Detail from Howard Cook's "Self Portrait in Fox Hole, Rendova Island," 1943
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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 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 artistinsisted 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.” ✯
This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of World War II magazine.