A Different Kind of War Story

A successful cartoonist turns to his war experience to produce a unique memoir.

Courtesy of National Geographic.

When Joseph Farris went off to war in October 1944, along with the usual military gear, he toted the tools of his future trade as an artist. A Newark native, Farris endured seven months of combat in Europe, eventually  returning home to a successful career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker and other publications. His wartime works of art also survived—and finally have seen the light of day with the recent publication of his unique memoir, A Soldier’s Sketchbook (National Geographic).

Farris, now 87, began his wartime sketching while in basic training. Once overseas, he was thrust into combat in France and Germany. Despite the harrowing conditions, he continued to draw, capturing the stark, ghostly landscapes of battle, often immediately after engaging the enemy—“while the memories were still sharp,” he says.

“Since I was a machine-gun squad leader, we had a Jeep at our disposal,” he explains. “I always had art supplies stored in the Jeep.”

One typically powerful image (captioned  “Maginot Line, Bitche, France, Dec. 1944”) is a self-portrait of Farris raising his helmet above the shell hole where he and other soldiers had taken shelter “to see if it would draw fire.”

After the war, Farris stored his drawings and some 400 wartime letters in his closet for more than half a century. “I never looked at them once,” he says. “I just couldn’t get myself to do it.”

Finally, in 2004, a National Geographic editor convinced Farris to compile the drawings and letters into a book. The book includes fresh commentary from Farris as a supplement to the letters, which, because of wartime censorship, paint a falsely rosy picture of his experience. In his letters, Farris often described his circumstances as “swell.”

There’s a neat New Jersey symmetry to Farris’s story. He was shipped overseas on the USS General W.H. Gordon, a troop ship built in Kearny by the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. When he returned home 15 months later, he was immediately sent to Fort Dix to be separated out of the service. One of his fondest memories was hearing a genuine Jersey waitress in a nearby diner.

“I hadn’t heard any women speaking English except the occasional Red Cross person,” he says. “So I recall walking into the diner—which was an experience in itself. It was lovely to be able to do that—and I found myself just listening to the waitress and gaping.”

And what did he order?

“I would suspect it was probably hot dogs,” says Farris. “I always loved hot dogs.”

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