Remembering World War II Through Watercolor

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By: Alex Ashlock

Many people know Joe Farris as a cartoonist for The New Yorker.

But thanks to a wonderful new book, we're also getting to know him as a young soldier, and artist, fighting in a machine gun unit in Europe during World War II. The book is called "A Soldier's Sketchbook: From The Front Lines Of World War II."

It's a scrapbook really, a compilation of the actual letters he wrote home (and he wrote hundreds), along with photos he took, sketches he made, daily reports of his unit's movements, and his reflections today looking back on it all.

Today, Joe Farris is 87. He still lives in his native Connecticut, where he grew up the son of Lebanese-Americans who ran a corner store in Danbury called Danbury Confectionary, where he also worked. A store, Joe writes, that had the biggest candy display in town. (Joe says the candy store helped keep the local dentists in business.)

Joe says the letters he wrote home to his family during the war are bland, and they often start with a phrase like "everything here is swell," even though in his contemporary writing he admits they were are all scared, and his buddies were dying.

"I didn't want my parents to worry," he told Here & Now's Robin Young during our interview. "I would describe events that took place that had nothing to do with the fighting because censorship was so strict. I just needed my communication home, it's unlike today when you have Skype and email."

Joe's war letters home to his family were stashed away for decades, but when he turned 80 in 2004, he decided that if his daughter and her family was to know anything about his war experiences, he should put them together in a scrapbook. He had no intention to publish, until a member of the family said, "this should be published."

Now it has been and it's filled with these watercolor sketches Joe made of soldiers in foxholes, walking across snowfields freezing under German flares. The battle scenes are stark, colored with rusty browns and flat reds, trees like sticks with no leaves.

Joe explained a sketch called "Hill 578, France, November 1944," which he calls his most important sketch from the war.

"It was my first battle, and as we reached reached the top of the hill we met up with a rifle company, they had already started digging their foxholes which we commenced to do too. And suddenly a barrage of bullets started coming our way and we hit the ground.

Fortunately the machine gun was half loaded so we loaded it completely and started firing. Now when started this battle I was the second gunner. There's the squad leader the first gunner the second gunner people that carry ammunition water and the jeep driver.

So anyway we start firing back and I look up at the first gunner and he had covered his eyes with one hand and was firing indiscriminately with the other. So I pushed him aside and took over the machine gun and started firing. At this point one of our men who had a sub-machine gun stood up and took out the enemy. They were obviously snipers in trees.

Well we found out later the first gunner's indiscriminate firing had gone over a foxhole in front of us occupied by an American solder. So he was feeling guilty about this so he crawled down to see if this soldier was ok, and to his great surprise it was someone from his hometown that he had almost killed. Well the first gunner and the sergeant who was a regular Army man lost control of themselves very quickly and were sent back and before I knew it from the first battle I became a squad leader. Eventually I was promoted to sergeant. I understand I was the youngest squad leader in the battalion."


This segment aired on January 3, 2012.


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