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.

EWACS’s biggest project so far has been the removal in February 1988 of a one-and-a-half-ton painting from a debriefing room at the Podington base, which depicts a B-17 surrounded by bursting flak. “When we first went to view it,” recalled Dyer, “there were two huge sows living under the picture. This one hadn’t been painted over, and we wonder if the heat from the pigs’ bodies helped preserve it.” Dyer had it loaded, with its surrounding protective frame of steel girders, onto a truck and taken to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. There it was restored by EWACS’s expert Heinz Bosowitz and put on permanent display. “We discovered that Staff Sergeant George Walschmidt, a ball turret gunner, was nineteen years old when he did the painting in 1945,” Bosowitz explained. “We wrote to him as soon as we began the restoration and later learned that he had died from a heart attack twenty-four hours after learning that his painting had been saved for posterity.” Ironically, Bosowitz was a German soldier in the war who narrowly escaped death from a B-17 bomb drop just days before his capture by American troops in 1944. He became a British resident in 1947.

Jack Loman, now seventy-four years old and living in Cambria, California, painted some of the best surviving works in an enlisted men’s lounge at Shipdham. His paintings, mostly calendar girls executed in the Vargas style of the day, are still in remarkable condition considering that the building has been unroofed for years. “I bought the paint in 1943 at Jarrold’s art store in Norwich,” he said recently. “Just regular artist’s oil paints. It’s amazing they’ve survived. Somebody said it would be a good advertisement for the paint company.”

He explained how the paintings had come to be: “Before I shipped over to Britain, I’d done some paintings for a Colonel Taylor. He told me that if I ever got into trouble, he’d get me off if I could do some work for him. Well, sometimes I used to sneak off to Norwich to see Monica and get back before I was missed.” Monica was a local girl whom Homan met and married while in England. “This one time the Germans bombed the railroad, and I didn’t get back on base until about midday. My sergeant spotted me, chewed me out, and put me on two weeks’ kitchen duty. I rang Colonel Taylor. He told me he’d get someone to do my duties and to go down and buy some paints. I must have worked awfully fast, but those were all the murals I did in the U.K. Anything that didn’t get done then just never got finished.” Some of his unpainted sketches can still be seen today.

Nearly all the best paintings that were done have been destroyed in the last twenty years, and new hazards threaten what little remains. Murals of a medieval banquet by a chaplain’s assistant, Nathan Bindler, at the Red Feather Officer’s Club at Horham, suffered a recent attack by vandals. But the effects of age, weather, and the indifference of some owners now pose the greatest danger. Even works in good shape in sound buildings are at risk from wear and tear and commercial exigencies. Some owners would be happy to sell their paintings, but in the absence of suitable offers they simply let them deteriorate. At Shipdham spirited Wild West scenes of horses and cowboys have faded into oblivion, but Loman’s Vargas girls are only now yielding to the onslaught of frost and creeping damp. The owner, Peter Rix, sees nothing special in the paintings: “If they belong in a museum, so do 1.1 think they should just be left to deteriorate naturally. I don’t want them preserved, and I don’t want them removed. Just let them go. If one day we decide to knock down the buildings, then the paintings will go with them. I don’t see any point in keeping them.”

By now such views seem to be in the minority. Martin Sheldrick, owner of Manor Farm, once the wartime site of RAF Fowlmere, is very concerned for the future of the mural in his barn: “Eventually this building may be demolished, but whatever happens, we would like to preserve the painting. It would be a shame to lose it. I hope that it would be possible to remove it before it deteriorates further and put it elsewhere, perhaps at Duxford.”

This year, as thousands of former combatants from the 8th and 9th Army Air Forces travel back to their English haunts for reunions, EWACS hopes for new interest in the paintings and buildings that will result in increased financial aid. Removing this art is a complicated procedure, involving slicing out whole sections of wall with a disk cutter, lifting them with cranes and forklift trucks, and sometimes rebuilding the wall. EWACS members volunteer their time and labor, but the work is still costly, and it will become more so as they undertake the most ambitious removal and restoration program yet.

For Peter Dyer, one of the early enthusiasts, it is obvious that “you don’t do this sort of work for money. It’s to preserve the memory of men who were here today and gone tomorrow. These men looked at these pictures, then flew off on a mission, and some were either killed or ended up in a POW camp. To save these paintings is to teach the children of today what men did for them all those years ago.”

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