Art in Service

In my previous post I wrote about how my parents met at art school in 1942 and that soon after my Dad was drafted into the military in 1943. My father served in the US Army Engineer Corps (the Engineer Aviation Battalion 1891st) till the end of WWII *.

Postcard from Bernie Safran 1943Throughout those years my parents wrote to each other and sent photos back and forth.

Here is a postcard dating from April 1943 that my dad Bernie sent to my mother Adele from the Base Unit at Geiger Field in Washington State. He was being moved with the troops across the country to Los Angeles from where he would ship to India, then on to Burma, and finally to China. (The message on the card was about their stop in Chicago and how great the USO was there.)

You can see he doodled all over the card.

I’ve only found one surviving letter from the time my Dad was overseas – I know that my parents destroyed the other letters because they wanted to keep their secrets to themselves.

This letter has drawings all over it just like the postcard.Bernard Safran letter from Basic Training 1943  It’s an early letter and not a very personal one (which is probably why it survives from a scrapbook I used to look at all the time when I was a kid). It recounts my father’s experiences in basic training to my mother.

Since my Dad was an artist he continued to work at his drawing throughout his service in the War. He drew on whatever paper he could find, and he drew whenever he had the time.

There are several beautiful small drawings of his friends and colleagues among my father’s papers.

 Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7" x 5", March 1944

Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7″ x 5″, March 1944

And there are quite a few fully completed, surreal drawings from then too. They seem to be created from his stream of consciousness…

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil drawing on airmail paper, 9" x6", WWII

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil on paper, 9″ x 6″, WWII.
(the paper has yellowed and become spotted from moisture over time)

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75" x 5", WWII

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75″ x 5″, untitled (it was pasted into a scrapbook in the 1940s)

Some depict clear themes, while others conjure fantasies or nightmares. Many of them are disturbing – which is not surprising given he was in the middle of a terrible war.

These drawings have never been shown, as far as I know, to anyone beyond immediate family.

Bernard Safran, Pen and Ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5" x4.5", untitled

Bernard Safran, pen and ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5″ x4.5″, untitled

My father often reminisced about his war years, but he would never tell me about the darker side of being a soldier. In my righteous teenage years, I interpreted this to mean that he enjoyed the whole war experience – and this offended me. My mother explained to me then, that just the opposite was true – it had been an awful time for him, but he was proud to have served and felt it was something he had to do.

Then she further explained that he served during his late teens and early 20s – a time that most people feel nostalgic for, simply because they are young and life is still an adventure. Certainly being in China, Burma and India was an adventure – this I could understand, and this helped me understand my father better.

Another time my mother told me that though my father had army buddies who kept in touch through Christmas Cards and letters over the years, he mostly avoided the company of the men he had to camp with.

Bernie with Dog WWII

Bernie Safran with a dog, WWII. My father, like many soldiers, looked for happiness in small things during the war.

Conditions at all the bases were primitive, to say the least. They camped in tents in the jungle and were overrun with venomous snakes like pythons and cobras, and other wild creatures. The heat and humidity were oppressive and foot rot and mildew were ever present. The food was horrendous, and there were endless Allied plane crashes on the airstrips too. All of this and the constant threat of enemy fire made life a living hell.

My father was always a loner, and preferred the company of a few like-minded individuals to the comradeship of a larger group. So he spent a lot of time in his tent, at the base library, or at the service club when he could.

C-47-flying-the-Hump WWII by R G Smith

An amazing painting by R G Smith called Over the Hump, Douglas C-47. To see more spectacular aviation paintings visit

One of the things he remembered fondly from the War was the experience of flying The Hump from India to China over the Himalayas. He spoke about the solitude and sheer beauty of the mountains and the endless jungles that they crossed.

The Hump, map by Zaur Eylanbekov from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009

The Low Hump route over the southern end of the range was less perilous, but Japanese fighters forced most missions over the main Hump—including the 15,000-foot-high Sansung range between the Salween and Mekong rivers.(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov) from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009, by John T Correll

It was only recently that I read about The Hump. I found out that it was extremely dangerous and some historians estimate that nearly 700 planes went down during this mission, never to be found. I’m not sure how many times my Dad went on the run but he told me that he went whenever the opportunity arose.

When I had the honor to go with my father inside a Canadian war plane (on a hangar in a museum – not in flight) similar to the C-47s my father flew in – I could easily imagine the experience of being a young person overwhelmed with life in war time and the freedom of standing some thousands of feet above the earth hanging onto the frame of the open door with nothing between you and the clouds.

Battalion leather patch WWII

*Campaigns: India-Burma, China Defensive, China Offensive


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