Seventy-five years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, 334 U.S. Marines and sailors escaped the flame-engulfed USS Arizona.
Thursday, four of the five remaining survivors returned to the USS Arizona memorial site to remember their fallen brethren and view Rock-River-native Cassidy Newkirk’s painting recreating the moment survivors escaped the ship as it sank beneath the debris-filled waters of Pearl Harbor.
“Being able to fly over (to Hawaii) with the survivors is the biggest honor,” Newkirk said Nov. 22. “This will probably be the last year they will all be together.”
The 22-year-old’s painting was commissioned by the USS Arizona Final Salute campaign, an initiative created by the survivor’s families to raise money for the survivors to attend the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and pay their final respects.
To help raise the money needed to pay for the survivor’s flights, food and accommodations, 41 prints, a nod to the year of the attacks, of Newkirk’s paintings were sold for $1,177 commemorating the 1,177 USS Arizona Marines and sailors that did not survive that day.
The prints sold out during the Thanksgiving Day weekend.
Home on the ranch
“My great-grandma was a painter,” Newkirk said. “One day, my parents just dropped me off with her, and she started teaching me oil paint.”
From 9 years old until Newkirk was in Junior High School, she spent four hours every Tuesday and Friday learning to paint with her great-grandmother. Around seventh grade, her mentor passed away.
“I quit painting for a long time,” she said. “Because it was hard to paint without her.”
The fifth generation in a line of ranchers that settled north of Rock River in 1918, Newkirk said she was interested in military history from an early age.
“My family is extremely supportive of the military,” she said. “My great-grandfather was a Marine in World War II. My uncle flew (medical evacuation helicopters) in Vietnam. One grandfather was in the Navy, another was in the Army.”
When her great-grandfather died, his scrapbook of wartime images, letters and stories was passed on to the family. When her uncle visited, she said he shared stories about his time in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. And her mother kept a Japanese sword her great-grandfather brought back from his time in the Pacific.
When she picked up the paint brush again, she decided she wanted to focus on military service.
“I don’t want to portray war, I want to portray what they sacrificed,” she said. “I want to paint stories of the ones that have fallen.”
Proving her ability
The clacking of Newkirk’s black felt high heels echoed through the University of Wyoming Fine Arts Building’s empty halls. She is in her fifth year as an art student at the university.
“When I was old enough to walk in heels, (my grandmother) would put us in heels, put books on our heads and make us walk up and down the stairs,” she said chuckling. “She loved Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, so that was my other half.”
Tying her grandmother’s love of ’40s and ’50s pop culture with her interest in WWII, she started painting bomber nose art and pinup girls. But her fellow UW students didn’t really understand her work.
“After growing up on a ranch, coming to a liberal arts college was very different,” she said. “Students my age don’t really know about what went on in WWII.”
At times, she used her art to incite a reaction in students who were opposed to the war, she said.
“I know it may not be the best thing, but it made my art better,” she admitted. “I tried harder because I had that extra emotion and determination. Every time I would do art, it was to prove I could.”
While managing the UW women’s basketball team, Newkirk befriended Assistant Coach Nikki Stratton.
While at a game in San Diego, Stratton asked Newkirk to paint the USS Arizona for her grandfather’s birthday.
“I asked her why she wanted the USS Arizona, I knew there must be a specific reason,” Newkirk said. “When she told me he was one of the last survivors, I freaked out I was so excited.”
The painting would be a precursor to the piece she was commissioned to paint for the Final Salute campaign.
Stratton said her grandfather appreciated that younger generations took an interest in Pearl Harbor.
“When he saw her painting, he was incredibly speechless,” Stratton said. “Cassidy is really able to channel the pain and the sacrifice.”
On Oct. 17, 1916, construction of the Pennsylvania-class battleship, USS Arizona, was commissioned by the Navy, according to the University of Arizona Library.
On Oct. 17, 2015, after seeing Newkirk’s painting for Stratton, the Final Salute campaign commissioned her to historically recreate the day the ship sank.
Newkirk said she didn’t see the dates as a coincidence. During the research and painting process, she said she felt guided by “angels” or spirits of the deceased Marines and sailors.
Because no images of the USS Arizona were taken from close enough to see the survivors escaping, Newkirk used special effects makeup and original WWII-era naval uniforms to photograph recreated movements of burned sailors fleeing the sinking ship. Wet footprints would sometimes mysteriously appear on the floor of the studio.
“There’s been so many supernatural things happen with this, it’s just unreal,” she said. “Our big studio lights would stop working. My digital camera screen would glitch and be fuzzy for a second. The room would get really smoky, like gasoline and burned oil.”
Through it all, she said she felt guided by a supernatural presence.
“I’m the one who physically painted it,” she said. “But it’s like someone was working through me.”
Standing 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, the final painting depicted survivors escaping a sinking USS Arizona shrouded in smoke and flames. One survivor was hand-over-hand crossing a rope to the safety of another ship. The survivor was Donald Stratton, who suffered burns on 75 percent of his body as he passed over flame-covered waters to the safety of a rescue ship, Newkirk said.
“I realize that no one nowadays will ever understand what that feels like,” she said.
But she said she hopes her painting will help future generations connect with a crucial point of American history she feels is quickly being forgotten.
“I want to keep those stories alive,” she said. “All I want to do is make art, specifically WWII art.”
The painting, which she didn’t name, will be unveiled Dec. 6 at the USS Arizona Memorial Theatre where it will remain.
“I wanted it to stay with those I painted it for,” she said.