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Friday, October 06, 2006

ART IN THE FACE OF WAR Veteran artists recall W.W. II in documentary [Photo]

STAMFORD They tell their stories with such clear-eyed detail, they could be recalling events from last week.

Army photographer Syd Greenberg said he wore a native hat on the Burma Trail to keep from being killed. "That's what kept you alive," Greenberg said. "The Japanese soldiers don't know if you're an American or not. There was a $10,000 bounty for every American dead or alive."

During World War II, Greenberg served in U.S. Signal Corps in China and Burma. His unit was attached to the Chinese Nationalist Army. "We lived like the Chinese. We ate like the Chinese," he said.

Greenberg was told to photograph everything he saw, and once got word from Army higher-ups to take more pictures of the dogs Chinese soldiers kept as pets. Greenberg sent back a curt reply. "Sorry, we ate them," he told the commanders.

Stars and Stripes combat artist Ed Vebell was assigned to sketch and photograph French police executing collaborators. "I couldn't do it," Vebell said. "My hands were shaking. To see someone killed right in front of you affected you so," Vebell said.

Greenberg and Vebell are two of eight local artist featured in "Art in the Face of War," a documentary that will be shown Friday and Sunday in Westport and Bethel as part of the Connecticut Film Festival.

Executive producer Cecelia Barnett is a Stamford resident who was the curator of the WWII art exhibit at the Carriage Barn in New Canaan that gave rise to the documentary project.

"Art in the Face of War" was directed by independent New York filmmaker David Baugnon and filmed by Ed Holt.

The veterans speaking in the documentary served in all U.S. armed service branches in both European and Pacific theaters. They live in Westport, New Canaan, Huntington, Wilton and Redding. Barnett said they have all had long careers and are working artists today.

The veterans tell anecdotes, recall combat and off-duty incidents and memories without rancor, bravado or apparent embellishment. Their only regrets seem to be for the cost in life all wars extract.

Victor Dowd talked about the sketchbooks he filled with drawings of the people he met and the places he visited as a member of the Army's 23rd HQ Special Troop Troops in England, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

The mission of the so-called "Deception Corps" was to fool enemy observers by positioning mock equipment to simulate troop and materiel activity. "War is so dependent on luck. If you were here at any given time, you could be dead," Dowd said in reference to an dangerous posting. "But if you didn't happen to be there at that particular moment, you could live to be 84 years old."

Army Air Corps B-24 co-pilot Clark Robinson said he faced German suicide pilots, and was once forced to fly his plane 150 feet off the ground to evade radar detection.

He later painted from memory the flaming mid-flight plunge of a bomber sliced apart during a combat mission.

Dough Leigh's series of 12 war images was the genesis of the 2004 art exhibition that led to the making of Barnett's documentary.

In the documentary, Leigh said replacement troops being killed the day they arrived and said a fellow soldier told him during the Battle of the Bulge, "The longer you're alive up here, the more you become a fugitive from the law of averages."

Howard Munce said he wasn't interested in drawing portraits but did sketch objects like the chairs soldiers sat on and the leaves they stuck under helmets to deflect rain water. He sent the sketches them to friends in letters from the Pacific islands where his Marine unit landed.

"I was a soldier now and I didn't want to be an artist soldier," Munce said regarding his Pacific war experience. "I wanted to be a soldier soldier."

In the documentary, Munce reads from his anti-war editorial he wrote in 1947 for a Westport newspaper that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

As a young naval officer, Tracy Sugarman talks about the awe he felt prior to being sent to Europe. "When we went overseas, it was mythical," Sugarman said. "I didn't know anybody who was overseas. Overseas was a very long way away."

By the time Sugarman was looking out from his ship to the Normandy beach and mistaking dead bodies for cordwood, "overseas" was very near.

Describing the din, smoke and smells of a D-Day landing, Sugarman said, " As you got close, you started to see what the war was all about."

Sugarman said he was a 22 year-old officer commanding 18, 19 and 20 year old sailors. "They are very young people that we send to do our fighting," he said. "That's their whole life. Their whole life is 19."

"Art in the Face of War" will be first screened Friday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Saugatuck Elementary School, 70 Riverside Ave., Westport.

The film will also be shown on Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m. at the Bethel Cinema in Bethel.

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