Walter Wendell Arnett
T/5 in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co C
Born 1912 in KY, Died 1998
County of residence at enlistment: Davidson County, TN
Other residence(s): Salyersville, KY; Louisville, KY
United States Army, European Theatre of Operations
Occupation before the war: artists, sculptors, and teachers of art
College education before the war: Georgetown College (KY); Art Academy of Cincinnati; Advertising Art School (Nashville, TN)
Wendell Arnett* was born on May 5, 1912 in Salyersville, KY. His father owned and managed a country store next to their home and Wendell was the fifth of his six children, the middle child of his second wife. His mother Lucy credited her side of the family for Wendell's artistic talent—her cousins included Richard Gruelle, a well-known Indiana landscape artist, and his son Johnny Gruelle, who patented the original Raggedy Ann doll, and wrote and illustrated a series of Raggedy Ann books.
Wendell graduated from Magoffin Baptist Institute in 1931 and showed artistic promise early. While still in high school he painted ads on barns in the area. He then pursued a year of academic work at Georgetown College, a Baptist college in Kentucky. That year convinced him that he really wanted to focus on art, and he spent the following year studying fine art at The Art Academy of Cincinnati. A realization that he wanted to focus on advertising art sent him to the Advertising Art School in Nashville, TN where he spent the remaining two years of his education.
While still in school he did a series of political cartoons for Happy Chandler who was running for Governor of Kentucky; these ran in all of the state's newspapers. He also drew furniture for ads for a Nashville furniture company.
A year or so after completing his advertising studies, he took a job as an artist and layout man at the Robert G. Fields Ad Agency in Nashville. One of his clients at Fields was the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. He drew more than 25 covers in cartoon form for their official in-house organ. Another client was WSM radio, the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
He also won awards for several of the poster contests he entered during those years, including a poster that was exhibited throughout the US in 1940 by the William Allen White Committee for Aid to Britain. That poster is now held at the Yale University Library.
He married Leila Katherine Routh on June 9, 1939.
Wendell registered for the draft on October 16, 1940 and enlisted on October 16, 1942. He had read about the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion and was assured that he would be assigned to that unit.
During his time in the Ghost Army, Wendell exercised his artistic skills in a variety of ways. In Coventry, England, prior to heading to France, he picked up a fragment of lead and stained glass in the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral. He later crafted that fragment into a symbolic cross. And, like other members of his unit, he amused himself in his spare time by making sketches and whittling. His son John reports that in Normandy "the wood of the hedgerows was thick enough for Walter to make two walking sticks which he carried with him for the rest of the campaign and brought home. One of these is adorned with a carved 'Cross of Lorraine' symbolizing the Free French and used a 50 caliber shell casing as the tip. In a spiral around the stick he burned in the names of all the towns they passed through and the corresponding dates for many of the 'visits.'"
But the artistic work that most members of the unit remember was Wendell's cartoons. He became, along with Richard Morton, one of the unofficial camp cartoonists, and drew about 50 cartoons during the Ghost Army's time overseas. (Four of his cartoons and two of his sketches are shown in The Ghost Army of World War II.) Many of the subjects of the cartoons were officers, and some of them did not look too kindly on these efforts. But General Eisenhower issued an order against the suppression of cartoons, so the offending items continued to show up on the bulletin boards.
Wendell was discharged from the Army on September 20, 1945 with the rank of T/5. He saw himself pursuing a career as a cartoonist, ideally with a regular comic strip, and pitched his skills to The Courier-Journal when he returned to Louisville, KY. He was hired there as a staff artist in the promotion department.
Wendell and Leila's first child, a son John, was born during the war, and they added two daughters to their family after the war, Mary Louise and Elaine.
And Wendell continued to work on his comic strip idea, spending nights and weekends during his early years at the Courier-Journal drawing a proposed comic strip about a towboat captain on the inland riverways: "The Adventures of Captain Marty Lynn." He drew dozens of panels, but unfortunately was never able to sell his concept.
But he did develop a successful hobby of drawing biographical cartoons—large colorful caricatures of famous businessmen that, according to his obituary, "would place the subject inside an array of symbols and flamboyant images that reflected their influence or place in the community." Many of these figures were Louisville executives, but he also drew a jockey, a basketball coach, Triple Crown winner Secretariat, IBM president Thomas J. Watson, and publisher Bennett Cerf.
Wendell also was active in the Crescent Hill Baptist Church, serving as a deacon and a Sunday School teacher.
He would spend 26 years in the promotion department at the Courier-Journal before moving on to the advertising and news art departments. He retired in 1977. In retirement, Wendell painted portraits on commission.
Several of his cartoons are housed in the Brown University "Soldier Art" collection.
He died on July 10, 1998 and is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, KY.
*NOTE re his name: Wendell was known by that name until he entered the Army in 1942. After that he was known as Walter or Walt in his professional work, but still called Wendell by friends and family, so I've used "Wendell" throughout this biography for consistency.
There are a number of photos of Wendell in this slide show that his son put together.
1942 enlistment record
1946 article in the Courier-Journal (Louisville KY) includes photos of his wife doing a variety of household chores to demonstrate home safety and good posture!
1959 article in the Courier-Journal (Louisville KY) re his hobby of doing biographical drawings of successful men; contains biographical details
1998 obituary in the Courier-Journal (Louisville KY)
1998 Find a Grave record
1998 Social Security death index
1998 VA death record
1998 US Veterans' Gravesites
"The Ghost Army Days of Walter Wendell Arnett" edited by his son, John Arnett
Additional biographical information edited by his son, John Arnett