Tuesday, February 13, 2024

At Sea with Robert L. Sherrod

When he boarded the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga on December 9, 1944, at the Pacific Fleet’s main anchorage at the Ulithi atoll, it marked the twenty-third ship war correspondent Robert L. Sherrod of Time magazine had been on since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sherrod discovered that morale was higher on the Ticonderoga than on any of the other ships he had sailed on. That might have been because the ship still had stateside provisions available (“Once we he had steak four nights straight,” said Sherrod), but the real reason was its captain, Dixie Kiefer, a “short, barrel-chested seaman and airman who ran his ship by procedures few men could or would use, and made them work.”

Four or five times a day, Sherrod saw Kiefer, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and formerly the executive officer on the USS Yorktown, get on the bullhorn and plead with his flight-deck crew to hurry up or “that admiral over there will give me hell.” When the Ticonderoga, an Essex-class carrier, passed through the Panama Canal in September 1943, the captain, a veteran of the Coral Sea and Midway battles, saw to it that nearly all of his 3,000-member crew—chiefly young men from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and South Boston—received shore liberty at either the canal’s entrance or exit. “Some had to be carried aboard,” said Sherrod, “but every man made it back to the ship.”

For his part, the captain, who wore a helmet with “Dixie” boldly stenciled on it, had two main distractions—a $200 guitar on which he played (badly, Sherrod reported) such songs as “Ida” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now,” and cribbage, which he played with great intensity against Commander Herbert S. Fulmer Jr., the ship’s gunnery officer. “I have such a good time on this ship I ought not to take money for running it,” Kiefer told Sherrod.

Although while Sherrod was aboard the Ticonderoga foul weather plagued its operations, carrier planes from the ship, part of Task Force 38 under the overall command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, destroyed about 450 Japanese planes stationed at airfields on Luzon in the Philippines and on the island of Formosa. Sherrod was still on the carrier when it retired from the fighting with other ships of the task force to refuel. “There had been reports of an approaching typhoon; however, most of the Fleet’s aerologists had charted it considerably farther east,” Sherrod said. “Then the storm began to veer erratically toward the task force. We could see that we were in for a typhoon of savage ferocity.”

The typhoon, dubbed Cobra, began on December 16 and produced waves up to sixty-feet high and had winds with speeds estimated to be more than 100 miles per hour. “The smaller ships were already catching hell—how much hell we could not tell, for sheets of spray often cut visibility to ten yards, and we could only get an occasional peek at the smaller ships across a dip in the mountainous waves,” Sherrod recalled.

Larger ships such as the Tinconderoga survived the storm with limited damage. Sherrod said the carrier suffered only smashed catwalks off the flight deck that were easily repaired. “The smaller ships,” he said, “bore the brunt of the savage counterclockwise storm.” Three destroyers—the USS Spence, Hull, and Monaghan—capsized and sank. Out of crews totaling 800 men, only eighty-four survived. “Most of the survivors hung grimly onto their life rafts . . . watching their comrades washed off and under, powerless to do anything about it,” said Sherrod. “Some survivors spent as much as 52 hours in the water with nothing more than kapok jackets and life rings to keep them afloat.”

The storm’s survivors had horrific tales to share with Sherrod about their ordeal. Those men wracked with thirst and who had unwisely ingested sea water would “foam at the mouth, a kind of cream-colored foam, and their tongues would curl, and swell up in their mouths and their lips turn inside out,” said Seaman Doil Carpenter from the Monaghan. Three men from the Spence, who were in the water for fifty-two hours before being rescued, were among a group of five who found themselves drifting separately and decided to tie themselves together around a life ring.

David Moore, an African American steward first class who had been in the navy for nine years, told the correspondent that the men tried “very hard not to drink any salt water,” but one of the eventual survivors had quite a bit and started hallucinating. “He talked about seeing a Japanese girl bringing him some water,” Moore said. “When I told him not to get discouraged, that people could go seven days without food or water, he said if he had a chocolate éclair and a glass of milk he could go longer than that.”

Hallucinations were common among those drifting in the sea after the typhoon, said Sherrod. One man dreamed that he had been rescued by a Russian submarine and remembered thinking to himself that he could understand what people around him were saying, and “that’s funny because I can’t speak Russian.” A lieutenant junior grade from the Hull, even after his rescue, said Sherrod, kept asking if he was on a Japanese or American ship. “He would be told but would ask again,” he noted. Lieutenant Edwin B. Brooks Jr., the Hull’s assistant communications officer, told the correspondent that he remembered believing he had been taken prisoner by Japanese general Masaharu Homma. “Is there a General Homma?” Brooks asked Sherrod. He said there was; Brooks responded, “I swear I don’t think I ever heard of him.”

The most remarkable account of survival involved a nineteen-year-old sailor from the Hull, Nicholas Nagurney. Suffering from delusions, he had swum away from his life raft and tried to see just how deep the ocean might be (five miles down where he was, noted Sherrod). While Nagurney was away from the raft, a shark bit the sailor on the right forearm, tearing off a piece of flesh four-inches square, but less than a half-inch deep. “I don’t remember feeling it when he bit me, but I remember he was about eight feet long!” said Nagurney, who made it safely back to his raft. One of the other men on the raft, which was equipped with a medical kit, bandaged the injured sailor’s arm.

Unfortunately for Nagurney, there were more injuries to come. An officer on the raft had become delirious with thirst and had taken a mouthful of seawater. “The alert Nagurney pounced on him, rammed his finger down the officer’s throat to make him vomit,” said Sherrod. The officer bit his would-be savior’s finger. “I guess I’m the only guy that’s ever been bit by a shark and an officer the same day,” Nagurney said.

In January 1945, when Task Force 38 set sail again from Ulithi, which supplied the fleet with “bombs, beans and bullets,” Sherrod left the Ticonderoga for another carrier, the Essex, scheduled to hit enemy targets in the South China Sea in a venture the correspondent called “audacious as it was unlikely.” The task force’s eleven carriers, six battleships, thirteen cruisers, and forty-eight destroyers slipped through the Bashi Channel at the bottom tip of Formosa without being observed by the enemy or struck by Japan’s newest weapon—kamikaze (“divine wind”) attacks, which had begun as an organized movement the previous October during General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious invasion in the Gulf of Leyte in the Philippines.

When he had arrived in the Pacific in early December 1944, Sherrod said the navy talked about the kamikazes, who they called “green hornets,” to the exclusion of almost everything else. Scuttlebutt among the sailors had it that the suicide pilots were supposed to be clad in white robes, yellow and green tights, or black hoods, and some were allegedly manacled to their cockpits. “Nothing could have been more awesome than to see a human being diving himself and his machine into the enemy; nobody except the Japanese could have combined such medieval religious fervor with a machine as modern as the airplane,” Sherrod said. The kamikazes’ potential as a “force to destroy the Navy caused great concern,” he added.

Sherrod said that when he had visited Nimitz at Pearl Harbor before returning to the Pacific war, the admiral told him that the navy did not want “the Japanese to know how effective their suicide planes have been.” By the middle of December, kamikazes had been responsible for sinking fourteen ships and damaging another fifty, including five large carriers. A wild-eyed navy lieutenant, speaking to Sherrod about the new Japanese threat, asked the correspondent: “Are we going to have to kill them all?”

On January 12, 1945, pilots from the Essex and other carriers conducted the first carrier-based naval air strike against French Indochina, hitting Japanese airfields, shipping, and shore installations from Camranh Bay to Saigon Harbor. The day before the mission, Admiral Halsey sent a message to his ships: “We may have a golden opportunity tomorrow to completely annihilate an important enemy force. You all know that is what I expect of you. Give them hell. God bless you all. Halsey.”

On the raid Sherrod flew with Torpedo Squadron 4 as part of the three-man crew on a General Motors TBM Avenger aircraft piloted by Lieutenant B. R. Trexler and joined by Aviation Radioman First Class Charles Barr. It marked the second time in the war that Sherrod had flown on a combat mission. The strike team included fourteen Avengers, all equipped with four 500-pound bombs, escorted to their target by eleven Grumman Hellcat fighters.

Sherrod wrote his wife, Betty, that once the task force made it to Asia, he “could not resist an opportunity to see what it looked like—I had never seen Asia.” He went on to attempt to allay any fears she might have regarding his safety, noting he had “picked a nice safe flight—almost as safe as flying from LaGuardia Field [in New York] to Washington [D.C.]—and there was very little antiaircraft fire. All the Jap planes had been knocked out in the morning, so there was almost no opposition. However, I do not expect to go on any more bombing raids. I’ll stay on the deck—or the ground—from now on.”

The correspondent had a “grandstand seat” for the action, as the weather, which had been “mostly miserable” for the past three weeks, had improved just in time for the day’s mission. “I could see the bombers and strafing planes as they made their runs and watch the ships and oil storage tanks as they caught fire,” he wrote his wife. “Saigon looked like an interesting place . . . I would like to go back and see what it looks like from the ground. If I revisit all the places I have seen under wartime conditions we’ll have quite a bit of traveling to do after the war.”  

While Sherrod peered through his aircraft’s window trying to catch a glimpse of Saigon, he felt the plane tilt sharply as Trexler started to dive toward his target—cargo ships in the harbor. Dropping his bombs was not enough for the pilot, however, as Sherrod noted his aircraft also strafed the target area, a task usually left to the fighters. “I asked Trexler later what tempted him into this strafing mission and he grinned: ‘There was a little cutter trying his damndest to make it under that bridge and I wanted to nail him before he got there. I burned him all right,’” Sherrod reported.

During the strike, which the correspondent described “as fine a demonstration of precision bombing as was furnished during World War II,” the 500 U.S. planes involved sank four cargo ships, a couple of oilers, and the Vichy French cruiser Lamotte-Picquet, a ship that “might have been in Japanese hands, for all we knew,” Sherrod noted. Overall, the American pilots destroyed 157,285 tons of enemy shipping, including fourteen warships and thirty-three merchant ships. The U.S. air mastery was such that Sherrod’s aircraft even had time to loiter over the harbor to watch the spreading devastation below, including burning oil storage tanks belching clouds of smoke that reached 4,000-feet high.

Task Force 38, however, did not escape Asia unharmed. On January 21, as the warships sailed out of the South China Sea southeast of Formosa, Japanese kamikaze pilots struck. On the Essex Sherrod had just sat down to eat “noon chow” when he heard the ship’s five-inch guns firing and the bell clanging signaling general quarters. When he made it topside, the correspondent could see smoke billowing 300 feet into the air. “Seven [enemy] planes had sneaked through. Six were shot down but the seventh crashed through the Ti’s flight deck. She was badly hit,” said Sherrod.

As the fires were about to be put under control by damage-control teams, a second kamikaze hit the Ticonderoga, with the Japanese pilot pulling up at the last moment to hit the ship’s bridge. “She is still shooting, but she is going to sink sure as hell,” an officer on the Essex standing beside him said to Sherrod.

Two actions probably helped save the carrier, said Sherrod. A sailor in hangar-deck control who had been knocked down by the blasts managed to crawl through the ship’s twisted steel and turned on its sprinkler system, and Captain Kiefer, although seriously wounded, ordered the ship’s ballast shifted to make a ten-degree list to port so the flaming gasoline ran off its hangar deck into the sea. Then Kiefer changed course so that the wind blew the flames away from the Ticonderoga.

Although it had lost all communications, the ship sent out a blinker message to the Essex: “Captain and executive officer seriously wounded. Air Officer Miller killed, Gunnery Officer Fulmer missing. Many other casualties. Cannot raise forward elevator, signal bridge out. Hangar deck gutted from forward elevator to aft of deck-edge elevator.” Within an hour after the second kamikaze had hit, and despite its serious damage, the Ticonderoga reported all its fires were under control.

The carrier lost 143 men killed or missing and 202 wounded—the worst kamikaze casualties up to that time in the Pacific War. “Most of the victims were men I had come to know and like during the month I had spent on the Ti,” Sherrod said. Kiefer, his right arm mangled and his body punctured by sixty-five small-bomb-fragment wounds, had lain on a mattress on the bridge for eleven hours fighting to save his ship and crew. “A severed artery in his neck was held together for a while by a seaman to whom Kiefer said: ‘I’m sorry I had to bust you.’ Dixie had reduced him to seaman from petty officer a few days before,” said Sherrod.

Before being carried off the Ticonderoga to the hospital ship USS Bountiful, Kiefer, noted the correspondent, called for a bullhorn and spoke to his surviving crew, who cheered him after he announced: “I’m proud of you men of the Ticonderoga, you lived up to my fondest expectations.”
Sherrod’s harrowing experience on the Ticonderoga and Essex remained out of the gaze of the public eye for some time, as the navy had imposed a ban on any mention of the kamikazes for six months. “In our news stories we simply had to ignore one of the most lurid stories of the war, or of any war,” said Sherrod.

On April 13, 1945, Nimitz finally removed the restriction, but news of the kamikaze’s existence and ability to damage the American fleet had little news value at the time, as the admiral issued his statement a half hour after reporters learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died—news that dominated the headlines.

Sherrod’s article on the Ticonderoga’s struggle and the bravery of its captain and crew did not make it into Time until July 23, 1945. Transmitting his dispatches from the carriers had not been easy for Sherrod, and he complained to his wife that there “were not enough range of subjects,” especially given the restrictions about the kamikazes and Nimitz’s reluctance to allow correspondents to focus stories on individual captains.

“When I am on land I can always go somewhere else until I find copy, but on a ship it is very easy to write out the subjects and the spot news, then to sit around for days or weeks with little to justify my being sent out here,” Sherrod wrote. “I have now been on 24 ships since the war began. I do not believe I have got as many stories out of the 24—I mean good, solid stories—as I got out of the one battle of Saipan.”

Having earned a reputation for “finding and spotting the news,” Sherrod resolved to keep his good name intact and avoid becoming a “communiqué commando” who wrote about war far away from the frontlines. “Whoever wrote that nothing is certain in war knew what he was talking about,” he said.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Tragedy on Pad 34: Gus Grissom and the Apollo 1 Fire

On Friday, January 27, 1967, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration engaged in yet another step on the long journey to meet President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by attempting a simulated countdown of the three-man Apollo spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center's Pad 34 in Florida.

At one o'clock in the afternoon astronauts Roger Chaffee, a rookie and the youngest person ever selected to join the astronaut corps; Ed White, the first American to walk in space; and Hoosier native Gus Grissom, the first American to fly in space twice; entered the Apollo command module, built by North American Aviation. They never made it out alive. At 6:31 p.m., flight controllers on the ground heard an astronaut, probably Chaffee, calmly announce: "Fire. I smell fire." Seconds later, White more urgently stated: "Fire in the cockpit."

According to NASA procedures, an emergency escape from the Apollo spacecraft took at least 90 seconds. The crew, however, had never accomplished such a difficult feat in that time. To escape the troubled capsule, Grissom had to lower White's headrest so White could reach above and behind his left shoulder to use a ratchet-type device to release the first in a series of latches to open the hatch.
The astronauts performed their tasks bravely in spite of the inferno raging around them. White, with Grissom struggling to help him, made part of a full turn with the ratchet before being overcome by smoke. Chaffee, the rookie, had carried out his duties by turning up the cabin lights as an aid to vision and turning on the cabin's internal batteries for power.

The intense heat and smoke hampered rescue efforts, but pad workers finally were able to open the hatch. They were too late; the three astronauts were dead, killed not by the fire, but the carbon monoxide that filled the cabin and entered their spacesuits after flames had burned through their air hoses. Doctors treated 27 men involved in the rescue attempt for smoke inhalation. Two were hospitalized.

It took NASA more than a year after the accident, during which time the spacecraft underwent extensive modification, to launch another manned mission. Apollo 7, commanded by Grissom’s friend Wally Schirra, an original Mercury astronaut, made 163 orbits during its eleven-day mission in the redesigned command module; America was back on its way to the moon.

There were several ironies associated with the Apollo 1 disaster, the most obvious being that three astronauts had been killed not on a hazardous trip into space, but on the ground during what was believed to be a relatively safe test involving an unfueled rocket. Also, there were many in NASA who believed that the fire, great a tragedy as it was, might have been one of the best things that could have happened for the American space program. "I think we got too complacent in the manned program," one Apollo engineer said. "The fire really woke people up." And if there had not been a fire on the ground, there may have well been one in space. If that had happened, if a fire had occurred while Apollo was in orbit or on its way to the moon, the American space effort might have been set back for a decade.

To understand the other ironies associated with the Pad 34 catastrophe, it is necessary to examine the often-unlucky astronaut career of the commander of the Apollo 1 mission -- Gus Grissom. It is a career with much to be proud of. Grissom may have been a goat and screwup to The Right Stuff author Tom Wolfe, but to fellow Hoosiers, Grissom had always been a full-blooded American hero.   

Virgil Ivan Grissom, was born on April 3, 1926, the oldest of four children. He was brought up in this Hoosier town in a white frame house at 715 Baker Street (a road later renamed in his honor). Grissom’s father was a signalman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, where he worked six days a week at fifty cents an hour. The young Grissom was no stranger to work himself, rising early in the morning to pick up copies of the Indianapolis Star at the downtown bus station for delivery to local residents. "He never did a mean thing in his life," Grissom's mother said of her son. "He never had any trouble."

Reportedly equipped with an IQ of 145, Grissom was nevertheless, he later admitted, not much of a “whiz” in school. “I guess it was a case of drifting and not knowing what I wanted to make of myself,” he said. “I suppose I built my share of model airplanes, but I can’t remember that I was a flying fanatic.” Although sons in railroading families often followed in their father’s footsteps, Grissom recalled that his father encouraged him instead to explore other career possibilities “in which he felt there were better chances for getting ahead.”

Standing only five feet, four inches tall when he entered high school, Grissom was too short to make the school’s basketball team, the dream of many a Hoosier youth. Instead of taking the court as a member of the basketball team, he led his Boy Scout honor guard in carrying the American flag at the opening of games, impressing fellow student and future wife Betty Moore, who played the drum in the school band.

During his high school years, Grissom completed one year of precadet training in the United States Army Air Corps. Following his graduation from high school, he was inducted into the Army Air Corps and sent to Wichita Falls, Texas, for five weeks of basic training. Stationed eventually at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Grissom spent much of his time before his discharge in November 1945 serving as a deskbound clerk. 

Grissom returned to Mitchell for his marriage on July 6, 1945, to Betty Moore. After his discharge from the armed forces, Grissom found a job installing doors on school buses at Carpenter Body Works. With the help of the GI Bill, Grissom left Mitchell to enroll at Purdue University as a mechanical-engineering student. Life for the young couple was rough; during his first semester Grissom shared a basement apartment with another male student while his wife remained behind in Mitchell with her parents.

Joining her husband during the second semester of his studies at the West Lafayette campus, Betty Grissom helped pay for the future astronaut’s education by working as a long-distance operator for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company. Grissom, who worked after class as a short-order cook, finished his degree early by skipping summer vacations and graduated in 1950. Donald S. Clark, one of Grissom’s professors in mechanical engineering, recalled that the future astronaut was a “better than average student and was a very determined young man who wanted more than anything else in the world to become a test pilot.”

After graduating from Purdue, Grissom needed a job, and fast, he said, “because I didn’t want Betty spending any more of her life at a switchboard. She had made my degree possible.” He decided to rejoin the armed services and became an air cadet at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.

After completing his basic training, he moved on to Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, where his wife and six-month-old son, Scott, joined Grissom and his $105 monthly salary. In March 1951 Grissom received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and saw his pay skyrocket to $400 a month. Just nine months later Grissom received orders for Korea where he joined the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Kimpo Air Force Base, just twelve miles from the front lines.

In the approximately six months that he was in Korea, Grissom flew more than one hundred combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions on March 23, 1952 as he flew cover in his F-86 for a photoreconnaissance mission. Even after flying his one hundredth mission, which meant a return home, Grissom wanted more, requesting to fly twenty-five more missions. “If you were a shoe salesman,” he explained, “you’d want to be where you could sell shoes.”

With his request denied by the Air Force, he returned home as an instructor, an assignment that Grissom considered the most dangerous in his career. “I know what I’m going to do when I’m up there, all the time,” he noted, “but I don’t know what that student is going to do.”

In August 1955 Grissom took a vital step toward becoming a test pilot, and consequently an astronaut, when he enrolled at the Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he met and became friends with Gordon Cooper, another future space explorer. Both also attended test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Completing his test-pilot training, Grissom was assigned by the Air Force to return to Wright-Patterson.

Grissom was still at the Dayton facility testing aircraft like the F-104 Starfighter on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by announcing it had successfully launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. The 184-pound satellite, the size of a basketball, could be heard by American tracking stations as it circled the globe making its “beep-beep” sound. The space race had begun.

After a few false starts (early rockets had the disconcerting habit of blowing up), scientists managed to put the first American satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit nearly four months after the Russians’ space success. As the public and politicians clamored for action, the government initiated in 1958 the United States’ first man-in-space program, Project Mercury.

President Dwight Eisenhower decided that the astronauts for the space program should come from the ranks of military-service test pilots, and NASA asked the services to list their members who met specific qualifications. A candidate for the space program had to be under forty years old, be less than five feet, eleven inches tall; have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in engineering; be a qualified jet pilot; be a graduate of test-pilot school; and have at least fifteen hundred hours of flying time. Approximately five hundred candidates qualified; one hundred and ten survived the initial screening process.

One of the pilots called to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of February 1959 to be evaluated as a possible astronaut was Grissom, who received the top secret news from the adjutant at Wright-Patterson, who asked him, “Gus, what kind of hell have you been raising lately?” A confused Grissom expressed puzzlement over the question and learned that he had received orders to report to Washington wearing civilian, not military, attire. Before he left home, Grissom’s wife, thinking of the wildest possibility, prophetically asked him: “What are they going to do? Shoot you up in the nose cone of an Atlas [rocket]?”

Reporting to the nation’s capital—he felt like he had “wandered right into the middle of a James Bond novel”—Grissom was ushered into a large reception room filled with men who were, he discovered after a brief time talking with them, fellow test pilots. From this group, a total of thirty-nine men, Grissom included, were sent to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be probed and prodded by scientists. They later underwent pressure-suit tests, heat tests, acceleration tests, and vibration tests at the Aeromedical Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center in Ohio.

From this torturous process NASA picked seven men to serve as Project Mercury astronauts and presented them to the public in April 1959. The American astronauts were, from the Marines, John Glenn; from the Navy, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Malcolm Scott Carpenter; and from the Air Force, Donald “Deke” Slayton, Gordon Cooper, and Grissom.

The Hoosier pilot had almost missed out on the historic designation when doctors during their wide-ranging tests discovered that Grissom suffered from hay fever. His pointed reply—“there won’t be any ragweed pollen in space”—saved him from being dropped from consideration.

With his allergy problem out of the way, Grissom and his fellow astronauts underwent training to see which one, NASA confidently predicted, would be the first man in space. The astronauts, except for Glenn, seemed more at ease with training for going into space than they did with dealing with the crush of media attention on them and their families.

The press coverage grew so great that Grissom, never comfortable in the spotlight, went as far as to disguise himself in a floppy hat and dark glasses in order to slip by newsmen without being recognized. The media scrutiny grew even more intense as time went by. On January 19, 1961, Robert Gilruth, head of Project Mercury, confidentially informed the astronauts of the flight order: Shepard would be the first man to ride the Redstone rocket; Grissom had the second flight; and Glenn would be the backup for both missions.

It did not work out as the American space agency had planned; on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin made a one-orbit flight around the Earth that lasted one hundred and eight minutes in his Vostok spacecraft Swallow, winning for the Soviet Union the honor of being the first nation to put a human being into the inky void of space.

Glenn, the most comfortable with the press, spoke for the rest of the astronauts when he noted: “They [the Russians] just beat the pants off us, that’s all. There’s no use kidding ourselves about that. But now that the space age has begun, there’s going to be plenty of work for everybody.” That hard work resulted in Shepard finally becoming the first American into space with his suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961.

Except for a problem with a full bladder, which Shepard solved by relieving himself in his spacesuit, the United States’ initial manned mission into space went well. The same could not be said of Grissom’s flight, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral on July 21, 1961. The Hoosier native had “maintained an even strain,” as fellow astronaut Schirra liked to say, the morning of his mission. During a last-minute physical, the doctor examining Grissom had been surprised at his subject’s low blood pressure. His fifteen-minute, thirty-seven-second flight went off without a hitch, as his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft made a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. From that point on, however, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

According to the recovery plan, a helicopter pilot from the aircraft carrier Randolph was supposed to radio to Grissom as soon as he had successfully hooked on to the capsule and lifted it from the water. At that point, Grissom would remove his helmet, hit the switch to blow off the hatch, and exit the spacecraft. “I had unhooked the oxygen inlet hose by now and was lying flat on my back and minding my own business,” Grissom recalled, “when suddenly the hatch blew off with a dull thud. All I could see was blue sky and sea water rushing in over the sill.”

Tossing off his helmet, the astronaut hoisted himself through the hatch. “I have never moved as fast in my life,” said Grissom. “The next thing I knew I was floating high in my suit with the water up to my armpits.”

Although a recovery helicopter managed to snag the capsule, it could not handle the weight of the waterlogged spacecraft and had to cut it loose; it was the first time in his long flying career that Grissom had ever lost an aircraft. Meanwhile, the astronaut was struggling to keep from drowning. Although his space suit kept out the water, he was losing buoyancy because of an open air-inlet port in the belly of his suit. 

As he fought to stay afloat, Grissom regretted the two rolls of dimes, three one-dollar bills, two sets of pilot’s wings, and some miniature models of the Liberty Bell spacecraft he had stowed in the leg pocket of his space suit as souvenirs of his flight. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, you’ve gone through the whole flight, and now you’re going to sink right here in front of all these people,’” Grissom said.

Rescued by another chopper, the now exhausted astronaut had strength enough to grab a Mae West life jacket and put it on for the flight back to the aircraft carrier. “I wanted to make certain that if anything happened to this helicopter I would not have to go through another dunking,” he said.

Once Grissom was safely onboard the Navy carrier, an officer came up to him and handed him his space helmet, which had been plucked from the water by the crew of an escort destroyer, and told him that it had been found floating right next to a ten-foot-long shark.

Although an accident review panel cleared Grissom, and the other astronauts supported him, unanswered questions about the hatch dogged the Hoosier native for the rest of his career. NASA, however, backed Grissom, and his career as an astronaut was saved. 
The Purdue graduate became so involved in the design of the two-man Gemini spacecraft that fellow astronauts dubbed it “the Gusmobile.” He and John W. Young were selected to make the first manned flight in the Gemini program. In naming the Gemini 3 spaceship, Grissom found a way to exorcise the demons from his Mercury mishap.

At first, Grissom wanted to use Wapasha, after a Native American tribe that had lived along the Wabash River. Then someone pointed out to Grissom that people might start calling the spacecraft The Wabash Cannon Ball. “Well, my Dad was working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and I wasn’t too sure just how he’d take to The Wabash Cannon Ball,” said Grissom. “How would he explain that one to his pals on the B&O?”

Instead, Grissom, attempting to squelch ideas that he was still sensitive about losing the Liberty Bell 7, christened his Gemini craft Molly Brown after the character from the Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Some officials at NASA were not amused at the choice of names and asked him to pick another. “Well,” Grissom told one, “what about the Titanic?” NASA decided that the name Molly Brown was fine after all.

Grissom and Young’s three-orbit Gemini flight on March 23, 1965, went off without a hitch, except for some consternation on behalf of space-agency scientists who fretted over an unauthorized meal sneaked aboard by Young, in cahoots with Schirra: a corned-beef sandwich. The astronauts ate a few bites before concern about the possibility of crumbs damaging sensitive electronic equipment caused the duo to stow it away for safekeeping. 

In spite of the media latching onto the so-called “sandwich affair” after the flight, and some members of Congress wailing that the space agency had lost control of its astronauts, Grissom remained one of NASA’s top men and was picked to command the first manned Apollo mission, one of the initial steps on the way to meeting President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Deke Slayton, responsible for selecting flight crews, privately told his friend Grissom that if all went well, the Hoosier native would be first in line to command a lunar mission. "One thing that would probably have been different if Gus had lived," Slayton said in his autobiography, "the first guy to walk on the moon would have been Gus Grissom, not Neil Armstrong."

Slayton and other NASA officials had agreed prior to the Apollo 1 fire that, if possible, one of the Mercury astronauts would have the opportunity to be the first person on the moon. At that time Grissom was the one astronaut from the original seven who had the experience to press on through to the moon landing, according to Slayton.

Troubles plagued the Apollo program from the start, especially with the scheduled first manned vehicle, numbered as Spacecraft 012. Betty Grissom remembered her husband receiving a number of phone calls at home concerning difficulties with the Apollo craft. “That was not like Gus,” she said. “He never brought work problems home with him. . . . But now he was uptight about it.”

Questioned by a reporter about rumors swirling around that the program had experienced problems, Grissom did express some misgivings. “We’ve had problems before,” he said, “but these have been coming in bushelfuls. Frankly, I think this mission has a pretty damn slim chance of flying its full fourteen days.” On what was the final time he was ever home, Grissom, according to his wife, went out to their yard and cut down a lemon to take with him to hang on a full-scale duplicate of the troubled Apollo spacecraft.

Grissom’s premonition of trouble came tragically true during the January 27, 1967, test of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn 1B rocket. For the test, Grissom, as commander, was in the left couch under the flight control panel; White, navigator for the mission, occupied the middle couch; and Chaffee sat on the right where the communications equipment was located. Once again, glitches popped up to frustrate the astronauts. A sour odor, described as somewhat like buttermilk, fouled the capsule’s pure-oxygen interior for a time. The next problem was a high oxygen flow indication that periodically triggered the capsule's master alarm.

Grissom, upset over a communication problem with the test-control sites, angrily told mission control: “If I can’t talk with you only five miles away, how can we talk to you from the moon?” Shortly after 6:30 in the evening, under Grissom’s commander seat, a frayed wire sparked, causing a fire. 

Fueled by the pure-oxygen atmosphere that permeated the Apollo spacecraft’s pressurized crew cabin, which caused even fire-resistant material to burn at a furious rate, the fire also fed itself on a host of combustible materials in the command module, especially the Velcro and nylon netting used by the crew as a means of holding items that would float around the capsule if not secured while in space. As the material burned, it released poisonous gases that eventually suffocated the three astronauts.

Spacecraft technicians attempted to free the trapped crewmen, but before they could reach the sealed Apollo the command module ruptured, belching flame and smoke into the room and hampering rescue operations. There was also the fear that the fire might set off the launch escape system sitting on top of the spacecraft. In spite of these dangers, many technicians stayed in the area and worked to open the hatch. They were too late; the astronauts were dead, killed by the carbon monoxide, with thermal burns as contributing causes. The fire had destroyed 70 percent of Grissom's spacesuit, 25 percent of White's, and 15 percent of Chaffe's.

Grissom was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with the service broadcast nationwide on television. Neighbors from Mitchell joined President Lyndon Johnson, members of Congress, and fellow astronauts at the funeral. Meanwhile, an investigative review board set up by NASA went through the charred spacecraft looking for answers. Engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center duplicated conditions of the Apollo spacecraft without the crewmen in the capsule. They reconstructed events and the investigation on pad 34 showed that the fire started in or near one of the wire bundles to the left and just in front of Grissom's seat on the left side of the cabin -- a spot visible to Chaffee. The fire was probably invisible for about five or six seconds until Chaffee sounded the alarm.

Of course, given Grissom's bad luck as an astronaut, it seemed almost inevitable that someone would try to blame him for causing, at that time, NASA's worst disaster. One engineer hypothesized that Grissom had accidentally scuffed the insulation of a wire while moving about the spacecraft. This hypothesis was immediately rejected by the NASA review board and a congressional committee investigating the Apollo fire. Astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the review board, testified to Congress that the board "found no evidence to support the thesis that Gus, or any of the crew members, kicked the wire that ignited the flammables."

The review board's final report was 3,300 pages long and weighed nineteen pounds. The report blasted both NASA and North American Aviation, contractor for the command module, for poor management, carelessness, and failure to consider the safety of the astronauts. Among the review board's criticisms were these:

  • The Command Module contained many types and classes of combustible material in areas contiguous to possible ignition sources
  • Due to internal pressure, the Command Module inner hatch could not be opened prior to rupture of the Command Module
  • The overall communications system was unsatisfactory
  • Emergency fire, rescue and medical teams were not in attendance
  • The Command Module Environmental Control System design provides a pure oxygen atmosphere. This atmosphere presents severe fire hazards
To respond to these criticisms, NASA spent nearly a half billion dollars on a revamped Apollo spacecraft, which included extensive use of fire resistant materials, a single-hinge hatch that could be swung outward with only one-half pound of force, a redesign of the electrical system, use of a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere when the spaceship was on the ground, and use of a new flame-proof material called "Beta Cloth" instead of nylon for the astronaut's spacesuits.

Although the review board recommended that NASA continue to try and meet Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of 1969, it stressed that safety must be the prime consideration for America's space program, outranking even the target date. 

Reflecting on the tragedy from a perspective of many years, NASA flight director Chris Kraft noted that while it was "unforgivable that we allowed that accident to happen," if it had never occurred American would not have gone to the moon when it did. "We made a lot of changes to the command and lunar modules as a result of that experience," Kraft said. "I think we would have had all kinds of trouble getting to the moon with all the systems problems we had. That terrible experience also brought a new resolve and a renewed commitment to get the job done."

It was Grissom himself, however, who perhaps best summed up the feelings of the astronauts, many of them test pilots used to losing friends in the line of duty: "If we die, we want people to accept it, and hope it will not delay the space program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of human life."

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

A Day in the Life: Malcolm W. Browne in Vietnam

The small-caliber bullet ripped through the thin, aluminum skin of the Piasecki H21 troop-carrying helicopter just two feet from where Malcolm W. Browne, the Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, sat near the chopper’s rear door. 

The Viet Cong insurgent who fired the bullet at the helicopter, nicknamed Geisha Girl by its American crew from the 121st Aviation Company, had remarkable luck, as his projectile “tore through a pressure line and four engine control cables,” Browne recalled, as well as bouncing against other parts of the aircraft before exiting out the other side. The helicopter’s engine stopped and the correspondent could hear someone shout, “We’re going in! Hang on!” 

It had been a busy day in early January 1964 for the Geisha Girl. The helicopter was involved in what Browne described as “a particularly dangerous kind of field operation” known as an “eagle flight.” Such missions involved more than five helicopters packed with seasoned troops, often South Vietnamese Rangers or Marines, seeking out VC strongpoints that had been pinpointed by intelligence reports. 

Browne, who had been reporting about the conflict since his arrival in Saigon in 1961, noted that the helicopters flew at low-enough altitudes to draw enemy fire, at which point the troops disembarked and engaged in sharp, bloody exchanges with the VC. “Often, the eagle troops racked up excellent successes against enemy units,” he wrote, “and brought back weapons and severed heads as trophies.”

The Geisha Girl’s pilot and co-pilot had prepared for their dangerous duty by donning bulky, bullet-resistant flak vests before slogging down a muddy path to the flight line at the airstrip near Ca Mau, South Vietnam. “Pilots climbed up into their plexiglass-surrounded cockpits and slipped on heavy, white flight helmets,” Browne remembered. “Switches were flicked, and red instrument lights glowed from dashboards.”

Outside the chopper, its two gunners waited for the starting signal from the pilots. Nearby, Vietnamese soldiers stood up to adjust their field packs, which included cooking utensils, while, here and there, Browne saw, there “was a live duck hung by its feet from a soldier’s pistol belt. The Vietnamese army, perhaps more than other armies, travels on its stomach.”

Finally, the reporter heard the order to depart. “Pilots adjusted themselves in their seats, changed their engine mixtures, and tuned up radios for communications checks,” he reported. “Forward gunners took their positions at the open doors on the right side of the H21s, just behind the cockpit. They fed belts of ammunition into their guns and swung the gun mounts around into firing positions. Rear gunners gestured from their positions at open doors on the left side near the tail for the troops to come aboard.” 

Those inside the helicopter had to sit or squat on the floor, as there were no seats. Browne could see the glow from cigarettes piercing the gloomy morning light as the chopper cruised down the runway, “much like conventional airplanes taking off. Hovering or taking off vertically puts too much load on the engine of a loaded H21.”

In addition to participating in the “eagle flights,” the Geisha Girl had delivered supplies to Nam Cam, a town that had been attacked and damaged by the VC the previous night, leaving behind seven dead, sixteen wounded, and seven missing South Vietnamese soldiers. The helicopter also made stops at “other dangerous places” in the area, including Cai Nuoc, Dam Doi, and Cha La, all of which had recently been overrun by the Communists, Browne wrote. With its day almost over, Geisha Girl was only two miles away from its home base. “Helicopters had been making the same approach to the air strip all day long without incident,” he noted, “and the crew was almost ready to relax when the slug hit.”

As the gunners kept the enemy busy by blazing away at the ground below, Captain Joseph Campbell of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, threw the two rotors overhead into “auto rotation,” a technique used by chopper pilots that kept their crafts “from dropping like rocks when their engines quit,” Browne said. If the helicopter had enough forward speed, the rotors continued to whirl, keeping the aircraft aloft enough so it could glide in for a safe landing. If a helicopter did not have enough speed, its pilot had to dive to make it happen. “He cannot do this if he is too near the ground,” the newsman pointed out. “For this reason, slow-speed flight at an altitude lower than two hundred feet can be fatal in the event of engine failure.”

Luckily for Browne and the Geisha Girl crew, Campbell had just enough speed to survive. “The ground came up fast,” Browne remembered. “Campbell skimmed the banana-shaped craft over a high dike, and then pulled the nose up sharply to flair the ship out on soft ground. It bumped down into a bramble patch, and everything was suddenly very silent.” 

Both gunners, Private First Class Edward Weglarz of Haddonfield, New Jersey, and Private First Class David M. Sands of Gassaway, West Virginia, scrambled out the doors in just a few seconds. With their guns at the ready, the two men sought cover in the brambles, establishing a defensive perimeter against an expected enemy attack. “The Viet Cong has never shown mercy to downed helicopter men,” Browne noted, “and has never taken one alive.”

According to established evacuation procedures for such incidents, the crew had to make sure to remove the chopper’s guns and as much ammunition as they could carry. “If it looks as though the Viet Cong is certain to capture the aircraft,” Browne wrote, “it must be destroyed. The guerrillas love to capture guns and radios from downed helicopters.”

The evacuation from the Geisha Girl went “smoothly, quickly and silently,” he said, but no enemy appeared. “Apparently the guerrilla who shot us down was content with his one lucky shot,” Browne concluded. Within a short time, a second H21 had landed near the crash site. The correspondent and crew hastily scrambled through the brambles to climb aboard the rescue craft. Safe at the base, the survivors smoked cigarettes while a company of Vietnamese troops moved out to provide security at the downed Geisha Girl. “This sort of thing happens often in South Viet Nam,” Brown informed his readers, “but even the most seasoned helicopter crew never gets accustomed to it. Sometimes everyone comes out without a scratch. Sometimes a few people are hurt. Sometimes everyone aboard is killed.”

Trying to relax after the ordeal, an impressed Weglarz told Browne that the VC gunner must have been pleased with the result of his day’s work. Weglarz pointed out that for the cost of only about seven cents, how much it cost to produce the bullet, the insurgent had been able to shoot down a U.S. helicopter costing thousands of dollars.

Using such “cost-effective weaponry,” Browne noted, had become a hallmark of the way the VC operated in its fight against the government of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem. During an operation in the An Xuyen region, Browne and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers he accompanied came upon a hidden weapons factory that manufactured mortars and shotguns. “They made the shotgun ammunition from short lengths of brass tubing, to which they soldered old French ten-centime coins, the kind with a hole in the middle,” Browne recalled. “The workers crimped percussion caps into these holes and loaded the finished cases with powder and shot.”

The crash sobered Geisha Girl’s crew. One of the men told Browne that he and the other Americans engaged in such operations knew their jobs were not safe; as Browne reported, of the first hundred combat deaths in South Vietnam, forty-three had been in helicopters. “We just keep hoping from one day to the next that our luck won’t run out,” the crewman commented to the reporter. “But the job has to be done, and you can’t keep worrying about it.”

Browne’s day was far from over. Returning to Saigon, he went to the AP office on Rue Pasteur Street, rolled a sheet of paper into an old Underwood typewriter, and began writing an article to send over the wires about his perilous adventure. Still aching from the crash, however, Browne discovered that nothing he put on paper seemed to fully capture what he experienced. “It’s astonishing how often war correspondents face writer’s block after witnessing dangerous battles,” he observed, “often falling back on stupid clichés just to finish some kind of dispatch.”

As he finished his piece, Browne received a telephone call from a diplomat he had always assumed also worked as an intelligence agent. The man had called to invite the newsman to a black-tie cabaret show at the Caravelle Hotel that evening for which the other guests would include senior Vietnamese officials Browne had been trying to interview; he accepted the invitation. 

Years later, Browne could not remember the conversation he had with the officials that night, but knew that the featured performer was Juliette Greco, a well-known French singer and actress. “Her sultry songs were balm to her footsore listeners, and it crossed my mind, not for the first time, that Saigon was a city of astonishing contrasts,” he recalled.

Enraptured by Greco’s voice, Browne glanced out the window overlooking the Saigon River and could see streams of red tracers “arching through the darkness beyond the river, and occasional yellow flashes marked the impacts of shells.”

Feeling restored, Browne returned to his apartment, located over his office, only to find, stuck under his door, three blue-and-white envelopes containing messages from his superiors at AP reading: “Unipress [United Press International] has three choppers down but your crash has only one stop if correct need matcher sapest foreign.”

Translating the cable language, Browne knew he had to confirm if UPI’s account was correct and, if so, produce a comparable story as quickly as he could. “I wearily picked up the phone and began trying to raise a U.S. military spokesman,” Browne said. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Preorders Available for Malcolm W. Browne Biography

The Ultimate Protest: Malcolm W. Browne, Thich Quang Duc, and the News Photograph That Stunned the World examines how the most unlikely of war correspondents, Malcolm W. Browne, became the only Western reporter to capture Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s horrific self-immolation on June 11, 1963. Quang Duc made his ultimate sacrifice to protest the perceived anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic-dominated administration of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem.  

Browne, the thirty-two-year-old head of the AP’s bureau in Saigon, had been tipped off about the demonstration the evening before and was the only Western reporter on the scene to photograph the horrific event. Browne’s powerful images were edited and distributed from the New York office to AP member newspapers in the United States and around the world. 

The reaction was immediate. Although Browne noted that millions of words had been written about the Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam, his pictures possessed “an incomparable impact.” A group of clergymen in the United States used the photograph for full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post decrying American military aid to a country that denied most of its citizens religious freedoms.

Biographer Ray E. Boomhower’s The Ultimate Protest explores the background of the Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 that led to Quảng Đức’s self-sacrifice, as well as the worldwide reaction to Browne’s photograph, how it affected American policy toward Diem’s government, and the role the image played in the violent coup on November 1, 1963, that deposed Diem and led to his assassination.

The book also delves into the dynamics involved in covering the Vietnam War in the early days of the American presence and the pressures placed on the journalists—Browne and his colleague Peter Arnett from the AP, David Halberstam from the New York Times, and Neil Sheehan from United Press International—there to "get on the team" and stop raising doubts about how the war was going. Browne and Halberstam shared the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their reporting from Vietnam. 

Finally, the book looks at Browne’s early life, his decision to enter the journalism profession, his work in Vietnam for ABC Television, leaving Vietnam, becoming a foreign correspondent for at the New York Times, and his eventual return to South Vietnam in 1975 to report on the country’s fall.

Preorders for the book, which will be published on March 15, 2024, by High Road Books, an imprint of the University of New Mexico Press, are now being accepted. Click here to preorder.



Monday, October 16, 2023

The Return of the Artists: Harry Davis Jr., Garo Antreasian, and Indiana Art

Since its establishment in 1894, the American Academy in Rome has, been home to visiting scholars and artists from the United States seeking support and inspiration for their work. During the heady days of Rome’s liberation by Allied forces in June 1944, one of the academy’s former students, Harry A. Davis Jr. of Brownsburg, Indiana, a combat artist with the U.S. Army’s Eighty-Fifth Infantry Division, working under the supervision of the U.S. Fifth Army’s Historical Section, made his way to what had been his art studio just a few years before.

A graduate of Indianapolis’s Herron School of Art, Davis discovered that everything in his studio was just as he had left it, including his paintings and personal effects. He also found that his worst fears about the colleagues he had left behind had not come to pass. Although showing “distinct signs of having suffered from a lack of food,” his friends at the school “were all alive, happy to see Americans again.” With his company bivouacked on the grounds of a nearby estate, the sergeant was able to make several trips to the academy, “each time taking some of my ration of candy, for they had no sweets for several years,” in addition to other supplies.

Half a world away, another Hoosier and future Herron graduate, Garo Antreasian, a member of an Armenian family that had escaped the Turkish Genocide and made a new life for themselves in Indianapolis, sailed the Pacific Ocean aboard LST 790 (Landing Ship, Tank) as a combat artist with the U.S. Coast Guard. After delivering supplies for the invasion of the Philippines, Antreasian and his shipmates endured the hell that was the Battle of Iwo Jima, including undergoing attacks from Japanese kamikaze pilots. Antreasian, the son of a tailor, had to do double duty while on his ship, serving as a gun controller at any time battle stations were called. “There was certainly no time to draw—only time to observe and respond for the firing of the stern guns,” as well as “everything on and off the ship as far as the eyes could see and as much as my mind could absorb and retain,” Antreasian recalled.

Antreasian jotted down what he had seen and remembered in a small notebook he kept in his pocket. “These notes and my memory were invaluable when I could finally begin painting, usually long after we had departed the scene of action,” he said. Antreasian would retreat to his studio, located below decks in the forward gun munitions locker. There, under the glow of a hundred-watt bulb and a constant heat of more than a hundred degrees in the tropical climate, he stripped to his waist and set out to do his artwork. Often, his sweat dripped onto his paintings.

The son of an itinerant minister, Davis, like Antreasian, endured less-than-ideal circumstances to pursue his art while overseas. Coming across some Italian women harvesting a wheatfield, he attempted to capture the scene on canvas. In a letter to his family, he noted:

My easel was at times a chair, while again, a tripod arrangement upon which the canvas was hung. At no time was I able to get suitable lighting conditions, working in a tent, sitting on my cot. The canvas for my painting was originally shielding some soldier from the elements, a salvaged shelter half, a half-section of the small pup-tents. . . . Vibrations in the air were strong enough that the canvas quivered like a drum struck with a heavy blow.

 Davis compared what he and his fellow combat artists did with another profession— historian. “We saw things as they were and we put them down, very much as a Historian would record the events that occurred,” he recalled. “Some of my drawings had to be very factual and maybe they are not art but I feel they tell the story.”

As for Antreasian, he lamented losing some of his work due to wartime censorship. After completing several paintings and drawings, he packaged them to transfer along with his ship’s mail to the flotilla’s command ship. There censors and press officers examined them “to determine what spin to attach to individual pieces before transmitting them to Washington.” Several paintings Antreasian had completed showing the deadly Japanese kamikaze attacks against U.S. ships at Iwo Jima had been destroyed by the censors, deeming it “unwise for the public moral to be confronted by news of such unimaginable behavior.” He learned what had happened to his creations only after the war’s end.

Upon the completion of their military service, both artists returned to Indiana and set about to make their mark on the state’s artistic heritage—as teachers at Herron (Davis taught there for more thirty years; Antreasian for sixteen years) and through their art. Antreasian stayed in Indiana until 1964, when he took a post as a professor at the University of New Mexico’s art department, earning accolades for helping to revive lithography in the United States through his work with the Tamarind Institute. “I’ve devoted my life to art and its teaching,” Antreasian recalled, “to me it represents a daily challenge—a challenge to express successfully that which I feel deeply and visualize in my mind’s eye.” He left behind in the Hoosier State a series of important public-art projects, including murals at Indiana University, a mosaic floor at the Holcomb Observatory at Butler University, and a mosaic mural of Hoosier favorite son Abraham Lincoln at the Indiana Government Center.

Davis had a successful teaching career as a professor of painting and drawing at Herron. He also continued to paint, producing more than 500 works featuring endangered historic buildings throughout the state. “Most of the work is because I feel a need for it,” Davis said. “Somebody ought to record it. The old landmarks are disappearing so fast.” David Russick, director of the gallery at Herron, who organized an exhibition of Davis’s works in 2006, pointed out that the Hoosier artist “painted buildings the way many portrait painters do people. He captured the spirits of the buildings, not just the brick and mortar.” As Davis’s wife, Lois, a fellow painter, remembered, her husband “just fit in with the Hoosier picture—not fancy.”

Both Hoosiers displayed an aptitude for art at an early age. “Ever since he was old enough to hold a pencil,” Davis’s father told a reporter, “he has been drawing likenesses of people.” Although local schools offered neither art nor manual training courses, the senior Davis noted that his son filled their house with “model stage coaches, airplanes, and boats of beautiful craftsmanship which he did just to satisfy the creative urge and to amuse himself.” 

Mildred Smith, who taught Davis Latin at Brownsburg High School, remembered that for an open house at the school he drew a large picture for her classroom depicting Roman chariots and charioteers. “I thought it was the most wonderful painting,” said Smith. “I wanted to keep the picture, but that little stinker wouldn’t give it up.”

In 1933 the young Davis entered the Herron School of Art at 1701 North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, supporting his education by winning several scholarships. It was a time of great changes for the school that came about under the leadership of its director, Donald Mattison, a New York artist and teacher. Faced with budget troubles and a declining enrollment, Mattison trimmed the Herron faculty and altered the school’s curriculum so that during their first three years students followed a similar course of study with an emphasis on a firm grounding in drawing, composition, and painting.

During their fourth year, students could pick a specialization, including painting, sculpture, commercial art, or teaching. Promising students were able to win scholarships for a fifth year of postgraduate training. “The art school must become the clearinghouse wherein those found unfit for professional work are eliminated,” Mattison observed. “Cold facts, as to proficiency must be recorded and ranked by percentages. Authoritative recognition of the true professional student must exist and adequate instruction must be provided for the deserving students.”

As a boy, Antreasian developed twin passions—reading and drawing. “To draw,” he recalled, was something he “accepted unthinkingly as a natural function of self, no different from blowing my nose or putting on my clothes.” One of his grade-school teachers, Helen Earhart, who had attended art school, became the first person to encourage him to begin to think about art “as more than just something that was fun to do.” She talked to his parents about encouraging their son’s protentional, and Antreasian’s father took him to Indianapolis’s best art store, the Lieber Art Emporium, to buy an oil painting set, housed in a fine rosewood box. “That tiny, polished box became the equivalent of Citzen Kane’s sled Rosebud,” Antreasian remembered. In addition to painting, he drew objects from observation, including “coaster wagons, shoes, hats, toys, houses and kitchenware,” and by doing so became aware of “the problems of perspective and proportion.”

Antreasian continued to grow as an artist while at Arsenal Tech High School, where he came under the tutelage of teacher Sara Bard, whose forte was watercolors, often exhibiting her work at the National Academy. Antreasian noted that the training at the school was done with a “professional attitude,” and he and other students were encouraged to reach such art journals of the time as the Magazine of Art, Art News, and Art Digest.

Bard also tasked her students with exploring projects outside of their normal interests. Noticing some old lithography equipment, she assigned Antreasian and a few of his fellow students to see what they could accomplish. They plodded ahead through “trial and error” and “great agony,” Antreasian remembered. “Throughout a whole year, I don’t think we produced one print, but we were hooked from that point.” At the time, the art of lithography—the process of drawing images on polished limestone with a grease pencil, wetting the stone, applying ink that clings to the grease, then using a press to imprint the image from the stone onto paper—had nearly “ceased to exist” in the country, he said, with “little reliable literature in English . . . available, and equipment and teaching resources were scarse.”

Fortunatley for Antreasian and his friends, they discovered a commercial printing house in Indianapolis, Oval and Koster, which specialized in large posters and calendars. “As luck would have,” Antreasian noted, “Mr. Oval was a genial old gentleman, who had apprenticed as a child in Germany and who was quite fond of relating his early experiences in the medium.” The old lithographer kindly answered all of the boys’ questions. “He was a good man and sensed the hunger of our quest,” said Antreasian, “and after several visits he agreed to meet us frequently at the factory on Saturday monrings to answer our questions.” Thereafter, Antreasian viewed lithography as a “magical ‘something’ that kept tantalizing me because I never could get my hands on the real story. Consequently, something about my inner being and wanting to know kept me reaching to grab a hold of something that was just beyond my grasp.”

When Antreasian entered the Herron, he discovered that while the school still had lithography equipment, it had discontinued classes on the subject. Mattison allowed him the freshman to use the equipment in the evenings and on weekends and “just to fool around.” Antreasian learned all he could, piecing together information by studying print collections at several museums. “I simply had to know,” Antreasian recalled. “By hard-headed stubbornness, a lot of strenuous effort, and countless trivial errors, I was able to slowly find my way.”

Graduating from Herron in 1948 following his war service, Antreasian joined the school’s faculty, adding printmaking courses to its curriculum. Married on May 2, 1946, to Jeanne Glasscock, and with a young son, David, born soon afterward, he realized his family could not survive financially on his meager teaching salary and income from his paintings and prints. Antreasian began painting murals for hire, with his first, depicting major landmarks in Indianapolis, finished for the new WFBM television studio, in 1952.

The popularity of this mural (today located at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis), led to other projects, including an invitation from Indiana University in Bloomington to produce what came to be six murals about the history of the university above its Wright Quad Building’s large dining hall, a space covering more than a thousand square feet. The murals covered the years 1820 to 1850, 1850 to 1900, 1900 to 1920, 1920 to 1938, the modern concept, and the mid-twentieth century.

The assignment presented several challenges. As he explained:

To begin with, the work had to be done on site. Because of its height, a special scaffolding was necessary for me to execute the paintings. There was no simple way for me to back away to view the accuracy and progress of the work. As work began, it proved necessary to climb up and down the scaffolding ladder quite frequently to check the clarity of details from floor levele. These adjustments often required enlargement of drawing or exaggeration of color.

He noted that he and the graduate students from IU’s Fine Arts Department who assisted him worked even while meals were being served in the dining hall below them. Antreasian said that many people would be “surprised how many good suggestions we got from students who inspected the murals while they ate.”

Months before starting work at IU, Antreasian studied the university’s history in order to decide what and who to depict. He examined photographs, talked to numerous school officials, and read books. “One of my most difficult problems was to gather information about buildings that no longer exist,” Antreasian told a reporter. “I usually was able to find plenty of written material on these buildings, but to find information that would depict them was something else.” Finished with his studies, the artist spent six months drawing exact miniatures of the murals to guide his painting. With the work started, Antreasian spent three days a week—Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday—in Bloomington until the work was done.

Antreasian also had to devise new paint formulations to ensure the mural’s permanence, working with the Permanent Pigments Company to formulate “a paint customized to my requirements. The rest is history: this was the beginning of the Liquitex brand of acrylic paints.” Antreasian began his work in September 1956 and completed the murals in April 1957. Antreasian estimated that using Liquitex cut down on the time spent painting the murals by more than 30 percent—quite a saving on a work that contains fifty-seven different scenes and 110 figures.

The artist’s final public-art projects came in 1958 and 1959. One of these efforts, designing the terrazzo atrium floor—titled Zodiac—for the Holcomb Observatory on the Butler University campus, went smoothly and received wide acclaim. The other project, a regional competition to design a mural for the entry hall at the Indiana State Office Building around the theme of Abraham Lincoln’s youth in the state, using as inspiration his quote, “Here I grew up,” tested his resolve.

Antreasian’s concept for the mural centered on a series of vignettes featuring, as he noted, “a pensive Lincoln in various activities, floating supplies down the Ohio River, studying on horseback, practicing oratory in the bushes, and as a towering mature statesman.” The artist connected these locations by using the flow of the Ohio River between Pigeon Creek and the Anderson River. He also decided that instead of using paint, the mural should be a mosaic built from glass tiles imported from Murano, Italy, eventually numbering more than 300,000 pieces in eighty-seven different hues in its finished form (seventy feet by twenty-five feet) at a cost of $35,280.

(A Herron graduate, Ralph Peck, completed the mosaic mural’s fabrication, working on it at his Mooresville, Indiana, studio. According to an article in the Indianapolis Star, he and an assistant affixed the glass tiles to the “reverse side of a drawing made on a large roll of paper. This ‘cartoon’ was cut into sections, which were carefully coded and later affixed to the marble wall with mortar.” It took a year for them to do so.)

In addition to the technical challenges of fixing the glass pieces to a “honey-colored travertine [marble] wall,” Antreasian nearly became a victim of political infighting between different gubernatorial administrations. The Antreasian mural and a bronze Lincoln statue by Herron instructor David Rubins had been approved by a State Office Building Commission originally appointed by Republican governor Harold Handley. A new administration under Democratic governor Matthew Welsh objected to the project’s cost, believing the money should be spent on social-welfare programs. A. Reid Winsey, an outraged member of the jury that had been responsible for selecting Antreasian and Rubins, wrote the governor that “beautiful buildings demand the decorations indicated. The mural mosaic and the Lincoln statue which we selected would be a credit to any building and any state, and I feel that cutting cultural corners like this does much to throttle art in Indiana.”

Eventually, Antreasian said, he and Rubins prevailed and the statue and mural were installed. Antreasian added that “unsurprisingly,” Governor Welsh “took all of the credit for the art projects during the dedication ceremonies.” What is not known is if this controversy played any role in Antreasian’s decision to leave Herron for the art department at the University of New Mexico in 1964. (It should be noted that his salary at New Mexico more than doubled what he had been making at Herron.) Earlier, in 1960, Herron had given Antreasian a year’s sabbatical so he could work with printmakers June Wayne (founding director) and Clinton Adams (associated director) to begin the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles; Antreasian served as its technical director. With Antreasian’s expertise to draw upon, the institute moved to the University of New Mexico in 1970, where it remains. In 1971 Antreasian, with Adams, co-wrote The Tamarind Book of Lithography: Art and Techniques, the definitive work for lithography.  

Before his death at the age of ninety-six on November 3, 2018, Antreasian had returned to Indianapolis in 1994 for a major retrospective of his work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, titled: “Garo Antreasian: Written in Stone.” The museum had received a 650-piece archive from the artist. At a lecture for the exhibition, Antreasian, who had retired from teaching in 1987, told those in attendance that people often asked him where his ideas came from. “Consciously, I’m aware of many sources, but on a subconscious level I haven’t a clue what triggers a particularly significant moment over many others.” Reflecting about his career, he described it as “a fulsome life, and a lot more fulfilling than hanging around shopping centers.”  

When he mustered out of military service on November 23, 1945, Davis had returned to Indiana, earning a faculty position at Herron, where he remained until his retirement in 1983. A former colleague praised him as knowing how to “get the best out of his students. He wasn’t a soft touch. He wasn’t easy. Art was his life.” In 1948 he married Lois Peterson, a fifth-year student at Herron. “We quickly became good friends,” Lois remembered, “but I didn’t take any of his classes. He likes his students neat and dislikes walking into someone’s palette and getting paint on himself. If I had been in his class that might have happened because I’m a messy painter.”

For a time in the 1950s, the couple lived in Brownsburg and Davis, uncertain about his art and the market for it in Indianapolis, decided to supplement his teaching income by building houses. He abandoned that trade, but it left him with a strong understanding of how such structures are put together. He used this knowledge to capture on canvas the state’s historic urban architecture. Davis found himself drawn to structures possessing a wide range of shapes and the correct combination of lightness and darkness.

Davis likened his building paintings to capturing a man’s portrait. “As in the face of a man, the features of a building are enhanced, the forms strengthened and given depth by proper lighting,” he told a reporter. As in the portrait of an older person, the “lines and blemishes that come with age add character to the countenance. Some structures are more handsome than others merely because of the arrangement of shapes, just as in a human face. The weathering of many a storm, and survival against the elements, can add greatly to the fascination of an old building.” Indianapolis art critic and fellow Herron faculty member Steve Mannheimer praised Davis’s architectural paintings, calling them “perfectly measured moments of this time and this place. They are art about and completely from his and our immediate reality. They preach no moral other than the calm practice of observation.”

Until his death at age ninety-one on February 9, 2006, Davis, and Lois, produced art while working out of separate studio spaces in their two-story, shingle home on North Washington Boulevard in Indianapolis’s Warfleigh neighborhood; Davis converted the garage into his workspace, while Lois did her painting for a time in a basement studio, later moving to an upstairs bedroom. “We comment a lot on each other’s work,” noted Lois. “He will tell me what is wrong with my painting or if he looks at it and doesn’t say anything then I know it just isn’t right. He’s very careful about what he says. He will ask me for help and quite often I can pinpoint something and help him too.”

Davis was meticulous about his paintings, taking photographs of the building beforehand and making detailed sketches of the work to come. It took him anywhere from a few days to several weeks to finish a painting. He took photographs of the completed work, as well as making sure to keep careful records of where it was exhibited, any prizes it had won, and to whom he sold it to. “He loved to paint. Without it, he would have been lost,” Lois said after his death.

Talking with a reporter about his work, Davis noted that some in the art world believed he underpriced his paintings. “Maybe I do,” he agreed, “but a large part of the satisfaction to an artist is not the price, but the knowledge that other people are able to see his work.” Davis also believed that artists should never retire but must continue to paint “until they are unable to lift a brush, seeing and gathering more and more ideas to include in their work.”