1942-1943: Soldier-Artist: Nose Cones and Camouflage

Davis enlisted in the army on October 10, 1942. After going through basic training at Camp Livingston in Louisiana, he was assigned to the 84th Engineering Battalion (Camouflage). The unit was shipped out to North Africa in 1943. Their first assignment was with the 12th Bomb Group, painting camouflage designs on the bombers and using camouflage techniques. 

Example of WWII Nose Cone Art

Example of WWII nose cone art, unknown artist, of the variety Harry Davis describes creating for pilots

Davis also had an opportunity to do some artwork:

“The B-25 crews are very much attached to the bombers that have taken them on so many successful missions, and for each mission completed, they have a place just under the pilot, on the nose of the ship, where a mark is placed, in the shape of a bomb, thus denoting the mission accomplished.... They also go in for a painting of some sort, just behind the mission marks. Some of them had pretty girls, a la Petty, and others had cartoon characters. When they found out that I was an artist, I was busy the rest of the time we were with the Bomb Group, painting this sort of pretty girl and cartoon character stuff. The airmen thought that this was really fine art, and they were happy, and I think they were given a little more courage by our work for them.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946

The 84th Engineering Battalion also worked the 82nd Airborne Division, camouflaging their clothing and equipment to match the terrain of Sicily prior to the invasion of that island. For the remainder of 1943, the battalion built dummy ships and phony supply depots to disguise the routes of Allied supply lines between Oran and Tunis.

“The work we were doing in North Africa left me pretty weary at the end of each day, so I found very little time to be creative. I merely made a few sketches of Arabs, and some drawings of the luxuriant green hillsides that I found in Algeria.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

Late in 1943 the battalion received the news that they would be going in to Italy to join the U.S. Fifth Army. Davis had mixed feelings about the prospect of going to Italy.

“I was glad that we would not spend the whole winter in Africa, for I wanted to get to Italy, and to more familiar places, but I didn’t know how I would feel, coming back to a place in which I had some pleasant times, and find utter destruction.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

Liberty Ship S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, in San Francisco, California

S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The battalion boarded a Liberty ship at Oran, French Morocco on Christmas Day, 1943. After a 27-day voyage that included several layovers in various ports, the ship reached Naples, Italy in late January, 1944. Davis found himself disembarking on the same pier as in his first arrival in Italy in 1938.

Liberty ships were naval cargo ships first used by the U.S. Navy in World War II. Liberty ships were also given to the British government through the Lend-Lease program. These ships were lightly armed (4-inch gun mounted in the stern and anti-aircraft guns in other areas) and could 10,000 tons of cargo or up to 1,600 troops. The term “Liberty ship” was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s comment that these ships would carry liberty to Europe. The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien (pictured) is one of two remaining fully functional Liberty ships.

“Upon disembarking, we climbed into trucks, which took us through the streets of Naples, giving us our first view of life in a city recently left in the wake of the Germans. Naples could not make much progress in her recovery, for nightly she received a bombing from the Germans. The dust from the broken streets and crumbled buildings was thick, that our trucks stirred up. They groaned through the dark, narrow streets, dodging the carts of the vegetable vendors, and the people that were busily trying to assemble what remained of their household goods, or their wares that remained, when their place of business was destroyed. The city was teeming people, tired, dirty, and beaten down, who seemed to be wandering around, without any destination or purpose. Wounded women and children, many of them with bandaged heads, arms, and limbs, people crippled and maimed, with eyes that burned of misery and fear, were the kind of sights that first greeted my eyes.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

Vairano Patenora

Vairano Patenora, located 37 miles north of Naples, Italy. The 84th Engineering Battalion (Camouflage) was housed in the old castle at the top of the hill early in 1944.

“[W]e arrived at the very summit, on which was located the ruined castle with a wall around it, separating it from the town…. This was to be our home for a while, and we could find quarters in the dark cells that were underground, and had served as dungeons in the old days…. They called this place Vairano Patenora….”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

Tillers of the Grain

Tillers of the Grain: The oil painting was done on a piece of canvas salvaged from a small pup tent and stretched over a frame made of tent stakes. The painting won a $200 prize at the Indiana Artists’ Club exhibition in 1944.

While his army duties consumed much of his time, Davis did have opportunities to create art. One such opportunity occured while the engineering battalion was stationed at Vairano Patenora. 

"I had now become Company Draftsman, and since there was not always a rush to get the drafting done, and since my art ability was gradually being discovered, I often took off down into the valley, to do a bit of exploring and wandering about, leisurely looking for subject matter, and occasionally stricking up a conversation with some peasant farmer or laborer... it was during one of these little journeys, from our castle down into the farmlands of the valley, that I saw several peasant women working in a field of new wheat, and it suggested the idea for a painting. That is the painting that I made and entitled Tillers of Grain." 

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946

In the spring of 1944 the Allies resumed their push north towards Rome. The 84th Engineering Battalion was part of the push, and Davis saw what had happened to places he was familiar with.

“We were busy doing all sorts of camouflage jobs, for camouflage was found to be very effective in Italy. We were on the move, staying only a day or two in a bivouac area, and then to the next place. All along the way, familiar places and names of towns would loom up, for along this highway I had been many times before the war, but now, towns and cities were flattened. Formia had been shelled from the sea and it was in rubble, hardly a building stood in Terracina, and so on up the line. The beautiful and fertile farmland that was the reclaimed Pontine marshes had been flooded by the bursting of the floodgates.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946

Witnessing the devastation increased Davis’s concerns about what he would find in Rome.

“I was wondering in what condition Rome would be and pretty worried, for I had a personal interest in Rome. It was where the Academy was located, and in the Academy I had left all of the work that I had done in the two years that I was there, and there were personal items that were of value to me. There were friends that I had made, and I wondered if they would be alive when I reached them.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

1942-1943: Soldier-Artist: Nose Cones and Camouflage