By Jay Thomas, Assistant Director for Collection Management, Naval History and Heritage Command
For me, one of the joys of working at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) is the different kinds of historical experts on the staff – curators, archaeologists, artists, archivists, historians, and librarians all work here. The command came to be here as a result of a couple of centuries of consolidation (so far!), from the establishment of the Navy Department Library in 1800 to our designation as NHHC in 2008.
The Navy’s historical professionals have sometimes gone to great lengths to capture our history. Samuel Eliot Morison sought to capture an operational history of the Navy from the inside as he created his series “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.” He and his small team of historians saw combat in every major theater the Navy fought in during World War II. But I only know of one person who died in action while pursuing a historical discipline now found at NHHC: the artist McClelland Barclay, who died July 18, 1943 aboard LST-342 in the Pacific. (If you know of anyone else, please name them in the comments.)
Barclay was born far from the ocean in St. Louis in 1891, and studied art and design as a young man. His path crossed the Navy’s in 1917 when his poster “Fill the Breech” was awarded the Navy Poster Prize by the Committee on National Preparedness. He then joined the group of artists assembled by the Navy to improve ship camouflage.
Between the wars, Barclay’s magazine covers and advertising illustrations made his style recognizable to millions of Americans. He also designed art deco costume jewelry, some of which can still be found online.
But apparently that first exposure to the Navy stuck with him, because in 1938 at the age of 47 he received a Navy Reserve commission as an assistant naval constructor with the rank of lieutenant. In October 1940 he reported on active duty at the New York Recruiting Office, where he began producing the recruiting posters for which we remember him. He also designed the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Barclay was not accepted into the Navy’s combat artist program, but he still found plenty of ways to get to sea in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
It was during one of these deployed periods that he produced a remarkable series of sketches entitled “Heroes of the South Seas.” These sketches represent a variety of people – Sailors, soldiers, Marines, civilians – and most include notes by Barclay on the subject, sometimes with his or her own words.
He drew these sketches between late 1942 and June 1943, and then mailed them to a friend in the United States. A few weeks later, on July 18, the Japanese submarine Ro-106 torpedoed the ship in which Barclay was embarked, the landing ship LST-342. The ship broke in two, and the aft end sank quickly with most of the crew, including Lt. Cmdr. McClelland Barclay.
The bow remained afloat. It was beached, usable equipment was removed, and then it was abandoned. You can still see it today. A little closer to home, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk has a model of the ship.
Barclay’s art survived him, of course, and the Navy Art Collection has a number of his works. The “Heroes of the South Seas” series, which was so nearly destroyed, came to the Navy and eventually to the Navy Art Collection. A reproduction of the sketch and notes for Medal of Honor awardee John Finn hangs aboard his namesake destroyer.
All sorts of people join the military, and that great diversity is especially visible in wartime. McClelland Barclay was a highly successful 52-year-old artist who could have stayed at the New York Recruiting Office using his talents in honorable service to his country. Instead, he followed the fleet, and gave his life at sea with his shipmates. NHHC didn’t exist in 1943, but we are still proud, and humbled, to count him as one of our own.
NHHC website: The Art of McClelland Barclay
NHHC website: McClelland Barclay: Heroes of the South Seas
Naval Aviation News: McClelland Barclay: Combat Artist