Pacific Sketchbook

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For those who never saw World War II firsthand, its image has, of course, been shaped largely by photography. My own image has a further dimension. It was shaped by the hundreds, if not thousands, of pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches and watercolor paintings that my father produced while serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. The pictures were hung—are hung—all over my parents’ house: in stairwells, in hallways, in bathrooms. They figure prominently among the works displayed in my father’s studio. They lie flat in the drawers of cabinets, create canopies in rafters. I grew up with these pictures of American soldiers and sailors whom my father knew well, of people from the Philippines and New Guinea and Japan who may have entered his life for no more than a few minutes, of landscapes in splendor and cities in ruin. Some of the pictures record matters of historical moment. Because my father was for much of the war the aide-de-camp of a general who had escaped from Corregidor with Douglas MacArthur, and who was in command of all American antiaircraft forces, he spent a considerable amount of time in the precincts of MacArthur’s general staff.

Today my father is an illustrator. Since 1970 he has drawn the internationally syndicated comic strip Prince Valiant, for which I write the story line. He is also a painter of distinction. The work he did during the war, however, is essentially private work, done for himself and his friends and family. Only a tiny fraction—and nothing that appears here—has ever been reproduced before. These drawings and paintings account for virtually no part of my father’s professional reputation. And yet, I think, they mark a turning point.

John Cullen Murphy was born in 1919 and spent his first years in Chicago. An artistic bent was apparent very early, and at the age of nine he was receiving instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago. When his family moved to the New York area, the nurture of his talents was facilitated by an accident of geography: his next-door neighbor in New Rochelle was Norman Rockwell, to whom my father gave service as a model (he is, for example, the character David Copperfield in the Rockwell mural Land of Enchantment ) and from whom he received informal training as a student. Later he enrolled at the Art Students League, in New York City. He had already embarked upon a career in commercial illustration when war broke out in Europe. He enlisted in New York’s historic 7th Regiment, a National Guard infantry unit, in July of 1940. From then on he seems to have had pencil and paper with him at all times.

The first drawings here are from 1940 and 1941, a period when America’s entry into the wars consuming Europe and Asia seemed highly probable, if not yet inevitable. The nation’s state of readiness is suggested by the uniforms, unchanged since World War I. The Springfield rifles with which the soldiers trained were of turn-of-the-century design. When the 7th Regiment was put into federal service, in February of 1941, it became an antiaircraft unit; the antiaircraft guns it used for training at Camp Stewart, in Georgia, were made of wood. A few real ones arrived in time for the great maneuvers that took place along the Eastern seaboard from September to November of 1941, with the 1st Army, led by Gen. Hugh Drum, opposing the 3d Army, led by Gen. George Patton. (Patton was ultimately declared the loser by Army referees.) The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came one month later. My father remembers spending December 8, 1941, at Camp Stewart, Georgia, painting a portrait of Gen. Sanderford Jarman, the commander of the nation’s Atlantic coastal defenses, who, even as he posed, was issuing orders and urgently redeploying antiaircraft troops up and down the East Coast.