Combat artist Al Hurwitz donates sketches to Marine Corps museum

“I did this for my buddy, John Buck, who’s still alive. He and I were on an assault demolition team. We got blown up, and he remembers it one way, and I remember it another." — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Seventy years ago Marine Al Hurwitz went to combat in the South Pacific armed with a carbine and a sketch pad. Mr. Hurwitz, retired and a Chilmark seasonal resident, no longer has his weapon, but he does have his drawings, which survive as a record of the wartime experiences of his fellow Marines.

On August 11, Mr. Hurwitz will travel to the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va. and donate a collection of his drawings that will be added to a large body of works by Marine combat artists.

The museum staff located Mr. Hurwitz through a computer search for Marine Corps WWII veterans designated as combat artists. He received the call several months ago at his daughter Tamara Pullman’s home in California, where he spends the winter.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am,” Mr. Hurwitz, father of Chilmark builder Mark Hurwitz, said in an interview last week at the guesthouse where he lives next door to his son’s home.

A museum staff member had suggested that Mr. Hurwitz mail his drawings. The former Marine would not hear of it. “I said no, I want to bring them and I want you to give me a first-class tour of the museum in a wheelchair, with whomever it is that I’m with.”

The museum was happy to oblige.

Over the past several weeks, Mr. Hurwitz, age 91, has been assembling the wartime artwork he will present. “Sometimes a drawing tells an interesting story, even though the quality isn’t good,” he said. “A lot of people expect a lot of action drawings, but you can’t draw and fight at the same time.”

Fight he did

Mr. Hurwitz saw action on several bloody battlefronts etched into Marine history as a member of the 1st Engineer Battalion, part of the 1st Marine Division. His introduction to combat was the battle for Peleliu Island, about 600 miles east of the Philippines, launched on September 15, 1944.

“Peleliu was supposed to be a 48-hour operation,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “In 48 hours we lost maybe a third of the division. That’s how bad the intelligence was.”

Within three and a half hours of hitting the beach in Peleliu, he was engaged in combat. “There’s more improvisation in combat than there is in the actor’s studio,” he said of the experience.

He and his fellow Marine, Sgt. Joe Giosits, went past a cave. Sgt. Giosits threw in a grenade. Seven Kaigun Tokubetsu Rikusentai, known as the Japanese imperial Marines, rushed out.

“Here they come, with bayonets ready for action,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Joe starts shooting at them, and I start shooting, and my carbine won’t work. So I knocked it against a tree, I put in fresh ammunition, and I had a special brush just to clean out the breach. And he’s screaming, ‘Al, start shooting, I can’t get them all.’

“And at that time I see a dead Japanese killed by the bombardment, and he had a rifle,” Mr. Hurwitz continued. “So I said the hell with it; I picked up his rifle and I joined in for the last round. I got two or three, I don’t know.”

Later, Sergeant Giosits discovered why Mr. Hurwitz ‘s gun didn’t fire. “I was so high on adrenaline, I forgot the most important basic thing, to take off the safety catch,” Mr. Hurwitz said.

30 seconds or less

Many of his sketches were made in thirty seconds to a minute. “It’s the best way to learn to draw, if you’re ever going to draw,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Because if you only have one minute, you don’t get involved in the proportion of the nose or the eyes or any feature in the face at all. It’s holistic, gestalt.”

Born in 1920 in Baltimore, Maryland, Mr. Hurwitz’s evolution as a combat artist began with a childhood interest in art. At age 11 he hitchhiked into Baltimore to the Maryland Institute College of Art, the only place that offered classes for children. “I was considered a gifted child and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they put me in with the adults, doing classical studies of plaster busts with charcoal,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It drove me up a wall.”

After a disappointing stint at Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Hurwitz found a welcome niche at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, which later merged into Vanderbilt University.

The enterprising newcomer got a job in the cafeteria, slept on a cot on the roof of a dorm in the summer months, and received a room in exchange for work in the fall.

His life changed on December 8, 1941. “We were all called into the auditorium and listened to President Roosevelt declare war,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “The next day I went down to the Marine recruiting office. I enlisted. I was a romantic and wanted adventure.”

“I felt I had to get into the Marines to atone for the fact my sole interest lay in the arts,” he added.

Unlike the U.S. Army and Navy, the Marine Corps did not have a formal combat artist program, according to the PBS documentary, “They Drew Fire,” aired in 1999. However, when the U.S. entered the war, Marine Brig. Gen. Robert L. Denig, recruited writers and photographers as Marine correspondents in the field.

Mr. Hurwitz was classified as a combat artist, although the Marines did not have a formal program for that specialty at the time.

The Marines also have a motto: Every man a rifleman, meaning that every Marine no matter what his or her rank or job must be ready and able to fight in combat.

“People always say, what does an artist do in the Marines?” Mr. Hurwitz said. “I say well, you fly in a plane and you draw, and then you draw in combat when you have the opportunity.”

Mr. Hurwitz shipped out on the troop ship U.S.S. Rouchambeau. The ship made its first stop in New Caledonia. Mr. Hurwitz trained for combat and sketched portraits, which helped pass the time and was popular with his fellow soldiers.

The next stop was the island of Pavuvu. Mr. Hurwitz and his fellow Marines trained for several months in preparation for their first combat operation on Peleliu.

One job required his artistic expertise. “I trained special forces to go on to the next island in rubber rafts at night, to wait until dawn and draw what they saw and get the hell back,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “I had to turn them into artists in one hour.

“Artists can go where cameras can’t go,” he said.

Night was the worst

Following combat on Peleliu, he landed in the so-called second D-Day invasion, the battle to take Okinawa, part of the Japanese homeland.

“The Japanese were very good fighters; they were particularly good at night,” he said. “I don’t remember being scared or frightened except at night, because you never had enough men to cover the space between the machine guns, and they could slither quietly between them.”

From Okinawa he went to China. It provided a culture shock quite different from his combat experiences.

“When I would go to report to work in the morning, I had to step over the corpses of children who had died on the sidewalk from starvation. When we ate, there was always a line of Chinese, because we never scraped our food into the garbage. We gave it to them.”

Mr. Hurwitz had three younger brothers, who also served in the war and returned safely.

Mr. Hurwitz was honorably discharged as a sergeant from the Marines in 1946. The G.I. bill enabled him to attend Yale University where he received a master’s of fine arts degree from the school of drama in 1949. There he met and was married to Helen, his wife of 60 years, in 1950.

Following a stint as a producer of off-Broadway theater productions, Mr. Hurwitz returned to art education at the high school and college level.

The war experience

About four years ago Mr. Hurwitz compiled a book he titled, “More War Stories, World War II, Korea and Israel.” The collection includes stories by him and seven of his friends and relatives.

Mr. Hurwitz acknowledged the efforts of film makers like Stephen Spielberg to realistically convey the war experience, but, he said, they always fall short.

“The smells of war — such as decomposing bodies which cannot be buried, the nagging physical discomfort brought about by extreme heat and cold, the taste of fear in one’s mouth when a fire fight is about to begin — these are some of the realities that no film maker can hope to replicate,” he said.

In his introduction, Mr. Hurwitz described the lasting impact WWII left on the men who served:

“In our dealings with most of our friends and relatives, many of us veterans avoided discussing wartime experiences, since it was clear that few of the non-vets we knew were really interested … This was just as well, actually, because no reply, however eloquent, could have conveyed a true picture of the events of the past three or four years of our lives.

“Many of us were even reluctant to discuss the war, regarding it as something you had to get behind you, and the less you talked about it the sooner the memories would recede. And as many wives of veterans learned, there were residual effects, such as the persistence of nightmares that could not be pushed into the background.

“Whenever life under combat conditions was discussed, I would be reminded of how difficult it was to talk about the war with anyone who had never experienced what it was like to fire a rifle at a fellow human being who was intent on killing you.

“To the infantryman in action, anyone who had not actually stared into the belly of the beast was essentially clueless. It didn’t even matter if they were fellow Marines; if you didn’t know what it was like to face your enemy while the world around you exploded, then you were operating in some sphere of existence far removed from the world of combat.”

You answer the call

Mr. Hurwitz continues to contribute to art education and especially loves working with children. He has volunteered to do a mural with the campers at Camp Jabberwocky and a nature art project with children at Polly Hill Arboretum this summer.

Mr. Hurwitz’s son Mark and daughter-in-law Susan Puciel-Hurwitz have four children. His daughter Tamara, a dancer with the Liz Lerman Company, and her husband, actor Bill Pullman, have three children. Son Michael, a furniture designer, lives in Philadelphia with his wife Mami and their child.

“It will be good for my grandchildren to see the exhibit,” Mr. Hurwitz said.

Offered thanks by a Times reporter for his wartime service, Mr. Hurwitz response summed up the ethos of what is often referred to as the “greatest generation.”

“It was nothing to be thanked for. It was the thing to do. Your country’s in trouble, you’re called, and you do it.”