An artist’s foxhole-level view of war during World War II.
In 1943, artist Howard Cook traded the desert of his Taos, New Mexico, home for the jungle when he accepted a six-month assignment to lead the U.S. Army’s War Art Unit in the South Pacific. Cook, then 41, was an acclaimed printmaker, magazine illustrator, and painter—but at Camp Barnes in Noumea, New Caledonia, he and his fellow artists were treated like run-of-the-mill military men: “We got a good taste of what it feels like to slave and sweat in the steaming stink of a jungle and can well imagine what it means to die or lie wounded in the…slimy mud,” the artist wrote to his wife, Barbara.
Cook accompanied the 43rd Infantry Division on missions throughout the region, sketching soldiers at rest and at war. While participating in the assault task force and landing on Rendova Island and on New Georgia’s Munda Point, both in the Solomons, the artist experienced his first air raid; huddled in a foxhole, Cook could hear “the short rat-tats of machine-gunning” and “the roar of bombers” as they “came down over and lay their eggs in our midst.”
Initially fascinated with the South Pacific (“the country is a painter’s paradise,” he observed), Cook grew fatigued with combat and left the War Art Unit early on medical discharge. The artist insisted he wouldn’t trade his formative experiences for “anything in the world”—but the comforts of civilian life beckoned. “Don’t worry about my wanting excitement when I return,” Cook wrote to Barbara. “I will just want to curl up in a hot dusty corner in the sun and take it easy for a while.” ✯
A weary Cook digs his second foxhole of the day on Rendova Island (above). The artist’s fatigue was soon replaced by terror, as later captured in a haunting air raid self-portrait (header).
Training completed in San Francisco, Cook set sail for Camp Barnes in Noumea, New Caledonia, aboard the USS Tjizadane. He painted a dramatic watercolor called Firing From the After Gun Turret while passing Fiji.
Burrowed deep into the mud, Cook sketched from a foxhole as men emerged after an air raid. He rarely drew while in direct combat yet chose to in this case, noting his hiding place at the sketch’s bottom.
“A solid green mess” is how Cook referred to the South Pacific’s jungles in a particularly evocative letter. Japanese soldiers could easily fire on their enemies using the dense forest as cover; “the front is all over the place and is always hidden,” Cook told his wife.
Cook and his fellow artists ate standard military grub; dinner sometimes included treats like fresh fruit, vegetables, and ice cream. In Jungle Rations, Cook drew a soldier settled down for a quick meal.
“We get bored as hell” between battles, Cook wrote. At right he captured a quiet moment: two men in camp headquarters, one writing a letter, the other hunched over a typewriter. Cook scrawled reference notes for color in the margins in case he later chose to work these images into a painting.
Cook sketched multiple South Pacific islands; the ink-and-paper work below is of navy ships off New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. Other far-flung destinations Cook visited include the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and Phoenix islands.
On his way home in September 1943, Cook sketched military personnel aboard the B-24 Liberator bomber transporting him, including a dozing crewman from the 69th Bomb Squadron.
His finished painting is called "The Ship-Bomber’s Homecoming." The three-day trip included stops in Fiji, Kanton Island, Hawaii, and San Francisco; Cook’s writings describe the men huddling together with one another to keep warm in the cold sky.
This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.