Painting American Military History

American Artisans, People
on February 18, 2001

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, the bow of a Higgins boat ground into the black, volcanic sand of the beach, a ramp dropped, and Pfc. Charlie Waterhouse stepped into the horror that was Iwo Jima.

“That’s exactly the way it looked to me,” he says, pointing to a painting of a young Marine in the shadow of Mount Surabachi—where a Marine was getting hit every 20 seconds—rising to fire at an enemy position.

“They did things John Wayne does in the movies,” Waterhouse says of his fellow Marines. Three days after he waded ashore, a bullet cut an artery and paralyzed Waterhouse’s left arm. Taken off the beach, he witnessed Iwo Jima’s famous flag raising from the hospital ship offshore. Those four days were defining moments in his life.

“It was a crowning achievement,” he says. “It left me with tremendous respect for what human beings can do.”

His experience on that remote Pacific island set him on a path that carried him across continents and made him an artist. His art, which largely depicts scenes from American military history, is in museums, government offices, and military installations all over the world.

Discharged and with a goal of becoming a comic strip artist, Waterhouse attended college on the GI Bill. As an illustrator, he created work for advertisers, book publishers, and magazines. He developed a reputation as the man to call for sweeping tableaus, crowd scenes with lots of action.

“If it was a trial and they wanted the crowd, the jury, and the whole scene, I got the call,” he says. Pointing to one of his Marine tableaus, he makes his point. “This Harper’s Ferry painting has over 100 people in it,” including Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart.

In 1967, Waterhouse went to Vietnam on the first of three tours as a combat artist for the Air Force, Army, and Marines. His work impressed the Marine Corps, and in 1973 he was commissioned to create a series of paintings of Marines in the Revolution, which he completed in time for the bicentennial. The Corps then offered him the assignment of his life—to be the first USMC artist-in-residence. He jumped at it. They also promoted the former private first class to the rank of major.

With the historical files of the Corps at his disposal, Waterhouse went on an 18-year painting tour of American history as seen through the eyes of Marines. His paintings were lent to museums, published in magazines, and have become part of the permanent collection of The Marine Corps Museum.

He retired in 1991 and in 1999 opened his Historical Museum and Gallery in Toms River, N.J., (pop. 7,524). He’s published two books, Marines and Others and Delta to the DMZ, incorporating work he did for such organizations as The Associated Press, the Boy Scouts of America, and Historic Williamsburg.

In the books and in paintings hanging on the walls of his gallery are Marines in little-known expeditions and pivotal points of history. Subjects and locations range from the scraggly Gooche’s Marine of The War of Jenkins Ear, to the Bahamas, aboard Old Ironsides, and Sackett’s Harbor, N.Y. He has painted Marines in Vera Cruz, China, Sumatra, North Africa, Europe, Central America, and the Caribbean, and in Korea, Vietnam, and Kuwait.

In 1998, he stepped away from the easel to sculpt, creating a praying Marine on the final day of the battle on Iwo Jima, complete with black sand from the beach during one of three visits to the island. He has two other sculptures at the Cropsey Foundation Gallery in Hastings, N.Y., of Revolutionary and Korean War Marines. And he’s still painting.

He picks up a recently completed canvas. It’s dark and moody, with the black sand under a gray sky, showing a young Marine sheltered behind a rock, firing a bazooka, a pile of ammunition at his side. “That was Doug Jacobson. He’d never fired a bazooka in his life. He picked one up, found some rockets, and took out 16 pillboxes.”

Currently, Waterhouse is working on paintings of New Orleans and Tripoli. When they’re done, they’ll add another chapter to his history of the Corps—and to the odyssey that began on Iwo Jima 56 years ago.