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World War II envelope art making history

The Daily Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An envelope is worth a thousand words.

Natives dance. Fighter planes duel. Soldiers shoot dice and the enemy. Scenes from a time when a world was at war and a guy from Wewoka watched.

They came weekly from Stephen Douglas Jr., who wrote home about his tour of adventure, of boredom, of homesickness.

Douglas did more than write, though. On each envelope, the young Army corporal drew in pencil, ink and watercolor about life in 1943-45 on South Pacific islands, some barely large enough for airstrips he helped build.

"I did a lot of drawing," recalled Douglas, of Oklahoma City.

"I made Valentines and Christmas cards and birthday cards for guys that wanted them."

Now the scenes of World War II that cleared censors, traveled thousands of miles through the mail, sat in storage for half a century and survived a house fire will outlast the guy who created them. The postal vignettes are joining other relics of American heritage in the Smithsonian Institution.

"His artwork provides a good example of the common soldier's experience during the war," said Craig Orr, archivist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

In every war, soldiers have written, sketched and painted their experiences, fears and hopes. In many wars, including World War II, governments sanctioned artists to preserve scenes in various media.

But everywhere, amateurs like Douglas also scratched out what they saw.

Researchers mine collections of such war art to discover the edges long since smoothed by traditional accounts of history.

"These are the kinds of details that are just illuminating,"

said Saul Zalesch, associate professor of art history at Louisiana Tech University. "This is contextual history."

The 20th century's world wars had more of this art from more diverse sources. World War II was particularly "egalitarian,"

Zalesch said.

"It had a much better educated group of soldiers, including a lot of people who could express themselves in words or pictures,"

he said.

Wherever they were, soldiers would use anything they had. For Douglas, that included a child's watercolor set and envelopes.

"Some drew on the back of C- ration boxes. Others used whatever was at hand," Bob Kenny said. "They didn't stop at their local art store, then board their ship."

Some sketched on bombing missions, aboard ship, in foxholes, said Kenny, researcher for the military collection at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Kenny's favorites are sketches an airman made in a German POW camp after he was shot down over Munich.

Douglas sketched his in many places on many islands, including Biak, Cape Glochester and Lae. His envelopes show lush landscapes -- some with Army tents -- caricatures, portraits, birds, bamboo huts and an Army "house of rumors," otherwise known as a latrine.

Some letter scenes are cartoons hinting at the style of cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

Some are rousing, like one with the Liberty Bell and the words, "Let freedom ring for all the world."

Some are rough, like one showing a GI grasping an enemy soldier by the throat. Another shows an Army truck bearing down on Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito and the words, "Clear the road."

One is a logo Douglas made for his Army unit, the 864th Aviation Engineers. It shows a growling bulldozer with wings, driven by a soldier with a rifle in his hand. Several show natives working, dancing or wearing traditional island "butterfly sleeved"


Many others dwell on the tedium of a GI -- mail call, washing clothes, catching a nap, longing for home -- the unheralded test of a soldier's stamina.

One envelope failed to pass Army censors because it showed a volcano that might have revealed too much about the writer's location, Douglas said. It was returned to Douglas and he lost it.

About 50 other envelopes were lost in the early 1980s when his Oklahoma City home was damaged by fire.

Growing up in Wewoka, Douglas showed a knack for art. At a high school teacher's urging, Douglas boarded a train and enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute.

Art would be his life's passion. He taught one daughter to paint and "she now paints better than I do," he said.

The spacious home he shares with wife Pauline is lined with watercolor and oil still lifes and landscapes. He has sold some works, and others fill a studio in his home. He's now into impressionism.

His main livelihood, however, was as a postal carrier, a career from which he retired around 1973.

Douglas' art envelopes were "discovered" when one of his two daughters, Dianne, a professor of foreign languages at Louisiana Tech, used slides of the letters during a presentation at the school in Ruston, La.

Zalesch, who had worked at the Smithsonian and who also is engaged to Dianne Douglas, suggested the letters be offered to the Smithsonian.

Curators of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum reviewed a few faxed samples but decided they weren't interested.

"I think the Postal Museum made a mistake," said Orr, of the American History Museum.

Orr said postal curators might change their minds when they see the color originals. Otherwise, he said, the Douglas envelopes will join the American History collection.

"These will probably be here forever," Orr said.

With the World War II generation disappearing, lots of war art is surfacing, much of it forgotten in footlockers and attics.

Douglas wanted his letters to take their place in history before he passed into it.

"I'm getting close to it," he said. "I'll be 88 next month."

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