It was 1945, and the world was at war. Charles Hessemer was just 17 years old when he took a drive to Detroit, Michigan with a friend to enlist in the United States Navy. Hessemer’s older brother had already joined and was in Europe fighting. Hessemer gave a wry grin when he admitted that there may have been some fibbing in regard to his age. But he felt called to go. Hessemer had watched so many men that he knew die during that war. He wanted his chance to fight for his country — and those who lost their lives.
Hessemer could never have imagined that joining the Navy would change the course of his entire life. “You are born to do a particular thing and you will do it whether you want to, I firmly believe this. We are guided in what we do,” he shared.
Hessemer dreamed of getting stationed on an aircraft carrier. Everyone he went to boot camp with was being sent to San Diego, which meant action. He had visions of being on a dive bomber and sailing the high seas. As he watched his friends leaving, he was told to go down to the personnel office. Upon arrival, he was told that he had passed a second, more abstract test that all recruits were given. The test didn’t have any wrong answers, but his responses were deeply creative due to his way of thinking. It was those answers that would earmark him for “special” duty, something only five other graduating recruits were chosen for.
But the officer couldn’t tell him what it would be.
Hessemer decided to take it, feeling the pull towards something unique. Although he thought he would ship out soon after accepting the special assignment, he would end up waiting another five weeks. He found out later it was due to his last name – of German descent – which caused in-depth investigations.
For many years, Adolf Hitler’s number two man was Rudolf Hess. Hess would go on to edit Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, and become deputy leader of the Nazi party. Due to the closeness of Hessemer’s last name, the Navy wasn’t taking any chances.
The investigations would span all the way back to his time in grade school, but would finally come back with an approval. The six men selected for the special assignment were then put on a train and took a three day trip to Washington, D.C., still unaware of what they would be doing.
Hessemer and the others arrived in D.C. and reported to the temporary building the Navy was using as the brand-new Navy Department was being built. He shared the story of continually running into a heavily braided admiral in the hallways of that building. The second time Hessemer almost knocked him over, he remembers the admiral saying: “Young man, you and I seem to be having a problem.”
That man was Fleet Admiral Charles W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. From the moment he assumed command after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he brought the fight to the enemy and would eventually sign the Instrument of Surrender from Japan. As Hessemer walked away from him, his head was spinning.
Eventually the new building was ready. Hessemer remembers how heavily secured it was, as he had to show his identification three times before he made it into the office where he was assigned to work. The six men were brought to a room and told to pick a desk. He remembers looking around and seeing one by the window, so he chose that one. As he searched the drawers, he found the book that would change his life, “How to Draw the Figure.” Hessemer finally found out what his special assignment was at that desk. He was a secret code breaker.
Hessemer spent three years as a part of the communications annex, breaking codes, and he was sworn to secrecy for life. During this time, he read that book he found front to back and enrolled in art night classes. “That book was just waiting for me. I know it,” said Hessemer.
He began to win awards for his paintings. Hessemer eventually left D.C. after two years to work onboard the famous aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Randolph, anchored in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He left the Navy in 1948 with an honorable discharge and was accepted into the American Academy of Art in Chicago in 1950. Although passionate about painting, he felt like something was missing. By accident, he tried painting figures with a palette knife – something no one at the time was doing. From the moment he began, he knew he found what he was meant to do for the rest of his life. His favorite thing to say is that, “An artist’s life is a climb up an endless stairway which he must never stop climbing.”
Hessemer would go on to work as an art director for several successful art ad agencies while painting at night and on the weekends. He spent 10 years truly perfecting his palette knife work before he knew in his heart it was beyond good. It was breathtaking.
“Everything has its reason, it just comes to you and you say that’s it – and you do it,” he said. He believes every mistake you make is only a serious mistake if it makes you quit. When Hessemer was asked what he would tell today’s veterans as they leave the service, he implored them to find their passionate purpose and give it everything they have.
These days, Hessemer is retired from ad agency work and spends his days and nights painting alongside his furry rescue dog, Charlie. Hessemer is 92 years old and still living his purpose, every day.
Visit his website to see his incredible palette knife paintings.