Soldiers’ portraits find their way home
IPITTSBURGH t’s easy. It’s too easy, as a matter of fact. It’s simply too easy to forget the women of the Greatest Generation who helped the men as we pay homage this Veterans Day.
One group of such women was with the American Red Cross, and one such woman was named Elizabeth Black.
A native of Pittsburgh, Black was an extraordinary artist who, while deployed, if you will, in Europe in 1944 was inspired to convince the Red Cross to do more than simply serve hot coffee and doughnuts to our servicemen.
She persuaded the Red Cross to utilize her keen artistic skills and insight to draw portraits of World War II men — including those in the segregated Army — and ship those portraits to the Red Cross, headquartered in the nation’s capital, where they then would be forwarded to families here in the States.
Like so many of our military warriors, many of those portraits never made it into the hands of wives, brothers and sisters, and moms and dads here at home. But in recent months and weeks, some have indeed been reunited with Black’s work, thanks to her son, the Red Cross, Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV, the Carnegie Library and the hard work of interns and other volunteers.
Already an award-winning artist when she joined the war effort in 1943, Black joined the Red Cross’ Club Program, a mobile respite program that ventured into remote areas, including docks, camps and bases.
Candy, cigarettes and gum were among the most popular items handed out by women who manned these mobile canteens.
Like Black, many of the women were college educated or had measurable work experience, backgrounds similar to the Rosie the Riveters who worked in factories and held down other jobs that had been held by men before they went off to war.
Black and the other women wore what could be considered standardissue uniforms of side-zip pants and lipstick — so as not to be mistaken as men. Moreover, more than four dozen paid the ultimate price.
The portraits she quick-sketched were as popular and precious to our men as fresh, hot coffee and other canteen items, and Black not only made copies of her portraits but she also autographed them and had the men do so, too.
Black returned to the States after marrying U.S. serviceman Julian Black in Paris, and the couple had two sons.
One son, John, stumbled upon his mom’s World War II portfolio and treasure chest and worked with others to tell her story and the stories of the other club women.
Her post-war work included commissions for Pittsburgh’s main Carnegie Library on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, which opened in 1895.
Like so many members of her generation who have died and are dying off, Black died in 1983 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery — so privileged as the widow of Julian.
As we honor the men and the boys who came of age because of war, let us not forget the women warriors who tended to them in war zones throughout Europe, including France and Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
And the Rosie the Riveters here at home.
And the women who proved that “single mother” is a sterling title — not a negative term.
There are millions of war stories regarding women that have yet to be told.
Today, Veterans Day, is a most fitting day to salute them.