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Historical Vignette 099 - A World War II Officer's Sketches Depict Life in a Black Engineer Unit

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed many lives. Among those affected was Karl Rittmann, a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design. Answering the call to duty, Rittmann volunteered for the U.S. Army, attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and joined the 857th Engineer Aviation Battalion in the Southwest Pacific Theater as a personnel officer.

At a time when the Army was still segregated, the battalion was one of more than 100 all-black battalions led by white officers. In the case of the 857th, some twenty-four officers led nearly 800 African-American troops. The unit served mostly in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines constructing bases and airstrips to support military operations throughout the theatre. Whenever possible in the midst of soldiering, Rittman used his artistic talents by sketching fellow officers and soldiers at work and rest.

While stationed in New Guinea, Rittmann wrote home:

“We work under difficult conditions most of the time. The jungle is often so thick that it’s like midnight under the trees, and yet when you cut down some of them the light [that] pours in is literally blinding. Sometimes I can’t draw because the light is too strong.” Describing the battalion’s work, he wrote further: “Our engineers have performed extraordinary feats in providing water where it is needed and in overcoming obstacles of all kinds. Destroying pillboxes is one of their specialties. Some of the pillboxes are so heavily made, with many layers of coconut logs, that hand grenades bounce off like tennis balls.”

These rare items add a human dimension to the important work of the 857th. General Douglas MacArthur once told the Chief of Engineers about the Southwest Pacific Theatre, “this is an air and amphibious war; because of the nature of air and amphibious operations, it is distinctly an engineer's war.” Units like the 857th bore out the truth of MacArthur's statement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sketches used courtesy of the Karl Rittmann family.

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February 2006