Friday, November 18, 2016

George C. "Bob" Bales (1920-2016)

George Carson Bales, nicknamed Bob, was born on April 5, 1920, in Terre Haute, Indiana. His parents were William F. Bales (1891-1960), a farmer, and Beatrice Myer Bales (1896-1977), a farmer's wife and a postmistress at the Dana, Indiana, post office for thirty-seven years. Bob had an older brother, Jack Truitt Bales (1918-2011), who was an aviator, engineer, and real estate developer. You can read more about him on the website Find A Grave, here.

In addition to their many accomplishments on their own, the Bales brothers had connections to fame and accomplishment through their family. They are descended from Mordecai Beall (1739-?), who served in a Maryland military unit during the Revolutionary War. (Beall's son William changed the spelling of the family name.) They are also descended from Thomas White, a member of the Boston Tea Party. Hoosiers will recognize Dana, where Beatrice Bales worked as postmistress, as the hometown of war correspondent and author Ernie Pyle (1900-1945). According to Pyle's biographer, Jack and Bob Bales are the step-grandsons of Pyle's Aunt Mary Bales. (1) It was from Pyle that Bob Bales received his first set of oil paints, a Christmas gift in 1931. Pyle visited his relative Jack Bales, who called him "Uncle Shag," in the South Pacific during World War II and wrote about eating fried chicken from Indiana, canned by Aunt Mary and sent halfway around the world.

The Bales family lived in Vermillion County, the skinniest county in Indiana, when the boys were young. Both Jack and Bob matriculated at the University of Illinois, Jack to study law and Bob to study art under visiting portraitist Robert Philipp (1895-1981). (2) Bob went on to study portraiture under Will Foster (1882-1953) in Los Angeles, and under Robert Brackman (1898-1980) in New York City. (3)

Bob Bales graduated from the University of Illinois in 1941 and went into the U.S. Army. During World War II, he flew C-46s in the European Theatre. He was also qualified as a pilot and observer on B-24s. (Jack Bales was also an aviator during the war and served in the South Pacific.) Separating in December 1945, Bob studied art in Los Angeles and went to work for the Walt Disney studios on the strength of just one drawing he carried to his job interview. He worked as an illustrator on Song of the South (1946), the Little Toot and Pecos Bill segments of Melody Time (1948), and The Wind in the Willows (1949).

Bob returned to active duty in 1947 and served as a pilot in the southeast and east Asia region, deploying to the Philippines in 1950 with the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing. In July 1950, at the start of the Korean War, he volunteered to go to the peninsula, where he helped establish a forward airfield, only to tear it down again as North Korean and Chinese forces advanced on the position. He was the only professional artist on the peninsula during that first hard winter. Using Jeep gas as paint thinner, he executed eight rapid-fire canvases, reducing his brushes to mere nubs in the process. Bob's Korean paintings were later part of a group of canvases he donated to the U.S. Air Force.

From 1952 to 1963, Bob was instrumental in the development of the U.S. Air Force art program, eventually serving as chief and retiring in 1963 as a lieutenant colonel. He joined the staff of Pepperdine University, earning a doctorate in business administration in 1971 and rising to the level of a vice-presidency within the university. He retired to Birmingham, Alabama, his wife's hometown, in 1980.

In addition to being an artist, aviator, and university administrator, Bob Bales is the author of Jet Aces of the Korean Conflict (1957), Ernie Pyle: A Hoosier Childhood (2002), and Ernie Pyle's Southwest (2003). After his death, his widow, Peggy Bales, remarked, "He lived life to the fullest like no one I ever knew." Among the other accomplishments of his long life and career: Eagle Scout, varsity wrestler, horseshoe pitcher, member of the Society of Illustrators, skin diver, and hunter. Bob Bales died on December 13, 2016, at age ninety-six.

(1) See The Story of Ernie Pyle by Lee G. Miller (New York: The Viking Press, 1950), p. 394.
(2) Born Moses Solomon Philipp, the artist was known as Robert in his youth. He later changed his name legally. George Carson Bales--with no Robert in sight--is nicknamed Bob. Could he have followed the example of his famous teacher?
(3) Philipp and Brackman both painted portraits of movie stars. I wonder if those connections helped Bob Bales break into moviemaking as an artist at the Walt Disney studios.

"USAF Friends Near K-9, Korea" by George C. Bales. K-9 was near the coast in far southern South Korea. I was stationed in the central part of the peninsula, south of Seoul, more than forty years later. Despite the passage of those four decades and more, I can say that this doesn't look very much different from the place where I served.

Revised and updated on December 6, 2019.
Text and captions copyright 2016, 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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