May 26, 2014 at 1:38 AM
WEST ORANGE. NJ - As the 70th Anniversary of D-Day draws near and Memorial Day observances across the nation pause to recall our fallen soldiers in war, the little-known story of Ugo Giannini must be told.
Ugo Giannini grew up in Newark. He was an artist, showing skill from a young age and attended the National Academy of Design in New York. Giannini was drafted into the army and shipped overseas during WWII, where he was part of the 29th Division, "Comprised mostly of southern boys," smiled Maxine Giannini, Ugo's widow. "You can imagine how different they were - an Italian boy from Newark, and southern boys? But they really did become a band of brothers."
Giannini landed at Dog Green sector, Omaha Beach, with the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division. He had just been transferred to the unit's Military Police along with the other "Dogface soldiers," many of whom were the age of graduating high school seniors, when they took part in the D-Day Invasion beginning on June 6, 1944. Giannini was one of 6 survivors from his 37-man platoon on the Vierville Draw, jumping into a crater made by naval bombardment, and spent that day and part of the next day as an eyewitness "to the greatest invasion ever conceived by the military".
What few know is that Ugo Giannini sketched scenes of D-Day as events occurred, preserving images not ever captured in photograph or film. Many of his sketches depict scenes on Vierville sur Mer, Normandy, Omaha Beach, as the invasion occurred.
History tells the tale of the massive invasion of D-Day and how it turned the tide of WWII. America and the Allies lost tens of thousands of men during the 44 day breakout from Normandy, and notes Maxine, "they did not change their clothes the entire time."
Following Omaha Beach, Giannini moved through France, Holland and Germany until the war ended on May 8, 1945 and managed to preserve his sketches. He met his wife, Maxine, an artist and piano teacher, following the war, and returned to France to study with renowned artist Fernand Leger. The Gianninis settled in West Orange in 1961, where they raised their family. Ugo was an Art Professor at Caldwell College for 25 years and continued to paint, his strength in abstract art.
Giannini, according to his wife, spent the last decade of his life "creating a memorial to his fallen comrades," in the form of oil paintings focused on WWII. "His art was a silent salute to his fellow soldiers, showing the trauma and personal impact of the war," she noted. He died from complications of pulmonary fibrosis in 1993.
"Ugo, along with other soldiers from WWII, bear impenetrable barriers," Maxine continued. "It's a defense mechanism. There was no PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition not formally identified until years later). "It was a ceaseless struggle, and young boys came back as strangers, trying to survive, get married, and raise families."
After Giannini's death, his wife discovered his sketches and letters written to a former girlfriend describing the war. "He never spoke about it," she said. "His art was his expression."
In 2013, after 20 years of research, Maxine Giannini published a book of her husband's sketches called "Drawing D-Day."
It seems fitting that ten of Ugo Giannini's D-Day sketches have been selected as part of an exhibition in a rebuilt St. Lo Hospital to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. Maxine will be traveling to France to participate in the event, where Ugo's works will line the entryways of the hospital.
"Most people don't realize that WWII was a Universal War", said Maxine. Just as D-Day took place on many fronts, WWII took place across Europe, in the South Pacific, and locales worldwide.
While the American landscape was spared the devastation of war, the surviving veterans of WWII were forever changed, having often only each other to share the depth of their experiences. Ugo Giannini is not only a war hero, but the voice of a generation that often did not speak, and an expression of its pain and heartbreak.
For more information on "Drawing D-Day," go to: http://www.amazon.com/Drawing-D-Day-Ugo-Giannini/dp/1481716212.