Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, May 20, 2001


In Tom Freeman's painting of the USS Arizona, the bomb
that sank the ship can been seen falling, left of center,
toward the main turret.

Artist brings Pearl
Harbor attack to life

Tom Freeman is renowned
for his detailed, vibrant works

Burl Burlingame

Artist Tom Freeman has an uncanny ability that painters of still lifes, abstracts and portraiture lack completely -- he can depict huge pieces of machinery moving through the elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- with uncanny precision and personality. Salt spray wreathes his battleships, the slipstream blurs his aircraft, flames and crackling explosions limn the details of his artillery batteries.

His paintings are on the covers of dozens of books, and much of his work is privately commisioned for corporations. His paintings also hang in the White House. But his passion is for ships, and he has a positive genius for painting anything afloat.

And the pictures are as historically accurate as he can make them. No wonder that when the publishers of the new "Pearl Harbor, The Day of Infamy -- An Illustrated History" began asking historians for advice, they were told to "get Tom Freeman!"

Freeman at Pearl Harbor, with the USS Stennis in
the background.

The book, written by Dan Van Der Vat and already considered one of the best single-volume histories of the attack (see review), is "selling like hotcakes!" said Freeman, and we don't mean you can get a stack of them for a dollar.

Freeman calls it "a basic book on what happened. It's neat. Has a lot of color and memorabilia. It's dynamite. Images help tell the story, but the writing is first-rate too."

Freeman got seriously involved with the history of the attack a decade ago, with "Pearl Harbor Recalled," written by James Delgado of the Vancouver Maritime Center. "Recalled" contained dozens of images that have become closely identified with the interpretation of Pearl Harbor, but the Naval Institute Press is not reissuing the book this year.

Freeman contributed eight paintings of the attack to the book, and he's continuing to work on an additional 30 or so images. They will be displayed at the USS Bowfin submarine museum on Dec. 6. Next door at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center is the "Pearl Harbor Recalled" painting collection, purchased by the Arizona Memorial Association because of their emotional power and story-telling ability.

A decade, however, has made a change both in Freeman's painting technique and research abilities.

"I'm using watercolor now instead of acrylics, because when you're working on a deadline you need something that dries faster," said Freeman. "Plus, I like the color better -- it's more vibrant and textured."

Research might mean tracing and modifying photographs of the real thing, or building a plastic model and grinding it down on a belt sander until it looks properly distressed, or using a video printer to capture a frame from a documentary, or poring over written accounts and listening to oral histories until the idea for an image appears.

One currently on the easel is called "Mama Too Fat," and is Freeman's take on the panic at Schofield Barracks during the aerial attack. Not wanting to do a traditional "From Here to Eternity" take on the subject, he was nosing around the Tropic Lightning museum and spotted a story on curator Linda Hee's screen, in which an Army wife tried in vain to crawl under the bed but couldn't because she was pregnant.

Freeman eventually tracked down the kids -- now grown -- who told the story and found pictures of the house and the family, and even acquired photos of the furniture.

Despite his renown, Freeman was not among those invited to attend the premiere of the film "Pearl Habor" this week.

"From what I've seen, though, the history will leave a lot to be desired, but it seems to capture the spirit of the attack, the sense of sacrifice," he said. "As a historical document, aw, it doesn't hold water. Those two hours over Pearl Harbor changed the world forever, and that needs to be remembered. I'm happy to be a small part of doing that. We have to remember our past, and history isn't even much taught in school any more. Napoleon might get a page; Lewis and Clark aren't even a footnote."

Aren't the makers of "Pearl Harbor" and Freeman doing roughly the same thing -- recreating historical fact in picture form?

"Well, they've got a much bigger canvas, and a much bigger audience," laughed Freeman.

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