Portrait of a soldier

Dave Bakke

In 1945, Anthony Kohlrus was an Army infantryman in Italy. His outfit saw combat while attacking a hill. Anthony came under fire during the assault. Though he was not hit, he was understandably shook up.

After things calmed down, Anthony was sent rearward to an aid station for observation. Dog tired, he slumped with his head down, waiting for a medic to look at him.

He didn’t know it, but someone was looking at him already.

After getting himself together in the aid station, Kohlrus went back to the front without ever having been examined.

He survived the war and returned to Springfield, where he and his wife, Peg, raised a family on North 22nd Street. Anthony started Tony’s Electric Service. He died in the fall of 1990.

His sons still operate the business, still called Tony’s Electric, on Griffiths Street.

That is where Anthony’s story might have ended. But technology, Internet search engines in particular, added a particularly interesting chapter to his story.

Six years ago, Tom Kohlrus’s daughter, Christine, was a student at Ursuline Academy. She was messing around with a search engine one day and, as many of us have, entered her last name to see what came up.

Among the entries was a beautiful pen-and-ink drawing of a soldier, sitting somewhere, his head down, looking drained. At the bottom of the drawing were written these words: “Pfc. Anthony J. Kohlrus 133rd Inf. Regt.”

She brought the information home. Her father, Tom Kohlrus, is Anthony’s son. Tom lives in Anthony’s old house and has a lot of his father’s war memorabilia. They checked to see if Anthony could have been in the 133rd. He was.

Could he possibly be the soldier in the picture?

The artist’s name was on the drawing. His name is Edward Reep.

During World War II, the government assigned 42 artists to accompany American troops in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific theaters of operation. One of those artists was Edward Reep.

Reep, a second lieutenant at the time, was with the Fifth Army Historical Section. He served extensively in the North African and Italian campaigns from 1943 to 1945.

That is how he came to be at that aid station in Italy about the time Anthony walked in and sat down. Anthony must have looked so exhausted and forlorn that he caught Reep’s attention.

Reep started sketching what he saw.

This was all discovered after Christine found that drawing on the Internet.

Anthony Kohlrus died never knowing about the drawing of himself, a drawing that is kept in a national museum and has appeared in at least two books.

“He would have been pretty hard to live with had he known,” Tom says.

Reep may have gotten Anthony’s name from the medical team. If he asked Kohlrus for his name, Anthony must have been too tired and rattled to realize what was going on. That’s why he never knew about the drawing.

After they learned about it, Tom Kohlrus searched for artist Ed Reep on the Internet. Tom found him, still alive, and telephoned him at his home in California to learn more about that drawing.

“I was really excited about all this,” Tom says. “He told me that his drawing of my father was also used as the dust cover for a book on Korean War prisoners of war called ‘In Enemy Hands.’ So I tracked that down and got a copy of it, too.

“The original drawing is in a museum in Washington, D.C. My brother, Anthony J. Kohlrus Jr., lives outside of Washington. He went to the museum and saw it.”

The drawing is also used in Reep’s own book, called “A Combat Artist in World War II.”

George Biddle was the first chairman of the War Department Advisory Committee. In 1943, he gave the wartime artists their mission. In part, he said:

“You are not sent out merely as news gatherers. You have been selected as outstanding American artists who will record the war in all its phases and its impact on you as artists and as human beings.

“ ... Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel it is part of war; battle scenes and the front line; battle landscapes; the wounded; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops ... “

Including, as it turned out, one dog-tired soldier from Springfield, Ill.

Everybody has a story. The problem is that some of them are boring. If yours is not, contact Dave Bakke at 788-1541 or dave.bakke@sj-r.com. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.