Fire, smoke, and order in a sailor's paintings of Guadalcanal Campaign

The calm Southern Pacific night sky distorts in an instant into a maelstrom of fire and thunder. Torpedoes and gunfire hit their mark. Military vessels catch fire and slip beneath the waves. Officers bark orders while enlisted men try to stay calm and do what is needed of them. Chaos erupts in a split second but only lasts roughly half an hour.

The cost of those 30 minutes was too great for Clarence J. Tibado to sit by and let this battle, off the coast of a small island called Guadalcanal, fade into history. He painted what he remembered from that violent night on the heavy cruiser USS Pensacola.

Painting of a dark, naval scene with explosions

The Guadalcanal Campaign was a major turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this campaign, in which American forces conducted their first successful offensive operation against the Empire of Japan. Although it was in many ways the beginning of the end of Japan's dominance over the Pacific, the waters around embattled islands were hotly contested until the end of the war. This was nowhere more clearly seen than during the six-month-long Battle of Guadalcanal, in which the American and Japanese fleets fought for the supply routes and subsequent control of the strategic island.

On the night of November 30, 1942, off the coast of Guadalcanal at an area named Tassafaronga, the United States Navy engaged elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in what would become a costly stalemate. As the damaged heavy cruiser USS Pensacola (CA-24) chugged back to port, Clarence J. Tibado, a 22-year-old radarman and avid painter from South Dakota, was working aboard her. A Japanese torpedo struck Pensacola's portside causing severe damage while killing or wounding numerous sailors.

Some of the survivors probably didn't dare think about the events that had just transpired. Tibado, however, painted vivid scenes from the night battle as he saw them firsthand. While we don't know how Tibado got his painting supplies aboard the USS Pensacola, he continued to paint throughout the war. During his time stationed on the ship, he painted many battles.

He saw fires blazing on the horizon as well as allied and enemy ships falling into the ocean. The firepower of the vessels was immense, making it seem as though no ship, whether American or Japanese, were safe from the storm that had engulfed both fleets.

Image of a dark, naval scene, painted on canvas.

These are more than paintings of a chaotic emergency. Depicted here are also signs of order. Fires spread, men are wounded and running, but there are officers, navy medics (known as corpsmen), and fire brigades taking command of the situation. The American flag is still prominent—resolute and flying, although war-torn and battered.

Seeing this image today, with the outcome of World War II a historical fact, we might not feel the urgency, fear, and uncertainty that Tibado would have felt in 1942. During 1942, however, the IJN was still a force to be reckoned with, and the U.S. Navy was trying to catch up. Many of the planes and technology that became iconic by the end of the war were not yet available. This painting shows that, even in the face of overwhelming odds after a costly battle, there was still faith in the American forces.

Tibaldo served on the Pensacola until he was wounded in action off the coast of Iwo Jima in 1945. He presented the paintings to the Smithsonian Institution in 1957. They are now in the collections of the Division of Armed Forces History. Tibaldo died in 2014, at the age of 94, after a long life of painting and writing.

Matthew Lowe completed a summer 2017 internship in the Division of Armed Forces History. He is a junior at the University of Alabama.