Monday, July 24, 2006

A Tragic Prelude

Title: USCGC Escanaba/USAT Dorchester 1943
Size: 20"x16"
Media: Acrylic

While the inspirational World War II sacrifice of the Four Chaplains, and their role on the USAT Dorchester is well-documented, the artist who created the painting above, Dick Levesque and I have run into similar frustrations uncovering the rest of the story -- the true history of the sinking and rescue, and the fatal errors in judgment that lead to the Dorchester's vulnerability. It's these questions that make the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains, and the tragedy of the deaths of 675 men, including my grandfather, especially poignant.

The ship in the foreground is the USCGC Escanaba, one of three Coast Guard vessels charged with escorting the USAT Dorchester and her convoy to Greenland. When the Dorchester sunk, courtesy of a German submarine's torpedo, the Escanaba was first to the rescue. The larger ship in the distance is the Dorchester, and in the far distance, the USCGC Comanche, the second of the convoy's three Coast Guard escorts.

With much gratitude to Dick for allowing me to post this work, and, perhaps more importantly, for sharing with me his interest in establishing the true history of the ship and its men, below is an account of his painting's creation.

* * *


My name is Dick Levesque and I am a retired Coast Guardsman and marine artist. I have previously read accounts of the
Dorchester sinking and the remarkable sacrifice that the four Army Chaplains made on that bitterly cold morning of February 3, 1943. Most of my marine artwork revolves around historical events that pertain to the U.S. Coast Guard.

While researching the history of the
USCGC Escanaba I became intrigued with the Dorchester incident. I knew that I wanted to portray both ships but was unsure how to go about it. I tried some rough sketches at first showing the sinking but I felt that this was too gruesome. I even attempted depicting hundreds of men floating among the wreckage struggling for survival with others lifelessly adrift being held up only by their life preservers. I rejected this also as it seemed too disrespectful to these poor souls and the families that might have the opportunity to view the finished painting.

My research indicated that the
Dorchester sank rapidly shortly after midnight with one survivor account stating "it was a moonless night and bitterly cold". There was no fire visible when she slipped below the surface and another account indicates that "star flares" were fired about 45 minutes after the sinking. This would make a portrayal of the sinking very difficult as there was no illumination for some time.

I shelved the project for many months randomly wondering how I could complete this painting. One evening while dozing off to sleep it suddenly hit me that the most reverent way was to show both vessels in their glory the day before this tragedy.

After a very restless sleep I awoke and could hardly wait to begin. I had all the research information on both vessels and hastily put it to paper to see if it "worked".

It did and I think it honors all those involved including the
USCGC Comanche barely visible on the left horizon. I have received reviews including: "You have really set the stage for one of WW11's major tragedies. The sea, sky, color, all puts in your mind that something bad is going to happen. Sadly, it did!" And, "It brings a chill to see the Dorchester in the background, knowing what would happen soon afterward." And finally, "You can almost feel a bitter cold wind. You can look at the picture and wonder what those guys must have been feeling and what was about to happen." I am very pleased with the results and feel blessed to have been able to pay tribute to the four Chaplains and ALL that gave their lives that fateful day.

* * *

After much thought, and a conversation with Barry Sax and David Fox of the The Immortal Chaplains Foundation, Dick decided to attempt a 5'x3' painting of the sinking of the Dorchester and was kind to give me a glimpse of his unfinished work. It's haunting, chilling, terrifying, particularly to the granddaughter of one of the figures he has carefully painted on the ship. As soon as Dick has completed it, he's agreed to allow me to post this painting, also. The final work will be donated to the Immortal Chaplains Foundation.


Anonymous said...

The painting (even in mini online form) conveys a truth of the event that we tend to overlook with our current experience of war reporting. On the open sea, nothing is quite so clear as it seems to be. Depth perception is off, and so forth. Then, in the tragedy, evidence simply disappears. You can't seal off the area and send in the investigators with evidence bags. So you see how the tragedy could occur, and how so much of it could be a mystery after all these years. Elizabeth, I look forward to reading your account because you will have to fill in some of the gaps and recreate some images that are lost. A good challenge, but I suspect you're up to it.

Plantation said...

Wonderful painting and I'm glad you gave me the insight in person. Can't wait for the rest of the story, as they say.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Bill and Plantattion, many things fascinate me about this painting; chief among them is the slope of the waves. A Coast Guard cutter is a large ship, and yet look at the Escanaba's angle as it climbs what appear to be fairly waves. In the days prior to the day this painting depicts, there was a fierce winter storm that tossed these huge ships around like toy boats in a kid's bath.

And it looks cold, so cold. The water would have been around 34 degrees here.

Brett Battles said...

Thank you, both Elizabetha and Dick, for sharing the picture and the thoughts with us.

Anonymous said...

Powerful sentiment. Dick's backstory is so personal and well told. Elizabeth, your reverence and tenacity will make for one compelling read!

Anonymous said...

Thank you to all that posted comments regarding this painting. Elizabeth has done a wonderful job in trying to decipher all the subtle problems associated with the Dorchester and her subsequent sinking. It is a story that should never be forgoten and one that must be told over and over again. I can't tell you how many times I had to stop while painting this and the one of the final painting and just take a deep breath. What these men went through was astonishing and agonizing. It is a scene that was repeated, unfortunately, many times throughout WWII. If I have been able to have you pause for just a second and think of the horrors and what could have been of the hundreds of men that were lost in just this one incident then I have succeeded in my intentions. Their memory should never be forgotten.

Puryear TN