This Memorial Day, it is natural to think about D-Day. The 75th anniversary of the largest sea and air invasion takes place in two weeks. That day left thousands of American servicemen killed and wounded, hundreds of which were Italian Americans. Ugo Giannini was there and survived the great invasion. Afterwards, he never talked about the war, but it lived in him from the moment he landed on Omaha Beach. It poured out in his art, but was not discovered until after he passed away in 1993.
The most well-known images of D-Day were photos printed in Life Magazine, but it was the recreation of the first wave of the invasion, depicted in the film “Saving Private Ryan” that brought some semblance of understanding of the carnage to those who were not there.
The only known drawings of D-Day were made by Ugo Giannini. That they survived is remarkable. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1919, the son of a tailor and an opera singer, Giannini studied at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts and the National Academy of Design in New York. World War II interrupted his studies. Beginning with the brutal Normandy Invasion, he produced a series of drawings culminating on V-E Day in 1945.
Giannini carried a drawing pad and pencil in his pack and made several frenetic sketches while taking cover from German shelling in a bomb crater. He would advance, take cover again and draw some more. Those first sketches are filled with energy; the urgency and fear are tangible. Drawn in pencil and pen, in a gritty, realistic style, the images show heavily burdened infantrymen trying to stay afloat in the seawater, crawling on the beach or dead among the ruins of a bombed out village. His day two sketches are more detailed and composed, but equally haunting. In one, a soldier looks out from the bluff of Pont du Hoc and sees a stretch of bodies piled on the beach.
Ugo was 25 years-old and in the Military Police on D-Day. His platoon arrived on the shores of France during the first wave. Only six men survived. Giannini wrote, “I retraced my way from the battered remains of Vierville-sur-Mer. I walked slowly dragging my unwilling soul with me and forcing it to inhale the death odor. I was alone, searching for my comrades – 37 men who were hurled ashore yesterday morning (Or was it years ago?)”
In total, Giannini mailed 27 drawings home to his mother in Newark. After the war, he continued his art education and began teaching at Caldwell College. He met his wife, Maxine, a concert pianist, six years after the war. The couple had two children and settled into a suburban life in a historic house in West Orange, New Jersey. Giannini had some success as an abstract artist, but never gave a hint about the images he produced during the war.
As his health declined, he made Maxine promise not to go through his art studio until six months after his passing, a request that she honored. When she finally went into the studio, Maxine found the sketches in folders. Mrs. Giannini later complied a book about the war drawings and letters from the artist titled, “Drawing D-Day: An Artist’s Journey Through War.”