1944: Return to Rome and Promotion to Combat Artist

The Allies liberated Rome on June 5, 1944, and Davis wasted no time in going to the American Academy.

“[T]hree days later, I was at the Academy and discovered that my studio had not been entered, everything was just as I had left it, and my friends were all alive, happy to see Americans again; however they showed distinct signs of having suffered from a lack food.

Our company had bivouaced in the grounds of the Doria Pamphelli estate.... This was only five minutes walking distance from the Academy, so I went often to see my friends there, each time taking some of my ration of candy, for they had had no sweets for several years. Other things I took to them what I could.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946

Chester Starr

Chester Starr

An unexpected meeting in Rome in June 1944 took Davis’s military career in a new direction. While visiting the American Academy, Davis learned that Chester Starr, with whom he had toured Greece in the spring of 1939, was now a lieutenant colonel in the army and also in the city.

“I went to see him, and with all the old friendship between us, we met, not as a Lt. Col. and a sergeant, for the military courtesy seemed out of place at such a meeting. This meeting was the beginning of my actual work as a painter in the army. I learned from him, that he was the commanding officer of the Fifth Army Historical Section, under whose direction several artists were at work, producing paintings and drawings, based on the activities of the Fifth Army. They were not doing illustrations, but many of their works were reproduced in the volumes of the Fifth Army History.

I related to him what my work in the Army had been, and that I wished for a chance to paint, instead of the designing I had been doing. Thereupon, he set about to get me transferred to his section. That was June 1944 and in August my transfer came through....”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946

Davis was assigned to the 85th Infantry Division. He would travel with the division, making sketches that reflected the activities of the division and the life of the soldiers. He would then return to the Historical Section in the rear to produce paintings based on his sketches.

Chester Starr (1914-1999) was a historian who specialized in ancient history, especially the Greco-Roman civilization. Prior to World War II he studied at the University of Missouri, Cornell University, and the American Academy in Rome. During the war he served as the head of the Historical Section of the U.S. Fifth Army, where he oversaw the publication of the nine-volume history of the Fifth Army in World War II. After the war he taught at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. He and Davis remained in contact after the war.

Retreating Germans Destroying their Equipment

Retreating Germans Destroying Equipment

While being assigned as a combat artist gave Davis the opportunity to use his artistic skills, it also brought him face-to-face with the harsh reality of combat. His first tour with the 85th Division forced him to make a psychological adjustment to the circumstances he was facing.

“I went to the division in September 1944, just a few days before the push began, the cracking of the strongly fortified Gothic Line. The Arno had been crossed and Florence had been taken. The Gothic Line was located at the beginning of the rugged Apenines, as they cross the breadth of Italy, and the 85th Division was pushing through, north of Florence about 25 miles. The first few days of the assault brought heavy casualties, and these were some of my first subjects. There was so much going on and there was an endless amount of material to paint, but I had no hankering for the kind of subject matter that I had to draw from, torn and crumbling buildings, dead dismembered bodies of soldiers, both our own and the enemy’s, and rugged and treacherous mountain passes that were scarred and pitted with shell holes. But for a month, while the push was on, I remained with the Div., making sketches of this sort of thing.”

Harry Davis, Experiences of a Soldier Artist, 1946 

Sunday Service in the Field

Davis’s pen-and-ink drawing Sunday Service in the Field shows an army chaplain conducting worship services for men of the 85th Infantry Division in 1944. Image of the painting courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

“The last artist to join us in Italy was Harry Davis…. [D]espite being raw and uninitiated, he made the adjustment to working on the battlefield with remarkable ease and produced stirring frontline depictions of some of the bloodiest engagements high in the Apennine Mountains….

His production as a war artist took form rather slowly at first, although he was able to crank out paintings with a prolific ease. Suddenly, picking up from the vast amount of work that the other artists had produced, Harry accelerated in unbelievable fashion. He sought out dangerous combat zones and quickly picked up Siporin’s magical pen-and-ink approach, which was well suited to working under the conditions we faced…. For a late arrival, he contributed an astonishing number of meaningful drawings and paintings.”

Edward Reep, A Combat Artist in World War II. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1987

Edward Reep (1918-2013) was the officer in charge of the combat artists who were assigned to the Historical Section of the U.S. Fifth Army. He studied at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the 1930s before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1941.

After the war Reep continued his artistic career and became an art instructor. He taught at the Art Center School, the Bisttram School of Fine Art, the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), and East Carolina University. He wrote The Content of Watercolor in 1969 and A Combat Artist in World War II in 1987. He wrote the latter book “to present a true portrait of an artist in combat.”

Reep and Davis remained in contact. In his book he writes “A few years ago I was invited to jury a major art exhibition in Indiana. To my delight, both Harry Davis and his wife, also an artist, were very ably represented and walked off with a number of awards.”

Ebb and Flow of War

Davis’s painting Ebb and Flow of War shows men from the 85th Infantry Division moving towards the front, while ambulances carry the wounded to the rear. This scene took place on Mount Altuzzo in the Apennine Mountains north of Florence, Italy. (Image of the painting courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia)

1944: Return to Rome and Promotion to Combat Artist