This Month in History – A soldier/artist sketches a famous dancer

On September 12, 1944, Wilmington-born artist Henry MacMillan sketched this drawing of well-known dancer Fred Astaire entertaining U.S. troops in Tongres, Belgium. Astaire was on tour with popular singer Bing Crosby for the United Service Organizations for National Defense (USO).  The USO was created in 1941 to provide entertainment and recreational services for members of the armed services. It still provides that service today.

Fred Astaire was one of the most famous dancers and movies stars of his day. He appeared in 30 movie musicals between 1933 and 1957, often with Ginger Rogers. As a part of the USO camp performers, he first entertained troops in the War in the States at military bases. And then in August 1944, he traveled to London and on to France with Bing Crosby. They performed in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. While in Europe, they raced after the army, which was, according to Astaire, “….traveling so fast we couldn’t catch up to them at first.”

Wilmington-born Henry J. MacMillan had been overseas a lot longer than Fred Astaire.  MacMillan was drafted into the Army on July, 31, 1942.  In December 1942, MacMillan was assigned to the 62nd Engineer Topographic Company already at work in North Africa. In mid-July 1943, he and the company moved to Sicily to prepare for the American invasion of Italy. From there, they sailed to England in November 1943 to join the Allied preparations for invading Europe. In Europe, the company was assigned to the U.S. Army XIX Corps. After the D-Day invasion, MacMillan created color paintings of the French hedgerows to help the military understand the French terrain.  MacMillan was then sent on special assignment to the Corps of Engineers Office to produce color terrain studies for strategic and tactical uses. He followed the XIX Corps as it fought its way through France, Belgium, Holland, and on into Germany, and painted many war-torn scenes.

MacMillan’s sketch of Fred Astaire was one of a series of drawings he produced in Belgium. View others in this series here.

Previous Columns

August: Urban Renewal Takes Off
Launching Concrete River Vessel No. 5
Wilmington Meets Los Angeles
Bellamy Sails to France
World TB Day
February: David Walker is Honored with a Marker
January 2017:
Two Brothers Honored on One Memorial Stone
Holiday Gifts
A nurse comes home from war
Wartime football takes the bases by storm
Circus Day
Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

Fred Astaire dances for XIX Corps Headquarters, Tongres, Belgium
September 12, 1944
Gift of Henry J. MacMillan
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382