John Gaitha Browning
592nd Engineer Amphibian Regiment
July 15, 1912 – November 10, 1992
Wars are one of the most documented and researched subjects throughout history. Historians and the media cover these events extensively. However, the most insightful documentation of what happened on the battlefield comes from the Soldiers who were there. Soldiers have kept journals and sketchbooks to document what they experienced and saw while on a campaign throughout time. Pvt. John Browning was one of the Soldiers who put pen to paper during his three years in the Pacific Theater during World War II, giving valuable insight into what Soldiers faced on the front lines.
John Gaitha Browning was born July 15, 1912, to Claude and Addie Butler Browning of Oxford, Mississippi. Their family stayed in Mississippi until he was six when they moved to Brownwood, Texas. Browning enjoyed his childhood in Texas and spent a lot of his time exploring the outdoors and taking in the land’s natural beauty. He joined the Boy Scouts as a teen, which increased his love and interest in nature and introduced him to Native American history and culture. Scouting also led Browning to discover his love of art. During his early days of scouting, he began painting sketches of outdoor scenes and Native American imagery. In high school, he spent time outdoors, working at scout camps, and teaching attendees Native dances, crafts, and lore across the south. Additionally, he trained in San Antonio with artist Harry Anthony DeYoung during his free time in the summer.
After graduating from high school, Browning attended Howard Payne College (now Howard Payne University) for two years and studied typing and business management. Though he excelled in his studies, Browning still had a deep love of art, and he continued to train with DeYoung during his summers. After graduation, Browning blended his business and artistic skills opening an art studio. Through his studies of Native American culture, he developed a love of the southwest and the beauty of the land. In 1941 he moved to Gallup, New Mexico, and opened up an art studio, but that was a short-lived venture. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Browning felt compelled to join the Army and enlisted in May 1942.
He trained in Arkansas that year, and was assigned to the 592nd Engineers’ Amphibian Regiment. These regiments operated the variety of landing craft needed to move troops from transport ships to the shore or island to island. Amphibious units took part in both theaters of World War II, but their service in the Pacific proved vital due to the number of island nations fortified by the Japanese. Browning trained with the 592nd in Massachusetts for half a year, after which his regiment deployed to the Pacific in March 1943. After receiving his deployment orders, Browning decided to keep a journal of his wartime experiences. Though he was an artist, and created many art pieces while overseas, his most known work from the war was his journal. Browning’s journal documents his more than two years serving in the Pacific, where he spent time in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Though he participated in numerous battles, he focused on documenting the small slices of beauty and good moments he experienced while overseas. Browning documented the feelings and perspectives of fellow Soldiers, the customs and traditions of people and cultures he encountered, and described the beauty, or lack of it, he saw on the battlefield. On Feb. 1, 1945, Browning wrote:
“On January 29, we did not wait until 8:30 a.m. for the landing. Long before dawn our boats were lowered from the big ships, and there was hustle and bustle around the convoy. Only the earth and sky and sea remained calm. The water was still. The Southern Cross hung like a glittering jewel above the dark shapes of the mountains as we strained our eyes and wondered what was awaiting on the dark shoreline.”
Though he described an incredibly tense moment for the Soldiers, he contextualized it with their surroundings and the hidden beauty that could be found within these moments.
After the war, he returned to the southwest and his life as a full-time artist. Browning produced notable works and gained great renown as a painter of southwestern landscapes and Native American imagery. He became a member of the Taos Society of Artists and spent several years teaching young artists how to capture the beauty of the southwest. Browning lived the rest of his life in New Mexico, and his works became prized possessions for collectors of southwestern art. However, before his death, few people knew of the journal he had kept during the war until a chance meeting with Oleta Stewart Toliver. Toliver was a researcher and collector of Native American artifacts who wrote several books about Native American life in the southwest. She met Gaitha, the name Browning used as an artist, in 1991 when working on a series about the southwest during World War II. Browning and Toliver were excited about the opportunity to publish his work and give insight into his experience as a Soldier and life as an artist. Unfortunately, Browning died from heart failure on Nov. 10, 1992 before the book could be published. In 1994, Toliver finally published “An Artist at War: The Journal of John Gaitha Browning.”. It took almost 50 years for Browning’s unique views and commentary on World War II to reach the public. Today, his journal provides important insight into the beauty, hardships, and experiences of Soldiers in the Pacific Theater.
“Gaitha Browning.” askART. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.askart.com/artist/Gaitha_Browning/114565/Gaitha_Browning.aspx
“Gaitha Browning Occupies Old Sharp Studio.” Taos News, September 1, 1960. https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=2730315&fcfToken=eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJmcmVlLXZpZXctaWQiOjEwMTM4NDIzLCJpYXQiOjE2MjUwNTg0MjcsImV4cCI6MTYyNTE0NDgyN30.mvEJmGs6TfjnEeXyvxRU0LaFXCjwudybWTM8SP2VbOg.
Heavey, William F. “’Down Ramp’: Story of the Army Amphibian Engineers in World War II.” Military Engineer 38, no. 247 (1946): 196-202. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44559796.
“John Gaitha Browning, 1912-1992.” Brown County Historical Society. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://browncountyhistory.org/browningM.html.
Toliver, Oleta Stewart, ed. An Artist at War: The Journal of John Gaitha Browning. Denton: University North Texas University Press, 1994. https://books.google.com/books?id=PCBBi19Q6dcC&pg=PA5&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=true.
Other examples of Army Art and Diaries
“Antietam: Letters and Diaries of Soldiers and Civilians.” National Parks Service. Last modified February 15, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/anti/learn/education/classrooms/antietam-letters-and-diaries-of-soldiers-and-civilians.htm.
“The Art of Soldiering.” National Museum of the United States Army. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.thenmusa.org/exhibit/special-exhibition-gallery/.
“Artwork and Photography.” Center of Military History. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://history.army.mil/artphoto.html.
Forgey, Sarah G., ed. In the Line of Duty: Army Art 1965-2014. Center of Military History: Washington D.C., 2015. https://history.army.mil/html/books/070/70-123/cmhPub_70-123.pdf.
“From the Home Front and the Front Lines: Diaries, Bound Collections, and Albums.” Library of Congress. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/homefront/diaries.html.