WWII ship's 'angel' painting resurfaces; will go on display at Pittsburgh's Soldiers & Sailors

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Mel Zimmermann last saw the "angel" he drew to decorate the bridge of USS Sangay in 1946. The Navy veteran from St. Louis had assumed that his painting had been lost when the munitions ship on which he served during World War II was taken out of service.

Mr. Zimmermann, 87, was delighted to learn recently that one of his shipmates had saved the painting. His youthful work was donated last year to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, where it is slated to become part of a World War II exhibit later this year.

John Clifford, 84, of Middlesex, had been one of the last sailors to leave the Sangay when it docked in Orange, Texas. When a shipyard worker asked him if he wanted the picture, he jumped at the offer. "I wrapped her up and sent her home," Mr. Clifford recalled during a recent conversation at his Butler County home.

The painting shows a naked red-haired woman with wings sitting atop a spiky black floating mine. Mr. Clifford's daughter, Sharon Johnson, came across a black-and-white photo of the work last year while she was looking online for additional information about her father's old ship. The image illustrated the Wikipedia entry describing the battle history of the Sangay.

Ms. Johnson updated the online encyclopedia's entry to report that her father had donated the painting, called "Angel's Coffin," to Allegheny County's military museum.

Meanwhile, 600 miles away, Mr. Zimmermann, urged to do so by his wife Mary, was writing an account of his World War II service. That document led his daughter, Diane Barron, to the same Wikipedia article about the Sangay and to the new information about the current location of his work.

The artist, in turn, called Michael Kraus, the curator and staff historian at Soldiers & Sailors, who confirmed the painting was in Pittsburgh. Mr. Kraus passed the information about the artist to Mr. Clifford.

Mr. Clifford contacted Mr. Zimmermann and explained how he had come to care for "Angel's Coffin" for more than 60 years.

"I told him, 'I didn't sleep with your girlfriend,' " Mr. Clifford said, recalling one of their initial conversations. "I just had her in my bedroom."

The USS Sangay was longer than a football field and had a crew of 308. While neither man remembered the other, they discovered they had met while serving aboard the munitions carrier. Mr. Zimmermann, who was a pharmacist mate, treated Mr. Clifford after he had smashed his hand.

The ship's doctor was a pediatrician in civilian life who didn't seem to know much about handling adult injuries, Mr. Clifford recalled. The physician had ordered only that Mr. Clifford's bloody hand be wrapped up.

While the ship lacked a dentist, it had a dental office and an X-ray machine. Pharmacist Mate Zimmermann used that device to take multiple pictures -- each the size of a dental X-ray -- of his shipmate's injured hand. The combined images showed Mr. Clifford had several broken fingers.

Mr. Zimmermann set the bones and made splints from tongue depressors. "He did a good job," Mr. Clifford said. "My hand is perfect."

Their recent conversations brought back memories of some of the other sailors on the Sangay. There was R.A. Mead, a pipe-smoking, tattooed baker, who was known as "ice man." He had access to the ship's freezers and the supply of ice critical to cooling beer.

Marcel Bouchet was a former football player from Louisiana. "Every time he'd go on liberty, he'd get into a fight," Mr. Clifford recalled. "It got so no one wanted to go ashore with him because it was likely they'd get into a big brawl."

The Sangay's front-line missions included deliveries of ammunition and floating mines to places such as Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Even after the conflict in the Pacific ended in August 1945 with the surrender of Japan, the danger didn't. While sailors from the Sangay were bringing in supplies to the beaches of newly reconquered Pacific islands, they could come under sniper fire.

"The Japanese didn't know the war was over, and they would still take potshots at us," Mr. Clifford said.

Mr. Clifford had grown up in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood.

Near the end of the war, he made several thousand dollars playing cards, and he sent the money home to his father. His stake paid for eight acres in rural Middlesex, where he and his wife Patricia raised six children. The couple has 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

After the war, Mr. Clifford worked as a shipper in an A&P grocery store warehouse in Homewood, commuting daily from Butler County.

A St. Louis native, Mr. Zimmermann returned to the area after his Navy service. He worked for many years as a commercial artist, eventually opening and operating his own firm for 20 years. His son still runs the business.

Mr. Zimmermann was 19 when he painted "Angel's Coffin" in 1945. He was inspired by the "nose art" -- very often images of curvaceous women -- painted on the fuselages of warplanes.

Why "Angel's Coffin?"

"We were an ammo ship carrying 3,000 tons of explosives," he said. "If anything had hit us ... boom."

Mr. Zimmermann and his wife have been married for 64 years. They have four children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The couple lives in a St. Louis suburb called Oakville.

Mr. Kraus, the Soldiers & Sailors curator, said Mr. Zimmermann's painting will be part of the museum's new "World War II in the Pacific" display. "It is a beautiful folk painting that appealed to me right away," he said.

"Angel's Coffin" is a very realistic work. Displaying it in a gallery visited by many school groups likely will require some careful placement to obscure "sensitive parts," Mr. Kraus said. "It's certainly not pornographic, but it would be distracting," he said.

The "War in the Pacific" display should open by Veterans Day in November. When that happens, Mr. Zimmermann would like to renew his acquaintance with two old friends: Mr. Clifford and "Angel's Coffin."

"I haven't seen it for 66 years," the artist said. "My wife and I might try to take a few days and come see the exhibit."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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