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

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.


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.

Gallery: Women of Mystery

Whether the women in these 1950s-era illustrations are solving crimes or committing them, you can be sure there’s plenty of intrigue afoot!acorn_dvd_300

Which mystery-themed illustration do you like more? Let us know by responding with one of the designated emojis on our Facebook post! You’ll be entered into a random drawing for a chance to win a DVD set of Acorn TV‘s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

In And Then There Were None, Ten strangers meet in a solitary mansion on a remote island near the Devon coast. Awaiting the arrival of their hosts, they start to die, one by one. Based on the best-selling book by Agatha Christie, this lavish adaptation features an all-star cast including Aidan Turner (Poldark), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), Toby Stephens (Vexed), Anna Maxwell Smith (The Bletchley Circle), Miranda Richardson (The Hours), and Sam Neill (Peaky Blinders). Seen on Lifetime.

Deadline to vote is January 23. See Official Rules.

“The police car’s searchlight found them framed against the fence like spiders on a wall. ‘All right, Slattery,’ the cop yelled, ‘break it up!’”
The Outcasts
Peter Stevens
September 29, 1956

“Keep your hand away from that phone, soldier,” someone said.
Furlough in Flatbush
Frederic Varady
August 19, 1944

“The voice on the radio was saying, ‘And there are some whose secret is not innocent, but who must wear their masks until they die. I call them The Unsuspected.'”
The Unsuspected
Austin Briggs
August 11, 1945

“Cochran walked up to the man with the dinky mustache and hit him hard. McReynolds took care of the woman.”
Sentence of Death
Ken Riley
October 23, 1948

“Onalee, that’s murder! You’ve killed him!”
Easy to Murder
James R. Bingham
January 6, 1951

“‘If this shirt will solve your problem,’ he said, ‘you’re welcome to it.'”
Girls Are Where You Find Them
George Englert
January 17, 1953

“Paula picked up the shining object. It was Brad’s watch, and the hands said four minutes past nine.”
Death in the Wind
Bernard D’Andrea
November 5, 1955

“Jack turned anxiously as he heard Moto’s footsteps behind him.”
Rendezvous in Tokyo
William A. Smith
December 15, 1956

“Fitzpatrick and his daughter, Rose Margaret, joined the other passengers as they filed out to board Flight 903.”
Murder on Order
Perry Peterson
March 9, 1957

“Now Columbine discovered why the suitcase had seemed so heavy. It contained a 32-caliber pistol, a burglar’s kit, and a bag of glittering stones.”
The Artless Heiress
Robert Meyers
June 1, 1957

“‘Now shut up,’ Kairos shouted. ‘Or do I have to close your mouth for you?'”
Gem Thief
November 29, 1958

“‘That’s it, sister!’ the man said. ‘I’m closing up this joint.’ And in came a task force of policemen.”
It All Happened to Me
Austin Briggs
July 1, 1950

“Darling!” a voice called through the door. “Are you there?” It was a tense moment.
Feminine Reflex
George Englert
September 3, 1949