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CCB HQ Company War Art - 'WW2 Murals'
Recently, I watched the opening scenes of Paul Hogan's second 'Crocodile Dundee' film, where the camera pans along the Manhattan shoreline. I had a strange feeling as the pristine twin towers of the World Trade Centre came into view that no one watching the film's premiere would have experienced. Not infrequently in this research, the knowledge of what the temporary inhabitants of Jeanne's hamlet were about to face engendered a similar feeling as we set ourselves to find out more about them.
The pattern of use made by the various military visitors to Sarsden and its environs has been difficult to discover, as most evidence of their presence has disappeared in the 60 or so years since the war. No one walking along the lane past Sarsgrove would guess that there was once an RAF camp located there to service the needs of the Chipping Norton relief landing ground. We only knew to look because Jeanne Preston mentions it in her wartime diary. Fortunately, the National Monument Record at Swindon has some aerial survey photographs of the area taken in 1946 by an RAF DeHaviland photo reconnaissance Mosquito. Curiously, it appears it was from the same PR squadron that took the reconnaissance photos of the German dams attacked by the Dambusters. As well as the RAF camp, the runs of aerial photographs take in the whole of Sarsden, and it was from them that we learned exactly where the Nissen or Quonset huts, used to house the soldiers, were located. Comparing them with the same area today, as it appears on Microsoft Virtual Earth, made sense of the latter. Google Earth's pictures were taken at a different time and showed various cows but not the parch marks of the WW2 compound fencing. We also have photos of the American soldiers taken at Sarsden Lake in the grounds of Sarsden House. However, all these, along with oral history, are only reminders of what was. But we learned that there is something tangible from those days, still visible, at Sarsden House. The House has since changed hands but the then owner allowed us to look in the old church there and to tour the grounds and outbuildings. In the church, we came across a US Army issue New Testament with a forward by President F. D. Roosevelt. From under the floors of the old stables, there were various wrappers and an envelope addressed to one of its British Army temporary inhabitants. But in the old coach house, we discovered what we'd come to find.
During WW2, first British and later American soldiers used to use the then open-fronted coach house as a bar. Indeed, the American Post Exchange was located somewhere opposite. The aerial survey seems to show a temporary building there which may have housed the PX and possibly an earlier NAAFI, the British equivalent. What we didn't know until we visited them was just who had painted the scenes on the three internal walls of the coach house. Less racy than many examples of war art from that period, the 'murals' depict a seascape extending all round the internal space. Sitting or lounging on the shore are various somewhat underdressed ladies. Most are in fairly good taste, although one appears to have been drawn by a different hand standing in front of a Sherman Tank, seemingly in turn a product of the first draftsman. On the side of the tank is a triangle containing the number 6, the identification graphic used on the real 6th Armored Division tanks. Unlike the plaques left at the house by the British and American officers who were billeted there, this memento left by the enlisted men of Combat Command B's HQ Company remains, as both reminder and memorial. That the paintings seem unfinished suggests these men were suddenly called away and adds a certain poignancy.
To begin with, this was all we could discover about the 'murals'. The story they were painted by an Italian remained, but, obviously, he was not an Italian prisoner of war like those helping on the farm up the road. The only clue left by the artist was the partially damaged word that looked like 'Ellis' at the bottom of one panel, but which, when digitally restored, turned out to be E-2111. This remained obscure for some time. It was only when I thought to ask my New York veteran friend, Mel, if there were any draftsmen in his unit, that he came up with two names. I next did what I always do and looked them up in the online WW2 enlistment records. And then the penny dropped. Al Echemendia, with a surname no doubt sounding Italian to the locals, had an army serial number ending in '2111'.
Al made it through the war and ran an artists' materials shop on Rhode Island. The other unit draftsman was Charlie Ingrasci. Like Al, he drew plans and maps for the Combat Command headquarters staff. Unlike Al, he succumbed to an attack by ME 109s in Normandy and his war was over almost as soon as it had begun.
But there is another mystery contained in these old murals, as yet unsolved. On the back wall is a cartoon of a man on hands and knees dropping something into the water with a splash. Above is written, 'Leo Aponte on reconnaissance' and below 'Looks like a five pounder to me! '
If we go back to the opening scenes of the film I mentioned at the start, we next see the intrepid Mr Hogan sat in a boat and employing some rather unorthodox fishing techniques involving the use of explosives. The same practice was used in the lakes at their training camp in Scotland by some Norwegians, some of whom would later be known as 'The Heroes of Telemark'. Maybe Mr Leopoldo Aponte of CCB HQ Co. had been known, at some time, to improve his diet by similar means.
Well, it's a theory. If you know otherwise, please let us know.
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