Local News

Saturday, Dec 17 2011 08:00 PM

Artist's action in combat still reverberates decades later

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Artist Ed Reep in his studio in southwest Bakersfield. Reep was an Army combat artist in World War II.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Ed Reep painted "The Morning After" following a German attack on the Allied lines at Anzio, Italy, in 1944.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Ed Reep is featured in a book about combat artists titled "They Drew Fire."

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Ed Reep at the time he was a U.S. Army lieutenant in World War II.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

It started with a war story.

The tale was told on opposite ends of a continent over two lifetimes by two men who were soldiers once. They met in a hail of fire on a sliver of land where survival was anything but certain.

And though they never exchanged names, a connection was drawn between them that would transcend time and distance and death itself.

Ben Clark heard the story many times growing up. He slowly came to realize that the events were the key to his very existence. And like a pebble thrown into a pond, the birth of his own children and the ripples of generations to come would all depend on the impetuous actions of a young war artist who would later put down stakes in Bakersfield.

"If he hadn't risked his own life to help my dad, I would never have been born," said Clark, now 50. "Instead, my dad went home. He and my mom spent 47 years together. They adored each other.

"They had four sons after the war," he said. "I'm the youngest."

THE STORY

Ben's father, World War II veteran Martin Clark, was a professional boxer from Brooklyn, a heavyweight contender who twice was awarded New York state's Golden Gloves. He was scheduled for a bout with Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, but the war changed those plans.

Long before his death in 2003, Martin delighted in telling stories to his sons and their friends. But one story stood out above all the rest.

It was 1944. U.S. Army Sgt. Martin Clark and thousands of other soldiers had landed at Anzio, an Italian beach town that would become the scene of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war.

"The way he told it was one day all hell broke loose," Ben Clark remembered. "Shells were exploding and everyone was scrambling for their foxholes when my dad was hit in the leg.

"He looks down at his leg and sees the bottom of his boot," Ben said. "His leg was almost amputated by the shrapnel. As a kid, I saw the scars."

Martin was losing a lot of blood, and was still exposed to enemy fire when another soldier ran up and crouched beside him. The man was able to flag down a medic in a jeep, and the two soldiers placed their wounded comrade in the back and headed toward the nearest Army hospital.

As the jeep sped toward relative safety, it hit a bump in the road and Martin remembered one of the men saying, "I think he's dead."

"My dad lifted up his head and said, 'The hell I am!'" Ben remembered.

The wounded soldier would survive, but just barely. He would go on to serve more than 21 years in the military, retiring as a master sergeant. But when he gathered his sons around him to tell the story, he didn't know the names of the men who saved his life.

EPIPHANY

Decades later, Ben Clark was home in Florida nursing a neck injury.

"I was watching TV and couldn't find the remote," he said.

The channel happened to be tuned to a PBS special titled "They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II."

One of the artists featured on the documentary, Edward Reep of Bakersfield, told the story of his first brush with death on Anzio Beach and the paralyzing fear that came with it.

As he watched, Clark was transfixed. Here was a former soldier, now gray and decades older, describing the very battlefield where his own father was wounded.

Reep was in his foxhole, writing a letter to his mother, he recalled in the documentary, when a 155mm shell exploded on a nearby theater dug out below ground and covered with canvas.

Scores of soldiers had been in the theater enjoying a few hours of respite from the harsh conditions of combat. Before the shell hit, Reep could hear crooner Bing Crosby singing in the movie "Going My Way."

"I didn't know what to do. I was really in terrible shape," Reep told the documentary producers. "I heard the moaning and groaning. The theater had been hit and a great number of kids were killed and wounded."

Reep started to crawl out to see what he could do to help when another shell slammed into the same area, shaking the ground.

"That did it," Reep remembered. "I stayed in that foxhole like a coward the whole night long, trembling."

When he came out the next morning, Reep painted a scene of devastation and emptiness, depicting three dazed GIs, standing beneath a terrible sky. He titled it, "The Morning After."

He also promised himself he would never again be frozen by fear. From that moment on, he would seek to redeem himself by going to the front lines and fighting the combat war with his paint brush -- creating art out of the chaos of war.

AMAZEMENT

As Ben Clark continued watching the documentary, he was shaken by what came next. In an email sent last week to Reep's daughter, Bakersfield artist and photographer Susan Reep, Ben Clark related his experience as he sat in his recliner watching the interview of Ed Reep and listening as the combat artist recalled yet another devastating attack by German forces.

"Your dad said the same things (my dad used to say), that all of a sudden all hell broke loose," Ben wrote.

"Your dad stated, 'Then I saw this poor son of a gun with his leg nearly blown off.'

"So against his captain's orders, he left his foxhole and went to the aid of this soldier, not caring for his own safety. He assisted a medic in getting the soldier to the jeep, and as they drove down the road your dad said they hit a bump in the road and he said that he told the driver he thought the soldier was dead. At that moment the soldier stuck his head up and said, 'The hell I am!'

"At that moment I was coming out of my recliner," Clark said. "I could not believe what I was hearing."

CONNECTION

It was 10 years ago when Clark saw that fateful special on PBS. Within weeks, he had found a number for Ed Reep. He called and shared his dad's story.

Two years later, Clark's father, Martin Clark, was dead. Years passed, but Ben Clark continued to think about Ed Reep and the courage he showed that day in 1944.

"I wondered if he was still alive," he said. "And I thought others should know about what he did, about how he saved my dad's life."

So he started searching the Net and found Susan Reep's blog page. He sent the email and Susan obtained his permission to post it on her blog.

"It's such an amazing story," Susan said. Nearly 68 years later, the connections from that single event are still reverberating across a continent.

Ed Reep, now 93, was discharged from the Army after the war. He had entered the army as a private and exited at the rank of captain. He went on to achieve success as a noted painter and art teacher, as well as a husband and father. Startlingly beautiful watercolors decorate the walls of his southwest Bakersfield home.

"All of us were just kids. We didn't know anything about war," he remembered of those defining days in Anzio. "I was trying to atone for what I believed to be my cowardice."

Reep is adamant that he not be depicted as a hero.

But Ben Clark is aghast at any suggestion of cowardice. On the contrary, he believes Reep deserves a Silver or Bronze Star for the selfless valor he displayed all those years ago.

And he is forever thankful that a man who carried a carbine and a box of art supplies was willing to come to the aid of his father. In a strange way, Clark feels like the Reeps are part of his family now.

"Mr Reep didn't have to do what he did," Clark said. "I just wish I could give him a hug."

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