The Battalion Artist: A Navy Seabee’s Sketchbook Of War In The South Pacific, 1943-1945

Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

The new Hoover Press book, The Battalion Artist: A US Navy Seabee’s Sketchbook of War in the South Pacific, 1943-1945, explores Natale (Nat) Bellantoni’s life on the Pacific front in World War II.

Bellantoni had known since childhood that he wanted to be an artist. When he packed his bags and took leave of his family and his sweetheart to go to war as a US Navy Seabee, he knew that the best way to manage the narrative of his life and to cope with the ups and downs of his feelings was to create images—visual records that spoke of what he felt, as well as what he saw.

The book was written by Janice Blake and edited by Nat Bellantoni’s daughter, Nancy Bellantoni. It is filled with authentic World War II images—many in full color—that help bring to life the intensity of wartime life through the eyes of an artist who was also a US Navy Seabee.

Natale Bellantoni, a young art student from Boston, sailed across the Pacific for a tour of duty that spanned 1943-45, and returned home with a sea chest of art and photographs documenting his experiences in New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, and Okinawa. His subject matter was his daily life: endless weeks at sea, harbors and ships, men at work, airstrips, the local countryside, and the view of enemy planes overhead at night from his fox hole.

Now collected in a lavishly illustrated volume, his watercolors, sketches, and photographs offer a window onto one of the most significant moments in American history. The Battalion Artist explores the World War II experiences of Nat Bellantoni, but it reflects the story of an entire generation.

Highlights of the book include:

  • Nat's days as an art student at The Massachusetts School of Art
  • His gut-wrenching decision to leave college, his family, and his future wife and enlist in the Navy at the start of World War II
  • The uncertainty but ultimate resolve Nat and his shipmates—the men of the the US Navy’s 78th Construction Battalion—felt as they embarked aboard MS Day Star headed for the South Pacific and their first Island X (destination unknown)
  • The intense pressure of being on gun watch—scanning the horizon for any sign of the enemy
  • The welcome distraction of trading stories about home while at work on Kitchen Patrol (KP)
  • The visual contradictions Nat encountered when he disembarked at Noumea in New Caledonia, a once sleepy outpost that was quickly being transformed into headquarters for the South Pacific Command
  • Weeks and months of frantic busyness, living and working in miserable conditions—torrid heat, suffocating humidity, torrential rains—all the while racing to outbuild and outpace a relentless enemy
  • The flood of joy and relief that overcame Nat when the war ended. After a frustrating wait for transport home, he finally found himself at the Naval Separation Center, where fears and sorrows held in check over three long years collided with unbridled optimism for a future filled with limitless possibilities