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The Battalion Artist

The Battalion Artist Chronicles Nat Bellantoni’s
WWII Experiences

by Janice Blake

Over the past year, the Seabees have been celebrating their storied history – 75 years of ‘Can Do’! This is the story of one young Seabee, Nat Bellantoni, The Battalion Artist.

Growing up in Boston’s South End, Nat Bellantoni, son of a grocer, dreamed of becoming an artist. He was constantly, drawing, painting, sketching, and creating cartoons and cards for family members. Little did he know, throughout the 1930s as he grew from a boy to a young man, that his dream would come true, but in a way he never could have envisioned.

In June of 1939, Nat graduated from English High School and the following September he walked through the doors of the Massachusetts College of Art. His first two years flew by and then, on December 7, 1941, everything changed.

Carpenter’s Mate Nat Bellantoni at his artist’s drafting table, writing a letter home from “Island X. somewhere in the South Pacific.”

For Nat and millions of other young men of his generation, dreams were colliding with grim reality. And reality was the priority. At 20 years old Nat decided how he wanted to serve his country. He presented himself at the Naval Recruiting Station in South Boston and signed on to become a Seabee.

There was basic training in Williamsburg, Virginia; advanced training in Davisville, Rhode Island; Gulfport, Mississippi; and finally, Port Hueneme, California. In June 1943 Nat boarded the MS Day Star headed for his first Island X, halfway around the world.


“Signal Flags.” For Nat, these jumbled colors reflected his own mixed feelings – fear, pride, determination – as he headed off to war.

For more than two years, as a member of the 78th Construction Battalion, Nat lived and worked on a series of islands that…until he landed on them…he had never heard of: New Caledonia, New Guinea, Los Negros, Ponam, Manus, Okinawa.

The Seabees would come ashore in the immediate aftermath of ferocious fighting, then work round the clock to convert each island – recently wrested from the enemy – into a base from which the Allies could move forward.

In the Admiralty Islands, the 78th came ashore in the wake of battle; enemy dead were still unburied.

Seabees converted the tiny island of Ponam into an airfield for carrier planes unable to return to their ships.

Seabees knew how to improvise. No paving materials? No problem. They blasted undersea reefs to mine coral for runway surfaces.

Constantly vulnerable to enemy attack, often operating within the sound of battle in the near distance, Nat fought back fear, witnessed death, and taught himself to focus on the task at hand. On these tropical islands just a few degrees south of the Equator, Nat, like his fellow Seabees, suffered the miseries of relentless heat, perpetual humidity, drenching rains, persistent bugs, and tropical disease.

His official Navy rate was Carpenter’s Mate, a catchall for many Seabees who had specialized skills. But his work was not carpentry. His duties were as varied as they were necessary. Nat provided blueprints and scaled drawings for countless construction projects. He arranged typescript and photographs or sketches to produce the Battalion’s newspaper Island X-press, important for keeping over 1,000 men informed and boosting morale. In addition he created full size paintings and murals to bring a touch of grace to the interiors of chapels, or add a bit of cheer to officers’ clubs.

As an artist, Nat created his own unique record of the war – a visual diary – dozens of beautiful watercolors and sketches depicting the scenes of the South Pacific as he experienced it.

When their chaplain told them that the islanders’ mission chapel was in ruins, the Seabees donated their limited spare time to building a new one. They called it “The Cathedral.”

hope…

The 78th built three military chapels on various island. For each of these, with improvised techniques and materials, Nat created powerful art that inspired a sense of comfort…

and peace.

His collection is remarkable and invaluable to those of us who seek to understand what World War II looked like through the eyes of those who served on the front lines of history.

“Quonset Hilton.” Upside-down smiles! These became the first indoor billets the Seabees of the 78th would occupy in over a year.

“Mud, mud, mud.” Steamy heat. Wetness and mud. In the Admiralties during monsoon season, mud was inescapable.

The Navy ships that came and went were always a source of “Scuttlebutt” and, more importantly, a symbol of safety, security—and hope.

When Nat returned to the States in November of 1945, he brought his artwork home, along with mementoes, and the entire archive of photos he had used to illustrate the daily life and work of the Battalion over 29 long and often difficult months.

Returning to Boston, Nat had two priorities: To marry Irene Sztucinski, the girl he had left behind and to find a job as an artist. He did both.

Nat Bellantoni and Irene Sztucinski – January 6, 1946. They had corresponded faithfully for the 29 months he was in the South Pacific.

Art director at Gunn Studios in Boston for nearly forty years. Nat was awarded an honorary degree by the Massachusetts College of Art.

And so the folder of watercolors, the boxes of sketchbooks and photographs, artifacts and documents were stashed away. The Bellantoni family grew, as did Nat’s career as an art director for one of Boston’s top graphic design firms.

Five decades would pass before Nat turned his attention back to his wartime art. He put together a portfolio of eight paintings that he thought were his very best and brought them to his 50th Seabee reunion in 1992.

Twenty more years would pass before Nat set the wheels in motion for a much larger project. In mid-June of 2012, just a few days before he left us for that advanced base in the sky, Nat told his daughter, Nancy, that he wanted a book to celebrate the heroic men of the 78th Construction Battalion.

Nancy and I have honored Nat’s wishes; we have have written his book. The Battalion Artist explores the trajectory of one young man’s World War II experiences, and at the same time echoes the stories of the more than 16 million who served their country and the world between 1941 and 1945.

The Battalion Artist embodies the dedication of those whom Tom Brokaw has identified as The Greatest Generation. 350,000 of them were U.S. Navy Seabees.

We are still discovering the riches Nat left us – vivid images of the work and daily life of the 78th Construction Battalion. Sorting and studying this treasure trove has been both an education and a privilege.

“Target.” En route to Okinawa, part of a massive convoy, all knew they were vulnerable to attack from Japan’s most desperate weapon – the Kamikaze Special Attack Force.

“Searchlights.” It was not unusual in camp on Okinawa to see the night sky suddenly awash with brightness, as searchlights converged on an enemy plane.

19 Comments
  1. I love this so much ! I have learned something I never knew : that Uncle Nat grew up in Boston’s South End and that his dad , Joe , was a grocer like my grandfather .

  2. Fascinating story and incredible drawings. How fortunate for us all that he took care to preserve them to honor his fellow Seebees.

  3. Such a revelation of such a warm and talented man! I feel privileged to have known Nat and be the recipient of that great smile of his every time I saw him at Gunn!

  4. What a wonderful rendition of a talented man, dedicated patriot, and all around great guy. It was my pleasure to have known him for a brief time. Thank you Nancy and Janice for keeping his accomplished life where it should be – in full view.

  5. I am a proud owner of the book and love the special story that it tells. Thank you!

  6. It’s always great to hear stories about my great Uncle Nat!

  7. I was lucky to have Nat in my life growing up. At the time I was unaware of his courageous contribution to the big picture of history. I did, however, witness his every day goodness and caring for his fellow man. it is an honor to have known him. “The Battalion Artist” is a fascinating historical tribute!

  8. I must admit I knew little about the Seebees before I read “The Battalion Artist.” This history of Nat Bellantoni’s experience as a World War II Seebee fulfills his wish to celebrate the spirit of the 78th Battalion, and, indeed, all the hard-working Seabees. How wonderful that Nat’s “diary” of paintings and drawings has now been shared with us all.

  9. In addition to his artistic talents, my father in law, Nat Bellantone, was a world-class charmer and a genuinely wonderful man. We are so glad to see his legacy reaching more and more people. He enjoyed life and his presence was a gift to all who were lucky enough to be in his orbit.

  10. He was so proud to serve as a SeaBee in WWII, and in later years in his participation with his buddies in forming Island X.

  11. I got to know Nat near the end of his career at Gunn Studios, he was bright, insightful and brilliantly funny. And oh he could paint too! Reading Janice’s account brigs back how much I miss him.

  12. Nice piece. It’s refreshing to read—and view—accounts of activities that portray the incredible behind-the-scenes US war efforts that were constructive, not destructive. Blake’s accounts and Bellantoni’s watercolors create a pleasant aura of serenity amid the dangers, uncertainties, and discomforts of Seabee island hopping in the Pacific during World War II.

  13. It’s marvelous how these dramatic, illuminating, first-person stories from the war are coming out all of a sudden!

  14. Thank you so very much for this beautiful memorial and celebration of a truly beloved and special person. I remember being a little girl and looking through his yellowed sketchbooks as a special treat. It makes you wonder how many story shards and fragments of history these brave men and women allowed themselves to share with their children and grandchildren, spouses and friends, leaving the rest to be uncovered and pieced together after they passed on to “that advanced base in the sky.”

  15. Huge thanks to Janice, Nancy and the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation for telling this moving story of magnificent Uncle Nat and his brave 78th Construction Battalion! Their work was so important and difficult and we are forever in their debt.
    Thanks for bringing Uncle Nat’s beautiful legacy to life. He is very proud of you!

  16. Great stuff, I am sure those watercolors look amazing up close, thanks for sharing.

  17. So proud of my Great Uncle Nat! Such a talent, and such an important period to remember.
    Thank you for sharing this positive piece and reminding us of the sacrifices made for our country by these and other brave people.

  18. Some twenty years ago I met Nat and Irene. I got to know them quite well in their later years. His tales of the war always intrigued me, especially in that he could relate highly personal observations. I love history, Nat knew it and understood that his personal anecdotes were especially rich.

    As time gathered its yarns, and Nat and Irene decided that a move to Maine was in order, Nat called me aside during a visit. With the care needed to handle and injured sparrow, he handed me a gift: eight prints of paintings he’s created in the South Pacific. They are among my most prized posessions. Leaning the full story of the their creation makes them priceless.

  19. Growing up, I was never fully aware of my Dad’s accomplishments. It was around the early 90’s when I introduced him to another See Bee, Norm Hill, who had started an Island (for ex Cee Bees. Nat then formed an Island in Wilmington MA and became the first Commander of that Island and active in the Retired See Bee Association. It’s funny how life’s timing works.

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