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  • A Soldier's Sketchbook
  • Written by Joseph Farris
  • Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9781426208171
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A Soldier's Sketchbook

From the Front Lines of World War II

Written by Joseph FarrisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joseph Farris

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A Soldier's Sketchbook, an illustrated memoir from a World War II soldier, is drawn from the letters, sketches, snapshots, and mementos of Pvt. Joseph Farris, who left his home of Danbury, Connecticut, and set off to war aboard the U.S.S. General Gordon in October 1944, bound for France as part of Company M, 398th Infantry. Farris wrote more than 800 letters home, and he hewed his artistic talents with sketches and paintings along the way. He also secretly copied officers' notes and, once back home after the war, collected clippings and battlefield accounts, which form a sobering counterpoint to his reassurances to his parents that everything is "swell."
This book chronicles a young soldier's experiences from October 1944 through January 1946 in France and Germany. In words and pictures, it tells of Christmas in the trenches, long walks through the rain and mud, landscapes of fear and despair, lost friends and leaders, changing beliefs about human nature, God, and the Jerries (as he calls the Germans).
Transcriptions of many of the 800 letters Joseph Farris wrote home sit side by side with the real thing, reproduced in facsimile on the page. Snapshots and color sketches, painted in moments of reprieve during battle and carried home by this earnest young man and fledgling artist, help us see the world he saw.


When headquarters called on my Third Battalion to take over, we were extremely short of men. Put together, all the riflemen who were left from Companies I, K, and L barely made up one full rifle company. At full strength, Company M, my company, was a heavy weapons outfit composed of two machine gun platoons (eight machine guns) and one 81-mm mortar platoon (six mortars). However, because of casualties, we were able to make only one full machine gun platoon out of the two platoons we normally had. Our battalion went to battle for the Maginot Line with one rifle platoon and four heavy machine guns.
Besides having many casualties, a bug was making the rounds, and many of us were quite ill. I had a fever and chills and felt rotten. I was offered an opportunity to retreat back behind the lines until I recovered, but I knew our platoon was in bad shape and declined. I had the “GIs” (diarrhea), and a temperature of over 100°. I was given a stiff dose of some medication, 16 pills, and sent on my way! I was young, the war seemed just, patriotism was quite acceptable, and I had a strong sense of responsibility. Perhaps the years in helping my parents run their mom-and-pop confectionery store contributed to the latter.
Our target was Fort Freudenberg, while other troops attacked Fort Schiesseck. These were formidable fortifications of the Maginot Line west of Bitche. Fort Schiesseck, the larger of the two, had 11 adjacent units, each with a gun emplacement or a series of guns ranging from 47-mm to 135-mm that were mutually supporting and extremely difficult to attack. The walls of the fortifications were from three to ten feet thick and constructed of reinforced concrete. Some of the units had as many as five stories below ground level with underground railroads that were used for supply.
I was first gunner for the attack, which meant I had to carry the heavy tripod. Everyone was loaded down, so there was no complaining or shifting of burdens. Just as we started toward the first pillbox, we had our first casualty. One of our men lost part of his arm, blown off below the elbow. The soldier next to him panicked, unable to take it, and ran off to the rear with our medic chasing him. The rest of us sucked it up and kept going forward amid the chaos of explosions and bullets flying all around us. Suddenly I felt a jolt on the right side of my body and realized I had been hit with a piece of shrapnel. Fortunately, it had lost most of its velocity and didn’t penetrate my body. I picked up the piece and quickly dropped it. It was still hot!
We advanced toward the first set of pillboxes, which had us in their crosshairs. To get away from the artillery fire they were bombarding us with, we dove into an unoccupied pillbox while our platoon leaders went on reconnaissance to see how we should approach Fort Freudenberg, our objective.
We hated to leave the safety of the pillbox when we had to make a move, but we had no choice. We left and went over a slight hill, which exposed us against the skyline. Then as we advanced toward Fort Freudenberg, I noticed our tanks to our right firing at the pillboxes. My immediate response was to get away from them, even though they were ours, since I had learned that they drew return enemy fire—and they surely did! To our right we could see the German 88-mm shells landing not more than 50 yards away! It felt like we were in a war movie. Although we were tired, we increased our speed and were really tearing toward the fort. As heavy as that tripod was, I ran as fast as I’ve ever run. When we reached a satellite pillbox, I threw down the tripod and quickly hopped into the fortification, which was still smoking. We took control of the pillbox with the help of the engineers, who placed huge demolition charges at strategic points while the riflemen covered them.
We moved forward again the next morning toward Fort Freudenberg, again at a gallop. Shells were bursting above us as we advanced after a 45-minute barrage by our artillery to the hill right above us where we dug in. I never saw so many shell holes in one field. The Germans threw artillery, mortar, automatic weapon, and small arms fire at us. Our riflemen, who were much more mobile than we heavy machine gunners were, had preceded us and were already at the fort. To our right were many light American tanks, ominously lined up at intervals of about 60 to 70 yards, employing direct fire upon the enemy pillboxes. In response, the Germans increased their artillery and mortar fire, forcing us to dig in.
We started with three men in our hole and before you knew it, there were six of us, all digging like mad, especially when an exploding shell came near us. Everyone was reluctant to raise their heads to see if anyone was approaching us, but I was frightened not to—I was concerned that some German might be crawling up in position to drop hand grenades into our position, which would have obliterated us. I put my helmet atop a rifle and raised it above the hole to see if it would draw fire. When there was no response, I quickly peeked out to see what was going on.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

Q&A with Joseph Farris, author of “Soldier’s Sketchbook”

Q: Your parents saved hundreds of letters and illustrations that you made during the war. Why did you decide to publish them now, more than 60 years later?
A: I didn't plan to publish them. I hadn't revisited the letters and drawings in almost 60 years -- I couldn't get myself to -- but around 2004, I realized I was nearing the inevitable end of my life and decided to  make a scrapbook for my family so that they would know what I went through.   Susan Hitchcock [the book’s editor], who is my sister-in-law's step-daughter, happened to be visiting and when I showed her the scrapbook, she said it should be published.  To my great and delicious surprise, it has.

Q: Was art therapeutic for you during the war? How so?
A: I drew because I always drew, long before I went into the army. Since I enjoyed drawing, it might be considered therapeutic, but it was  just a natural source of communication for me.

Q: Do you have a favorite cartoon from your time serving overseas?
A: Perhaps the corny cartoon, shown in the book, that appeared in the service newspaper The Stars and Stripes. It was my first and only published work at that time.

Q: You're a cartoonist, and a funny guy! How were you able to maintain that sense of humor during the war?
A: Of course I wasn't  a cartoonist or anything else at that time, since I had just graduated from high school. I was quite a serious  person  and my sense of humor started to blossom, I suspect,  to counter the fears and horrors of war.

Q: With email and Facebook, it's now much easier for soldiers abroad to communicate with home than it was when you went to war. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage for today's soldiers?
A: I imagine it's a mixed blessing. It's wonderful to see and hear from your loved ones but I wonder if it makes homesickness greater and the contrast between the home front and the war zone almost unbearable.

Q: What do you hope the children and grandchildren of WWII veterans will learn from reading your letters?
A: I hope they will have a greater understanding of what the word "war" means. It's not a fun adventure. It should be an absolute last solution to solving problems.  

Q: Do you have any advice for children who want to talk to their grandparents about their experiences during the war, but aren't sure how to bring it up?
A:  Some veterans I know find it extremely difficult to converse about their war experiences and I have always respected their reticence. It may be too painful for them to return to that part of their life.  A child might tell their grandparents of their interest in that seminal event and perhaps open an avenue for the veteran to share their memories.



“A remarkable new book.” –Newyorker.com (Book Bench blog)
“Farris, best known postwar as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, offers this evocative memoir-album, with a scrapbook graphic design. Replete with faux-yellowed pages, it chronicles his tour of duty using his contemporary illustrations, his letters to his Connecticut family, and present-day reflections on the attitudes and fears of his innocent 19-year-old self. With meticulous National Geographic maps tracking his regiment’s advance through France and Germany, Ferris’ is an honestly written, visually captivating volume and a superb addition to the genre of WWII artwork.” –Booklist
“Members of the “Greatest Generation” will enjoy the postcard from the front … an Everyman story told in letters, sketches, photographs and memorabilia, at once charming, naïve and wise.” Mysanantonio.com

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