Ed Bowen recalls teaching art at Villa Park High School in Orange in 1967 when rumors were circulating that the US was drafting citizens to fight in Vietnam. At 26 and ripe for harvest, he wasn’t too worried.
Since his parents came to Corona del Mar from Canada as a child, he thought that because of his foreign residence, he did not need to register for the convocation. He also had a plum job; he loved art and the children loved him.
It was only when he received a letter in the mail telling him to report to the US Army on November 28 that he realized how wrong he had been.
“I had to say goodbye to the children – my dream was shattered,” he recalls. “But, as I say now, the Lord had other plans, and he should take me to the ‘last assignment’.”
What happened next would begin an incredible journey that would take Bowen to some of the most dangerous stages of the Vietnam War, where he would serve a mission armed only with a sketchpad and pen, an Instamatic camera, and a Colt .45 revolver to catch the conflict in pictures.
As one of 46 martial artists who served in the army, Bowen was part of one of nine teams of artists who were tasked with making field sketches during a two-month period of service.
The artists were then taken to a base in Hawaii and given three months to create larger works documenting battlefields, villages, and scenes of everyday life that would become the property of the US government.
Bowen, now 78, says his promotion as a military artist likely saved his life. After completing basic training at Fort Ord, Monterey Bay, he was to become a helicopter door shooter, a job with an unusually high death rate.
“We were told when we got to school that this was your death sentence,” he said in an interview at his home in Corona del Mar on Monday.
But when he went to test for the position, he failed miserably. A learning disorder that he had overcome in his studies and in his professional life showed up with ardent clarity in a series of exams. Senior superiors began to seek him out after the infantry, an equally dangerous post. A young Bowen was scared and doubtful about his future.
It was then that a first sergeant – who had ominously greeted new soldiers by telling them they would likely die in combat and had to be ready to honor your country by dying ”- learned of his love for art and commissioned him to sketch a helicopter battle to see if he had any talent.
He passed this test with flying colors. An examination board selected him to serve as a martial artist.
“It was a matter of God,” is the only explanation Bowen has to offer 54 years later. “He saved me. I would probably be dead if it weren’t for that. “
The martial art goes back at least to the Civil War, in which a young Winslow Homer was known to travel and live with soldiers and send sketches by mail as a war correspondent.
The U.S. Army began its own martial arts program during World War I when artists were hired as captains in the Corps of Engineers and asked to highlight the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces. Your work would be turned over to the American Smithsonian Institution.
If a helicopter tour of Vietnam in 1969 sounds like a joyride, Bowen will set the record. Commissions often took the artists to distant places where full throttle was fought.
Bowen, who served at the rank of Private First Class, recalls a night he spent in a metal shack on a rubber plantation when North Vietnamese soldiers overran the grounds and dropped mortars that smashed the walls of his barren refuge as troops pounded the fence .
“I was really scared. I mean fear beyond fear, ”he said, describing the attack. “I had a pistol, a .45, not an M-16. I wore this, but I couldn’t fire it – I was too nervous. I am not a warrior. It was also full of sand. I was in panic mode. “
Now, decades later, Bowen continues to paint scenes and portraits inspired by his photographs. Several are on permanent display in his living room, which he calls “my art zone”.
Three of them are on display in the Heroes Hall Veterans Museum at the OC Fairgrounds, whose current exhibition “Through Their Eyes” shows the art of conflict veterans. One with the title “Entrenchment” won third place on the judged show.
Heroes Hall supervisor Carol Singleton, whom Bowen recently met through the exhibit, said many veterans turn to the arts to process their wartime experiences. When she saw the artist’s large-format works for the first time, she was impressed. Discussions about a future solo exhibition are now in progress.
“When he came to hand in his pieces, they were amazing,” she recalls. “I was just amazed at his art – it’s unbelievable.”
Bowen’s longtime friend, former U.S. Marine Second Lt. Bill Peters, met the Orange County resident while studying the Bible in 1975 and has remained close ever since.
As Peters learned more about Bowen’s artistic background, he began to share his own photos with the artist. In return, Bowen surprised him with canvases depicting his own, sometimes harrowing service with the 1. broughtNS Force the scout company into a living life.
“He was out there with the rest of us, taking the same opportunities. And sometimes it was more of a coincidence because he was sketching a combat mission with pencil and pad, ”he said.
The bond is special because of their shared experiences.
“It was different with Vietnam veterans (than in other wars),” said Peters. “We didn’t come home very warmly, so you paid attention to who you brought into your life. But Ed is the real deal. He is a patriot who used his skills beyond duty. And now he’s still capturing our generation. “
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