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Sketches of battlefield scenes keep alive a Franklinville veteran’s enduring legacy

Norman Maffei, 1923 – 2015

Hometown and residence: Franklinville

Branch: Army

Rank: Private first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honor: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

Specialty: Artillery gunner

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

The Army was so impressed with Norman Maffei’s intelligence that he was sent to officer training school, but that did not agree with him.

He had, after all, quit high school in Franklinville to escape the classroom and perform his patriotic duty in World War II.

“One day, he stood up in the officer class, threw his hand up in the air and declared, ‘I don’t want to be an officer. I want to be a soldier and go fight,’ ” his daughter, Susanne Maffei, recalls.

The Army obliged.

Maffei was assigned to the 158th Field Artillery Battalion, 45th Infantry Division, and fought in North Africa, Sicily and then the Italian mainland.

He loaded and reloaded the artillery guns with shells that rocketed through the air toward the enemy. But Maffei had a much more potent weapon at his disposal – the ability to sketch battlefield scenes as they unfolded. And though he died last year at the age of 91, his art lives on.

The public will have the opportunity to view his wartime sketches Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at the Hamburg Historical Society, 5859 South Park Ave. Maffei’s sketches not only bring to life the struggles of war, but include his handwritten notes documenting what he witnessed.

Take for example a sketch of medics hurrying down an Italian hillside carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier, his helmet resting upside down between his legs. The ground is littered with remnants of ordnance, and, in the foreground, there is the stilled body of a German soldier lying facedown. In the top left corner of the sketch is Maffei’s note:

“Back towards Pozzilli. Medics and wounded man. From F.O. (forward operating) party. Nov. 20, 1943.”

Maffei also had an earthy sense of humor and sketched a long line of GIs waiting to be examined by a medic putting on a pair of rubber gloves with a lubricant at his side. The faces of the soldiers at the front of the line are filled with worry. Maffei titled the sketch “The Horrors of War.”

Other sketches detail a variety of battle scenes: American soldiers hiding from the enemy, jeeps transporting officers, and U.S. paratroopers jumping at night and sailing into friendly fire because ground troops thought they were the enemy.

“One of those paratroopers was Jack Decker, who was my dad’s friend from Franklinville,” Susanne Maffei says. “Whenever the two of them got together, Jack would kiddingly say, ‘You’re the SOB that was shooting at me.’ ”

Fortunately, Decker was not wounded, but the same couldn’t be said for her father.

“One time when the enemy was shooting, he was shot in the leg as he and his buddies dove in their foxhole. He was sent to a hospital over there and then returned to his unit. The wound would fester up, but he would not tell the officers because he did not want to be sent home,” she says. “We found a letter from the Army offering my father the Purple Heart, but he refused it. I think he probably felt he didn’t deserve it because he’d lived.”

After the war, Maffei returned to Franklinville and completed high school at Ten Broeck Academy. He went on to earn a degree from Albright Art School in Buffalo and in 1949 married Helen McElfresh. To support them and experience more of the world, Maffei joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and served until 1958. Whenever his ship docked in New York City, he hitchhiked home for visits.

“My mother was a very tolerant woman,” Susanne Maffei says. “My father went around the world twice as a merchant marine and would sketch scenes and take photographs.”

When Maffei returned to his hometown, he and Helen raised their daughter and a son, James, who died in 1995. Helen Maffei also died in 1995.

Maffei continued as an artist, painting at night often into the early morning hours.

“The neighbors would get so upset with him. He painted in a second-floor studio, and he’d have opera blaring and he’d be singing along loudly. Then when my brother and I got up in the morning, we’d have to be quiet because he had gone to bed at 5 a.m. and would sleep until noon,” his daughter says.

Maffei often sold his artwork, landscapes and ships, at the Allentown Art Festival and art shows up and down the East Coast.

To supplement his income, he sometimes worked as an electrician and carpenter at properties his wife purchased and would later rent or sell.

When his World War II sketches go on display this coming weekend, the hope is that they will attract a buyer.

“What I’m hoping is that someone, a sincere buyer, will buy the entire collection and continue my father’s legacy,” Susanne Maffei says. “It’s overwhelming, and I cannot do my dad justice by keeping it.”

She says she is certain that it would please her father to no end if his collection remained intact.

Offering a final insight into the heart of this artist, the daughter says that on his gravestone, Maffei had six Latin words from an ancient saying inscribed. Translated into English, they are: “Life is short, art is long.”