The visual arts played an important part in Duncan's life in New York. He was a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum, studying the works of his favorite artists, Rembrandt, Goya, and Daumier. Like those artists, Duncan had a penchant for the loose and lively line in his work, capturing a feeling of vitality and life in the drawings. He spent a great deal of time going around the city, drawing on the back of old check stubs in pen & ink, or on shirt cardboard from his favorite Chinese laundry in the Village, using pencil, charcoal, and litho crayon. Duncan loved the "sweet science" of boxing, and spent many a day in Lou Stillman's fabled Stillman's Gym in midtown.
When Constance Duncan passed away in 1942, Gregor's draft status changed immediately to 1A, where upon he reported to his draft board. Duncan was drafted into the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, in July 1942. He did his basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then worked in the office of Public Relations, spending time at Lowry Field in Colorado, Tarpon Springs, Florida, and Chanute Field in Illinois. His work consisted of drawings for manuals, public dissemination, cartoon illustrations for military publications, and his first humorous panel cartoons. While stationed at Lowry Field, Duncan was given the opportunity to do a portrait of General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff.
In the meantime, Janice Duncan had left Compton Advertising and was working for OWI, the Office of War Information and propaganda analysis. Knowing that her husband would most likely be sent overseas, the decision was made for Janice to join the American Red Cross, with the hope that she too would be deployed overseas. Surprisingly, it was Janice who was shipped out first. She left for North Africa in June 1943, and was eventually assigned to an Enlisted Men’s Club in Algiers.
Gregor Duncan was hoping to be transferred overseas himself, and was eventually assigned to the staff of the Mediterranean Stars and Stripes on December 14, 1943. He arrived in Naples, Italy, and became good friends with cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who drove Duncan around in a get-acquainted tour. As Mauldin later wrote in his book, The Brass Ring, “I was asked to escort Greg until he knew his way around.… He was an entertaining companion, with a cheerfulness and serenity about him, which I thought were mainly due to his huge artistic ability. I would take him for a visit of an hour or two with an artillery battery or an engineer platoon and he would fill whole notebooks with sketches in pen and chalk.… He was the only journalist I knew who had immediate rapport with soldiers.”
Duncan's work for Stars and Stripes showed off his strengths as an artist. He did everything from field studies and battle reenactments, to Vichy Government wartime trial drawings and comic strips. He continued contributing to PM from overseas, acting as a war correspondent; a visual Ernie Pyle, as he was referred to after his death. Duncan's drawings were filled with liveliness, capturing not only the dangers of war, but the vitality of life.
Duncan was able to see his wife briefly in Algiers, in December 1943, a union that was cheered by the many friends of the couple overseas. The get-together was brief, as Duncan had to get back to Naples. In late May 1944, when the American Red Cross Enlisted Man’s Club in Algiers was closing, Janice was assigned to Naples, where Mauldin brought Duncan to his wife in his specially assigned Willy Jeep. A week later, on May 29th, Gregor Duncan and Sgt. Jack Raymond were sent to Anzio, to gather material for a new series of drawings on the former beachhead. Illustrator Ed Vebell, Duncan’s Stars and Stripes boss in Naples, was supposed to go, but since Duncan was the new man and needed experience in the area, they switched assignments. While on the way to Anzio, the Jeep that Duncan and Raymond were driving was hit by an German 88 shell. Raymond survived, but Duncan was killed, due to shell fragment wounds.
At 34 years old, Gregor Duncan had lived an incredibly vibrant and productive life, and was one of the rising stars of the illustration world. Bill Mauldin might have summed up his loss best in the pages of The Brass Ring: “I've lost friends who were ordinary people and just wanted to live and raise a family and pay their taxes and cuss the politicians. I've also lost friends who had brilliant futures. Gregor Duncan, one of the finest and most promising artists I've ever known, was killed at Anzio while making sketches for Stars and Stripes. It's a pretty tough kick in the stomach when you realize what people like Greg could have done if they had lived. It's one of the costs of the war we don't often consider.”
© Rob Stolzer