During WWII, a soldier stole a painting from a France chateau. 74 years later, he returned it.
By STACY PARKER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 2, 2020
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — John Waller has lived a notable life in Virginia Beach. The architect designed City Hall, several school buildings and dozens of homes.
But now, deep in his golden years, Waller’s story centers around secrets, regrets and second chances.
The 96-year-old WWII veteran takes center stage in a new, one-hour documentary airing at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 on WHRO. “The Silent Soldier and the Portrait,” produced by Waller’s daughter, Garland, delves into two secrets he kept since his war days.
One involves a military tragedy. The other stems from how he came to possess a miniature French portrait.
The film follows the journey of Waller and his daughter to France in 2019 to retrace his steps as a young soldier.
The secrets unfolded three years ago when Garland was helping her father move from their family home to an Oceanfront condominium. She found the portrait, a watercolor on ivory, which she had never seen before, in a box of letters from the war.
“I wiped out a lot of my war years, but some things just didn’t go away,” Waller said.
Christmas Eve, 1944. Six months after D-Day.
Waller was 19 and assigned to the Army’s Black Panther Division. They were stationed near Poole, England, when they got orders to head to the Battle of the Bulge. He and his company came back late after partying too long in London and almost missed the ship, the SS Leopoldville.
Their punishment: They were assigned to kitchen patrol in the galley. It ended up saving their lives.
Around 9 p.m., as they traveled across the English Channel, and the young men sang Christmas carols, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. It struck the compartment where Waller’s company was supposed to be.
“The boat shook, and nobody knew what had happened when the torpedo hit,” Waller said. “It was just mass confusion.”
Hundreds of men were able to climb on a destroyer that came to rescue them, as the boat was sinking three miles off Cherbourg, France.
But Waller was among those ordered to stay back. When the ship’s boilers blew up, Waller and the remaining men jumped into the cold water. Waller was wearing a heavy overcoat and a life jacket.
He almost drowned but thought of his mother getting the news on Christmas.
“It would have been easy to die then,” he later wrote in a letter to his mother. “Every time I would try to open my mouth to breathe, a big wave would cover me up. It would have been easy to sink out of sight into the peace and quiet away from all the coming horrors of war.”
He prayed until he was rescued.
Of the 2,000 men on board the ship, 800 of them died that night.
The Army ordered the survivors to keep the tragedy a secret because it would destroy morale back home, Waller said. After the war ended, Waller described what happened in the letter to his mother, but he never mentioned it again.
“Nobody ever asked,” he said during an interview at his daughter’s home recently. “I never talked about it.”
A few months after the ship sank, in the spring of 1945, Waller’s platoon stood watch over German Army forces on a submarine base in France. They noticed a chateau about 200 yards away. Curious, they went inside, and found the Nazis had pillaged it. There were bullet holes in the ceiling and nearly nothing left except for a safe the size of a refrigerator, Waller said.
The American soldiers tied several hand grenades together and blew the safe’s door off, Waller said.
He walked away with a picture of the chateau, a pair of dueling pistols, which he later sold to buy an engagement ring, and the miniature portrait.
“I had a real leaning toward art,” he said.
For the rest of the war, he kept the stolen items in his backpack. When he returned home, he hid the portrait in his dresser for years.
Waller grew up on a farm outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. He studied architecture at the University of Virginia and moved to Virginia Beach in 1953. He founded the Waller, Todd, and Sadler architecture firm and designed numerous buildings around Hampton Roads.
When his daughter asked about the picture and the portrait three years ago, Waller, who was 93 at that time, spilled the beans. He told her about the way he had taken it from the chateau and that it was weighing on his conscience.
“I always had a guilty feeling about what I had done,” Waller said. “I wanted someday to take it back.”
Garland got the ball rolling — and the cameras.
Known as “Janie” when she grew up in Virginia Beach’s Bay Colony neighborhood, Garland is a TV producer and retired Boston University professor. Her husband, Barry Nolan, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and commentator, helped write and direct the documentary, which has gained acclaim at international film festivals. The film includes scenes of Virginia Beach’s North End.
With help from a translator and Garland’s graduate students, the Wallers tracked down the French chateau and its owners. In the film, Waller meets the son of a woman who lived in the home. As a boy, the son and his grandmother escaped from the home after the Nazis raided it.
Mark Lewis, conservator at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, estimated that the watercolor portrait was French and from the early 1800s based on the sitter’s style: an empire waist dress and curly hair. He then found the year, 1813, next to a tiny signature along the portrait’s edge.
The Waller family headed overseas last year with the BBC and Garland’s crew in tow. They visited the site where the SS Leopoldville sank off the French coast. Waller dropped a wreath into the water and went to the cemetery in Normandy where many of his comrades were buried.
After Normandy, they made their way through the French countryside.
“It really was strange ... going back there,” Waller said. “It did bring back a lot of memories.”
At the end of the documentary, Waller apologizes to the man who as a young boy lived in the chateau and returns the portrait. Together, they visit the home, which is now a rental property. It’s unclear who the woman in the portrait is, but Waller’s just glad she’s home.
“You want to make it good,” he said. "It was a relief.”
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