The University Record, September 18, 1995

Lewis’ exhibition at Clements chronicles World War II in Pacific

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

“Dear Mom, send me my paints,” was the message William Lewis sent home during the opening months of World War II.

Called to active duty from the Naval Reserves, Lewis put his U-M education on hold to join the crew of the converted yacht U.S.S. Marcasite in San Diego. Once his painting supplies caught up with him at the California base, Lewis wasted no time in producing watercolors.

An exhibition of Lewis’s World War II paintings will run through Dec. 22 at Clements Library.

Sensitive to the perceived possibility of a Japanese invasion on the West Coast, officials frowned on photography in and around San Diego. But Lewis continued his watercolors. “If I had made this view as a photographer,” Lewis says of a rendition of the San Diego harbor, “I probably would have been shot. But nobody seemed to pay any attention to a painter working on board the boat.”

And so it was across the Pacific and into Tokyo Bay and bombed-out Yokohama. Lewis continued painting the ships of the Pacific Fleet and the sailors who manned them. But especially he recorded the ships—ships plying the routes to war, ships engaged in battle and ships limping into the dry docks of Pearl Harbor and Ulithi for repairs.

Assigned to the carrier Shangri La, Lewis painted while sitting under the shelter of a plane on the flight deck. He painted the mighty ships of battle riding at anchor in the Leyte Gulf. And he painted the loss of planes and aviators.

“This little piece of plane tail-end in the water with a green dye marker,” Lewis says of one watercolor, “is sort of a summary of what happened relatively often on any given day with hundreds of planes in the air.”

A small sketch of a helmet belonging to a pharmacist mate “symbolized the end,” Lewis says. “The ability to take off your battle gear and relax was the most significant feature of the day that the war ended.”

The fighting may have ended, but Lewis didn’t stop his painting. He drew pictures of sailors boogying on the flight deck with gunners sitting atop the turrets. He painted the sunset and moonrise in Tokyo Bay and Mt. Fuji looming over the waterfront dotted with a collection of American and British ships. He painted the bombed-out city of Yokohama showing not only the leveled city, but the downtown area with a burned-out street car, crowds of people in the narrow street, rubbish piled high on both sides and the gutted remnants of buildings.

In these watercolors and drawings by a young sailor and U-M student, Lewis first explored the techniques and themes that would become the heart of his work. “I have always been fascinated by what the human race has done to itself and the landscapes in the last 200 years, with its industrial revolution, wars and national delusions,” Lewis says.

After the war, Lewis resumed his studies at U-M, graduated in 1948, and joined the School of Art faculty where he continued teaching until his retirement in 1985.

The Lewis exhibition, “‘Dear Mom, Send Me My Paints’: An Art Student in the United States Navy, 1941–1945,” will be displayed along with “Remembering the World War II Era,” an exhibition from the Clements Library’s Collections. The exhibit room is open Monday–Friday, noon–2:30 p.m.