Last year, the Arizona Final Salute Foundation asked University of Wyoming student Cassidy Newkirk to paint the sinking of the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Prints of the painting would help raise money to fly the six remaining survivors of the Arizona to Hawaii to be honored at the 75th anniversary ceremony. But as soon as she began the work, Newkirk said strange things started happening.
When Newkirk was commissioned she said she was given certain guidelines.
“The parameters I was given was to commemorate the ones fallen, the ones entombed, the ones who survived, the ship, and the future from the perspective of a sailor on the ship, after it had been hit and was sinking,” said Newkirk.
But historical photographs from the perspective of sailors on board don’t exist, so she created 3,000 of her own reference photos.
“There’s no image of what I was trying to get,” said Newkirk. “So, I had to create everything, but make sure it was historically accurate.”
First, Newkirk had her dad and boyfriend build a model of the Arizona, so she could cut it right down the middle and see the superstructure. She also got her hands on every book she could find about the ship, and sought out survivor stories. Then, she asked her long-time friend, Jake Berg, to model every man aboard the ship, including burn victims.
“I put Jake through a lot. I don’t think he understood when he signed up how much stuff I was going to put him through,” Newkirk said.
Their first photoshoot involved six different authentic World War II uniforms, and Jake Berg couldn’t believe the uniforms fit him.
“Because they didn’t look like they were going to fit,” said Berg. “He wasn’t a little bit shorter, or was smaller than I was, but they just seemed to fit the way they needed to.”
Newkirk was also surprised.
“I went and put music on and I turned around and Jake had them on and I was like, ‘how did you get those on?’ And he was like, ‘they kind of just got on me. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just do pictures.’ Cause weird stuff happened to us all the time,” said Newkirk.
Berg has very distinct features, but in the photos, Newkirk said those features would sometimes vanish.
“Every picture, it was Jake, but they didn’t look like Jake.”
The burn victim photos required special effects make-up, something Newkirk had never done before. She knew what raw meat looked like from her time as a ranch kid, but that was her only knowledge. So Newkirk found a simple recipe on the internet and on the day of the photo shoot, it took nine hours to get Berg into the special effects make-up.
“So I did full body—like, legs, arms, chest, back, face, head, everything. I was able to do it almost exactly like it would have been,” said Newkirk. “So obviously I wasn’t doing it, there was somebody helping me.”
The nine hours of make-up were followed by a five hour long photo shoot, and that’s when Newkirk said things got really weird.
“The energy in the room would be so intense that our studio lights would quit working. So they’d just start flickering, or they’d shut off,” Newkirk said. “Then you’d start smelling like smoke and burning oil and gasoline and ocean and then it’d just all go away and everything would be normal.”
Jake Berg said the experience caught him off guard.
“It most definitely raised the hair on the back of my neck that wasn’t covered in make-up,” said Berg.
And the painting itself came more easily to Newkirk than she expected.
“To go from one way of painting my whole life and then just automatically be able to do stuff I’ve never been able to do before was a trigger to me that I wasn’t the one doing it,” Newkirk said.
Newkirk said she knows people might not believe her.
“I think it must be hard if somebody tells you there’s spirits from the Arizona helping me with this,” Newkirk said.
But if you’re skeptical, Newkirk said you should just touch the painting.
“I don’t know if anybody else can feel this,” Newkirk said. “Certain people can, and I don’t know why. If you put your hands on it, it like vibrates almost, you can feel the energy.”
The painting will remain in Hawaii at the USS Arizona Memorial, where Newkirk said it belongs.