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 Walter Wendell Arnett  (1912 - 1998)

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Lived/Active: Kentucky / Europe      Known for: commercial, advertising art, camouflage, cartoon drawing

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following are excerpts of information about Arnett's general background and his military service as a camouflage artist.  It is posted on a family website by John Arnett, son of the artist, who interviewed his father and also credits Frederick Fox's History of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, notes of Ross Routh, Lawrence Taylor, William Nash II, Bud Wroe and the 446th B-24 Bomber Group Squadron History by Miss N. Moan  On the website, it is under the heading, "The Ghost Army Days of Walter Wendell Arnett".

Walter Wendell Arnett was born a hundred years ago today on May 5, 1912, in Salyersville, Magoffin County, Kentucky.  On July 10, 1998, at the age of 86 he died at home suddenly of aortic stenosis.  He had Alzheimer's disease for the previous three or four years, but had a remarkable memory for past events.  Just a few hours before he died I had been talking with him about some of these remote memories and wrote down one of the last comments he made, "I remember it well." 

He was born May 5, 1912 in Salyersville, Magoffin County , “in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in eastern Kentucky ”.  He was the second son of Eugene Britton Arnett (1873-1950) and his second wife, Lucy Merrimon (Jones) Arnett (1879-1960.) Thus when Walter was born, his father was 39, his mother 33, his half sisters and brother, 12, 11 and 9 respectively, and Paul was sixteen months old. His mother, Lucy, named him for a college friend’s son.

Prior to his enlistment in the Army in 1942, WWA went by his middle name “Wendell,” and his nieces and nephews always referred to him as “Uncle Wendell.”  In the Army he was called “Walter” or “Walt” because they used first name and middle initial. He got used to that and he continued to be called “Walt” at the Courier-Journal where he began working in 1945. However, at home and at church he was usually called “Wendell.”  When he signed his various paintings he usually used his full name or “W.W.”  One of their friends in Nashville , Jerry Smith, gave him the nickname “Windmill,” and he used that term to design one of his early logos for his portrait business.

Wendell’s mother, Lucy Jones, was a second cousin of Johnny Gruelle, the cartoonist of the Indianapolis Star who created the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories and dolls.  Johnny’s father Richard B. Gruelle was one of the famous Five Hoosiers and an accomplished portrait and landscape painter. 

Lucy Jones demonstrated a gift for art as a student in Ohio Wesleyan. Two of her charcoal sketches remain:  Sir Galahad and a landscape of a boat on a lake with a towering mountain in the distance.  Wendell never mentioned his mother giving him any art lessons, but she obviously encouraged his bent in that direction and fully supported his decision to leave Georgetown College after one year and enter the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Wendell's father, E.B. ARNETT'S had a department store with the slogan, ' A GREAT STORE IN A GREAT TOWN  ?                             

This idea came from the large Cincinnati store of  H & S Pogue Company whose slogan was "A Great Store in a Great City . Wendell said: "I would use my cartooning ability as much as possible on the signs. On one I had painted a team of mules with a wagon and the driver whipping them to break neck speed to “E.B.ARNETT'S DEPARTMENT STORE WHERE STAR BRAND SHOES ARE BETTER."  (I recently saw one of the signs still quite visible on one of' the barns that I had painted fifty years ago, and the paint was still good. The wood on those barns absorbed that black paint like a sponge soaks up water. My Dad could never understand why I was using so much black paint.). . . One of my jobs growing up in Salyersville back in the twenties was helping around the store., after school and at night lots of times. When a wagon-load of merchandise came to our store from the railhead at Royalton or Ivyton, my job was to help unload the wagon and then unpack the boxes. The boxes contained overalls, shirts, hats, shoes, hardware from the Belknap Hardware Co. in Louisville and the big wholesale house in Cincinnati where Daddy bought most of his goods.

While working for his dad, Wendell attended Magoffin Baptist Institute where several teachers encouraged his artistic bent and, because of his father's business, he had the occasion also to travel to Cincinnati and other cities during buying expeditions with his dad. In 1933 he had the opportunity also to visit the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition, and on another occasion visited his grandfather and aunts on the farm in Illinois.

After a year of college at Georgetown (KY), in the midst of the Great Depression (1929-39), Walter enrolled with his parents' encouragement at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1932 where he studied fine art for the next year. His interests, however, lay with advertising art, and, with hopes of becoming a syndicated cartoonist or advertising artist someday, he left Kentucky and attended the Advertising Art School in Nashville, Tennessee. Subsequently he began work for the Robert G. Fields Advertising Agency. In Nashville, Walter kept in touch with his family and visited home in Salyersville frequently. Having been reared by his staunch Baptist mother he attended the First Baptist Church in Nashville where he sang in the choir and joined the youth program where he met his future wife, Leila Katherine Routh.

Walter W. Arnett (Wendell) and Leila Routh were married on June 10, 1939, in Oklahoma City at the home of Leila's father, E.C. Routh who was serving as editor of the Baptist Messenger. She had grown up in Texas and Oklahoma and had graduated from Mary Hardin-Baylor in 1936 and had moved to Nashville taking a job as a secretary in the Baptist Sunday School Board.

In 1941, War clouds were gathering in Europe during this time, and the storm there raged with the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940 and the Axis invasion of Russia in June of 1941, but like most Americans the folks in Nashville were hoping to avoid direct U.S. involvement in the war. While in Nashville Walter and Leila would occasionally see many Lockheed "Hudson Type" bombers, which were being transported from California to England. The big Vultee Airplane Plant in Nashville was also building planes to ship to England. Walter had the opportunity to do some his earliest cartoons of a political type for the Nashville Banner focusing attention on the need to support the war against Hitler. In 1940 Walter registered for the draft, and many of his friends began joining up. Walter inquired about a camouflage outfit in Pennsylvania, which was involved in the camouflage of airports and airstrips, but the positions had all been taken. He guessed all the sign painters in the country had already joined up.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon December 7, 1941, after returning home from First Baptist Church, Nashville, Walter and Leila were getting ready for a nap after lunch when the radio program of orchestral music they were listening to was interrupted by the special bulletin that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed by Japanese air planes and several of the U.S. ships had been hit. On Monday they listened with the whole country as President Roosevelt addressed the Congress: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory."

Rationing of sugar, gasoline, and tires began and like many others Walter felt the need to enlist if he could find the right unit. He read in a paper about the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion and received encouragement from his employer Mr. Fields to join up. After discussing the situation and opportunity with Leila and getting his business affairs in order Walter walked to the Custom House in Nashville and talked with the Sergeant in charge about the outfit he wanted to get in. After receiving assurances he could join that unit he joined up the next day in October 1942. Fortunately, he was successful in getting assigned to the 603rd and shortly was on a bus to Camp Forrest (named for Confederate Cavalry General, Nathan Bedford Forrest) in October, 1942. On the bus one of the guys said, "Hey, some guy back here joined up in camouflage." "What kind of outfit is that?" another asked. "Well, I think he is going to herd camels over in the Sahara Desert." Walter rolled in laughter.

Meanwhile Walter, having been taken by bus to Camp Forrest in October 1942, after several days departed to the Reception Center at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. There he was given travel orders to take the Southern Railways' train "The Tennessean" from Chattanooga to Washington and then on to Ft. Meade, Md. in November 1942 where he joined Company "C" of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. On the train to Washington, he sat next to a Colonel, and recalling his training at Oglethorpe was afraid to talk with him or answer many of his questions for fear he could have been a German Secret Agent. The officer smiled and Walter realized "he was getting a big kick out of this 'raw' Army recruit on his way to give his all for his country." When they arrived in Washington, the Colonel helped Walter carry his barracks bag off the train and then wished him good luck. Walter never asked his name so afraid was he of giving away the country's secrets.
Twenty miles east of Washington a truck from Ft. Meade met the soldiers of the 603rd at Odenton Station, and Walter found his way to the Headquarters and Service Company of the Battalion and was issued a Springfield rifle and later a Carbine which carried throughout the war but never had to fire it in the deception bivouacs in which the 603rd would be engaged. During the year of 1943 Walter drilled with the 603rd, climbed trees and telephone poles, marched on nearly "every road and by-path in the State of Maryland, bivouacked on the Potomac River" and other spots learning to live on the land. They learned some of the art of camouflage with barbed wire, chicken wire, and painted burlap. Color blind persons, they learned, could detect camouflage. "We tried to enforce camouflage discipline in our training and every day life. For instance, we were never allowed to hang our mess kits on the pup tent ridge poles, for they could serve as reflectors and give away our position."
The 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, one of four groups in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops detailed below. There were 400 engineers in the Battalion divided into five companies of about 80 each consisting of the Headquarters and Service (H&S) Company and line companies: A, B, C and D. Arnett was first assigned to C Company and then H&S Company. Richard Morton was assigned from the beginning to H&S Company. Although most of the troops in the Special Troops were newly drafted soldiers, there were numerous career soldiers who helped to maintain "military order and discipline."
Walter was given the task of breaking down the rations for the company and learned to use a slide rule." There was never a dull moment, but again where was the camouflage that I had enlisted for?" When they were overseas in France and Luxembourg later, Walter continued to be in charge of rations for the Battalion and was given the opportunity to drive the ration truck to get supplies.
In January 1943 a bad snow and ice storm hit the northeast, and the 603rd Engineers and 76th Infantry Division were called out to clear the snow and ice from huge camouflage nets which had collapsed on some 16,000 automobiles of employees of the Glen L. Martin Aircraft Plant in Baltimore, maker of the "Martin Marauder" among others. The camouflage had been expertly designed to give the appearance from the air of a village rather than a factory. Walter's job was to crawl under the nets and assess the damage and take the license numbers of the cars. All the tires were flat and the tops crushed in.

With time on their hands in the barracks, Walter and Richard Morton teamed up to do some cartooning and caricaturing of some of the fellow soldiers and officers which they felt would add humor and boost morale. They were the only two of the various artists in the Battalion who drew and posted cartoons and caricatures. Of his cartooning at Ft. Meade Walter said, "I picked a boy from New York [Coleman Varaday] who had a very interesting face to caricature. I studied his mannerisms and habits and began to make cartoons of him in different episodes, much to the delight of the other soldiers who immediately recognized him. The subject, however, wasn't too thrilled. Morton made some excellent cartoons also. The fellows loved our cartoons and the officers encouraged us on since it did give the boys something to think about and get their minds off bitching about the Army. Morton and I got quite famous for our cartoons and the other boys would give us suggestions all the time for more cartoons and we had a great time. One big skinny boy [Ziebe] from Jacksonville, Fla, offered much material for cartoons and caricatures about him. He also didn't like them much and became quite angry a few times. We always signed our cartoons and the bulletin board of H&S Company became the gathering place for the fellows to see who 'made' the board that week. We usually left the cartoons up for a week and then replaced them with new ones. We never lacked material."
They continued their cartooning when they returned to Camp Forrest in January 1944. Their humor was not always appreciated, and they nearly got in trouble for it later. In October 1944 while in Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Lt Col Fitz and Major Hooper distributed the following memo:

TO: All personnel 17 Oct 1944
1. No Cartoons, pictures, memorandums or similar matter will be
posted on any wall, bulletin board or other surface exposing said
material to public view without the approval of the unit commander.
2. Violation of the above will be deemed to be a violation of
the 96th article of war (Failing to obey a standing order) and is
punishable by confinement at hard labor for a period of six months
and forfeiture of 2/3 of six months pay.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Bill Mauldin was having trouble with his cartoons of the GIs and Patton. Patton called him in and cussed him out for depicting the GIs as unshaven and dirty, so Mauldin went to Eisenhower, and Ike said to go ahead and do any of that stuff you want to; if they can't take it that's too bad. Eisenhower's good sense filtered down and Walt and Rich were able to continue their cartoons as well.
For some time military strategists had been planning for a special decoy unit, and in January 1944 the new special top secret unit, called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated as a self-contained force solely designed for tactical deception. The unit was to be commanded by Col Harry L. Reeder, a West Point graduate and according to Walter, a "real army man." This unit consisted of personnel from the following groups described below by the unit historian, Frederick Fox in 1945:
"603rd ENGINEER CAMOUFLAGE BATTALION, Lt Col Otis R. Fitz, Commanding. (Later Major Wm U. Hooper) This Battalion had been working with FIRST ARMY for nearly two years. [In early August 1944 to confuse the Germans the FIRST became Bradley's TWELFTH ARMY group.] It had experimented with deceptive installations in Louisiana and Tennessee maneuvers. It was composed mainly of artists from New York and Philadelphia [and Kentucky] with an average IQ of 119. After the assignment of a deceptive mission and addition of dummy equipment [tanks, jeeps, cannon, uniforms, etc.] the official name became 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special. Strength: 28 officers, 2 warrant officers, 349 enlisted men." Tech-5 Arnett was in this group in addition to such artistic types as Bill Blass fashion designer; Ellsworth Kelly, originator of 'hard-edge' painting; George Diestel, eventual Hollywood set designer; Art Kane, photographer; Arthur Singer, bird painter; Jack Metcalf, taxidermist who worked before the war with the Joanas Bros. Taxidermists and had the honor of mounting the famous Australian race horse, 'Phar Lap,' that died after eating poisoned grass in California--names of workers shoved into rear end of completed work noted Walter; Richard Morton, fellow cartoonist, a fellow named Miller from Vermont; and Arthur Shilstone, who illustrated the article about the "phantom division" in the 1985 Smithsonian.
After sixteen months at Ft. Meade the members of the 603rd were bored and ready for some action overseas. When they got the call in early January 1944 that they were moving out, there was jubilation and hope that they would shortly be embarking in New York for the trip overseas. However, when the train they boarded reached Baltimore it turned northwest toward Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and then continued on through Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio, and then to Louisville, Ky. Everyone thought they were going to Ft. Knox, but the train continued on to Nashville, and before long Walter found himself back at Camp Forrest. The boys from New York were upset, but all soon learned that Camp Forrest was a POE (Point of Embarkation) and that soon they would be going to Europe or the Pacific; they didn't know which.

When the unit left Ft. Meade and ended up back at Camp Forrest, Leila moved back to Nashville where she stayed with her aunt and uncle until Walter was transferred to New York. Leila, then several months pregnant with her first child, John, stayed in Richmond, VA for a few months with her parents. E.C. Routh was now editor of The Commission. Walter would call every night from Camp Kilmer until an early May evening when no call came, and she knew he had left for Europe.

He spent time with his unit in England, went on a special mission in Swansea, Wales and Stratford-on-Avon, coordinating the transport of special dummy tanks and howitzers; and on  But Walter was eager to get into the action with his unit in France. 

On August 3rd, after D Day of July 6, 1944,  the unit moved by motor convoy some thirty miles south to La Fremondre, France, just north of Coutace. The 23rd was under the command of Col. Reeder and during this time several units of the 23rd assisted with decoy operations around Brest and Cherbourg. The entire invasion force had been pinned down near the beaches of Normandy for nearly two months owing to the German shore batteries and hedgerows which made travel difficult. For about two weeks Walter lived out of his two man tent set up over a fox hole. He continued some of his pencil sketches and carved two walking sticks from the hedgerows which he carried with him through the rest of the tour and brought home.

After landing in France the breakout occurred in mid August, and the Germans were on the retreat with Patton and others in pursuit. Patton received favorable press because of his rapid pursuit made possible in part because the Germans were quickly retreating to get behind the Siegfried Line. Had Patton been given more free rein his tank corps might have ended the war sooner, but in deference to British General Montgomery [who wanted part of the glory], and following the example of Gen Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg and not wanting to overcommit his troops before adequately supported, Eisenhower held Patton back. The 23rd left Le Fremondre and traveled eastward to Torce en Charnie some thirteen miles west of Le Mans where they stayed Aug 23-Sept 7. Here they pitched tents but didn't need to dig foxholes. Walter found some rubber material in Torce which had been used to make barrage balloons and from this made a rubber mattress which he slept on the rest of the tour and brought home with him having inscribed all the places he'd been.
In describing the movement of troops from the Normandy beaches to Paris, Walter spoke of "the good job the Germans had done mining the roads and that these had to be cleared. As they neared St. Lo and Le Mans the tanks had to have the tops painted with fluorescent colors (color codes changing daily) so that the Allied pilots would not mistake them for Germans."
While they had been pinned down in Normandy, Walter and others amused themselves by making sketches and whittling. The wood of the hedge rows was thick enough for Walter to make two walking sticks which he carried with him for the rest of the campaign and brought home. On one of these adorned with a carved "Cross of Loraine" symbolizing the Free French and used a 50 caliber shell casing as the tip. In a spiral around the stick he burned in the names of all the towns they passed through and the corresponding dates for many of the "visits." Most of these were towns in France:
On the morning of Aug 24, Col Bierre Billotte's French armored force entered Paris from the south, and on 25 Aug General deGaulle accepted the German surrender. Patton's Third Army, which could have taken Paris but out of respect let the French generals enter first, then entered the city and Walter remembers being among the first American troops to roll down the Champs Elysees in Paris. "The French were all glad to see us, waving flags and throwing flowers." From Sept 7 - 20 the 603rd unit of the 23rd was billeted at St Germain in Camp les Loges, a French military base which had been hastily deserted by the Germans.

During these two weeks Walter was able to see many of the sights of Paris some twelve miles to the east and Versailles some seven miles to the south. A visit to the Louvre disclosed that all the art had been removed to the countryside by the French before the German occupation. The Germans had been prevented from dismantling the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal, and most of the city had been spared. He recalled standing inside the Hotel des Invalides (from whence the revolutionary "citizens" had set out the morning of July 14, 1789, to storm the Bastille,) and looked down on the tomb of Napoleon.

The war was over; Walter Wendell Arnett returned to America to pursue his commercial art career and to live another forty-four years.



This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An advertising, commercial artist, Walter Arnett also did camouflage during World War II. He was assigned to the 603 Engineer Camouflage Battalion, took his training at Fort Meade, and then went to Europe with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the Ghost Army. 

During this time, he did many humorous drawings, which are in the collection of the Brown University Library and have captions such as Col. Reeder addressing the troops, Flat tire at the German border, Privates of the Guard and Inspection Team.

Ray R. Behrens, Camoupedia
Brown University Library, 

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