While in a Pittsford shop years ago, I was drawn to a bright and peaceful painting of a boat at the docks. The artist’s signature was neat and legible, like a draftsman’s signature on a blueprint. I wasn’t familiar with the name, C.R. Sawdey, so I went home to do a bit of research and soon came upon an article in the Fairport-East Rochester Post from October 2009. It told the story of Charles Ray “Bud” Sawdey, of Fairport, who received the Insignia of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest award to a non-citizen, during a ceremony at Rochester City Hall.
I learned that Mr. Sawdey took part in the Normandy invasion and the liberation of France in 1944. I found that he and his wife, Marilyn, lived at Packett’s Glen, the former Fairport High School building on West Avenue. I couldn’t stop thinking about how interesting it would be to hear Mr. Sawdey’s firsthand recollections of his days in the military and the Normandy invasion.
In an odd coincidence, I happened to meet a woman who was a neighbor of the Sawdeys, and she set up a visit with them at their home in the majestic former high school. Tall and lean, with a quick smile, Mr. Sawdey was easy to talk to, but mostly I was there to listen. He recalled his years with the Fifth Engineers Special Brigade in vivid detail. I listened to Bud’s description of his experiences, from basic training in the desert of California to his unit’s first arrival in Scotland and landing on the beach at Normandy.
Charles R. Sawdey graduated from Geneva High School in 1939 and pursued his interest in art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. While in France in 1945, he attended Biarritz-American University. After the war, Mr. Sawdey continued his studies at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1949, then did postgraduate study at the New York-Phoenix School of Design in New York City. His education and training led to a successful career as a commercial artist.
Bud and Marilyn showed me many of their wonderful paintings, each with the signature that first caught my eye at the little shop in Pittsford. Although subjects included local landscapes, one painting stood out among the others. Bud painted it while lying on the ground at Omaha Beach, Normandy, just a month after the initial invasion in 1944. He hunkered down in front of a statue of a cross and began to paint. He used a type of crayon dipped in water for a watercolor effect. Just two colors, because that’s all he had in his pocket. Bud used his helmet to hold the water, and dipped his crayons into it. Suddenly an old German biplane, flying very low, appeared and was headed his way, and Bud thought he might not get the chance to finish the painting. But just as quickly, he saw that an American bomber was in hot pursuit and quickly forced the German plane to the ground. The painting of the cross at Omaha Beach is a tangible reminder of the artist’s service to his country.
After listening to his stories, I went back to the shop in Pittsford and bought the painting that started me on this unanticipated journey. It is a happy reminder of the artist, who so long ago served his country with dignity and pride. As we observe Memorial Day, my thoughts are with Charles Raymond “Bud” Sawdey and his family.
In a letter to his parents, published in the Geneva Times in 1944, Bud wrote, in part: “Much as I hate to be away from you all, I am glad I’m over here. If you could see and hear some of the things I have, you would understand fully. I’ve talked with women and children who have run from the streets during enemy machine-gunning. I have talked to civilians who during attacks have left the safety of air raid shelters to assist in rescue work. I walked by churches once as beautiful as Trinity or St. Stephen’s which are now only blackened walls and piles of rocks. In a town not far from camp are ruins caused by the blitzes in the early part of the war. The town is about the size of Geneva and if you can picture the entire business section of Geneva nothing but a heap of rocks, you know about what this town is like. Entire blocks leveled to the ground. Things like that and you understand why you are over here.”
Bill Poray is historian for the town of Perinton.