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Normandy Invasion: The Artists View

The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 has been chronicled by photographs, oral histories, letters, and historical studies. It has been reenacted in documentaries and live events and re-imagined in feature films, capturing the imaginations of the generations that have followed. Among the eyewitnesses whose accounts contribute to our collective picture of the Normandy invasion are a small group of Army Artists who witnessed and documented on canvas the pre-invasion rehearsals, D-Day itself, and the days following, both in Normandy and in England.

The Army's World War II art program began in 1942. Building upon the foundation of the World War I Army Art Program, artists were selected and tasked with recording and portraying events of military importance, incidents in the daily life of the soldier, frontline operations, combat service support, and views of the areas of operations. Many of the selected artists were soldiers, while some civilian artists were also asked to participate. Regardless of whether the artist was a soldier or civilian, the mission was the same: to physically go into theater with the troops, witness events firsthand, live with the soldiers, and to create art based on that immersive experience. The artists were given a high level of creative freedom, choosing their own subject matter and artistic medium.

Just three months into the program, however, Congress withdrew funding for the War Art Unit. Soldier-artists were assigned to other duties and the civilian artists were hired by Life Magazine, which established an agreement with the War Department to sponsor artist-correspondents. Simultaneously, many of the soldier-artists continued to paint in addition to their other duties. In addition to the Life correspondents and the soldier-artists, other artists covered the war for Abbott Laboratories, Yank Magazine, Stars and Stripes, and numerous civilian newspapers.

Olin Dows

Olin Dows enlisted in the Army in June 1942. He was stationed at Ft. Meade and waiting to go to Officer's training school when he was selected as a war artist. Dows chose to become a war artist rather than an officer and was sent to document the European Theater of Operations. A month after his arrival in England, Congress denied the necessary funding for the art program to continue. Dows was instead given photography assignments, but continued painting in his spare time. He remained in England for a year and documented pre-invasion training. Of this experience, Dows later reflected "They took a regiment at a time and ran it through the assault course. There was a lot to see there. They used live ammunition. Boys were killed and drowned in that training." Following D-Day, Dows was attached to the 35th Division and accompanied them into Normandy in late June 1944. He later observed and documented action at Bastogne, Metz, and accompanied the Third Army on its final drive across Germany.

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Lawrence Beall Smith

Lawrence Beall Smith was a civilian artist-correspondent for Abbott Laboratories' war art program, specifically tasked with documenting medical subject matter. Assigned to England prior to D-Day, Smith requested to remain long enough to cover the invasion as well, writing that "there is a war on and I figure this is my part in it. I repeat that I shall be quite disappointed if I don't get a crack at Invasion material." As a civilian correspondent, Smith encountered logistical difficulties getting cleared for travel to Normandy and arrived several days later. His haunting painting "The Man Without a Gun" could almost be considered a self-portrait, as Smith himself carried a sketchbook rather than a weapon into Normandy.

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Manuel Bromberg

Manuel Bromberg was drafted in April 1942. It was not long before his artistic talent was noticed and Bromberg was engaged in painting murals in Army buildings. Following basic training, he received a letter from the War Art Advisory Committee informing him that he had been selected as a war artist. Bromberg was sent to England and documented pre-invasion training. He later recalled "I was assigned to the final dress rehearsal for the D-Day invasion, down the rope ladders into the assault boats. It was a little similar to what turned out to be Omaha Beach. But the exercises--everything worked so beautifully, you know? Heavy equipment got ashore. Nothing at all like what happened later." Bromberg arrived at Omaha Beach on D-Day, H-Hour plus 20 minutes. He later described the beach as "the biggest junkyard in the world...there were ships beached. There was debris everywhere you looked. Barbed wire, boats, bodies were still floating from the original hit."

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Joseph Gary Sheahan, Harrison Standley

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