The National WWII Museum’s latest special exhibit, SOLDIER | ARTIST: Trench Art in World War II, is on view through January 2, 2022.
Postcards fade. Uniforms fray. Flags disintegrate. Too often, pieces of prized World War II memorabilia survive combat only to lose the fight against time.
What do frequently remain, popping up years later at flea markets and yard sales, are hand-hewn relics made from trash—scraps of metal, wood, and plastic, transformed by servicemen into objects playful and practical. Loosely categorized as “trench art,” more than 150 examples of these artworks, keepsakes, and tools are on display at The National WWII Museum through January 2, 2022.
Coined during World War I, the phrase “trench art” refers to the tradition of amateur craftsmen making objects “out of things that would otherwise be considered just the wastes of war,” explains Tom Czekanski, senior curator at the museum and organizer of its latest special exhibit, SOLDIER | ARTIST: Trench Art in World War II.
Revolutionary War prisoners built ship models out of meat bones; Civil War soldiers carved talismans from lead bullets. By World War I, brass gun cartridges were being recycled into durable trinkets, and World War II brought about materials like Plexiglass and aluminum, mostly used in airplanes. Thanks to these technological advances, objects cobbled together out of necessity or ennui were more inclined to last.
Infantrymen engaged in fighting were the least likely combatants to make or keep trench art; as Czekanski points out, they were too busy “staying alive.” As for sailors on ships, soldiers at camps, and prisoners of war, idle hands and plentiful materials likely triggered the itch to create. But, as Czekanski says, “there’s probably something there in the notion that in the midst of destroying the world, they wanted to make something—even if it was just an ashtray.” ✯
WINGING IT: First Lieutenant Gilbert Alonzo Blackwell lost his right leg, his freedom, and his pair of wings when his P-47 was shot down in February 1944. Blackwell, a pilot with the 86th Fighter-Bomber Group, spent seven months as a POW; his own regalia in tatters, he donned the uniform jacket of a deceased Canadian prisoner and carved new wings for himself from wood.
LIGHTNING-QUICK: “To Lt. R.L. Smith, USNR, Gunnery Officer, USS President Adams, From the Gunnery Gang,” reads the plaque on this Lockheed P-38 Lightning figurine—a gift to Robert Lee Smith of Latham, Alabama, from his men. The plane is forged from cartridges and assorted shells; according to curator Tom Czekanski, the P-38 was a popular subject for models.
LET THE MUSIC SET YOU FREE: First Lieutenant Clair Cline of the 448th Bombardment Group wasn’t a professional instrument-maker, but he was a musician—and a handy woodworker with time to kill. During his time as a POW in Germany’s Stalag Luft I in 1944, Cline built a working violin from planks harvested from bed slats, aid crates, and table legs. His tools: broken glass, table knives, and glue scraped from underneath mess hall tables. The project took him just four months; pieces including a plastic chinrest were added after the war.
SMOKE ON THE WATER: Ashtrays were a universally popular form of trench art: “Everybody smoked,” Czekanski says. Typically made from artillery shells, few repositories were as skillfully crafted as the one above, by Technician Fifth Grade Andrew Church of the 26th Infantry Division. Constructed to resemble an amphibious jeep, it features two cigarette rests and realistic detailing.
KNOW HIS NAME: Staff Sergeant Milton S. Miller’s scrap-metal ID bracelet prominently features his eight-digit army serial number. Miller, an engine mechanic with the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea, died in a 1944 plane crash; in 2001, his remains were recovered and buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
HANDLE WITH CARE: According to Czekanski, many American knives came with handles made of leather. They didn’t last long in the Pacific Theater thanks to salt exposure, so servicemen would craft new ones from metal and colorful pieces of Plexiglass.
BREAKING BREAD: Trench art was frequently made from aluminum cut from downed aircraft. Staff Sergeant Leon Peacock made this ciborium, or container for communion wafers, in Burma in 1943, using aluminum sliced off the hub of a Japanese plane’s propeller.
STICKING TOGETHER: Swagger sticks weren’t commonly carried by American officers, but a group of German POWs in Château-Thierry, France, overseen by John D. Sweitzer of the 551st Ordnance Heavy Maintenance Company, felt that their supervisor’s appearance needed an upgrade. In 1945, the prisoners bestowed upon Sweitzer this intricate accessory; likely carved from packing-crate parts, it’s adorned with commemorative engravings and tipped with metal from a .50-caliber bullet.
All photos courtesy of The National WWII Museum
This article was published in the October 2021 issue of World War II.