"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.
"On one trip I went to the Philippines, then they flew me up to the Independence. On the deck there was a smoldering A-7 attack jet cut in half. They'd just put out the fire. A propeller had come off a Hawkeye radar plane, which has big 18-foot-diameter turbo-prop fans on each side. A shaft had sheared on one, and the prop dropped to the deck spinning at about 1800 rpm and just went yeeeeeeeow across the deck and cut the A-7 in half, then went off into the sea. The damage control officer on the Independence had a built-in tremble in his hands. A little shimmer in his hands all the time. A wonderful man, but a nervous wreck.
"But for an illustrator it was a visual field day of things that you could paint. Very moody, high-key, very dramatic. Just everything you could hope for. The polar opposite of painting a still life of flowers. Everything moving, everything exciting. The red light at night. The only lights on the deck at night were red.
"I liked to go out on the 150 platform, where an officer would stand during landing to help the pilot if he had any problems. One night it was low overcast, no stars, black as a hat out there. All of a sudden you would see this form drop out of the mist in the distance behind the ship, with three lights on the nose gear, red, yellow, and green. It would come down out of there, wobbling, the wind is blowing 45, 50 miles an hour just from the movement of the ship. It would slam on the deck. They hit full afterburner, and the nonskid on the deck - sand mixed with asphalt or something - would break loose from the jolt of the afterburner, and you'd get hit with this pelt of sirocco wind full of hot sand. And everything is bathed in this hot red light.
"I carried a camera, because a lot of things happened too fast to do anything on the spot. And to record details. But you get the smell and taste in your blood and a feeling for what it looked like, and if you're a decent artist, you have good recall and certain high points will stand out in your memory. That will vary from artist to artist, of course, depending on what strikes you as important. Then you go back to your quarters and start working on pencil roughs and drawings and some comprehensive color studies. I didn't do any finished work over there. I did watercolor and gouache sketches, a lot of pencil work. I brought a fair amount of supplies with me in a kit that I could carry around. I came back to the States to do the finished oil paintings. Then you provide the Navy with as many paintings as you had and all your sketches.
"At Ryan we had volumes of Navy photography available to us, so I had things targeted in my mind that might make good subjects. But there were lots of surprises. Quiet moments. Between events these guys would rack out any place they found space. They were really burned out, beat. There were these quiet little moments, like the sun setting behind somebody sleeping in a tractor that hauls the planes around. That's a side of the Navy that's just as colorful as the gung-ho stuff.
"And I'd look for unusual weather conditions. Like, you're at the front of the deck looking aft and there's so much moisture in the air that it almost goes invisible by the time you get a quarter of a mile away. It's like being lost in the fog.
"We were near another carrier one time, and a rain squall moved through between us. The sea was amazingly green. And the other ship looked like The Flying Dutchman in the mist. You could just make out the vast bulk of the carrier out there. It's rare to see another carrier at all. They usually keep them far apart. But it was just one of those moments...
"One painting I did was of just a typical destroyer being refueled with bunker oil from the carrier. I'm on one of the sponsons, platforms that stick out from the carrier's hull. Some have radar on them, refueling receptacles, all sorts of miscellaneous gear on them. We've got maybe 15-foot seas out there. On the carrier you can't feel a thing, but the destroyer is thrashing around, up out of the spray, the poor devils on deck are getting drenched. It was actually taking spray to the masthead. It was amazing."
One of the most difficult part of the work fro Watts was the self-consciousness about his unearned rank. "you're a civilian, but you travel with the rank of captain, which was not shabby. I wore khakis, undecorated, because you're not officially in the Navy. But you tried to blend in and look right, so you wore similar shoes and clothing to what a chief petty officer would wear. You had a name tag that said you were a Navy combat artist.
"But on a ship with 5000 guys, I had a room with just one other person. Typically you'd have lunch and dinner with officers or the captain. There were times when that privileged treatment became almost a source of embarrassment, because you hadn't earned any of it. You haven't paid your dues. I was in my early 20s, probably the same age as most of the other guys who had all that responsibility."
His worst moment came on his last flight out of Subic. "I'm signing out, trying to find out what plane I'd be taking to go home. And there's this Air Force C-141 that was leaving, a huge transport. I get done with the paperwork and finally get to the airplane, and it's been sitting there - 130 people in the heat and the humidity - for three hours waiting for the ranking passenger. Guess who that was. Me. And I get on and everybody's looking, like, 'This is who we've been waiting for!' You just want to crawl in a hole."
The largest room of MCRD's Command Museum commemorates the history of Marine Corps operations in displays of uniforms and weapons, ribbons, medals, maps, field packs, all the gear of war. The Desert Storm diorama features a jump-suited, helmeted mannequin on a motorcycle matching the shades of sandy beige. But among the hardware are a few art works, some drawn in the field, some completed long after - a gaudy painting of battle action, a sketch of a catnap in the shade of a tank, portraits of refugees - memories committed to canvas both by combat artists and by ordinary soldiers who lived with these images every day.
In a time when photographers and television news crews can record military life from the seat of a fighter jet or through a bombsight, a combat artist seems almost antiquated. As Robert Watts explains it, "Artists see things a little differently than photographers do. Combat photographers are quite amazing, having to think fast and consider all the technical aspects. But their work is based on an unedited 'what's available.' Painters can rearrange elements to suit the picture and to suit the mood. If something is too far away or not far enough away, you can change that. A photographer is stuck with reality. Ours is the editable. That's a huge difference," Watts concludes.
A sweeping brushstroke or the nervous line of a sketch is also a trace of the person who did the work, the human link between the subject and the viewer. The energy or the calm of the moment is carried through in the act of painting. The work is the product of the eye and mind and heart of the artist as much as of the hand.
The voice on the phone from New York could be that of a 30-year-old. Salvatore Indiviglia is 80, but age is just a number. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Navy Reserves who saw active duty in World War II and later served three tours as a Navy combat artist, twice in Vietnam. During his residency in San Diego, some of his battlefield sketches were exhibited locally.
He confirms Watts's observations about a painter's value. "An artist does not necessarily make a reproduction of what he sees. An artist, if they're very interested and service devoted, they become part of the whole thing. You speak to the sailors, the officers, you have coffee with them. From then on, you assimilate all this, and whatever looks outstanding to you or inspires you, you find your subject matter and you start to sketch. Or if you're sure that this is it, you make a full painting right on the scene. Many of my things were done on a large watercolor [paper] block, right on the spot."
Like Watts, Indiviglia assembled an easily portable kit with his art gear. "When you're there for only two weeks or a month, you have to be prepared to move. I find watercolors most flexible. You can work fast, and they're easy to carry. A lot of times, especially in Vietnam, I sketched with a Pentel pen and saliva. One time I was with some Australian sailors, and I didn't realize I was using to blend something, and my lips were all blue. They were sure laughing at me.
"Watercolor is an exciting medium. It suits my temperament. I think fast, I work fast. Even in firing weapons, I'm better at rapid fire than as a sharpshooter or sniper. I could be an excitable type but still with control. So watercolor is the medium that is suited for that. And it's suited for the conditions.
"I'd turn over an oil drum, a pile of bricks, whatever I could find to work on. You couldn't walk around with an easel and a beret and a smock. One fellow who was an artist and also a commander in the reserves, when he heard I was going to Vietnam, he wanted to hook up with me. So he comes over and he's got a big straw hat, his easel, all this equipment, and I said, 'Hey, Jim, where are you going?' And he says, 'Vietnam.' 'Vietnam? You're not going with all that stuff.' 'But I'm an artist.' And I said, 'Well, Jim, you can do what you like, but you're going to be moving fast from place to place. how are you going to carry all that?' He eventually found out."
Before enlisting in the Army at age 19, Indiviglia was already an accomplished illustrator and painter. he was one of the few American artists trained in the exacting techniques of fresco painting. As a GI in World War II, Indiviglia used art as relaxation and diversion during 30 months with an OSS regiment in Italy, where he escorted Allied troops "along the boot" and interrogated prisoners of war.
"I'd gotten some arts and crafts supplies at a rest center, where guys go to relax when they come off the line. I made some watercolors in Naples and some other sketches. I hung on to them for a while, but you really can't carry that stuff with you. But it was a way to express myself."
The only work that survived this tour still hangs in his home. "In the rest center in Rome, after you ate, you'd put the residue of your B-rations in this big can outside. There were always a lot of Italians standing there, old people and children, and these people would eat out of the trashcan. So I noticed one lady, probably 65 years old. She was living in an air-raid shelter. And I thought I would like to paint her. I got permission from the camp officer, then asked her in my best, most polite Italian if I could do her portrait.
"So I'm making this drawing, and all of the GIs are looking at me, and some of them are laughing. And a couple of wise guys say, 'Is this the best you can do here?' They didn't understand why I was interested in this old woman.
"After the war I used to send her CARE packages of shoes and things. One day I got a phone call from a Father Bianchi. He says, 'I'm visiting the States, and I have a message from Sanatamaria Rosa. You said you were going to do a painting of her, and if you sold it, you'd send her some of the money. Did you sell it?'
"Well, I did do a painting of her from the drawing, but I didn't sell it. I don't always paint things just to sell. But she was going to come to the United States because she said I'd gone back on my word. Oh, boy. Well, finally, I convinced the priest I hadn't sold it."
After the war, with a young family, a master's degree in fine arts from Pratt Institute, and a job as vice president of a commercial art studio, Indiviglia renewed his links with the military. "I was very active in the Salmagundi Club, and we would have dinners every year with a Navy speaker, and we'd present them with all the drawings and paintings that had been done through our NACAL program. One of the officers sees that I'm really involved in this, and he asks me if I would like a direct commission. So eventually, after classes and tests and things, I end up commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves. It was what they called constructive service."
His first assignment as a combat artist came in 1960, with Submarine Squadron 12 in Key West. "I used to stand on one of the rooftops there and paint the squadron and the tender Bushnell. I did a very large charcoal drawing of men loading the torpedoes. 'Loading fish,' they called it in those days. It was a very ambitious kind of thing."
But by 1964, at age 45, still working full time in commercial art and as a reservist with the Naval Academy's information office, "I had a feeling that I wanted to go to Vietnam. To go as an artist. The Congress of the United States saw fit to give me a commission, so what do I do? One day at the academy I went to see the admiral and asked for orders. He asked if I realized I'd be on active duty over there. I said yes, so he gave me orders for Vietnam.
"They needed Westmoreland's approval and the approval of a couple of admirals. At first they turned my request down. This was during the advisory effort, and they didn't want any extra people there getting hurt. So finally through the Chief of Information of the Navy and the Secretary of the Navy, they wrote to Westmoreland and some admirals, and I got to go.
"My first tour lasted about two months. From Tan Son Nhut, they took us to the Majestic Hotel on the Saigon River. Up top there was a bar, and I was told there were VC up there dancing with the girls. 'Be careful,' they said. 'They know every officer who comes in, and if they kill you they get a reward of 250 piastres and a medal.'
"I would go up to the roof of the hotel and look out, and there was everybody down there going about their business like it was Fifth Avenue. You'd look out and you'd see the flares going up, and the shells. The war's going on, but people are still riding around in the streets. They get used to the war and just go on. It was a whole contradiction. This it the kind of thing I saw.
"I was supposed to be briefed by General Westmoreland. He had written the approval, so he wants to know who are these guys. Well, I missed the military bus going to MAC-V, so I took one of these little French cabs they had, smaller than a Volkswagen. And it's like riding through Manhattan at rush hour. All these people on pedicabs, the streets are crowded. And they're looking into the cab, and here I am in uniform. I stood out like a sore thumb. The guy's driving and driving. It's hot, I'm sweaty, dirty. I don't know where I am. Oh, boy. I mean, the driver could be a VC, and he could be on his way to get his 250 piastres. Finally I decided I had to get out of there.
"Suddenly I see a big American flag. I didn't know what it was, but I told him stop. So I pay him and get out, and all I see is this big black limousine with a Vietnamese driver in a chauffer's uniform. So there I am, dirty and sweaty, and all of a sudden here comes this Air Force colonel. Oh, I could have kissed him. I saluted him and I said, 'Sir, I'm lost. General Westmoreland is going to be looking for me.' And he looked at me like, General Westmoreland is looking for you? So he said his driver would drop him at his headquarters, then he'd take me to MAC-V. Oh, boy, I sure thanked him.
"Finally I got to MAC-V and all these guys are standing outside and here I come in this black limousine looking like I've been in the shower. I finally get in to see Westmoreland. He greeted us and said, 'We don't want any guys like you getting hurt out here.' Then he takes the cover off this big map and gives us the whole philosophy of Vietnam - two million people escaped to South Vietnam in order not to live under Communist rule, two million people needed some assistance. And we went off with his blessing.
"In '64 there was very little inshore navy there. Just RAG groups, River Assault Groups. So I went with them, and my job was to see everything I could see. I went into action with them many times and manned some machine guns. I couldn't go out there and say, 'Hey, I'm privileged. I'm just going to look at you.' I was in uniform.
"The Army got me around in helicopters, so you could move around and get a bird's eye view of everything. I did a lot of small watercolors. I did four ambitious watercolors of the Eastern Repair Facility in Saigon, a ship-repair facility. The Vietnamese repaired junks there too. We got stuck there because there were big riots outside. We just carried sidearms, so they told us to stay inside. I was stuck four days there, so I painted.
"They would have a siesta time, and during that time I would make sketches and paintings. But finally I didn't just want to paint a sampan with nobody there. After lunch they would go back to work, so I started painting. They came over to where I was working, and they looked and giggled. Then they all wanted to get up on the sampan, thinking I would put them in the painting.
"I remember another time when a colonel came up to me and said, 'When are you going to paint my compound?' So I went across the road and started working on the painting. Pretty soon a chief comes out with a submachine gun and starts walking around me. And he says to me, 'You gotta watch these kids. They come up close to you, and they drop something over here and run away.' And I said, uh-oh. So he walked around me with his submachine gun all the time I was painting. When I finished it, they put it up in the mess hall.
"On my first tour, I did about 15 finished paintings. Sketches, maybe hundreds, from little notations to full crayon sketches."
In 1967 Indiviglia again volunteered for Vietnam as a combat artist. "My being there wasn't going to help anybody - but being part of the Public Affairs Company 3-5 here in the East, I decided I wanted to go again. Another officer, Ken Allison, he was a writer, and he asked, 'If you can swing it, can I go?' So we did. We were the first writer-artist combat team. He had an open line to the United Press.
"On that tour I got to see the big carriers. I was on the Forrestal, Intrepid, Bonhomme Richard. We landed aboard my first carrier at night, and some chief escorts me to a pilot's quarters that I would share. The poor pilot has been on missions, and he's getting ready to get up and go again. And bells are ringing and sirens are going off, and I don't know where I am. I couldn't sleep at first.
"I flew with the Sea Wolf helicopters and went on a bombing mission in an E-2C Hawkeye. Before we left they said to me, 'If you want to go, okay. It's very unlikely a plane like this is going to be shot down, but it could happen. If we're captured, they know we're pilots. But they won't know who you are. They'll think you're CIA.' Oh boy....
"I also spent some time with SEAL Team Two. Those guys are crazy. The first time we saw the SEALs was at Binh Thuy, the headquarters. We went on a few patrols. When we first landed, they put us aboard one of those swift boats. There was a warrant officer who had a cigar box full of Purple Hearts, and he said, 'I have plenty of these to give out.' So we went off.
"One day Ken Allison comes over and says the lieutenant in charge of the SEALs wants to see us, Jack Marciano. The guy, he's rough in his speech and everything, a dynamic type. So he says, 'We need a couple of guys with us, but I can't tell you where we're going. When we're on our way, then we'll let you know. Since you're here, you may not have a choice, but I'm going to ask you. You wanna go?'
"So I've got my Pentel pen and a sketchbook and cameras and my sidearm; I'm ready. A few hours later, when it's dark, the lieutenant and a coxswain and I get on a STAB boat, a SEAL Tactical Assault Boat. It's short, less than 32 feet, fiberglass. All it had was a coxswain seat and well where you stand and two fuel tanks in the back. You could mount 30-caliber guns on it, but we mostly used hand weapons. And we had starlight filter viewers for nighttime. When you looked through it, you could see all these figures in green. Even if the boat was full of holes, it would float. Ken Allison and I had run it around the river a little bit so we could get the feel of it.
"Ken was aboard the Mike boat. It was much larger. It had 50 calibers, 80mm mortar in the back, all that stuff. They were towing us, because our engine would make too much noise. They said we're going aboard an LST, and when we get there, they'd tell us more about it. This was on the Ba Sak river, north of the Mekong, but in the Delta area.
"After traveling for I don't know how long, we go alongside this LST, the Russell Canny. It's pitch black. We tie up and suddenly I notice their bilges are pouring out water, and it's pouring right into the well where we're standing. We can't make any noise. I'm pushing against Jack to get his attention, but he's not listening. By the time I got up into the captain's wardroom, I was soaked.
"I'm sitting on the floor because I'm all wet, and the lieutenants all got together and take out these maps. They're talking, so I start making sketches with saliva and a Pentel pen. I'm looking up at them, then down at my sketchbook. The SEALs are putting all this black grease on their faces so they won't have any reflection of light off their skin.
"Finally we insert the Alpha and Bravo teams - where, I don't know, because it was pitch black. We pulled out quietly and went back to the LST and had a meal. The next morning these two teams are still doing some dirty work on shore, I'm in the captain's wardroom, and all of a sudden through the intercom we hear, 'Scramble the SEAL boats! Scramble the SEAL boats!' It's the teams. Marciano says, 'Let's go.' So we slide down the ladder to the STAB boat and shoot ahead at 30 knots, the thing is bobbing all over the place, I'm trying to put on my flak jacket, and Marciano's taking the M-60 and putting it on the carriage, and he says to me, 'You have to watch. When I fire, make sure the gun belt doesn't twist on me.'
"It's daylight. Early in the morning. We don't see anything. The helicopters come in low to draw fire. Nothing happens. we hang around that place for two or three hours. The guys were still on shore, something's going on, but we couldn't locate them. We're on the radio trying to get a position, but finally we go back to the LST. Then it comes again, 'Scramble the SEAL boats!' We do this three times.
"And the last time, we go back to the area and it was just a haze of fire. It was a mangrove swamp - thick leaves, very beautiful, there were lilies growing like a Louisiana bayou. Lieutenant Tranny is neck-deep in water screaming, 'Fire on that side! Fire on that side!' They have no ammunition left.
"I'm trying to help these guys on board. There are seven or eight of them. It's a small craft, and we're taking on water. Marciano's firing away, and I'm trying to help him with his gun belt. Then I saw these figures coming out of the trees, so I grab my 45, empty all three clips. I don't know if I hit anything, but I had to provide cover. The coxswain couldn't do anything. My cameras are all on the deck, full of water. There's ammunition all over the deck. As we pull out, the Mike boat covered us. So we extracted that team.
"When we got back to base, I made a small sketch from memory of what happened. To this day, I was going to make a tremendous painting, but I never got do to that.
"While it's happening, you don't have time to think about it. It just happens. Later, when you go to put it down on paper, I make a hazy feeling of what's going on, without any details. Once you put the details down, you lose the feeling of the situation. So I put this thing together just through sketching, not thinking about anatomical details or anything like that. Just crouching figures - you knew this guy was doing this, that guy was doing something else. Then as it congeals in your mind, then you try to clarify it.
"In conditions like that, I try to be impressionistic without committing myself; if there's a hand extended, I try not to get into anatomical details. So I take certain liberties to keep it fluid, elastic, because that's the way it is in your mind. When you see these things, you see so many things going on; although there are details, you see fleeting things happening, and you attend to them as you go.
"I met a doctor in Vietnam, and when I told him I was a combat artist, he sort of looked at me with a jaundiced eye. Later he told me he'd had a bad experience with a combat artist. It seems the fella just sat in a bar and drank and made a couple of sketches. So the doctor thought that was all there was to it. I couldn't blame him. But then he saw I was devoting myself to what I was doing. When he was operating on these Vietnamese children, I was there in cap and gown like any other doctor, but I was a sketch artist."