A man who became a hero for his artistic talent, was not recognized until years after he died.
The world war 2 photographers is a soldier who recorded his war in art. He was the only one of his unit to survive and he went on to have a successful career as an artist.
After serving with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Germany, Robert Baldwin received two Bronze Stars and a lifetime of inspiration.
On March 24, 1945, a few minutes after 10 a.m., ROBERT M. BALDWIN’S life was permanently altered. The 20-year-parachute old’s had just ripped open, and what he saw in the seconds before hitting the ground stayed with him: hundreds of C-47s buzzing above as his unit dropped into Germany, flak exploding in black clouds of shrapnel. The chutes of his colleagues surrounded him, and below him was a hornet’s nest of Germans attempting a last-ditch effort to resist the Allies. Baldwin was then shaken by an explosion from below. A floating, empty parachute lay where his battalion sergeant had stood a minute before. The sergeant’s explosives had been detonated by an antiaircraft shell, instantly destroying him.
Baldwin didn’t have much time to reflect on the tragedy. As he plummeted to the ground, he collapsed under the weight of his gear and tried to get out of his chute under a hail of gunfire and mortar fire. He joined his troops for the successful capture of their goal, but the sights and sounds of the day stayed with him. Even the odor was distinct. “It’s strange, when death is so close one can really smell it,” he admitted in a letter to his mother. It might just be my imagination, but that sickening stench struck me as soon as I got over the initial shock of the jump.”
Baldwin used watercolors and a notebook he “liberated” from a home near the drop zone to depict what he’d seen that day, as well as images from the following two weeks as he battled his way into Münster with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Baldwin obeyed instructions from his company commander, Captain Howard “Big Steve” Stephens, to “throw that blasted book away!” on many occasions, only to discreetly retrieve it from the garbage each time. Baldwin saw Germany’s beauty as a thing of the past, with everything in the Reich in ruins or ash.
During the Berlin occupation in the summer of 1945, Robert M. Baldwin (left) was a key figure. (Photo by Mark Baldwin)
He was discharged with two Bronze Stars in 1946 and moved to New Jersey to start a family and a successful career as a commercial artist. His World War II experience remained with him, and he uses military imagery in a lot of his personal work. In 1985, he created “The Airborne Walk,” a set of concrete pathways in the form of jump wings that take tourists through 28 memorials dedicated to previous airborne troops at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Baldwin subsequently acknowledged, “How I made it, I’ll never know,” when asked about the eventful day he leapt into Germany. He lived to be 78 years old when he died in December 2003. ✯
BLAZING SKIES AND FIREFIELDS: The location of the destruction shown in this frightening picture is unclear, but it is most likely Essen, Germany, as seen from across the Rhine-Herne Canal in the Ruhr area. Baldwin’s field work started with pencil drawings and written captions, with the watercolor added afterwards.
Essen, a significant industrial city that housed the Krupp Steel Works plant, was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during World War II. On April 10, 1945, the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment reached Essen uncontested.
A PAIR OF NEWLY RELEASED CG-4A Waco gliders skims above the landing zone in Wesel. The hazards of combat landings are shown in Baldwin’s watercolor: fences, power wires, farmhouses, and even other gliders. Troops in the cargo compartment of the gliders could only hope and wait for the expected hard landing.
THE LAST JUMP: “First In!” depicts the instantaneous brutality of leaping beyond enemy lines, which Baldwin’s recollections of haunted him. “The person who gets there first is the target,” he remarked of this image.
LAND OF THE QUICK OR THE DEAD: A paratrooper navigates the crossfire in enemy territory as he sprints across the drop zone toward injured or dead colleagues. The Germans had prepared for a possible airdrop at Wesel in March 1945, and had the drop zone of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment well-protected by machine guns and mortars.
DOWN TO EARTH: Painted from memory a month after his jump, Baldwin’s watercolor portrays his drop zone on March 24, 1945, during Operation Varsity, Germany’s airborne operation over the Rhine River. An armada of C-47s pulls back toward Allied lines as Wesel, Germany, burns in the backdrop; the paratrooper ready to touch down on the far left is Baldwin’s memorial to Private First Class Robert Porterfield Jr., a friend and fellow artist died during the jump.
WALKING THE TALK: “The Airborne Walk,” a major element of the army’s Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, as the location of its graduation ceremony, is Baldwin’s most-viewed artwork. In November 1944, Baldwin, at 19 years old, graduated from the institution. (Army of the United States of America)
All artwork is from the 82nd Airborne Museum’s collection and has been reprinted with Mark Baldwin’s permission.
This story appeared in World War II’s August 2023 edition.
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