The Saturday Evening Post has always taken pride in the authenticity of its illustrations. Before the age of television, readers across the country learned about the history and customs of foreign lands from those colorful pictures. Even Hollywood movie studios relied on illustrations in the Post when designing costumes and backdrops.
Illustrators worked hard to achieve that authenticity, but none of them achieved it the way William A. Smith did.
Smith was often called upon to illustrate stories about Asia. He seemed to have a special knack for the people and culture.
What readers didn’t realize was that Smith learned about Asia firsthand by serving behind the lines during World War II for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA. He served in China for the duration of the war, often traveling clandestinely around the country.
One of Smith’s roles as an artist for OSS was to create a series of propaganda drawings to support the Chinese in their war with the Japanese invaders.
He also spent time working in Weihsien prison, a POW camp operated by the Japanese in Shantung Province, China, during World War II. The prison held 1,500 civilians — British, American, Belgian, and Italian — for over two years before it was liberated. Smith sharpened his skills sketching the Japanese guards there.
Smith described how the OSS helped capture the prison from the Japanese:
Only one Chinese was permitted inside the high brick wall. He was a dirty and stupid acting coolie whose job was to remove the pails of refuse from the latrines. Japanese would have no part of this job. Actually, he was an OSS agent and his access to the prison made it possible for the prisoners to communicate with the outside. … The other internees were most surprised when, after the Camp had been taken by the Americans, the same Chinese walked through the gates in a Western-type business suit.
Smith made hundreds of drawings in Asia, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with images of the people and their customs and of children playing in the streets. He learned their language and made many friends.
He grew to love the Far East and established lasting relationships with the artistic community there. He later traveled repeatedly to Japan and filled dozens of sketchbooks with drawings of Japanese culture. Unlike the harsh propaganda pictures he created during the war, his later drawings were exquisitely sensitive and appreciative of cultural differences.
After the war, Smith went on to become a highly successful award-winning artist who worked regularly for the Post and other top publications of his day. He illustrated books for famous authors who wrote about the Far East, such as Pearl Buck and James Michener. His work was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Library of Congress.
Millions of readers of the Post saw his work, but most never knew that he earned his authenticity the hard way.