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Pacific Sketchbook

June 2024
6min read

From the last peacetime maneuvers in North Carolina to the rubble of Tokyo, a young Army officer took it all in and gave it all back in crisp, increasingly confident drawings

For those who never saw World War II firsthand, its image has, of course, been shaped largely by photography. My own image has a further dimension. It was shaped by the hundreds, if not thousands, of pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches and watercolor paintings that my father produced while serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. The pictures were hung—are hung—all over my parents’ house: in stairwells, in hallways, in bathrooms. They figure prominently among the works displayed in my father’s studio. They lie flat in the drawers of cabinets, create canopies in rafters. I grew up with these pictures of American soldiers and sailors whom my father knew well, of people from the Philippines and New Guinea and Japan who may have entered his life for no more than a few minutes, of landscapes in splendor and cities in ruin. Some of the pictures record matters of historical moment. Because my father was for much of the war the aide-de-camp of a general who had escaped from Corregidor with Douglas MacArthur, and who was in command of all American antiaircraft forces, he spent a considerable amount of time in the precincts of MacArthur’s general staff.

Today my father is an illustrator. Since 1970 he has drawn the internationally syndicated comic strip Prince Valiant, for which I write the story line. He is also a painter of distinction. The work he did during the war, however, is essentially private work, done for himself and his friends and family. Only a tiny fraction—and nothing that appears here—has ever been reproduced before. These drawings and paintings account for virtually no part of my father’s professional reputation. And yet, I think, they mark a turning point.

John Cullen Murphy was born in 1919 and spent his first years in Chicago. An artistic bent was apparent very early, and at the age of nine he was receiving instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago. When his family moved to the New York area, the nurture of his talents was facilitated by an accident of geography: his next-door neighbor in New Rochelle was Norman Rockwell, to whom my father gave service as a model (he is, for example, the character David Copperfield in the Rockwell mural Land of Enchantment ) and from whom he received informal training as a student. Later he enrolled at the Art Students League, in New York City. He had already embarked upon a career in commercial illustration when war broke out in Europe. He enlisted in New York’s historic 7th Regiment, a National Guard infantry unit, in July of 1940. From then on he seems to have had pencil and paper with him at all times.

The first drawings here are from 1940 and 1941, a period when America’s entry into the wars consuming Europe and Asia seemed highly probable, if not yet inevitable. The nation’s state of readiness is suggested by the uniforms, unchanged since World War I. The Springfield rifles with which the soldiers trained were of turn-of-the-century design. When the 7th Regiment was put into federal service, in February of 1941, it became an antiaircraft unit; the antiaircraft guns it used for training at Camp Stewart, in Georgia, were made of wood. A few real ones arrived in time for the great maneuvers that took place along the Eastern seaboard from September to November of 1941, with the 1st Army, led by Gen. Hugh Drum, opposing the 3d Army, led by Gen. George Patton. (Patton was ultimately declared the loser by Army referees.) The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came one month later. My father remembers spending December 8, 1941, at Camp Stewart, Georgia, painting a portrait of Gen. Sanderford Jarman, the commander of the nation’s Atlantic coastal defenses, who, even as he posed, was issuing orders and urgently redeploying antiaircraft troops up and down the East Coast.

My father was a first lieutenant when he shipped out from Oakland, California, in 1943. He was bound for Australia, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur, following the disastrous retreat from the Philippines, had established his general headquarters. The shipboard sketches were done aboard the Boschfontein , a Dutch vessel that had been in an American port when the Germans overran the Netherlands in 1940. The only other ship spotted during the three-week voyage was a schooner that happened to be the flagship of the Tongatapu Navy. What started out as a rather ordinary Army career took an unexpected turn when my father was asked by a superior officer to draw a caricature of Gen. William Marquat. The caricature, intended as a gift, was blunt—Marquat had a badly broken nose—and made an impression. A few days after he was given the drawing, Marquat, perhaps wanting an artist with such a sensibility in his own camp, added my father to his staff and assigned him the task, in his spare time, of painting watercolor portraits of seemingly every American (and Australian and British) general officer in the Pacific. (Photographs of some of these portraits hang in my father’s studio; it is no coincidence that his eight children could all pronounce Eichelberger at a very early age.) My father also produced during the course of the war several portraits of each member of the MacArthur family: the general, his wife, Jean, and their son, Arthur.

After the debacle in the Philippines the land war against the Japanese was resumed in New Guinea. My father’s whereabouts reflected those of general headquarters of the Allied forces in the southwest Pacific. He was based first in Port Moresby, then in Hollandia, then in Leyte, then in Manila. He typically carried a pad and a sketching pen around with him. The rest of his supplies were kept in a stained and varnished box handcrafted for him in Australia. It rests now in his studio, bearing his name and his rank at the time it was made—captain—in lettering that is still bright gold. The box had a talismanic quality for me as a child; my family’s livelihood seemed symbolically bound up in this one object, an idea that, I now see, would have resonated with a Poe or a Grimm.

Not all of my father’s work was completed on the spot. If a sketch was meant to be preliminary to a painting, he would generally make notes about the colors and then apply the paint back in his quarters. This was the case, for example, with his painting of the emotional ceremony at Manila’s Malacañang Palace in 1945, when Douglas MacArthur turned civilian rule back over to the Filipino president, Sergio Osmeña, after three years of brutal Japanese occupation. My father remembers making the original pencil sketch of the ceremony alongside the great Life magazine photographer Carl Mydans, who was at the same time busily capturing the event on film. The ceremony was broadcast worldwide. Midway through, MacArthur broke down in tears.

The final group of pictures here is from Occupied Japan, and on one of them the notes for coloration can still be seen. This drawing is of the room in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo where Emperor Hirohito held his famous meeting with MacArthur. In the general’s recollections of the meeting, Hirohito personally accepted responsibility for the war and offered himself up for retribution. Japanese historians, perhaps not surprisingly, dispute this account. For his part, my father recalls this remark of MacArthur’s, conveyed to him after the meeting by Gen. Bonner Fellers, MacArthur’s military secretary: “I consider myself a liberal. It was painful to see this man humble himself before me.” In this drawing the notations, besides indicating color, show which figures sat where.

Conditions in Tokyo in the aftermath of the war were, of course, appalling. Demobilized soldiers, many of them homeless, wandered everywhere. The city had been virtually leveled by American bombing, and rubble stretched to the horizon in all directions. Squatters occupied every inch of the Ueno Railroad Station, one large urban space that could still be inhabited. Among the relatively few other buildings left standing, besides the Imperial Palace and the Japanese Diet (both of which MacArthur had directed not to be bombed), was the Dai-Ichi Building, an insurance-company office that MacArthur turned into his headquarters. Crowds of Japanese onlookers would gather every day to witness the arrivals and departures of MacArthur and his limousine.

My father served in Japan until 1946. He returned home with the rank of major and resumed his professional life as an artist.

Now seventy-four, my father works in his studio five days a week. Prince Valiant , though it appears only on Sundays, is a realistic strip with roots that go back to those of the great story strips of the 1930s, which were created by illustrators; drawing it takes a great deal of time. My father continues to travel and paint. The bowl he uses for water in which to dip his brushes is a rice bowl he bought in Japan in 1945—encrusted now with five decades of ink and pigment.

I mentioned at the outset that my father’s work done in the Pacific during World War II marks something of a turning point. Let me explain. When he recently pulled together everything he could find that he had drawn and painted during the war years, he and I looked through it piece by piece, for the most part chronologically. I couldn’t, of course, know everything he was thinking as we did so, but I imagine that his memory must have been deflected in countless directions. Some of this material he certainly had not seen since shortly after he created it.

I do remember clearly my own reaction. As we moved from the tight renderings of 1940 to the controlled but brasher ones of 1945,1 saw the effect that five momentous years had brought about. I saw the emergence of an artist with confidence, maturity, and grace.

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