Monday, June 6, 2016

Reposting: D-Day and Beyond (Lou's Army Photographs)

In honor of D-Day (June 6th), here is a blog post I wrote earlier after finding a small stack of photos of the US Army liberation of France during World War II.

For D-Day: Untold Stories of the Third Army

June 6th is the anniversary of D-Day, the "beginning of the end" of World War II.  

If you watch the news, you'll see historic video footage of the Allied landing at Normandy, along with interviews of veterans, now in their late 80s or in their 90s, remembering what it was like.  It is good that we can remember, and honor, those members of the Greatest Generation who helped liberate France and the rest of Western Europe from the Nazis, and we are blessed to hear them tell their stories.  

But it's important to remember that not all the stories of war are captured on film and shown on TV and the Internet around the world.  

Some of the stories, captured in letters, newspaper clippings and old photographs, lie forgotten in a shoebox or file folder at an estate sale.  

These priceless stories are in danger of being lost -- unless we rescue them from the trash and get them into the hands of historians who can conserve and study them.

Such was the case of Lou's war photographs and stories.  He had to go into assisted living a couple of years ago, and at his estate sale his family sold me a file folder stuffed with little photos, a few newspaper clippings and other scraps of paper.  They said they didn't want them.  They charged me a dollar.  I took the pictures home and started looking at them.

So who was Lou, and what did he do in the war?  A newspaper clipping from 1968 in the file folder includes an interview in which the reporter asks Lou, by then a well-known local restaurateur, to recount what happened to him after high school:

"World War II and the Army.  We landed at Normandy five days after the initial assault and pushed through to Central Europe.  That was with the Third Army."

So much history in so few words.  

I look at the photos and I can see why the family probably didn't think they were important.  Most of the images are only one inch by about an inch and a half, reduced in size so they could be sent home more economically than a standard-sized photograph.    That's much smaller than this photo appears on your computer screen.

What use are such old, blurry, tiny images to anyone?  You have to understand, dear families of veterans, that somewhere out there, there is a military historian who would jump at the chance to see these pictures, analyze them, and add the tiny details they reveal to the larger narrative of the American experience in World War II. 

You have to remember that we usually think about wars the way that war leaders and official historians write about them. They tell of Patton's Third Army rolling through France like a mighty machine -- it's the stuff of legend.  Lou and his buddies lived this experience, and they took pictures and wrote letters home.  By adding the stories of Lou and countless other regular servicemen and women to the narrative, we get a better, more balanced, more poignant and more human picture of World War II.  And that's valuable to historians, to students and to the rest of us, because it helps us to better understand.

Lou wrote on the back of this picture,
"I am barbecuing meat.
No that's not dirt it's a mustache."

Thanks to the miracle of the desktop flatbed digital scanner and its "crop" function, we can enlarge the tiny photographs and piece together parts of the story of Lou's military service. The backs of the photos bear the stamp of the US Army censor, who approved them for civilian eyes. 

Lou wrote on the backs of some, but not all, of the pictures.  You can imagine him with his fountain pen poised, taking a few minutes to give his parents some context for the photos before he mailed them home from the battlefield.

The back of the photograph...

...and the front.

Let's look at some more of Lou's photographs of Patton's Third Army as it moves through France, from Avranches in lower Normandy to Chalons sur Marne (now called Chalons-en-Champagne) in northeastern France, heading towards the German border.

"Machine gunner & myself near Avranches." 

"Machine gunmen climbing out of turret."

"Digging a gun position."

If you look carefully behind the tire, you can see what appear to be
French children and adults watching the American soldiers.

"40 mm dug in and ready for action." 

Some of the photographs show the French countryside as the troops passed through.

 "Old French farmer chatting with the neighbors."

"Picture taken from the truck. Young French girl passing out cider to men in the trucks."

Lou must have been driving when he took pictures as his unit passed through some parts of France.  He simply wrote "bombed buildings"on the back of this picture.  The destruction in the cities and towns was horrific.

Other photos have no writing on the backs.  They don't need words.

Other photos Lou sent home show scenes of life in camp.

"I am holding a Jerry rifle. The coats and hats are captured sheepskins & are they warm."

"C-47s coming in with supplies."

 "This was taken on a 2-day rest. Each of us has a quart of captured cognac. Chadwick is squatting in the middle."

 "I am pinning a good conduct medal on my machine gunner."

Lou also sent pictures home of the soldiers of the Third Army playing baseball.  He made no mention of what the French citizens thought of this odd game.

I searched online to see if I could find any other mention of Lou's military service, but I couldn't.  Other than a few U.S. Census references to places he and his family had lived, I wasn't able to find out anything else about him that wasn't in the file folder from the estate sale, except for one website that had been updated recently.  It listed only his name, the date April 5, 2014, and the words IN MEMORY OF....

Thank you, Lou, for your service, and thank you for saving those war pictures so we could see a bit of your side of the story.  I'll find them a good home with some historians who will add them to the larger story of D-Day and the Liberation of France in 1944-1945.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Frank Serratoni, California Watercolor Artist

Often an estate sale is a good place to find art supplies. And, it turns out, fine art.

Drawing and painting were common pastimes for members of the Greatest Generation; women and men alike took art classes. Sometimes they bought more sketchbooks, boxes of pastels and watercolors, canvases, art pencils and charcoal than they could ever use.

Sometimes they kept their own amateur artworks, which in turn showed up at their estate sale. 

At this morning's estate sale, I spotted a large stack of framed paintings that had obviously been done by someone who'd taken an art class 40 or 50 years ago.  I looked through them: a nicely-done still life showing a pitcher and some fruit; a slanting, doe-eyed, ragged cartoonish child standing next to a trash can in an alley; a gunmetal gray horse-shaped object in a field of various shades of green, straight out of the paint tube.

Tucked away in between the somewhat dubious results of Grandpa's art class, I spotted a large old picture frame that had definitely seen better days. 

The frame was pale distressed wood with an even more-distressed orange burlap center.  The back was a nightmare of crumbling brown paper and twisted hanger wire.

But the painting inside the old frame was definitely not executed in someone's art class.

I'm no art critic, but I didn't have to look long at the image to realize that someone knew what they were doing when they painted this picture. My mother was a very good amateur artist in her time, and she taught me a few things to look for in a good watercolor painting.  

One of the things Mom had said, was that anyone can put color on white paper, but a good watercolor artist knows how to control the color so that the unpainted white paper shows through in the completed image. This artist knew how to control the colors.

Frank Serratoni, the signature said.  

I bought the painting, brought it home, liberated it from the frame (where it was held in place by an aging, crumbling thick piece of corrugated cardboard that had been installed long before the time acid-free paper was readily available) and inspected it more closely.

This artist was no amateur! He was Frank Serratoni (1908-1970).

Frank Serratoni, my online search informed me, was born in Detroit, Michigan, studied art in Chicago, and was a well-known artist in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s.  In the late 1940s, Serratoni issued a series of twelve hand-colored lithographs of California cityscapes and landscapes, which you can still find for sale online today.

You could buy Serratoni's artworks in iconic San Francisco stores like the City of Paris department store and the Paul Elders bookstore.  And you could find Serratoni's work in at least one place outside The City: there are newspaper ads for Braverman's Furniture Store in San Anselmo in 1950, promoting buying art by Frank Serratoni as a Christmas gift.

"Landscapes of places you've seen, choice of six subjects so familiar you'll recognize the setting at one glance. Nicasio, Los Altos, Navarro River, Woodside, Mt. Diablo, Sonora...." 

I wonder if the painting I found today, originally came from one of those venerable stores? 

Footnote: In my online searching, I found a blog post about the Grateful Dead that said that Jerry Garcia once lived in a house called The Chateau in Menlo Park, California, that had earlier belonged to Frank Serratoni. 

Here's a short bio of Frank Serratoni: