Iwo Jima Vet and Combat Artist Charles Waterhouse Painted War and Heroes Until His Last Breath

January 23, 2022Mac Caltrider
charles waterhouse

Valor in Action: The Medal of Honor Paintings of Colonel Charles Waterhouse contains 332 portraits detailing Marine and Navy Corpsmen Medal of Honor actions. Portrait by Charles Waterhouse. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

When Pfc. Charles Waterhouse landed with the first wave on the black volcanic sand of Iwo Jima, painting was the furthest thing from his mind. Waterhouse — along with approximately 70,000 other Marines and sailors — was simply trying to survive. At the peak of the fighting during the five-week battle, a Marine was killed or wounded every 20 seconds. Among those wounded was 20-year-old Waterhouse, who suffered a gunshot wound to his hand and was evacuated from the battle. The realization that he would not be returning to his comrades spurred the young Marine to dedicate the rest of his life to honoring their sacrifices. 

Valor in Action: The Medal of Honor Paintings of Colonel Charles Waterhouse — a 9-by-12-inch book completed by his daughter, Jane Waterhouse — captures Waterhouse’s lifelong mission of preserving the heroism of Marines and Navy corpsmen through art. At the time of his death in 2013, Waterhouse had completed 332 original portraits documenting Medal of Honor actions spanning from the American Civil War to the war in Afghanistan.

charles waterhouse
Charles Waterhouse’s paintings include Marine Medal of Honor recipients from every war since the American Civil War. Portrait by Charles Waterhouse. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

At the end of World War II, Waterhouse attended the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art before accepting a commission in the Marine Corps. He served in Vietnam as a combat artist and eventually became the Corps’ first artist in residence. In that unique role, Waterhouse was tasked with creating portraits that preserved the branch’s history, including every major campaign since the creation of the Corps in 1775. His artwork was featured in museums across the country, including in his very own Waterhouse Museum. Now, much of Waterhouse’s original artwork remains on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, though 332 of his portraits can be found in Valor in Action.

Only 3,000 copies of the book were printed, and each edition is signed by Jane Waterhouse and includes a biography of her father’s storied career. Beginning with the Medal of Honor actions of Cpl. John Mackie, who single-handedly saved the USS Galena during the Civil War Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, the book chronicles the heroics of Marines and corpsmen in every conflict up to the most recent war in Afghanistan. Of the more than 300 portraits, 27 are of Waterhouse’s Iwo Jima comrades whose selfless acts inspired him to pursue art as if it were the most important mission of his life. 

charles waterhouse
Valor in Action: The Medal of Honor Paintings of Colonel Charles Waterhouse contains all 332 of Waterhouse’s Medal of Honor portraits. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Among the 27 Medals of Honor awarded during the pivotal battle were those awarded to the last living World War II recipient, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Herschel Williams, and WWII’s youngest Medal of Honor recipient, Pfc. Jacklyn Lucas. Williams was awarded the nation’s highest award for valor after he destroyed seven enemy pillboxes with his flamethrower. Williams notably traveled back across the fire-swept terrain to refuel his flamethrower five times. 

Showing similar resolve, Lucas was only 17 years old during the battle. He lied about his age to join the Marines at 14. Originally assigned duty as a truck driver, Lucas felt compelled to get into the war and stowed away on a transport ship bound for the Pacific. Landing with the second wave in a borrowed uniform, Lucas later threw himself on two grenades to save his friends. When one of the two deadly devices detonated, his squadmates thought he was dead and left him where he lay. He was later discovered by other Marines and evacuated, making a full recovery. After the war, Lucas joined the Army and served in the 82nd Airborne Division where he again defied the odds of survival when both of his parachutes failed to deploy during a training jump. Lucas miraculously survived the fall to earth and lived to the age of 80.

charles waterhouse
Waterhouse’s depiction of 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman leading an attack on Tarawa. Portrait by Charles Waterhouse. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The legacies of men like Williams and Lucas fueled Waterhouse to continue his work even when his own health began to decline. After retiring in 1991, Waterhouse continued to paint Medal of Honor portraits as if the longevity of the Marines’ and sailors’ memories was solely in his hands. When his health deteriorated to the point of him being unable to write legibly, he viewed his mission with only greater urgency.

“He painted all day at his easel, getting up frequently in the middle of the night to work on an unfinished canvas,” his daughter writes in the book’s preface. “He spent countless hours reading and researching on the computer. During meals he drew sketches on paper napkins. He swore at his own facilities, and on a daily basis, he bargained with God.” 

Medal of Honor
The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., left, presents a folded American flag to Jane Waterhouse during the funeral service for retired Col. Charles Waterhouse at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Feb. 19, 2014. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tia Dufour.

At the time of his death in 2013, an empty easel and half-completed canvases furnished Waterhouse’s studio. The World War II and Vietnam veteran fought through diminished motor skills to finish his mission, which, like so many of his subjects, he dedicated his life to and ultimately died pursuing. 

Of the more than 300,000 service members buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Waterhouse holds the honor of having the only headstone that reads “Artist in Residence.” His story — along with those of the men whose most heroic acts he painted — are forever preserved in Valor in Action. 

Valor in Action: The Medal of Honor Paintings of Colonel Charles Waterhouse by Jane Waterhouse, Schiffer Publishing, 384 pages, $100

Read Next: When Truth Became a Casualty in World War II, Combat Artists Sought To Revive It

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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