In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, I aim to examine a map or map series each month of 2020. It’s important to note these maps, and my analysis, provide only a very narrow window into the most destructive conflict in human history. The view provided by these maps is almost never representative of reality, and in a world where “history is written by the victors,” it’s important for us to consider the bias behind the images. Victory was not a result unique to the American experience during WWII, and yet often the maps produced indicate otherwise.
John Drury’s Mem-O-Maps
The partiality of John Drury’s Mem-O-Maps is a prime example. These five maps were produced in late 1945 and early 1946 to serve as a memento – part memorial, part souvenir – of the ordeal experienced by American servicemen and women. The colorful pictorials reflect the desire of soldiers to go on with their lives after the war and avoid images relating to the horror and brutality of conflict. Each map includes a blank legend where enlisted men could mark their name and organization, where they landed and departed, on what vessel (always “good ships”) and where they were stationed. These maps were a tool used to relive the experience of service, but in a manner that minimizes the harsh realities of war.
John G. Drury enlisted in the Army in Los Angeles in 1943. He worked in advertising prior to the war, which may explain his eye for the aesthetic. During his two years of service, Drury served in the 214th Ordnance Battalion in the Pacific Theater, including action at Okinawa near the end of the war. Aboard a troopship on his way home to California after V-J Day, Drury began sketching a map of Japan that included popular imagery from the experience of American troops. The map was an immediate success among the soldiers, and he sold more than 200 copies before returning to the U.S. The Mem-O-Map Company was founded in Drury’s garage that same year.
Drury published five maps through the Mem-O-Map Company: Oahu, Europe, the Philippines, Japan and Korea, and Okinawa. We’ll take a brief tour through each in the images below, and I invite you to explore the optimism, bias and relief expressed therein.
Drury’s map of Oahu is a great place to start. When referencing WWII, the island is synonymous with Pearl Harbor, and yet military installations are relegated to basic symbols; dots, squares and bars. Emphasis instead is provided on the natural and physical beauty of the island. Flora and fauna, grass-skirted natives and prominent landmarks are all colorfully illustrated. The gastronomic bounty of the island is also on display, and was likely a highlight of the troops stationed there. Coffee, sugar, fresh bananas and suckling pig were commodities largely unavailable elsewhere in the Pacific.
Next on our tour is the Mem-O-Map of Europe. Although this map covers the largest area of Drury’s productions, it has less impact than his other maps, possibly because of Drury’s ignorance of the European and North African theaters (remember he served in the Pacific). He certainly had input from others, since the perspective provided is that of a seasoned veteran.
The myriad of “Off-Limits” signs is emblematic of the rules and regulations that were often absent in the Pacific. “Kilroy isn’t here” can be found in Spain, a reference to the popular American symbol during the war and Spain’s dogged neutrality. Other illustrations are specific to the theater – the 40/8 cars that could carry 40 men or eight horses ferried much of the Allied force across France. The Burger Brau Keller was the site of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and subsequent assassination attempt, and La Roulotte was a sordid nightclub famously frequented by officers of the Wermacht and U.S. Armed Forces alike (though not at the same time).
Conflict in the arena is minimized or overlooked entirely – no tanks in North Africa, no mention of the Maginot Line, no bombed-out cities. The war has been almost entirely replaced by cultural or humorous iconography. However, a small flag in Bastogne pays homage to the desperate resistance of the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge – a poignant reminder that certain heroic efforts are always worth memorializing.
In the post-war world, the loss and subsequent recapture of the Philippines has evolved into an ongoing discussion regarding questions of American imperialism, strategic necessity and the efficacy of Douglas MacArthur. Drury largely omits these controversies, instead focusing on the experience of a typical American soldier.
Leyte Island, the location of a spectacular victory by the U.S. Navy, is depicted in the same fashion as Samar Island, the location of the Navy’s worst defeat in its history – entirely nondescript. The tragedy of the Bataan Death March is reduced to a small trail north of Manila, emblematic of Drury’s efforts to focus on other aspects of the war that may provide a more “palatable” memory. Such aspects include swarms of insects, strange animals, primitive native life and local commodities like cigars, straw hats, and sugar cane.
In his map of Korea and Japan, Drury sheds the Oriental prejudice and hatred of the Japanese shared by many of his fellow service members. The Pacific Theater was the site of some of the most brutal and dehumanizing fighting during the whole war, and it’s impressive that he was able to avoid much of the racist symbolism that was in widespread contemporary use.
Drury focuses instead on the cultural aspects of Japan that drew admiration from its occupying forces. Shrines, torii, Buddhist statues and paper lanterns are still associated with the religious and historical heritage of the islands today. “Cutting an honorable rug” alludes to the recreational side of occupation, where Americans and Japanese inhabitants could be found hand-in-hand. Rice and tea are also noted, reinforcing the idea that food and drink were always on the mind of the G.I.
This map is also strangely prescient – the bear presumably reflects Stalin and his opportunistic invasion of Manchukuo near the end of the war. The proximity of Soviet forces to Korea would evolve into another conflict less than five years after publication.
We’ll end our first reflection where Drury ended his war experience – on the island of Okinawa. He was more fortunate than many – more than 12,000 Americans made Okinawa their permanent home. By 1945, the island was almost completely destroyed and half of its original inhabitants were dead. Despite the near absolute destruction, Drury tries valiantly to “spin” this map in the same way as the others, although with arguably less success.
There is little optimism in this image. Racially tinged descriptions of the natives contrast sharply with Drury’s treatment of the Philippine inhabitants, reflecting on the vastly different nature of their relationships. Military installations are again reduced to basic red symbols, but tiny crosses allude to the sacrifice of the dead. The loss of one soldier in particular is commemorated. Ernie Pyle, known affectionately as “the Old Man” by the soldiers he wrote about, was killed by Japanese on Ie Shima island – the only individual death reflected upon by Drury.
Atypical of his other Mem-O-Maps, Drury also offers two subtle criticisms in his map of Okinawa. The Big Blow seen to the east reflected Typhoon Louise; a tropical storm that caught the Americans unprepared and resulted in significant loss of war material. North of the island, a tongue-in-cheek illustration shows the island’s proximity to Japan; “A stone’s throw from Tokyo.” Okinawa was considered strategically important, and thus worth the loss of American lives, because of its proximity to the Japanese home islands. However, bombers based in the Mariana Islands dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced Japan’s unconditional surrender and made the conquest of Okinawa largely irrelevant to ultimate victory in the Pacific.
By ending on these observations, I want to highlight the fallibility of all cartographers and all maps. John Drury was only very briefly a professional mapmaker. In fact, the Mem-O-Map Company did not provide an income that was enough to sustain his family, so in 1950 Drury moved to Albuquerque to start again in advertising. And yet, like all cartographers, his maps were drawn with deliberation and purpose. They are reflective of his personal experience, postwar motivations and economic opportunity. Drury’s maps tell stories, but despite his efforts to present the wartime experience in an optimistic and celebratory light, the dark curtain cast over the world by events during WWII could not be fully drawn.
Drury’s maps are priced individually on the website. Please send me an email or give me a call if you’re interested in purchasing the entire set at a reduced price of $750.
Barron, Rod. “The Mem-o-Maps of John G. Drury” Last modified Oct. 12, 2016. http://www.barronmaps.com/the-mem-o-maps-of-john-g-drury-1945-46/
Harmon, Katharine. You are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, (New Jersey, Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).
Hornsby, Stephen J. Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps, (Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 2017).Schulten, Susan. A History of America in 100 Maps, (Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 2018).