Portraits of Valor: how a veteran honored fellow Marines through art

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Charles Waterhouse always wanted to honor his fellow Marines, especially those who did not return home.

He began to paint portraits of every Marine who received the Medal of Honor. Before dying at 89, he completed over 300 extraordinary paintings which have now been published together in a book by his daughter called “Valor in Action: The Medal of Honor Paintings of Colonel Charles Waterhouse”.

Author Jane Waterhouse says her father joined the Marine Corps right out of high school.

“He was finally sent after training to Iwo Jima,” she said. “He was part of that first assault and that epic battle for the island where they said rare value was common.”

Korean War. Extract from “The value in action”. Painting by Charles Waterhouse. (Courtesy)

Charles Waterhouse was injured but survived the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, where so many Marines died. And he came home with the idea of ​​creating comics about the Marines who had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

This is where his paintings began. He first created a storyboard comic about John Basilone, a Medal of Honor recipient and another boy from New Jersey, his daughter says.

King Comics’ art director rejected the comic and said people didn’t want to read about the war – but he recognized Charles Waterhouse’s talent and encouraged the veteran to go to art school, says Jane Waterhouse.

Of "Value in action." Painting by Charles Waterhouse.  (Courtesy)
Extract from “The value in action”. Painting by Charles Waterhouse. (Courtesy)

Charles Waterhouse completed his art studies and became the very first Marine Corps Artist in Residence. As a gift from the Marines to the nation during the bicentennial in 1976, he made 14 paintings of Marines during the War of Independence that toured the country as part of a collection, his daughter said.

He did not retire from the role of artist until 1991.

“The Marines loved the job so much they never let it go,” she says.

Charles Waterhouse didn’t start his project to paint all Navy Medal of Honor recipients until he was 82 and died at 89. He donated all of his work to the Marine Corps, marking the largest art collection ever offered to the service branch, says Jane Waterhouse.

Even in his last days, Charles Waterhouse worked with the vigor of a 21-year-old and juggled multiple canvases at once, she says.

“The last years of his life were consumed by what he saw as his final mission,” she said, “and his last gift to the Marines and the country.”

He devoted about every waking hour to these paintings, getting up in the middle of the night to work on an unfinished canvas. During meals, he draws sketches on paper napkins. And as his daughter writes, in his last days, he was tormented by unfinished and / or not started canvases.

Charles Waterhouse painted Marines who had received the Medal of Honor.  Portraits of "Value in action." (Courtesy)
Charles Waterhouse painted Marines who had received the Medal of Honor. Portraits of “The value in action”. (Courtesy)

When Charles Waterhouse no longer had the strength to paint, his daughter promised to fulfill her father’s dream of publishing all the paintings in a book.

“I felt to do justice that I had to get to know men. I felt consumed, ”she says. “My father’s mission has become mine for the past six years.

Jane Waterhouse wrote a series of incredible stories to accompany her father’s remarkable paintings, including the story of Colonel John W. Ripley on the bridge. Charles Waterhouse was convinced Ripley deserved a Medal of Honor, she said.

On Easter Sunday 1972, Ripley was to prevent enemy troops from taking the Dong Ha Bridge in South Vietnam. Ripley and 700 South Vietnamese Marines clashed with 30,000 North Vietnamese troops and 300 heavy tanks, said Jane Waterhouse.

Ripley at the bridge.  Of "Value in action." Painting by Charles Waterhouse.  (Courtesy)
Ripley at the bridge. Extract from “The value in action”. Painting by Charles Waterhouse. (Courtesy)

With the 700 Marines protecting him from heavy fire, Ripley hung below deck for about three hours, crashing loads of saddlebags in order to blow him up.

Ripley had a bunch of wet matches and knew that if he couldn’t light them he would instead throw a grenade which would probably kill him. Fortunately, the matches set fire and the heroic Ripley returned alive on the bridge – but only about 50 of the 700 soldiers protecting him survived, she says.

“The bridge blew up. And there was this moment [of] sort of ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, glorious victory, ”she said. “But it was, like my father, very pipe-dreaming and short-lived because, you know, the tide had turned with the war.”

The Marines cherished Ripley until his death, she says, and the book “The Dong Ha Bridge” tells his heroic story. And Ripley’s legacy lives on forever in Charles Waterhouse’s painting of the legendary moment.

Imagining her father smiling in the skies, Jane Waterhouse hopes she honored these men in the same way by telling their stories in the book.

“My dad, every time he went with them on the web, he communicated with them,” says Jane Waterhouse. “Every time I visited him he would say, ‘Let me tell you about him. You won’t believe what he did. He was just in awe of them.


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

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