The Haunting Life
|Meet Author |
February 20 @ 2 PM
Broward County Main Library
100 South Andrews Avenue Fort Lauderdale
John Bowen discusses his book Eleven Months and Nineteen Days: A Vietnam Illustrator's Memoir. Books will be available for sale and signing.
For more information call
of Artist and Author
By Stephanie Krulik
The light and shadows of John Bowen's detailed illustrations and watercolors identifies a man who has finally come to terms with himself. The calm, open demeanor of this seventy year-old Broward County resident reveals he has made peace with his past as he looks forward to his future.
Bowen's artistry serves as the launching board for both the demons that have plagued him and the beauty of Florida's subtropical climate. He has been an artist for more than forty-five years. As a child growing up in Irvington, New Jersey, he says, "My father was a hobby artist who worked with pastels, charcoal and sometimes oils. I wanted to emulate him." But it was his Irvington High School art teacher, Ludlow Thurston, who taught the boy his watercolor technique.
Bowen is intrigued by the watercolor process. His work is categorized as "detail" art, and is created by 'Negative Painting' as shown in his Key West watercolor, White Wicker Chair, where he painted in the background colors through the tiny openings in the chair back. A visitor to Miami's Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, where Bowen is the Artist in Residence , and donated some of his work, will sense south Florida's breezy humidity in Bowen's artistically detailed watercolor of the building's columned, palm filled entryway. Mud Flats, a painting of a moored wooden rowboat, the viewer feels stranded on shore with the boat. Bowen says, "My art is my passion." He particularly enjoys painting old historic buildings and dockside marine scenes.
Bowen's art can be found, among others, in the Bonnet House, The Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and the Coconut Grove Gallery, Miami. He was awarded First Place, 2011, from the Gold Coast Watercolor Society.
While attending an artists' seminar he was asked to identify one exciting thing that happened in his life. Bowen declared, "Well, I was a combat artist in Vietnam."
Another part of his life emerged. That prolonged struggle, known as the Vietnam War (1959-1975), became Bowen's unique private battle with post-traumatic stress, nightmares and hallucinations. His mind is crowded.
Bowen's war began with the draft that was inching closer in 1961. He enlisted in the Air Force as a Military Illustrator and was sent to Berkstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. He remembers, "My life was really good. I re-enlisted in '65. I felt secure. Everything was coming together for me, my (former) wife, Mary Ellen and my young children, Chris and Flori. Then one day in June, 1967, the phone rang."
From November 1967 to November 1968, the 25 year-old became John Bowen, Staff Sergeant U.S. Air Force Illustrator, 834 Air Division, Headquarters Unit Tan San Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam. The base provided air supply for the whole country. Bowen provided the 200 man unit with charts and graphs and documented all Airlift Operations. He drew precise, technical drawings of how planes and helicopters skimmed the runway to re-supply and off-load cargo. "The C130 planes flew low," he explains, "parachutes rolled out the back to off-load quickly. They had to get in and out fast. The Vietnamese would harass us with continuous nighttime rocket attacks. I never felt safe."
Safety was an issue particularly during the 1968 Tet Offensive - one of the largest campaigns of the war- the North Vietnamese planes bombed the base. As an 'Augment T' troop member (he supplemented the air security squad) he didn't have a weapon until one month after the attack. In May, the enemy 'Charlie' attached Bowen's side of the base. He says, "A prop plane flew over and everything went into slow motion. I looked up, I know the pilot saw me; our eyes locked and then he was gone. A second later I heard a loud boom: a 500 pound bomb was dropped on our perimeter. This is crazy." Then he went back to work.
Bowen was in the country seven months when he was offered a six-day R&R in Hawaii. The shuttle bus took him to Saigon to phone his wife. These nightmares continued: "In the two-block walk from the bus to the USO I heard a rocket-like shot and saw a Vietnam man rolling on the ground. I ducked behind cars, busses, trucks, for safety. I saw a wisp of smoke coming out of a gun barrel and the man's chest exploded." Inside the USO he made his call, got coffee, heard the all-clear siren and went outside. Bowen breathes in deeply and says, "The body was gone. Like nothing happened."
Something did happen. He came home that November for thirty days, He had one year left. "I couldn't understand why no-one understood. Why were people mad at us? We didn't start it. We were ordered to go." For five years he couldn't cope. He wanted to talk to people, but no one would listen. He says, "I didn't get any counseling. I couldn't handle it. I thought I was going crazy. Then I read an article by V.A. Psychologist who wrote this was perfectly normal. He was talking to me."
For the next thirty-eight years Bowen worked at the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel newspapers creating ads and as a paste-up artist. He sketched every night after work. Now he paints full time. He drew the illustrations for his recently published book, Eleven Months and Nineteen Days.
The book took twenty years to write. The flashbacks haunt. Bowen says, "My mind clicks when I saw a man walking on an I95 overpass, shirtless, wearing fatigue pants and carrying a shovel. I see that small child with no legs on a little dolly pushing himself around by his hands. I can' take the smell of diesel fuel. I lay awake at night remembering the noise from that rocket attack and the three days I couldn't hear."
Bowen's life is saved by his art. He is honest when he says, "There are no front lines in Vietnam."
Eleven Months and Nineteen Days
At twenty-five and married with two young children, I had finally gotten a handle on my life. My responsibility had been growing steadily as an Air Force Illustrator. I had received a promotion to Staff Sergeant at an air base outside of Austin, Texas where I was running the base graphics shop. My world had become predictable and secure. But it all changed abruptly one day with a phone call. I was suddenly thrust into another world-a distant land torn by turmoil and poverty, far from those I loved.
This is the testament of my inner struggle as I fought to survive the harsh realities of the Vietnam War. These twelve months would be the longest I had ever known. They would test my strength as an individual and the bonds of my marriage. My story documents the psychological effects of the war as it unfolded and the lingering aftereffects as I struggled to readjust to the outside world. It is an experience that altered the course of my life, and a story that must be told.
In Vietnam I served with the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon. There I served as an Illustrator from November 1967 through November 1968. The 834th handled the airlift resupply for the entire country. Being the sole illustrator in this two hundred man unit proved to be very demanding.
Although I had never asked to be sent to ’Nam, I began my tour with a calm acceptance. I was motivated to fulfill my mission. Despite the oppressive heat and crude equipment, I worked efficiently. My time was filled with endless assignments as I helped document the war effort with statistical presentations and briefings. One assignment had me in the field where I completed, over time, a large series of drawings and paintings on all aspects of airlift operations in Vietnam.
Being an artist had always given me a keen sensitivity to my surroundings. But in a place like ’Nam it only served to magnify the horrific nature of the war. I observed civilians struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in a land where their security was constantly threatened. Death was a way of life. The image of a crippled young child was to haunt me for many years.
My cousin Dean, who was an Army Radio Operator in a Reconnaissance Platoon, was wounded during a Delta operation, south of Tan Son Nhut. I spent many hours with him as he recuperated at the 3rd field hospital in Saigon. We became very close during that time, and I was glad to finally see him ship back to the states. With the stresses of wartime the friendships developed took on a special intensity too. It became important to have someone to trust, and commiserating made the experience more bearable.
It was said there were no front lines in Vietnam. Attacks could occur anywhere at any time. We lived with this possibility, and endured several serious attacks during the Tet Offensive and in May, during the Spring Offensive, when the Viet-Cong tried to infiltrate the 1200 Area, where I lived. During February and March the base endured night-time rocket attacks, causing much damage and casualties among the support troops. Being a support troop didn’t exclude me. I was drawn into the war just the same, forced to defend the base, and my life.
As time wore on the morale of those around me began to slip. I couldn’t help but be affected. Our mission was no longer clear. We were no closer to victory then when the war began and the threat of violence never diminished. We began to hear about the anti-war protests back home and that further eroded our morale. I agonized over the separation from my family and lived for those brief moments when I could hear their voices on the phone, listen to their tapes and read their letters. I had a loving, supportive wife and two children who had just been getting to know me before I left for Vietnam. I began to wonder if I would be able to pick up the pieces when I returned.
When that day finally arrived there was no fanfare, no sympathy-not even acknowledgement by the general public. The irony was that for all my personal sacrifices and those of my comrades, our reception was anything but warm upon our return to the states. It was as if people resented being reminded of a war they had never asked for, a war without end, without purpose. It seemed that everyone just wanted to forget about us, so we became known as the “throwaway soldiers”.
In the weeks that followed violent memories of ’Nam would invade my sleep and intrude into my consciousness as I tried to fit back into society and my role as husband and father. I felt estranged from everything, including my family. My wife tried patiently to understand, but in the end it was my own battle. I had to face the demons alone. The government offered no psychological counseling to help the troops re-assimilate. It was hard to comprehend how this could have been overlooked. How could our government have been so callous by asking us to risk our lives without a thought for the repercussions of the war? This was yet another hurdle I had to cross on my own.
After struggling with readjusting to “the world” during my thirty day leave at home, it was with some relief to reunite with military personnel again at my next duty station. It was so good to be able to share stories and experiences that they could understand and relate to. This was the special bond veterans had. In years to come I would feel a special kinship with servicemen, an eagerness to hear of their experiences and share my own. In time the nightmares subsided, but the memories of those “Eleven Months and Nineteen Days” would never fade.