"I made 473 drawings on one assignment in Vietnam. February and March of 1967, in Dong Ha in the DMZ. Sometimes I could use art to shield myself from what was going on around me. When you're drawing, you can concentrate on your subject and shut other things out." The videotaped interview plays continuously in one gallery of the MCRD Command Museum. Retired Lt. Col. Charles Waterhouse describes his active duty that ended with a shoulder wound on Mt. Suribachi, his career as a magazine illustrator, and his return to battle 20 years later as a Marine Corps combat artist.
Waterhouse is now best known for his carefully researched paintings of 18th- and 19th-century U.S. military history. Dozens of California-related works, from small studies to battle panoramas, are on public display in the Command Museum. But 30 years ago he was among the artists selected to live with American troops at their various billets around the world and to record his impressions.
The U.S. Army has had combat artists in the field since World War I. Navy and Marine Corps programs came early in the next war. On a limited scale, the programs still exist, with combat artists assigned to Desert Storm, Somalia, and Bosnia. Their work is collected in the history museums of each branch of the service — millions of images of the terror and tedium of military life interpreted through the artist's eye.
Robert Watts today makes his living as an architectural illustrator, working out of his home in El Cajon. In the late 1960s, after training at Pratt Institute and what is now the Art Center in Pasadena, he was an illustrator with Ryan Aeronautics, painting glamour shots of military hardware intended to impress the Navy brass.
"I did a lot of airplanes from engineering drawings, planes that hadn't been built yet, for government contract competitions. But I also did advertising illustration, landscape paintings for the executives' walls, portraits of admirals that they were trying to impress, all manner of things.
"One day one of the Ryan PR people came to me and said, 'How would you like to be a Navy combat artist?' This was about 1970. I said sure. They send you off somewhere for a couple of weeks. At the time I was in my early 20s, still young and stupid enough to be fascinated by the dramatic mood of war rather than the real stuff. Little boys are like that. They only see the fireballs and planes.
"So we sent samples of my work to the Salmagundi Club in New York, an old, distinguished artists group that had among its membership some of the biggest names in American painting and illustration. They were kind of the liaison with the Navy. The program was called NACAL, Navy Art Cooperation and Liaison. And by then I had been painting long enough that my work shows some promise, and they said okay.
"Then they put you on the list, and it goes into some mysterious bureaucratic process, and at some point they say okay, we have to billets for Vietnam in June and we have two for the Mediterranean in September. Would you be interested? Then you get written orders from the Navy telling you to report to a certain location on a certain date.
The Navy never told you what to paint. We got some printed literature with the application that explained what the goals of the program were. And you knew that you rob was to depict, hopefully, things that people weren't aware of that captured the professionalism, the drama, the daring, the selflessness, seriousness of it all. But nobody ever said to adjust your outlook so we look good in this situation. You could basically do anything you wanted, anything that wasn't absolutely classified, like nuclear weapons, a couple of guidance systems, things like that were off-limits. But virtually anything else you wanted to do, they would make it happen. If you wanted to get into a helicopter and hover five feet over the water, they would fit you request into something they already had planned. If you wanted to see a guided missile cruiser that was in the battle group, the next time they had a helicopter going there, you could go along."
On his Vietnam assignments, Watts spent time on the Independence, the Forrestal, and the Oriskany, plus a number of guided missile cruisers, destroyers, and LSTs on combat operations in the South China Sea. "I was never inshore in Vietnam," he admits. "My feeling at the time was, it's not worth getting shot for a sketch."
You can still hear the awe in his voice as he describes his introduction as a civilian to his first aircraft carrier. "That environment is so much larger than life I frankly couldn't believe it. You see photos, and they look impressive, but when you get out on the deck with the mouse ears and hard hat and Mae West, and you're standing out between the front catapults, and the wind's blowing across the deck at about 45 miles an hour, so hard you have to lean into it, and there's a huge plane beside you blowing full-bore exhaust -
"The noise is incredible. But with the mouse ears and helmet on, you can't hear anything. It's absolute stone silence. To talk to someone else, you have to put your helmets together. The sound goes through your skull and into the helmet, then into the other guy's head.
"And it's so dangerous. One day a guy grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me out of the way of the jet exhaust. You can't see it in the daytime, and I almost walked right into it. Plus they're handling fuel, bombs, rockets, live ammunition, missiles, all kinds of stuff. And in all weather, some of the worst weather you can imagine, night and day, seven days a week.