Pictures from the Front: The Illustrated Covers of Jack Fogarty


By Matthew Capel, Department of Education and Visitor Services Intern

Stationed in forests, fields, and jungles around the world, soldiers during the Second World War (1939-1945) struggled to keep in touch with their friends and family on the home front. The United States government allocated considerable resources for military mail delivery, creating initiatives such as the V-Mail program, which used new microfilm equipment to drastically reduce the weight and bulk of mail. However, in a time before instantaneous communication technology, military mail service was often slow, and space restrictions cut down on how much could be said. In spite of this challenge, servicemen such as Jack Fogarty found creative ways to personalize their messages, inserting a familiar touch and illustrating their situation with a little more color.

An amateur artist before the war, Jack Fogarty served as a Corporal with the US Army 98th Evacuation Hospital. Jack quickly befriended Chief Warrant Officer John MacDonald, who served as the unit censor. While stationed in at the Desert Training Center in Yuma, Arizona, Jack met John’s wife, Mary, after he ran into the pair in the nearby town. The three became good friends, and Jack began to write to Mary after he and John were shipped overseas.

Image of paper envelope faded to a shade of tan and adorned with an illustration of a man in a lifejacket standing with his back to us gazing out at a sea of blue water. Typed recipient address and handwritten return address.
Watercolor self-portrait of Jack Fogarty on board a ship during one of his unit's many South Pacific voyages (undated).

The 98th Evacuation Hospital was deployed to the Pacific Theater in 1944, traveling to various islands around the South Pacific including New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. After their deployment, John MacDonald started a weekly bulletin for the small hospital workforce, recruiting Jack to provide illustrations using a mimeograph (an early form of copy machine that worked by forcing ink through a stencil to make an impression). Jack was still writing to Mary, back in Queens, NY, and was inspired by his work for the bulletin to begin illustrating covers to send to her. In philately, the study of postal stamps and history, the term “cover” refers to the outside of an addressed envelope or other packing materials.

These illustrations, done in watercolor, ink, and pencil, depicted scenes from wartime life— Jack and John in the field, and Mary on the home front. As Jack recounted years later:

“They illustrated what was happening at the time. They showed the places we were at, the fantasies we had. They were an outlet, and I had the talent to make them. And they meant so much to Mary, because they showed her husband’s life while they were separated, and she loved him so much.” (Bisceglio)

More than mere doodles, Jack’s covers quickly became a form of creative release, allowing him to record his experiences and add a personal touch to his correspondence. On the other side of the Pacific, Jack’s illustrations provided Mary with a window into her husband’s life, offering her the sort of vicarious experience that was difficult to convey through a concise military letter. John MacDonald added his own touch to the covers as well; as the unit censor, he was responsible for reading all outgoing mail — including Jack’s letters — and many of the illustrated covers bear his censor stamp and signature. In fact, one of the covers depicts John hard at work, illuminated by a hanging lantern as he completes paperwork on his typewriter.

Image of paper envelope faded to a shade of tan and adorned with an illustration of a man facing us seated at a desk appearing to use a typewriting. Typed recipient address and handwritten return address.
Watercolor portrait of John MacDonald at work in the 98th Evacuation Hospital, postmarked October 25, 1944.

Although all of the covers share a similar design (a hand-drawn illustration on the front of the envelope, usually incorporating the address into the scene in a witty manner), they cover a wide variety of topics, activities, and events. Some of the covers portray everyday scenes; for example, several depict Jack going about his daily routine — shaving, making tea, or swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Several involve Mary and John’s relationship, such as a tongue-in-cheek depiction of John as a strict taskmaster or Jack’s imaginary rendering of the couple’s postwar reunion. Others introduce questions of morality and faith with scenes of a Good Friday procession in the Philippines or Jack tending a makeshift altar set up for a visiting chaplain.

However, a considerable number of the covers reflect the progression of the war, referencing significant events and the unique experiences of an American serviceman stationed halfway across the world. One features an American soldier resting on a signpost labeled “Tokyo”, a reference to preparations for an invasion of Japan. Another illustrates a woman in traditional Japanese clothing and was drawn shortly after Jack’s hospital treated Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo for wounds inflicted during a failed suicide attempt in the aftermath of the Japanese surrender. One of the most moving illustrations, drawn on VJ Day (the effective end of the Second World War), depicts a golden cross floating above a calm bay — Jack’s response to the news of peace. Once the war had officially ended, it took a considerable amount of time to demobilize all of the soldiers serving overseas and send them home. Jack continued to write to Mary while waiting to be sent home, and this stress and frustration is reflected in a few of his illustrations.

Image of paper envelope faded to a shade of tan and adorned with an illustration of a yellow cross floating over a landscape with green grass, brown hills and blue sky. The cross is surrounded by pale yellow and appears to glow. Handwritten recipient address and return address.
Watercolor illustration celebrating V-J Day and the end of the war, postmarked August 16, 1945.

Mary kept many of Jack’s letters and illustrations, and decades after the war they were discovered by one of Mary’s four daughters, Meg MacDonald. Jack was deeply touched to learn that his letters had been kept:

“I was completely flabbergasted that Mary kept them. But I was flattered. It was a very warm feeling to know that Mary had kept them all these years. It’s strange reading the letters now, looking back on the past. It happened, and yet it’s incredible that it did happen.” (Bisceglio)

Meg donated thirty-three of Jack’s covers to the National Postal Museum, as well as eight of his letters; these samples of Jack’s work are exhibited online as part of the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab platform. To learn more about Jack Fogarty and his work, or to view some of his illustrated covers, visit the following links:



About the Author
Matthew Capel is an intern in the Department of Education and Visitor Services at the National Postal Museum. A lifetime postal enthusiast, Matthew has spent his internship with the museum designing Learning Lab collections on the history of both ZIP Codes and World War II-era V-Mail. Originally from western NY, Matthew is a history and government dual-major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, with an interest in pursuing an education-related career.