The Art of the Post: William A. Smith —The Artist Behind Enemy Lines

How a World War II spy ended up becoming one of The Saturday Evening Post’s premier illustrators.

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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.

Woman and man at table
An interior illustration by William A. Smith for The Saturday Evening Post from September 1956.

 

Men under airborne attack
An interior illustration by William A. Smith for The Saturday Evening Post, from the March 8, 1952, issue.

 

Man in a boat speaking to a figure on the river bank
An interior illustration by William A. Smith for The Saturday Evening Post, from the April 5, 1952, issue.

 

Man and woman
An interior illustration by William A. Smith for The Saturday Evening Post, from 1956.

 

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.

 

William A. Smith
William A. Smith. (Photo courtesy of the Smith family)

 

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.

 

Propaganda drawing
A propaganda illustration by Smith. (Drawing courtesy of the Smith family)

 

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.

 

Soldier illustration
Wartime sketch. (Courtesy of the Smith family)

 

Soldier illustration
A wartime sketch. (Courtesy of the Smith family)

 

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.

 

William A. Smith drawing
Smith sketching. (Photo courtesy of the Smith family)

 

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.

 

Drawing of a toddler
Page from William A. Smith’s personal sketchbook. (Courtesy of the Smith family)

 

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.

 

Drawing
A lithograph of a Chinese woman and child. (Michener Art Museum)

 

Cover for Water Buffalo Children
A cover illustration from Pearl S. Buck’s The Water-Buffalo Children.

 

Millions of readers of the Post saw his work, but most never knew that he earned his authenticity the hard way.

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Comments

  1. For Bob McGowan– many thanks. It’s funny that you should single out the sketches. Smith did some pretty hostile work for propaganda purposes during the war, and many of his illustrations for the Post were tough and extreme and gritty, but when he was sketching for his own benefit, the pictures were very sensitive and light and nuanced. I tend to like those most of all.

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