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Portraits Of Valor: How One Veteran Honored Fellow Marines Through Art

Charles Waterhouse always wanted to honor his fellow Marines, especially those who didn’t make it home.

He set out to paint portraits of each Marine who received the Medal of Honor. Before he died at 89, he finished more than 300 extraordinary paintings that 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 shipped eventually after training to Iwo Jima,” she says. “He was part of that first assault and that epic battle for the island where they said uncommon valor was common.”

Charles Waterhouse was wounded but survived the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, where so many Marines died. And he came home with the idea of creating comic strips about Marines who had received the Medal of Honor.

That’s where his paintings started. He first created a storyboard comic strip about John Basilone, a Medal of Honor recipient and a fellow New Jersey boy, his daughter says.

The art director for King Comics rejected the strip and said people didn’t want to read about the war — but he acknowledged Charles Waterhouse’s talent and encouraged the veteran to go to art school, Jane Waterhouse says.

Charles Waterhouse finished art school and went on to become the Marine Corps’ first-ever artist in residence. As a gift from the Marines to the nation during the bicentennial in 1976, he did 14 paintings of Marines during the Revolutionary War that toured the country as part of a collection, his daughter says.

He didn’t retire from the artist role until 1991.

“The Marines loved the work so much that they never let him go,” she says.

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

Even in his final 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 considered his final mission,” she says, “and his final gift to the Marines and to the country.”

He dedicated about every waking hour to these paintings, getting up in the middle of the night to work on an unfinished canvas. During meals, he drew sketches on paper napkins. And as his daughter writes, in his last days, he was tormented by the canvases that were unfinished and or unstarted.

When Charles Waterhouse couldn’t muster the strength to paint anymore, his daughter promised to fulfill her father’s dream of publishing all the paintings in a book.

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

Jane Waterhouse wrote a series of incredible stories to go with her father’s remarkable paintings, including the tale of Col. John W. Ripley at the bridge. Charles Waterhouse felt strongly that Ripley deserves a Medal of Honor, she says.

On Easter Sunday in 1972, Ripley needed to prevent enemy troops from taking the bridge at Dong Ha in South Vietnam. Ripley and 700 South Vietnamese marines faced 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and 300 heavy tanks heading their way, Jane Waterhouse says.

With the 700 marines protecting him from heavy fire, Ripley hung under the bridge for an estimated three hours planting satchel charges in order to blow it up.

Ripley had one pack of wet matches and knew that if he couldn’t light them, he would instead throw a grenade that would likely kill him. Luckily, the matches set the fire and the heroic Ripley got back over the bridge alive — but only around 50 of the 700 soldiers protecting him survived, she says.

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

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

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

“My father, every time that he spent with them on the canvas, he was communing with them,” Jane Waterhouse says. “Every time I would visit 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 MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Basilone fighting in World War II. From "Valor in Action." Painting by Charles Waterhouse. (Courtesy)
John Basilone fighting in World War II. From "Valor in Action." Painting by Charles Waterhouse. (Courtesy)