Monday, May 17, 2010

Bill Lewis - The Art of War

Bill Lewis, 92, in the basement studio of his Ann Arbor home. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

(Note: For the past five years, World War II veterans have been dying at an average of more than 1,000 a day. With Memorial Day approaching, I will be focusing my next two Reflection columns on a pair of local WWII veterans and their stories of life and war.)

Bill Lewis still remembers one of his earliest drawings. The 92-year-old from Ann Arbor was real young at the time - maybe kindergarten or first grade - and he’d just received an easel, a slate and some chalk from his parents at his childhood home in Grand Rapids. With his new drawing tools in tow, Lewis wandered out and looked for something to draw. What he found was a boxcar – so he sketched it. Now the only thing left to do was seek out his father to see if it was any good. Lewis regarded his father, an electrical engineer who worked for the phone company his entire life, an expert on everything.

His father liked the drawing.

“I’ve been sketching trains ever since.” Lewis said smiling.

Although Lewis never formally studied art, he knew from that moment on, his calling in life was to be an artist.

Of course it wasn’t always easy. Even though his parents had bought Lewis his first art set, they weren’t exactly keen on the idea of having their only child end up an artist.  And then came the Great Depression, which Lewis admits, didn’t affect him or his folks all that much because his “Pa” had an important job. But it did mean his father now had to support the rest of his relatives who were affected.

“You have to remember,” Lewis said, “during the Great Depression, nobody would be going into something as ridiculous as being an artist.”

Despite the times and lack of parental approval, Lewis’ love of drawing never waned. It wasn’t until he graduated from high school and began junior college in Grand Rapids in 1938, that he feared his art might take a back seat to world affairs when Nazi Germany marched into Austria.

With the prospect of war at America’s doorstep, Lewis and his mates figured it was better to enlist than be drafted, so he and two of his “sidekicks” immediately joined the Naval Reserves in June of 1938. In 1939, Lewis transferred to the University of Michigan, but in July of 1941, after an initial deferment, he was called to active duty.

At this point one might expect Lewis’ story to take a turn for the worst - to tell of horrific battles and the hell of war. Of coming back a tortured man, like a lot of soldiers and sailors did – going through life, silent and normal on the outside, but torn to shreds on the inside.

But Lewis’ story is not the usual fare. His is an odd story of training and observing, of good timing and even better fortune. He was a young man beyond his years - a young man who understood the magnitude and historical importance of the moment while living it, and he made it a point to use his artistic talent to record those moments as they happened.

His story began with months of training stateside in Chicago, and then Dearborn, before moving on to New Orleans and Tampa.

It was that first year with the Navy that Lewis had his only brush with real warfare – a solo encounter with a German submarine off the Atlantic coast while Lewis and his mates were taking their boat, a yacht the Navy converted into a gunship dubbed Marcasite, down to Key West to join a convoy to Panama.

It was more of a cat and mouse affair, Lewis acknowledged, and somewhere along the way, he and his mates realized “the Germans were just as afraid of us as we were of them.”

Nothing ever materialized between the Marcasite and the German sub, and Lewis and his mates traveled the rest of the way to Panama without incident. From there it was on to San Diego for more training, and then to Pearl Harbor, where the war had begun less than a year earlier.

“I was very interested to see what Pearl Harbor looked like when I got there.” Lewis admitted.

Pearl Harbor was still very much in crisis control, according to Lewis, but two things in particular really stuck out to him. The first was the battleship West Virginia, which had been terribly damaged in the Japanese attack on the harbor, but now was tied to a dock being repaired.

The second was the wreck of the Oklahoma, still upside down in the middle of the harbor undergoing a massive construction effort to turn it upright. The fact that the bodies of 700 men were still trapped inside the Oklahoma was very sobering for Lewis.

For the next several months, Lewis and his Marcasite crew made several trips to and from the South Pacific as a spotter for other ships. When Lewis saw pieces of other boats coming back from the war zone, it made him perfectly happy not to be more involved. So he drew.

He sketched boats, and planes, and urban landscapes - loading up on art supplies in San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and later in Seattle where the Marcasite had been sent in the summer of 1944 to be a weather boat in the Gulf of Alaska. Later, after the Gulf’s rough seas tore apart the Marcasite, Lewis was reassigned to another boat - a carrier called Shangri-La.

It was on board the Shangri-La where Lewis’ sketches and paintings not only got better, but also took on historical importance.

“When I was on the carrier, I did quite a lot (sketching).” Lewis said. “By that time I knew what I was doing.”

When the Shangri-La docked in the Leyte Gulf in July of 1945 with the rest of “MacArthur’s Navy” (every boat in the U.S. Naval fleet that wasn’t still in Europe) to prepare for the final invasion on Japan, Lewis would sit and paint a section of the enormous fleet every day until he painted the “whole thing.”

“Battleships, carriers, torpedo bombers, corsairs – everything!” Lewis said. “I had a buddy who was a signal man, and he pointed out and identified every ship I painted.”

Cameras were forbidden, according to Lewis, but no one paid any attention to his drawings, until one day an officer walked past, stopped, looked over Lewis’ shoulder as he painted, and then told him, “You’ll never go crazy!”

After the atomic bombs were dropped (which Lewis and none of his Navy mates knew anything about until after it happened) they sailed into Tokyo Bay and eventually went ashore where Lewis saw the incredible destruction the war had caused on the Japanese homeland.

“Seeing those cities (Tokyo and Yokohama) turned me into a peacenik right on the spot.” Lewis said. “It was the total cleaning out of a culture. This (Tokyo) was a modern place that had just been wiped out.”

Through it all, Lewis felt no animosity toward the Japanese.

“The Marines fought a different war than we did.” Lewis said. “I could understand their hatred toward the Japanese. But I went through the whole war without seeing anything – it was all at a distance. There was too much of a mess – I couldn’t be mad.”

When Lewis was in Japan, he ran out of drawing paper, so he started sketching in a small notebook, or on paper lent to him by his fellow sailors.

“They had to end the war,” Lewis joked, “because I was running out of paper!”

By the end of the war, Lewis had amassed more than 200 drawings, sketches and paintings from his time in the Navy. After returning home, Lewis did make his living in the art world, eventually becoming an art professor at the University of Michigan.

In 1995, Lewis’ work from his time at war was put on display at the University of Michigan’s Clement’s Library. It wasn’t the first time Lewis had his artwork from war on display. In 1964, his show “The Last Year of the Civil War” went on a national tour, and now, even at the age of 92, Lewis plans on having yet another show that deals with war. This one he plans to launch in four years to commemorate the centennial of World War I - a war in which four of his uncles fought.

Seeing the devastation the Great War took on his uncles is something Lewis will never forget. “I’ve had that war with me my whole life,” he said, “it’s on my mind – always.”

Lewis has always wanted to do a show on World War I, a war he feels never ended - it just picked up where it left off as WWII. And now, after years of putting it on the back burner, he’s doing just that.

When it’s all said and done, Lewis plans on having 40-50 paintings in the show – a show that is very personal. “This is strictly for me.” He said. “I don’t know where they’re going to go and I really don’t give a damn – I just figure I have to run for another four years to get it done.”

Despite his advanced age, Lewis thinks the odds of being around another four years are in his favor.

“My dad lived to be 96, and my mom was 104.” Lewis said. “The guy who checks my prostate said he wants to be invited to my 100th birthday, so I guess he thinks I’ll be around.”

In the meantime, Bill Lewis will do what he does best – what he’s always done best – he’ll take out a piece of paper and he’ll draw.


  1. cool cat... and it shows a side of America's fighting men that rarely is seen. Hard to attach jigoism to such an attitude.

  2. Way to Grandpa Bill (and Lon, as always, my fave photo-journalist...)

  3. I had the nice fortune of meeting Bill last year. This is a lovely article, thank you for sharing your story, Bill.

  4. Bill, I am Hoping you remember an old friend Warren Glinn he is 90 years old and resides at
    861 Brair hill Ln. Traverse City, Mi 49684 His Phone # is 231-9468553. We were reminisincing of days you two spent together and he wished that he could get in touch with you. He has no computer source. so the above information should be helpful. My Name is barbara Joy Johnson and I am a good friend.

  5. I just purchased two watercolors at an auction- didn't know anything about the artist- just that I loved those paintings and had to have them- they were of the Civil War. I found this article trying to learn more about the wonderful artist - and I am so glad I did! What an inspiring man! I am truly honored to have your work, Mr. Lewis, gracing the walls of my home. I just hope, as a Navy vet, you don't mind them in an Army home :) best of luck to you and thank you for your service to our nation!!!!