Griffith Baily Coale. AKA Griff, Cap, Cap't, the Captain. Also known as my grandfather. He was born in Baltimore in 1890. He died before I turned six. I don't remember him much. I do remember his studio in an 18th century house in Stonington, Connecticut, on Water Street. The floors in the large dining room sloped in two directions. Like the deck of an old sailing ship. At one end was his collection of old whaling harpoons and implements. He liked to tell the story that the house was built by an old whaling Captain. The floor was built to mimic the deck of his sailing ship. Griff told the story so many times he came to believe it. I remember seeing a postcard with a picture of the harpoons and the story. The simple truth was that 200 years of gravity had merely taken it's toll.
At the time this story begins, 1941, he was a mural painter in New York City. His studio in New York once belonged to Daniel Chester French. Daniel Chester French had done the model for the statue of Lincoln that he sculpted for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in that studio. Griff traveled in New York Society. Society with a capitol S. His wife was the daughter of Bishop Manning of New York. She was not my grandmother.
My grandmother was from Ireland. Griff had studied art in Maryland and Munich. Griff met my grandmother in Paris. They had moved to New York in 1922. They lived in a cold water flat in Greenwich Village. But over the next few years he bought the studio in New York and the house in Stonington, Connecticut. She died when my dad was a teenager.
My Grandfather had always loved the sea and sailing ships. A disease passed down from father to son. And to grandson. His favorite subjects were old sailing ships. Done with historical accuracy.
In 1941 war was breaking out and it was Griff's idea to form a group of combat artists that would experience combat and take their observations and produce paintings. Griff was to be the the only mural painter in the combat artist program. I never actually saw one of his murals but he wrote two books about his experiences as a combat artist, "North Atlantic Patrol" and "Victory at Midway", that had his paintings and drawings in them. As a kid I had looked at these pictures many times. But, to tell the truth, I had never actually read the books. Just looked at the pictures.
Then, in 1993, my sister wrote to the Department of the Navy for any records or information they might have on Griff. What she received was not only photocopies of most of the paintings the Navy had but all of his reports too. Enough to fill two large three ring binders. And some additional documentation.
There was a cover letter from Gale Munro, the Assistant Curator of the Naval Historical Center. In part: "I am sending with this a large package of photocopied material, which mostly consists of your grandfather's reports back to the Public Relations Section in Washington, for whom he was working. I was not sure if anyone in your family was aware of the existence of our files and I thought maybe you would be interested in them. The other artists made similar reports, though usually not so detailed. At the time, your grandfather's superiors complained about their length, but I am certain that with his great sense of history he was writing for future generations, and today we are thrilled to have them."
We had no idea these reports existed. They were detailed. And we were thrilled. At the time I knew I wanted to get this into format that I could share. It wasn't for another two years before I started to go through his reports. And, in starting to sort through the reports, I began to realize that my grandfather's legacy was not so much his drawings and paintings but his words. The words of an observer who recorded, not the grand events of a war, but the daily life of those he met. In places like Iceland, on board a destroyer in the North Atlantic watching the Reuben James going down, England, Midway, Egypt, India, Ceylon, Australia, and under the sea in a submarine. He was an eyewitness to history. Part of that story he told in his two books "North Atlantic Patrol" and "Victory at Midway". But there was material in these words for one or two more books that he had planned on writing but never did.
This story starts in 1941. These were not just different times. This was a different world. Not only was there not an Internet, there was not anything we would recognize today as a highway crossing the country. Travel cross country was done by train. Only rarely by plane. Planes that could not fly above the weather but through the weather and subject to it. Travel across oceans was done by ocean liner. It had been 38 years since the Wright brothers first flight. It is 60 years from 1941 to now (2001). People saw things differently. Japanese were "Japs" and all Germans were "Nazis". Some things were much simpler. Others were more desperate. This story is how my grandfather saw it.
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