Col. Gerald Russell: Among those set in stone

September 11, 2004November 8, 2007 

A Los Angeles exhibit displays life-size clay busts of veterans, including Col. Gerald Russell, juxtaposed with wartime portraits.

On a summer day 59 years ago, Gerald Russell rode through hell in a jeep.

All around him lay the ruins of Nagasaki, destroyed by an atomic bomb not long before his Marine Corps battalion arrived to secure a nearby airfield. Russell, a major at the time, was one of the first Americans to enter the city following Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

"It was just absolute devastation for miles, with nothing left bigger than your fist," he said.

He had come to his last island in the Pacific Theater, after fighting in Guadalcanal's jungles and on the black sands of Iwo Jima.

Now, a Los Angeles sculpture exhibit pays tribute to the State College resident and 99 other World War II veterans.

"Face to Face," opening today at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall after a brief initial show last winter at a small Los Angeles college, displays 100 life-size clay busts of the veterans juxtaposed with wartime portraits.

The work of sculptors Claire Hanzakos, Kaija Keel and Jilda Schwartz, the exhibit also features biographies of the veterans and their recollections. A film by Steven Spielberg, honoring his father, who served in a bomber squa dron in Burma, will be shown.

Russell, a retired colonel, will be among the several veterans in attendance.

"It was such a great moment in the history of our country that if there is any way that we can perpetuate it for future generations, we should really capitalize on those opportunities," he said.

The exhibit will remain in the hall until year's end, but the artists hope for other shows across the country. Eventually, they would like to find a permanent home for the portraits, perhaps in the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.

"It's probably the most gratifying thing I've ever done," Hanzakos said from the West Los Angeles studio she shares with Keel and Schwartz. "It's been such a wonderful experience. Everybody we've done seems like family to us now."

They started with a love for sculpting portraits, especially of older faces. As a way of finding subjects, they decided to interview World War II veterans, said Hanzakos, whose husband was an Army doctor during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.

Initial contacts led to others, and the pool grew to include women and minorities. In time, the artists settled on an even 100 veterans, double their original goal.

Work lasted from February 2001 to July of last year. In groups of three, veterans recounted their experiences, then posed for three-hour sittings. Each artist, with the help of photos, spent an additional 25 to 30 hours applying finishing touches to the faces.

Not counting the expense of four tons of clay, the project has cost more than $60,000, Hanzakos said. Sales of posters and DVDs of the exhibit will benefit Arts Options Foundation, the nonprofit group formed by the artists to recoup costs and fund any subsequent shows.

"It's really a labor of love," Hanzakos said.

Russell said he was "flattered" at the invitation to participate.

"I think the concept is great, the idea of preservation," he said. "I think it's much to the credit of these three fine ladies to extend the effort. It's tremendous."

Russell's war began in earnest on Aug. 7, 1942, the start of the campaign to reclaim Guadalcanal from the Japanese.

He landed with the 11th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, a first lieutenant in an artillery battery. Eight months later, he left for Australia, but not before suffering a shrapnel wound and a bout of malaria so severe it eventually earned him a temporary ticket home.

In 1945, as a battalion executive officer in the 5th Marine Division, he hit the beach again in the savage invasion of Iwo Jima. Wounded in the face and being evacuated, he volunteered to stay and lead the battalion after its commander went down. Combat lasted 36 days for him.

"It was 24 hours a day, constant firing," he said.

Hanzakos said she and her colleagues, once they chose to pursue the exhibit, wasted no time in bringing veterans into the studio while they could still come.

"We're losing them at a great rate," she said.

Nobody knows this better than Russell. While at the exhibit's first show, he met an Army veteran from Minnesota, a "real fine gentleman," with his wife and son. There won't be a reunion.

"He was planning to come, and I just heard the other day he passed away," Russell said. "He was really looking forward to this."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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