American Graffiti

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Shrouded by willow, hazel, and hawthorn bushes, the remains of more than 120 wartime U.S. 8th and 9th Army Air Force bases are still scattered across the landscape of East Anglia and Bedfordshire. Some of the buildings have been converted to workshops, pigsties and barns, poultry sheds and grain stores. Others are derelict, unroofed, buried under blackberry bushes.

But if you fight past brambles into the surviving ramshackle huts, and scrape away more recent distemper, you will confront still-vibrant wall paintings—some done in artist’s oils, others in aircraft dope or in whatever paint, pencil, or crayon came to the hands of servicemen stationed at the bases after 1942.

Extraordinarily, despite fifty years of total neglect, these pinup girls, bombers, emblems, and cartoons have survived in all their romantic, bawdy vigor. Some are clearly the work of talented artists; others are simple caricatures and unfinished sketches. There are even signatures etched onto ceilings by the smoke from Zippo lighters and lists of missions flown. Considering the very high casualty rate of U.S. airmen during that period of the war, you can only speculate about the fate of some of the artists whose paintings are left uncompleted. One after another the works express the fantasies and preoccupations of very young men who faced death every day.

Occasionally you can find paintings by personnel, who were generally denied the degree of artistic license afforded their American counterparts. Around Christmas 1940 a twenty-nine-year-old ground gunner, Robert Hofton, billeted at the Fowlmere airfield, decorated the barn his group occupied for a dance. He painted a three-by-six-foot mural of the RAF wings in gold against an azure sky, with Spitfires and Allied fighters in formation. He added a German bomber falling in flames, its pilot suspended from a parachute. Today Hofton is a sprightly eighty-year-old; his painting has fared less well. “I was a commercial artist before I enlisted,” he told me. “We were attacked once or twice, but I never got to fire a shot in anger. I can honestly say the painting was about the most useful thing I ever did during the war. I took a couple of days doing it, with camouflage paint mixed with hundred-octane aviation fuel. It was very unhealthy. Now I’m amazed how well I did it, but alarmed by how much it has deteriorated in the last few years.”

Dim and peeling, dozens of murals hidden in derelict buildings on forgotten British air bases still vibrate with the energy of a tremendous campaign

You can also find paintings by displaced persons, refugees, and prisoners of war who were frequently accommodated on operationally redundant bases. The most important site, Island Farm Prisoner-of-War Camp in South Wales, contains dozens of examples of wall art. From November 1944 the camp housed many senior German officers, later including generals, admirals, and field marshals who were to go on trial at Nuremberg. On the night of March 10, 1945, sixty-seven prisoners tunneled their way to freedom. In the largest mass breakout of prisoners during the war, twelve Germans were recaptured almost as soon as the alarm was raised, but it wasn’t until a week later that the last of the prisoners was rounded up. When the escape tunnel was discovered leading from Hut 9, it was noticed that on the wall above the cleverly hidden entrance was a mural of two reclining, seminaked women. The psychology was basic and effective; the distracted guards never noticed the tunnel until too late. Today this painting has almost completely faded, but other works still exist in good condition, although they are severely threatened by vandals and the damp.

Curiously, an important factor in the preservation of many of the surviving U.S. forces’ paintings was the practice of whitewashing the buildings’ interiors toward the end of the war, before refugees and POWs moved in. The purpose of whitewashing is not clear, but it allowed the original paintings to remain untouched by graffiti, vandalism, and subsequent coats of paint. When, in time, the distemper flaked off, it revealed the murals below, relatively unscathed.

This in itself would not have been enough to preserve the paintings had there not been a chance meeting in 1987 between Peter Dyer, then a regular visitor to the abandoned U.S. base at Bottisham, and John Green, the landowner. Bottisham was known to be home to many excellent murals, and Green was hoping to find a way to have them removed before the imminent clearing of the site for redevelopment. By October of that year Dyer had organized the removal of nine works, some weighing up to half a ton, with the assistance of a backhoe borrowed from a local farmer and help from weekend enthusiasts. Soon after, this group formed the Eighth Wall Art Conservation Society (EWACS for short), which has been instrumental in the removal and restoration or preservation in situ of many more paintings.