WWII 388th Bomb Group Post – Radio Mechanic Cpl. Roland Downs Fixing a B-17 in Knettishall, England


My obsession with the 388th Bomb Group stems from a chance encounter with a collection of negatives and photographs taken by an artist attached to the 388th in Knettishall, England.  Followers of PortraitsofWar already know the story, so I won’t go into great detail, but anyone interested should search for Alva Alegre in the search bar.
Anyway, I recently purchased a small group of photos that providentially yielded a handful of identified photos of members of the 388th BG.  In my typical fashion, I’ve fleshed out historical details and hopefully will give Mr. Downs a proper place on the internet.

I found the following info penciled on the back of the photo: “Roland Downs, Cpl. Alabama”

ALABAMA Inked on Cap

Judging by the inked info on his upturned mechanics hat, I felt that this was a likely identification of Mr.Downs.  With this info in hand I visited the 388th Bomb Group website: http://www.388bg.info/


Darn!  They already had his photo, but at least I was able to learn that he was a radio mechanic, something obvious after inspecting what he’s doing in the photo.  My next stop brought me to ancestry.com, where I do most of my genealogical research on mystery photos.  From a little bit of searching I was able to discover that he was indeed born and raised in Alabama and born on July 8th, 1923 and passed away on April 19th, 1980.  He served in the Airforce (USAAF) from 1942 until 1971.


1940 Census Record

WWII 388th Bomb Group Portrait Artist – Alva V. Alegre – ORIGINAL Portrait Surfaces on eBay!

Ever since I first laid eyes upon the WWII portrait art of Alva V. Alegre, I knew that I had to track down an original piece of his work.  I tracked down his original photographic prints, his negatives, and even have spoken with people knew him.  I’ve followed him from his first arrival in the US in the 1930s, through England during WWII, to NYC in the 1950s and eventually to Troy, NY in the 1960s.  After years of waiting, I providentially stumbled across one of his portraits on eBay.  It’s all coming together…….
With the help of a group of dedicated historians with the 388th Bomb Group, we’ve (possibly) identified the Major as Frank Hess.

For more photos and images of Alva’s work, please search for “Alva” in my search bar.

Frank Hess











How do we know this is a piece of Alva’s work?  For disbelievers, check out this comparison of signatures from my negative collection and the signature on the recently acquired painting.  100%!


WWII 388th Bomb Group Artist – MAJOR Biographical Update


My quest to discover the mysterious background of a WWII artist started nearly two years ago with the acquisition of a grouping of photographs and negatives from a seemingly nameless soldier.  I soon was able to deduce his name – Alva Alegre, and began the incredibly interesting voyage of tracking down his true identity.  His photography is hauntingly personal, unveiling the often unseen side of war; the everyday life of the 388th Bomb Group.  The journey has introduced me to dozens of people with connections of “Al”, from 94 year old bomber pilots who fondly remember seeing his artwork behind the Officers Bar in England, to military engineers who knew him later in life.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours (really!) scanning his photographs and dozens more hours researching his life.

After contacting the U.S. Army Arsenal where Al worked in the 1960s, I was able to find a museum curator who has access to works created by Al in the late 1960s.  He also was able to track down an article written for the employee newspaper that highlights his life story.  Finally!  Please read and check out some of my related posts.  Just search for 388th in the search menu.  His photographic skills cannot be understated.

“Artist’s Life”

The Arsenal Arsenalite

July-August 1970

By Bob Grybos

If your business should take you to the Benet R&E Labs, make it your business to visit the Reception Area and view the Ilustations of Watervliet – designed weapons of action.  You’ll find they combine meticulous craftsmanship with artistic perception to the degree that makes these paintings far more than straightforward representations, and that the Arsenal is fortunate indeed to have the talent that produced them at its service.

That talent belongs to Al Alegre who has been our technical illustrator since 1963 when he arrived at Watervliet following a varied and colorful career that began when he left his native Phillipines at age of 17.  He came first, via Canada, to Chicago where he abandoned his original intention to enter the electrical engineering field, deciding instead on a career in art.  So, then it was off to Northwestern University where he acquired a bachelor of philosophy, majoring in art, then thence to the Artt Institute of Chicago.

After a year back home in the Phillipines he wended his way to California in 1939 and for the next two years worked as a portrait sketch artist in the Phillipiines Pavillion at the San Francisco Worlds Fair.  Here he produced more than 4,000 charcoal portrait sketches and between seasons attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles – where he also studied photography.

With the closing of the Fair, “the fastest brush in the West” entered the U.S. Army Air Force and assigned as an armament staff sergeant with the 8th Air Force {388th Bomb Group} in England.  During off-duty hours he continued to perfect his skills, burning out portraits of his fellow soldiers – including no less a GI than General Ira Eaker, boss of the 8th.

After the war Al returned to the Windy City for graduate studies at the University of Chicago and then moved on to New York City where he received his masters degree in art from Columia University in 1947.

Following his completion of a course in color photography Al opened his own art and photography establishment “Studio 74” at that number on 57th Street, which happened to be located next door to the voice instruction school of famed composer Gian Carlo-Menotti which, Al says, provided not only a pleasant musical accompaniment but also a wealth of models for the Alegre activity.

Exposure to commercial art led to an interest in air brush techniques and consequently to Alegre’s present career as a technical illustration.  Since embarking in the field he has worked for Polaroid Electronics in Long Island, Fairchild Aircraft in Maryland, EDO COpr, Long Island, and the Missile and Space Division of GE in Philadelphia.

It was while working for GE(on space re-entry vehicles) that Al was contacted by representatives  of our Personnel Office and soon afterward joined us for a relationship that has proved mutually profitable ever since.

Al’s artistic outpost, has not been restricted to his arsenal assignments.  His work in many media employing many techniques is well known to many Arsenalites.  A former charter member of the Artist’s Equity of New YOrk, and professor of a listing in “Who’s Who in American Arts” he’s now a member of the Arsenal Art Guild exhibits.  Another regular extra-curricular activity is the painting of portraits of Aresenal C.O.s which he presents to them upon their leaving Watervliet.

Apresently Al maintains a studio apartment in Troy and also a studio in PHiladelphia where, along with producing a variety of paintings, he is also working on a book on technical illstration.

His ambition for the future is to instruct.  And, by the results achieved by his students in the Art Guild class he recently conducted, future students are in store for a very rewarding experience.

388th Bomb Group – Visions of Wartime London – Summer 1944


Alva Alegre took every opportunity to shoot in and around London while on pass.  His images capture wartime London as seen in 1944, at a time when the Luftwaffe was still a real threat to the civilian population.  Please enjoy the view through Alva’s lens as he travels throughout the city of London!



Alva and Muse











The Royal Arcade



Close Up View of Sign