July, 2015 was the first time my husband and I laid eyes on his dad’s collection of World War II photos. These tiny black and white images profoundly stabbed our hearts. We were looking at Dad’s past reality! Yet we had no explanation of the Who, Where, and Why of the individual photos. Like many war veterans, he had rarely talked about his war experiences.
The mysterious photos struck me so strongly, I was compelled to emotionally process them by expressing them in my language: paint on canvas. With each painting, I blogged about the stories we have been able to piece together from my mother-in-law. The paintings and stories are compiled here.
Many have responded to this series with, “Thank you. We need to remember.”
Some of Dad’s photos left us feeling strange or conflicted. For instance, in the photos on the left, there is a very distant line of soldiers all the way across. Were they Americans?…or possibly POWs? The 2″x3″ photos are so tiny, we couldn’t tell. One of Dad Nelson’s responsibilities at the end of the war was to daily transport POWs to a castle, where they would make meals for, and serve, the high ranking officers. So maybe these were POWs waiting to come or go? I depicted the line of soldiers with the dripping line of paint.
I have to say, taking on this project has filled us with a new gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many for our freedoms. It is also our way of giving honor to Dad Nelson.
BACK TO “NORMAL”
The compulsion still remains to paint Dad Nelson’s tiny black and white WWII photos. This is my second now. It’s like a mysterious connection. In fact, as Dennis and I stared at this village photo, it was like we were there with his dad while he paused in front of the scene and clicked the shutter on the camera. Imagine if you could have told Dad then that 70 years later the wife of one of his four yet-to-be-born sons would intently study this image and paint it. Wow. History and Time are strange things.
This scene depicts a child en route from school. Although we don’t know the location of the village (Germany, France, England?) there were clues that this was post-war.
To me, this painting is all about the child. As a parent, one of the hardest facets to consider about war is its effect on the children. My father-in-law told the story of how he had the difficult assignment, after victory had been achieved, of informing a homeowner that her house was being claimed for use by the military while the soldiers stayed a few months to regain/maintain order. Etched in his mind was the memory of the mother’s reaction upon hearing the news, and her pleading: “Meine kinder (my children)!” If you knew Rex’s tender heart, you could imagine how hard that was.
WORTH THE STOP
The miniature photo on the left is so dark, I almost passed it by. However, the deeper I looked, the more delighted I was with the few hints available. It revealed a very special European street. Special enough to draw Dad Nelson in to stop and take a photo. The lack of light, color and details in the miniature print served not as a deterrent, then, but as a dare: to take great liberties in bringing it to life in a huge 36″ x 36″ piece.
In the photo, there are two soldiers walking toward the camera. At first, we thought they might be Dad’s brothers (Marvin, who was a chaplain, and Gordon, a tank gunner), because they did meet up with each other on occasion during the war. But we eventually figured out it’s not them. I chose to merely hint at one of the soldiers in the painting (can you find it?) in order to keep the focus on an amazing street which is unlike anything we have in the U.S. This is in keeping with Dad’s original purpose for taking the photo: to capture the beauty. It’s sad to think how many magnificent pieces of architecture were destroyed in the war; I’m glad this setting survived. Oh, how I would love to know the country and location of this street, and visit it myself!
“Every day the people of the United States are going into debt. It is not a money debt, it is a blood debt. It is a debt to the boys who have driven eastward across the whole of western Europe…”
Those were the opening lines of a dispatch written by Russell W. Davenport for the New York Post, dated May 7, 1945, describing the combat division and group that Dennis’s dad, Sgt. H. Rex Nelson, was a part of.
Reading farther down on this yellowed piece of paper–executed in single spacing on a manual typewriter–my heart is gripped for what Rex and the other soldiers (referred to as “doughboys”) went through: “A tremendous screen of machine-gun fire from our halftracks poured over our heads into the woods and our armored artillery lobbed shells into a big farm which burst into flames. With bitterness in our hearts, we watched a Nazi machine-gunner on the top of the hill above the doughboys poke his head up, fire, and disappear. And we saw the doughboys fall as his gun spat, and some of them stayed there. It isn’t as if they just had to do it once, they have to do it maybe several times a day when the division meets resistance like this. After they have overcome the enemy you see them coming out of their positions all covered with mud. Boys from all over the Union, all different, yet all bound together in this ordeal called war. You see them slogging back down the road, tired and grim, to their halftracks. You see them heave themselves in to rest. Then you hear the radio from the front end of the column which has been able to move about a mile because of what these doughboys did. There is more trouble ahead. The infantry is needed. The halftracks move forward, roaring. The boys inside them sit with heads propped in their hands trying to rest. Then the halftracks catch up, stop. The grimy doughboys climb out to begin the job all over again. And each time they do this a few of them are left behind. After you’ve done this for 1,599 miles your country owes you something, but the debt isn’t easy to pay!”
The gritty scene described above stands in stark contrast to the peaceful, debonair pose of Dad Nelson (pictured here). My painting of the photo is therefore a visual work of contrasts: the darkly shadowed interior juxtaposed against the brightly lit exterior, and expressed with multiple layers, drips, and marks.