Mystery of Unknown 780th portrait solved
February 21, 2013
In the first issue of the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade newsletter, the BYTE, published June 2012, a challenge was issued to identify an original oil painting found in the brigade headquarters building.
The painting was a head-and-shoulders portrait of a Soldier with no identifiable marks of who he was. There was no accompanying plaque or any information other than the ribbons on his uniform that showed he was a WWII veteran and a Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient.
There were no clues to the artist; the only marking was his or her last name, Young, and a date, 1952. Nor were there any clues to why the painting was in the building where it was found.
Did the subject of the painting once live here or perhaps work here? The 1929 building was originally a 399-man barracks and a dining facility and then later used as a branch of the WWII Prisoner of War Information Bureau and served as a mail center where German POWs sorted mail for other POWs. The bureau handled personnel records and mail for all POWs in the US, more than 400,000 by the end of the war.
Questions were asked of other units occupying the building complex, such as the 902nd MI Group and the 310th MI Battalion. Inquiries were made at the Fort George G. Meade museum, but no luck in identification.
No one could correctly answer the challenge that was proposed last summer -- until now.
Mike Bigelow, command historian, Intelligence and Security Command, asked for a copy of the 780th MI Brigade's newsletter for their historical records (since the 780th is a subordinate unit of INSCOM). Upon receiving the issue and flipping through the pages, he noticed the portrait and recognized it to be that of a painting that had been lost for years.
Bigelow identified the portrait to be of Master Sgt. John R. Wilson, who during the Korean War was a member of the 25th Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) Detachment, 27th Infantry ("The Wolfhounds"), 25th Infantry Division.
According to the book In the Shadow of the Sphinx, a History of Army Counterintelligence, "Wilson was among the CIC cadre deployed in the early days of the war. A veteran of WWII in the Pacific, Wilson had risen to the rank of major; but following the Army's downsizing, had enlisted with the CIC."
When alerted early in the morning of Oct. 13, 1950, that the enemy was moving to capture the village of Pangso-ri, Wilson led a patrol of 30 Korean police and interpreters to surprise the enemy guerilla force before it reached the village. Taking with him four Koreans, Wilson, who was an "imposing figure at six feet, six inches," proceeded to dislodge the enemy who had made a stand in one of the houses.
In the subsequent fire fight, Wilson personally led a successful attack on the hostile position. Wilson was killed by a sniper, but his patrol eliminated the enemy force and his actions facilitated the capture of 21 of the enemy.
For his gallantry under fire, Wilson was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
On May 16, 1952, the CIC Center, Fort Holabird, Md., dedicated three buildings to honor three men of valor. The Hunter, Allen and Wilson Halls were dedicated to Sgt. Woodrow G. Hunter, killed on May 18, 1944, in the Insoemaar Islands; 1st Lt. Eldon L. Allen, killed in action in Germany during the airborne crossing of the Rhine, March 24, 1945; and Wilson.
Each building had a similar oil painting of whom their building was dedicated -- thus the Wilson portrait.
Of course, this doesn't answer the question of how the Wilson painting came to hang in the 780th MI Brigade headquarters building. Bigelow, who taught history at the Intelligence Center 22 years ago, has a theory.
"Since Allen Hall was an academic building, that painting and plaque got moved to Fort Huachuca [Arizona] when the schoolhouse moved there," said Bigelow, "but Wilson Hall was connected more with the operational side and moved from the CIC Center to its successor organizations."
Thus, Bigelow believes the paintings got separated when they stayed in their different channels.
"From the CIC Center, the Wilson painting went first to the U.S. Army Intelligence Command, then probably to the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency, which moved to Fort Meade in 1974," he said. "Two years later, USAINTA used the painting to memorialize its command suite after Wilson."
"And after USAINTA merged with INSCOM in 1977, the 902nd MI Group took over the building and presumably the painting," Bigelow concluded.
The 902nd MI Group once occupied the building complex where the 780th MI Brigade is now headquartered and where the portrait was left.
"Apparently the Intelligence Center has been looking for the Wilson painting for years," Bigelow added. "And we found it!"
Currently, the painting of Allen is the property of the MI Museum. Wilson was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1990, and Wilson Barracks (building 62718) was approved at Fort Huachuca on April 6, 1992.
On Feb. 1, Bigelow took custody of Wilson's portrait from the 780th MI Brigade and will ensure that it joins its partner, the Allen portrait.
With two of the three paintings accounted for, Bigelow is now in search of the Hunter painting -- but, that's another story.