Remembering World War II Through Art

Posted on Thu, May 7, 2020
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November 1944 by Robert Jordan (1925–1993) is a massive oil painting representing an American aircrew. In 1976, the artist donated the painting to the National Air and Space Museum’s art collection while teaching art history at the Washington University in St. Louis. Jordan’s donation letter to the Museum reveals that his impetus for the painting came from an admiration of group portraits by the seventeenth-century painters Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt was notorious for his chiaroscuro technique, in which subjects are rendered in strong contrasts of light and shadow—this painting certainly reflects those characteristics. 

With the chiaroscuro technique, Jordan painted the crew members in the duality of light and shade in front of an aircraft hidden in shadow. Jordan also stated in his letter, “The painting by no means is a true group portrait. I was working from a twenty-two-year-old memory of faces, and really wanted it to be general for any crew.” In a modest tone, the artist also shared his experience as a B-24 tail gunner in the 8th Air Force during World War II. His crew was shot down on their fourth mission near Hanover, Germany, and they were imprisoned in Stalag Luft IV Prison of War (POW) camp. At the end of the war, the crew was forced to march to avoid the advancing Russians. The artist refers to the painting as a “memory myth,” but a little research tells otherwise.

painting of nine men in front of aircraft

November 1944, 1966, Robert Jordan, oil on canvas, 73.25” x 94.75.”

The Group Portrait

In a style reminiscent of the American artist Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Jordan presents a crew of nine men positioned in front their aircraft along with the U.S. star insignia on the fuselage. Some of the men wear fleece-lined brown bomber jackets or flight suits, while others wear parachute harnesses, goggles, or have flying helmets on their heads. Others wear yellow rectangular life vests (also known as “Mae Wests”). The life vests are the brightest color in the painting and shine like beacons in the otherwise solemn color palette of dark blue, green, and brown. The attire worn by these men is the standard flight gear from the WWII era.

Crew members stand with slightly drooped shoulders with arms crossed or hands in their pockets while others crouch or kneel. The gazes of the figures are downturned and are not engaged with the viewer. Instead, their facial expressions are introspective as if in deep thought. Unlike typical smiling or boastful crew members often seen in WWII photographs, the overall body language of this group evokes a quiet sense of shared despair. Stillness overwhelms the atmosphere of this hauntingly beautiful rendering of an aircrew. Details of this painting as described above suggest that November 1944 is based on “memory truth” rather than “memory myth” as the artist suggests. 

  • Painting of man in yellow life vest

    Detail image of the painting

  • painting of three men

    Detail image of the painting

Missing Air Crew Report # 11217

Robert Jordan was a nineteen-year-old when he and his aircrew were shot down on November 26, 1944. Stationed at the Tibenham Royal Air Force Base near Norfolk, England, the young airman was with the 445th Group and assigned to the 703rd Squadron as the tail gunner of a Consolidated Liberator B-24J bomber aircraft. The B-24 was sometimes referred to as a “Flying Boxcar” or “Flying Coffin” because of its large, squarish fuselage. Furthermore, bailing out was also problematic and a challenge for crewmembers to reach their respective hatches in order to jump out. Piloted by 2nd Lt. Daniel Snow, the plane was nicknamed “Snow Ball from Hell.” Under weather conditions noted as haze with one-tenth cloud cover, the crew was in the midst of a bombing mission over Misburg, Germany, when their plane was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and they had to parachute out. At approximately 12:40 pm, the plane went down about 15 miles southeast of Hanover, Germany and all nine members of the crew were captured. That November day, four other planes from the 445th Group were also shot down and a total of 45 crewmen were on board the other lost aircraft. 

The Sketchbook 

Jordan recorded some of the experiences that day through a series of drawings, now located in the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society. A sketch captioned “No Fox Holes in the Sky” depicts two men wearing oxygen masks tumbling inside of the B-24 aircraft cabin. A large gaping hole in the side of the aircraft confirms one of the places they were hit. A spread of empty ammunition shells from the waist gunner’s position covers the floor of the aircraft. In “Just Before Bail Out,” two crew members prepare to bail out of the plane. “Watching the Boys Going Home” is a scene with Jordan crouching on the ground in an empty field after parachuting to the ground. Above him in the sky is a formation of bombers from his squadron flying safely back to England. 

Shortly after reaching the ground, the sketches reveal that the teenage tail gunner was captured by an armed farmer and turned over to the German authorities. “KAPUT!, I’d Had It!” shows a sequence of events related to the squadron’s immediate capture such as U.S. airmen escorted by German soldiers to the railroad station while local townspeople kicked, punched, and threw things at them. One of the injured servicemen was supported by two of his crewmates. Another quick sketch is of a young boy in uniform captioned “Little Nazi,” with a side note that says, “I didn’t last more than 10 minutes as a free man in Germany.” Those few sketches are merely of his first few hours in Germany. 

POW Drawings

Jordan also made sketches of his solitary confinement at the Luft IV POW camp and of “The March” also known as “The Long March” or “The Death March.” Under Hitler’s orders, Allied POWs were forced to march hundreds of miles to escape the advancing Soviets as the Germans wanted to use the POWs as bargaining chips at the end of the war. In loose pencil marks, the drawings show emaciated servicemen knocked to the ground or struggling to walk or the miserable sleeping conditions in the bitter cold—the winter of 1945 was one of the coldest on record. Other sketches depict efforts to procure water from the Germans (which was sometimes impossible to get) or delousing routines to get rid of lice. Whereas Jordan’s sketches of the earlier aircraft and bail out experiences are detailed, the depictions of the POW experiences are incomplete. His memories as a POW seemed harder to reach, as if pushed away instead of easily resurfacing through his pencil onto the paper—and justifiably so. 

Accounts from other servicemen’s experiences at Luft IV described their brutal treatment and the deplorable living conditions of “The March.” Airmen from the Luft IV were not fed and sanitation was non-existent. Men remained in the same clothing they bailed out in for the duration of their imprisonment and were given only one blanket to make it through the winter months. Jordan was “skin and bones” when liberated that spring by Allied troops. During his three-month hospital stay in England, a Red Cross nurse gave him a sketchbook and pencils to help with the physical and mental healing process. The aforementioned drawings were made during his hospital recovery in 1945. 

Memory Truth

After the war, Jordan received degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, and became both a successful painter and art historian. In his recollection about November 1944, in a letter to the Museum he says, “…I still feel some sense of ambiguity I had when I painted it, and which I felt in 1944—the sense of adventure as well as the possibility of death—the necessity of the task as well as the madness of it all. Nothing new there, for men at war, but at least the necessity part was far more clear cut than today.” It’s not a coincidence that he chose to paint November 1944 in the 1960s during the height of the Vietnam War. Jordan remarked the painting was a search of his own experience, “for some occasion where men are bound tighter in a meaningful association.” 

November 1944 suggests a truthful reflection of the artist’s experiences in WWII, rather than a painting inspired by the Great Dutch Masters or a memory-myth. Nine men in the painting are the same number of members in Jordan’s aircrew that were shot down. Painterly expressions of gaunt facial features and defeated body language exude the notion—these men have been through hell and back. A non-detailed B-24 aircraft serves as a backdrop for the men and is the same type of plane Jordan’s crew flew that unforgettable day in November. The plane recedes into the darkness of the background and is symbolic for the lost aircraft. Bright yellow life vests serve as signs of hope in the otherwise solemn painting—representing the survival of the entire crew. Although the depicted details of this aircrew may not replicate an exact likeness to Jordan’s actual crew, their faces reveal a shared expression having lived through a POW experience. November 1944 is a testament to the courage and honorable service like Robert Jordan’s crew and others during WWII—and gives hope that life endures after unprecedented circumstances. 

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan painting in his studio, circa 1970s. Photo credit: Martin Schweig


Special thanks to the New Hampshire Historical Society for access to Robert Jordan’s sketchbook and to his widow Bobbie Jordan for a recent interview and photograph of the artist in his studio. To see more of Robert Jordan’s art, see robertjordanpainter.com. 

Carolyn Russo is a museum specialist and the curator of the Art Collection and Trophy Collection in the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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