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Veterans on the Homefront: War Creates an Artist

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This is a guest post by Megan Harris, a librarian with the Veterans History Project. It is one of four profiles that make up “Veterans on the Homefront,” published in the November–December 2017 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. This profile recounts the way in which Tracy Sugarman was affected by his time in uniform.

A detail from a Sugarman watercolor showing sailors aboard a ship in Normandy in September 1944.
Tracy Sugarman at his desk.

As a young Navy officer arriving in Normandy on D-Day, Tracy Sugarman brought with him a few secret weapons: a sketchpad, pen and watercolor paints. Throughout his service overseas, Sugarman—a trained artist and aspiring illustrator—had been busy documenting what he saw in the form of quick but evocative sketches, which he then sent home to his new bride, June. By the time he reached France, drawing became not only a form of communication with his wife, but also a way to cope with the horrors of war.

Art, he said in his 2003 Veterans History Project oral history interview, was “a way to come to terms with getting through a bad time. If I could put it on paper, I could deal with it.”

After the war, art became his livelihood as well as a means of activism. While he created commercial works for publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, he also served as a reportorial artist on the front lines of another war: the civil rights movement.

During the summer of 1964, he joined activists organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to register African-Americans to vote in rural Mississippi. His time in the South yielded 100 drawings depicting “what was really happening” in the South, later used in news reports around the country.

Though he had once dreamed of becoming the next Norman Rockwell, art came to occupy a much more transcendent role in Sugarman’s life: As he explained in a 2009 lecture at the Library of Congress, “I first learned in Normandy that my art could be much more than a way to make a living. It could guide me to the truth, if I trusted it.”

Pedestrians near a jetty in the harbor at Fowey, England, in April 1944.

Sugarman’s Veterans History Project collection includes his oral history interview and more than 250 letters to his wife. Lyrical and passionate, the letters illustrate his experiences in war as well as the pain of being separated from June.

In 2000, he published “My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings,” with selections from his original wartime drawings, which reside in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In 2012, he published “Stranger at the Gates: A Summer in Mississippi,” which tells the story of his experiences during the summer of 1964.

Sugarman passed away in 2013.

Comments (2)

  1. What a beautiful, exceptional story. We’ve transcribed hundreds of WW2 oral histories and every one of them is fascinating. But this story is exceptional. Thanks for sharing!

  2. The Story of a son and Veteran and what he goes through

    The start of his life in rural Tennessee. When he was of age to learn how to handle a rifle his father and grandfather taught him how to care and shoot his twenty two windchester. But when he turned 6 he thought he was going to visit with what his dad called his aunt and uncle. He was excited to travel in a car at a young age.He looked back through the rear window as they drove away, not knowing he was leaving his family. He found out later that his aunt and uncle were no relation at all. His Mom and Dad sisters and brother had given him to them because they could not afford to take care of him. The aunt and uncle decided they could not either. So they put him into an orphanage home outside Topeka Kansas. He was so affraid of being in this place and missed his sister most of all. It took him some time to make a friend in this lonely building. The boys were seperated from the girls who were on a different floor.But the outdoor time they all could play together. He had formed a friendship with a girl Cristina Knight. They were very close and sometimes would just sit alone in the play yard and say nothing just thinking about their old family. He and her were the same age. They grew to become happy with the passing years, leaning on each other for some comfort. Then one day when they were 15 Cristina was informed that she had be adopted. She was so affraid and happy at the same time. She told him she was going to miss him so much. Then two days later he was informed that his grandfather had called and wanted to come pick him up. He was so excited. Well the week went by slowly and finally the day had come for Cristina to go and his grandfather was picking him up on the same day. The new family was at the orphanage by mid day. He and Cristina hugged and cried together for what seemed to be an hour. When Cristina left he watched out the window until she was behind the grove of trees. Now he had to wait for his Grandfather to pick him up,he had what little he has in a brown shopping bag. Then Mr. and Mrs Thompson came into the room and asked all the others to leave they needed to talk with him in private. Mr. Thompson ask him to please sit down. Mr. Thompson said there was an accident past the curve behind the grove, and Cristina and her new mother were dead. And that the accident was a head on collision with his Grandfather and he also was dead.
    Mr. and Mrs. Thompson said they would take good care of him during this time. Mr. Thompson said he could work in the hardware store he owned in the small town to earn money. He started to feel some love for the Thompsons and thought they did for him.
    Mrs. Thompsom gave him a new shirt and pants to wear at work. He did everything he was ask to do. When he turned 18 Mr. Thompson told him he would have to leave and make it on his own. He took a Grayhound back to Tennessee to find his family. But they had moved away. the people in the farm house that they moved to Pontiac Illinois. So he had enough money saved to take another Grayhound to Pontiac. He went to the police department and ask if they new his family. The man behind the counter said yeah they live out at the end of town in the brown house on Mill Street.So he walked out the door and walked down to Mill Street and found the brown homw and sit down on the front stairs for awhile before knocking on the door. His mom answered the door and said can I help you? He looked into her eyes and knew she didn’t know who he was. He said it’s me mom. she hugged him and said come in and rest.She offered him some water and food. And told him I can’t wait until your father sister and brother get home. Then she said something that broke his heart. She said I hope they will be glad to see you.His dad was home first, and gave him a hug and said it’s good to see you. Then he ask if he was staying for dinner. He put his head down and said I would like too.His mom ask where are you staying and how did you find us.He ask if he could stay with them for awhile, and he would find a job to help pay for things. He found a job in an Ace hardware Store. and gave all but twenty dollars to his mom each week.One day he told his mom and dad that he was joining the Army. He had seen all of Mr. Thompsons pictures when he was in the Army, so he to wanted to defend the country.His mom and dad told him if he joined then he would no longer welcome in their home.
    But he felt strongly about fighting for his own freedom, so he joined.He went through Basic Training in the bitter cold during the months of Janurary, and Feburary. he wrote home every day like he was instructed to do by the Drill Sergeant. But never received a letter back.He served in Vietnam and was proud of his involvement fighting for his country.When he was discharged he want6ed to suprise his family so he boarded a Grayhound to Pontiac to see them. When he arrived new people lived in the Brown home on Mill Street. He ask they lady at the door if she knew where thay had moved to, and she thought they moved to Carterville Missouri. So he called the local post office for their address. On another grayhound he headed for Missouri. He went to the address and knocked on the door. His mom answered the door and said what do you want. He said I just wanted to see yo again she said we don’t want any part of you for any reason. He ask if he could sit down for awhile she told him to sit on the porch. His dad came out and sat downand ask him to not stay to long. He ask if he could get a drink of water. His dad told him there was garden hose beside the house. When he came back and sat down he could here his mom talking on the phone. About 1/2 hour went by and a car pulled into the driveway it was his brother. He walked out to meet him and his brother punched him in the face knocking him to the ground, then his brother started kicking him and calling him a women and baby killer and he should go back to Vietnam and die. So he got up from the groung and started to run down the street. He walked into an gas station to cleanup in the bathroom and saw a bone sticking out of his finger where his brother kicked him. He went to a hospital clinic to have the repair his finger. The ask what had happened he told them he fell down some concrete stairs at the co-op. He went back to his mom and dads home when it got dark to see if he could see his sister. She was sitting on the porch by herself, he walked towards the home and saw his brother step out of the house, so he turned around. No Family and alone in the United States of America. He had no more money and walked to Hammond Indiana where he had read about job opportunities.He didn’t find a job until five months later and lived under an overpass by the expressway.He took his time making friend because he didn’t know how many people felt the same as his family. Until one day he say a fellow worker wearing a Army hat, he decided to ask if he was in the Army. The man said yes he was.he told the man he was too. And thats how it ended, a fellow military man helped him through his sadness and heart break. Still friends to this day.

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