An Artist, A Writer and the Men They Honor: A Tribute to Medal of Honor Recipients
Honor. To a Marine, honor is a noble attribute earned, not assumed. In the triumvirate defining Marine Corps values, honor, courage, commitment, honor is foremost, representing all who have sacrificed for their nation, their family and their fellow Marines. Esteemed artist Colonel Charles Waterhouse marveled at Marines: those hardy Americans who fought in World War I that he read about in “Fixed Bayonets” as a young boy; those he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with as a private first class on a Higgins boat headed for Iwo Jima that fateful day in February 1945; and those from every era of American history whom he brought to life on his canvas.
And it was all about honor.
Whether in uniform or wielding a paintbrush, Charles Waterhouse entered the scenes where Marines walked, fought and often died. He honored them by portraying their selfless actions so that others would remember and value their sacrifices. Waterhouse fittingly ended his career as a Marine Corps artist by creating paintings that portray the heroic Marines and Navy corpsmen who earned the Medal of Honor (MOH), and it is this story his daughter Jane Waterhouse so poignantly tells in “Time and Chance: The Medal of Honor Paintings by Colonel Charles Waterhouse.”
Jane Waterhouse, creating a picture with words as exquisitely as her father did with paint, tells of the courageous actions of nine Marine Medal of Honor recipients, one Navy corpsman and one other heroic American Marine whose actions could—and likely should—have earned him a Medal of Honor.
In the first part of the book, she deftly weaves the story of Col Waterhouse’s life and his commitment to Marines among the stories of select heroes from the Civil War to Afghanistan. The second part is the artist’s gift to Marines: the paintings.
These layouts, designed by the artist, include two paintings for each recipient: one that portrayed the scene of the Marine or Navy corpsman performing the action that earned him the MOH, and a second, smaller portrait of just the Marine’s face, ensuring that each visage is clearly seen, without the grime of battle or the shadow of a helmet; the better to be remembered as someone’s son, brother, father or friend. Each layout includes the Medal of Honor citation, which describes the acts of bravery that merited the award.
“Time and Chance,” the result of Jane Waterhouse’s bedside promise to her father, is not the book Col Waterhouse had planned for the Medal of Honor paintings. The author says as much with a touching apology to her father in the book’s prologue.
Jane grew up alongside those Marines on her father’s canvas, even working with him as he wrote books about two of his favorite subjects: Marines and art. Still, writing a book to tell the story of Medal of Honor paintings seemed a daunting task, especially without him by her side.
“He wanted this series to be his final legacy to the Marines, and he saw this book as a lasting testament in honor of these brave men and a gift to their families,” she writes.
As the title highlights and Jane often mentions throughout the book, time and chance played an important role in her father’s life. Yet it seems when time caught up with him at age 89, chance favored his daughter and gifted her the time her father no longer had.
In Waterhouse fashion, Jane carried on her father’s mission, but not without adding a daughter’s perspective. For that we can be thankful, because although Marines have seen Col Waterhouse’s paintings in magazines and books, as well as hanging in places where Marines gather like Marine Corps offices, the Home of the Commandants, chow halls, base libraries, the Pentagon and aboard ships, few know of the artist’s absolute devotion to the Marine Corps.
Jane Waterhouse remedies that without dimming the spotlight on her father’s fervent desire to honor the Marines and corpsmen who received the Medal of Honor. In fact, she adds details about how these heroes ended up in their situations, the limited equipment they had, the loss of fellow Marines and the perseverance and courage they exemplified to continue despite all odds. And for those who had the privilege to know the kind artist and experience his humble nature, it would be a safe bet to say that Col Charles Waterhouse would be pleased with “Time and Chance” because it tells about the indomitable spirit of Marines.
One such Marine happens to be an artist with a lifelong devotion to his fellow leathernecks, especially the Medal of Honor recipients who filled his final years.
Jane writes: “He painted all day at his easel, getting up frequently in the middle of the night to work on an unfinished canvas. He spent countless hours reading and researching on the computer. During meals he drew sketches on paper napkins. He swore at his own frailties, and on a daily basis, he bargained with God.”
He lived among those heroic men every second of each day for the final seven years of his life. Even in his last 11 days, when he could no longer take the five steps to his canvas, he still was mentally constructing canvases of Marines. “Time and Chance” shows the heart and dedication of Marines who charged into danger and the artist who brought us to their side, shining a light on the magnitude of their sacrifice.
Though Rejected, A Good Idea Endures
The idea of drawing Medal of Honor recipients initially began in 1946, when 22-year-old Charles Waterhouse went to a job interview at Kings Comics. Hoping to become a cartoonist after his tour in the Marine Corps, he presented a cartoon strip to an editor that portrayed Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant William Bordelon’s singular attack on pillboxes on Tarawa. Told that Americans were weary of war and advised to return after attending art school, Waterhouse nonetheless saved his idea to portray Medal of Honor heroes and returned to it 60 years later, this time with a lifetime of art experience under his belt.
Some of the Medal of Honor paintings were created individually while Waterhouse served as the artist-in-residence of the Marine Corps (1971-1991) or for magazine covers after he retired from the Corps. The idea to create a Medal of Honor series was initiated by Ed Sere, then-curator of the Colonel Charles Waterhouse Museum in Toms River, N.J., recalling those original cartoon boards. Waterhouse thought it was a great idea, and while Sere wondered which ones Waterhouse might paint so he could begin researching, Waterhouse was eager to do them all. Sere recalls Waterhouse said, “‘No, I’m going from A to Z and do as much as I can do,’ and that was his mantra. He would cry out to anybody, ‘Yes, I’m painting and I hope to get ’em all done before I die.’ ”
However, according to Jane, there was one event which assured the series would be undertaken. Her parents attended a Marine Corps event where they shared a table with Medal of Honor Marine Private Hector A. Cafferata Jr. When Waterhouse told Cafferata that he’d like to create a painting of him in action during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, he never forgot Cafferata’s response: “It would be a wasted effort. No one’s interested in that stuff anymore. Most people don’t even know what the Korean War was. That’s all been forgotten.”
Not if Charles Waterhouse had anything to do with it. With a quick sketch on the back of the dinner menu, Waterhouse engaged Cafferata, who corrected the angle of his arm in the drawing. Soon the two men were discussing frigid temperatures, gear and Cafferata’s actions on Fox Hill, the artist cleverly adding details to the image that was taking shape in his mind. Thus began the first painting to be created specifically for the series.
Cafferata’s story, “The Battle of Fox Hill,” is the first that Jane Waterhouse recounts in her book, recalling details in vivid imagery. In a cinematic style employed throughout the stories, she brings the reader uncomfortably close to that frigid night in Korea: “... and it was damn spooky up there, with the moonlight sliding into crevasses, turning a sliver of ice into glinting gunmetal, and the fog of your breath into levitating ghosts.”
“Distinguish Themselves By Their Gallantry”
The Medal of Honor is awarded only when strict criteria are met. While each service has specific regulations, in general the act must establish the recipient’s gallantry beyond the call of duty, risking his life, and it must be corroborated by at least two eyewitnesses who provide incontestable evidence. The accomplishments of these men, despite the insurmountable obstacles and often excruciating conditions, reveal their selflessness, quick-thinking and tenacity.
Waterhouse insisted that each painting must be distinctive, even if the scene may be similar to others: landing on a beach, fighting on a snow-covered mountain or falling on a grenade (which occurred in at least 71 of the paintings, according to Jane Waterhouse). As the recipients cover such a broad period of time (dating from the Civil War), Col Waterhouse had to do extensive research to portray so many variables accurately: the weaponry, battlefield environment, uniform, weather, enemy, time of day, vehicles and, most importantly, the exact action of the MOH recipients that caused them to “distinguish themselves by their gallantry” as defined by the 1861 Senate bill that created the Department of the Navy MOH medal.
President Abraham Lincoln authorized the first Medal of Honor during the Civil War and Corporal John Mackie became the first Marine MOH recipient. Describing the only time when Marines fought their Marine brothers, Jane Waterhouse tells the story of Cpl Mackie aboard the ironclad USS Galena en route to Richmond during the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in 1862. Like many MOH recipients, when others perished, Mackie stepped forward, rousing fellow Marines to fight for four hours until they ran out of ammunition. Col Waterhouse captured Mackie’s initiative on canvas firing a long-gun from a gun port of the battle-scarred ship. After the battle, President Lincoln boarded the ship, marveling that any of them managed to survive.
If Mackie was the earliest MOH recipient chronologically, the most recent MOH recipient that Col Waterhouse painted was Sergeant Dakota Meyer, who earned his medal in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, in September 2009. Meyer took decisive action to rescue trapped American and Afghan Army soldiers despite the refusal of superiors to send artillery and air support. Meyer would return to the battle site five times despite overwhelming enemy fire.
“If what Meyer did was insubordination, blame it on the Marines. Because “No Marine Left Behind” isn’t just some boot camp mantra, it’s a deeply held principle for which leathernecks throughout history have been willing to die. The two men got into a gun truck and drove it down the steeply terraced terrain directly into the kill zone, with [Staff Sergeant Juan] Rodriguez-Chavez at the wheel and [then-Corporal] Meyer in the highly exposed gunner’s position, manning the M203 40 mm grenade launcher,” writes Jane Waterhouse. She adds, “They might as well have painted a target on their heads and piped out a recording of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”
The accompanying painting, which Waterhouse completed in just three weeks in support of a Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation effort, was unveiled at the Library of Congress with Sgt Meyer in attendance. The painting depicts Meyer barely shielded by a boulder, downed Marines at his feet, as he lifts another Marine to carry him out of the battle zone. Muzzle-flashes burst from a building and nearby rocks, predicting no safe egress from his position. Meyer later remarked, “It was a six hour battle, but Col Waterhouse chose the exact right moment to paint.”
The Value of a Story
“Time and Chance” takes readers to many of the places Marines have left their boot prints: China, Haiti, France, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Though they served in different times, these young American men traveled far from home, likely griped about the food, fought beside their buddies and met their foes in a united front. The Medal of Honor recipients may not consider themselves any better than the next guy, but they do share some instinctive quality to act at critical moments without hesitation. Knowing their stories, told through words or paintings, should be required for all Americans.
Some of the stories in this book recount legends in the Corps, such as Sgt Dan Daly, one of two men who, while serving as a Marine, twice received the Medal of Honor, one during the Boxer Rebellion in China, the other in the Banana Wars in Haiti; Sgt Mitchell Paige, who defended Henderson Field in Guadalcanal from the Japanese; and Sgt John Basilone, who earned his medal the night before Paige did, defending the very same airstrip. Others, whose words may not be quoted on the walls of museums or memorials, earned recognition for turning moments of certain defeat into hope for their fellow Marines: Captain Carl Sitter, in Hagaru-ri, Korea, who despite multiple wounds, brilliantly led his Marines, some “untrained in infantry tactics” according to his citation; Hospital Apprentice First Class Robert E. Bush in Okinawa, who continued to hold a plasma bottle with one hand while wielding a gun in the other, defending his patient against Japanese attackers; and PFC Raymond Clausen Jr., who carried 11 wounded Marines and one dead body across a minefield to a helicopter while dodging fire in Vietnam.
One of the most haunting stories in the book is that of Captain Donald Cook, a prisoner of war for three years in Vietnam. Bright, highly trained and resourceful, his selflessness and stoicism was an inspiration to fellow prisoners. Waterhouse spares no details about the torturous treatment suffered at the hands of the Viet Cong, as well as the unending maladies of the jungle environment. During nearly three years of captivity, Cook never relented to his captors; he never gave them more than his name, rank, birth date and serial number. He inspired fellow prisoners to will themselves to survive. He is the first Marine to have earned a Medal of Honor for his actions as a POW.
Jane Waterhouse adds a tender touch to the power of Cook’s story, supported by Col Waterhouse’s visually arresting painting of Cook in a bamboo cage. She shares the toll of his capture on his family and the emotional impact Cook had on his fellow POWs and even his captors. She concludes that though his body was never brought home, his headstone rests in Arlington National Cemetery, “But his spirit—that uncompromising, indomitable spirit that the Viet Cong could never capture—remains in the highlands of Vietnam where, somewhere on the wind, a strong tenor voice still sings ‘The Marines’ Hymn.’ ”
Waterhouse includes in her book one Marine who was a special inspiration to her father, but did not receive the Medal of Honor: Col John W. Ripley.
Under imminent attack from a North Vietnamese army force estimated to be at reinforced divisional strength, Col Ripley, an American advisor to a battalion of Vietnamese Marines, devised a plan to destroy a critical bridge at Dong Ha to impede their entry into South Vietnam. The plan required one man: Ripley. For three hours, under enemy fire, Ripley hung from the bridge, traveling hand over hand, loaded down with TNT, to place charges under the bridge. He had to make six trips back to shore to resupply. His singular effort stopped the North Vietnamese army during the Easter Offensive.
“Inspired by what Ripley did in Dong Ha, Colonel Waterhouse created one of his most memorable paintings, “Ripley at the Bridge.” It hung next to his bed during the last four years of his life, a silent witness to his own final battle,” writes Jane Waterhouse.
Legacy of a Painter: Brushstrokes and History
Despite his indomitable spirit and his reputation for creating detailed, accurate historical paintings at a rapid pace, Col Waterhouse would not finish the MOH series. Given his age when he began the series and the number of the Marines and Navy corpsmen who earned the MOH, this is not surprising. Perhaps, as Jane writes, he may have believed that anything short of complete success meant failure, but he did complete “over 220 canvases—including several masterworks; nearly 120 portraits; and had made a start on every Marine and Navy corpsman Medal of Honor recipient from the Banana Wars through the war in Iraq.”
Charles Waterhouse lovingly and ambitiously created paintings of the Marine and Navy corpsmen Medal of Honor recipients as a “final gift” to his beloved Marine Corps. His family has generously donated the Waterhouse collection, including the MOH paintings, to the permanent art collection at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va.
The museum’s art curator, Joan Thomas, explained that in early America, art was created to show how America saw itself and to portray the story of its creation. Likewise, Col Waterhouse’s MOH paintings “tell a story of these individuals and their courage and what they did at that particular moment in time.” Thomas believes he wanted to tell the visual story because of “his absolute love and commitment to the Marine Corps.” The body of his work tells the story of the Marine Corps and, as Col Waterhouse would say, “a few good men.”
At the museum, Waterhouse’s Medal of Honor paintings will appear in various exhibits. According to the museum’s deputy director Charles Grow, they may be part of exhibits that recognize the anniversary of a battle, or perhaps they will appear in the Hall of Valor, which will open in 2020. They also could be used in books, magazines, videos, textbooks, documentaries and even virtually on the website. “Art not only speaks to the Marine,” Grow explained, “but it also speaks to the American public that has never worn a uniform, let alone be a Marine, and that’s important, too.”
“That’s all been forgotten.” The powerful stories Col Waterhouse and his daughter Jane have gathered in “Time and Chance” are a strong refusal to accept Hector Cafferata’s words. If America is the sum of its heroes, and if men’s actions to preserve our nation’s tenets can inspire action in others, then this book is a powerful gem. It engenders remembrance. It kindles appreciation. By doing so, it inspires America to regard those who are serving today with a fresh understanding of what honor, courage and commitment means, and to be grateful.
Editor’s note: “Time and Chance” is scheduled for future publication.
Leatherneck will post information about the publication date when it is announced. The Marine Shop at www.marineshop.net offers numerous Waterhouse prints for sale. Proceeds go to support the Marine Corps Association & Foundation programs and the Waterhouse Scholarship at the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. Author’s bio: Mary Karcher is a former staff writer and editor of various segments of the magazine. She currently works as a freelance writer. She is grateful to the Waterhouse family, Joan Thomas and Charlie Grow for support of this article. And to Col Waterhouse, whose voice from an earlier interview provided inspiration, smiles and a few tears.