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12-04-07, 07:51 AM
World War II vet painted his memories, before the memories fade
For years, a shipmate pestered his best friend to paint images of their World War II experience. The Dana Point artist kept his promise.
The Orange County Register

DANA POINT — Richard Perkins' light blue eyes gaze off into the distance.

"The colors were incredible,'' he says of the wartime images that have been stuck in his head for more that six decades.

"I'll always remember the colors and the sounds. There's no way you can capture them: bright yellow flashes. Black smoke. Red tracers."

For years, Perkins' World War II shipmate and best friend, Bill Monroe, would nag him:

"Why don't you sketch out these scenes? Before the memories fade."

Perkins, who studied art in college and for years worked in the art and TV commercial business, promised Monroe he would.

But Perkins never did – until one day this summer, when the 81-year-old sat down in his Dana Point home, opened his watercolors, and started to paint.

Perkins hadn't painted in about 25 years. The images came quickly.

He couldn't wait to finish and drive up to Carmel to show the watercolors to Monroe.

Finally, Perkins thought, the nagging would end.

Finally, the lifelong buddies would have vivid images to go along with memories of their two years together at sea.


Perkins and Monroe met in boot camp in 1944 in San Diego.

Both were 17.

They served together as Marine gunners aboard the USS Belleau Wood in the Pacific theater, from 1944-46.

Joining the military was just something a young man did back then, Perkins says. His father, Luke, fought in both world wars. His older brother, Bert, was a fighter pilot.

A doodler since childhood while growing up in Los Angeles, Perkins would draw pictures during boot camp. Monroe noticed.

The two became fast friends.

"We never had a fight or argument,'' Perkins says.

Monroe was a lot like Perkins' older brother, gregarious and with a knack for getting his pals in hot water. Perkins was the quieter, more introspective one.

They drank together, talked about girls. They took pride in staying in shape – which would become, through the years, an unstated contest of one-upmanship.

As Marine gunners, Perkins and Monroe fought aboard the USS Belleau Wood. The ship took part in air raids on Honshu, Japan's main island, in early 1945.

Later that year, the Belleau Wood took part in other strikes against the Japanese home islands, including supporting the landings on Iwo Jima.

Perkins and Monroe were aboard the USS Belleau Wood when it launched planes for the mass flight over Tokyo during the surrender ceremonies in October 1945.

Certain images of the war have remained burnished in Perkins' mind – some bad, mostly good.

"I suppose, over time, we all tend to forget the bad things, and recall the good things,'' says Perkins, who worked as a set designer, graphic artist, storyboard artist, art director, and television commercial director before retiring 21 years ago.

Perkins put down his paint brushes and watercolors for more than two decades to tend to his first wife, Diane, an invalid.

Every year, Monroe would pester him:

Make some drawings. Made some paintings.

Before the memories fade.


In late May and early June, Perkins visited Monroe in a hospital in Carmel.

Monroe was having heart problems. He had lost a lot of weight. He seemed OK, though, and soon went home.

Perkins started to paint – working almost entirely from memory.

Over the years, Perkins and Monroe, who after the war went into the insurance business, had talked on the phone almost weekly, and had seen each other at least once a year.

On July 1, Monroe's wife, Joanne, called Perkins.

Monroe had died.

Perkins, who had expected his best friend to pull through, fell into mourning.

"His heart was broken,'' his wife, Vicki, says. "It was like part of him died." (Perkins' first wife died in 2000; he and Vicki married in 2003).

Perkins never told Monroe he had started the paintings.

The soft-spoken artist with the tanned, rugged face set off by snow-white hair and matching goatee painted feverishly.

Painting became a sort of catharsis for him.

From a desk in his home office, Perkins painted an image of Monroe taking a 60-foot swan dive off the flight deck of the USS Belleau Wood.

"I wouldn't have believed he had done it if I hadn't have seen it with my own eyes,'' Perkins says.

He painted a scene of him and Monroe on "shark patrol,'' guarding the waters as Marines swam in the warm Pacific.

He painted their ship being tossed around in high seas during a typhoon.

In a particularly poignant image, Perkins painted a chaplain, Father Ryan, whose purple robe billows in the wind as planes drown out his parting words for dead Marines about to be slipped into the Pacific, their bodies wrapped in canvas.

Perkins produced 13 paintings in six weeks.

He had kept his promise.


Perkins figures there are maybe four or five survivors out of 50 who were members of his Marine detachment on the USS Belleau Wood. He will send the calendar to his former shipmates and their families.

Joanne Monroe received her calendar in October.

"It caught me by surprise," she says. "I was very touched. How did he capture, after all these years, the exact feeling and physicality of a person? The paintings showed how much they loved each other.''

Perkins, the father of a grown daughter (an artist) and son (industrial engineer), dedicated the calendar to the memory of his lifelong friend.

"To my shipmate, Bill Monroe,'' Perkins wrote in the calendar. "No one has ever had a more courageous and loyal friend."

What would Monroe think of the war images?

"I'm thinking," Perkins says, "that even if he thought they were bad, he'd probably still love them."

Contact the writer: 949-454-7356 or ghardesty@ocregister.com