached into her purse and proffered an origami heart, thanking him for his service. She was Japanese-American.
Another 88-year-old, Canadian veteran, Basil LeBlanc, living in the Boston area, said to me at our first meeting, “I don’t talk about it, because if I do,” pausing, pointing to his left eye, said, “I tear up.” Something clicked between us. Ten days later I started his portrait. Nine months later, that painting now in a museum on the west coast, caught the attention of a man from the very same regiment out of Montreal. Contacting me, I learned that the Grenadier Guards had never awarded Basil LeBlanc his medals and they urgently needed to correct this oversight.
A year later, on Remembrance Day 2014, I had the honor of attending a ceremony in Montreal, alongside Basil and his entire family as he was presented with his recognition of service medals. But Basil also revealed the pain he’d kept secret since the war. While trying to dislodge a bullet in a machine gun, the bullet exploded and tore into his left hand. A medic accused him of self-inflicting the wound. Stunned, he said nothing. When he was discharged, no medals, no awards, he feared the medic had tainted his service record. The truth was that it was simply a clerical error. Serendipity, time and again, bore witness to some remarkable experiences on the tour.
In 2017 the traveling part of the tour ended with my decision to settle on Bainbridge Island, six years since the project began. The portraits reside at the Palm Springs Air Museum in Southern California. 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. A planned book about my experiences never materialized. In the end, what mattered most were the connections made and knowing, for some, true closure happened.
***Article and Images by Chris Demarest