Much as once a week I like to take time off to cover warships (Wednesdays), on Sunday, I like to cover military art and the painters, illustrators, sculptors, and the like that produced them. As always, remember to click to embiggen.
Combat Gallery Sunday: The Martial Art of Tom Lea
With this edition coming on Memorial Day weekend, I felt it best to highlight one of the most somber artists to ever cover a military subject. Further, this incredibly skilled painter did so not from photographs or through dry research, but from his own first-hand experience garnered at sea both frozen and aflame and on the bloody sand.
Thomas Calloway “Tom” Lea, III was born in El Paso, Texas on 11 July 1907. Growing up in that rough and tumble border town during the era of Poncho Villa, he had to have an armed escort to school over remarks his father, the mayor, made during that time. Leaving home in the 1920s, Lea studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and under noted muralists (remember this later).
In the 1930s, he got his first steady work as a WPA artist, painting murals in federal buildings across the state as well as in such far off places as Washington D.C., New Mexico, Illinois, and Missouri.
Mural on North Wall, West Texas Room, 1936. Oil on canvas, 7 X 13 feet. Hall of State, Dallas
In 1941, LIFE Magazine asked him to sketch troopers of the El Paso-based 8th Cavalry Regiment (1CAV DIV), which he did and in turn evolved into other requests to supply images of aviators and cannoncockers at nearby bases.
Corporal Butler, 8th Cavalry and his mount, 1941, by Tom Lea. It shows the striker of Maj. Gen. Innis P. Swift‘s aide, who was a friend of Lea’s family. Swift later went on to command I Corps in the Pacific. A colorful character who rode with Pershing chasing Villa in 1916, Swift ordered the depicted horse soldier to ride from Fort Bliss direct to Lea’s house so that he could be sketched while standing dismounted in his studio. Image via the Lea Institute.
By the fall, he was afloat on a U.S. Navy destroyer bobbing along the Atlantic Ocean on the very active Neutrality Patrol in which the man from West Texas saw the world from the heaving decks of Uncle’s tincans.
A Time and a Place, Argentina Bay, Newfoundland, 1941. This ship, the tender USS Prairie (AD-15) with three destroyers moored with her, was his first view of the fleet. Published in LIFE in May 1942, he captioned it “Like a fierce mother with three children sits the big supply ship, blinking a message to the newcomers with her high starboard light …” Oil on canvas, 25 x 40 Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia
Tossing the cans, by Tom Lea, depicting the firing of a Y gun depth charge thrower
Next, he shipped out on one of the “original 8” carriers of the U.S. Navy, USS Hornet (CV-8) for a 66-day run across the Pacific. There, in fierce service off Guadalcanal in late summer 1942, he spent more than two months on a front line carrier in the thick of the war and sketched as he found.
USS Hornet by Tom Lea
He observed the sinking of the Wasp on Sept. 15, 1942.
Carrier ace Silver Somers, by Tom Lea
On 21 October, he left the Hornet, pulling away on a fleet oiler that would land him back at Pearl Harbor. The cleared sketches would appear in LIFE in March and April 1943, sadly, after the carrier had been sunk. You see, the ship in which Lea had spent those hectic two months was sent to the bottom, sunk in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942– just five days after he left.
As told by Lex
Back at Pearl Harbor, Lea showed Admiral Nimitz some of his drawings. One of them was the one above. Underneath the drawing, he inscribed a quotation from Deuteronomy: “Moreover the Lord thy God shall send the hornet among them, until they that are left, and hide themselves from thee, be destroyed.”
Admiral Nimitz looked at the drawing for a long time, then turned his head to Lea, and said: “Something has happened to the Hornet.”
That was how Lea found out that the aircraft carrier he had been on, together with his friends, perished.
This he immortalized in a painting ran by LIFE of how he pictured the ship going out– fighting.
“An aircraft carrier is by her very nature a very peculiar warship, for she belongs not wholly to the sea nor sufficiently to the sky.” “Without heavy deck guns or stout armor, she is physically the most vulnerable of warships, carrying within her the seeds of her own destruction. Whenever she goes to sea she is loaded with bombs, shells and high-octane gasoline, all concealed behind her thin steel plates. ”
“Such a ship was the Hornet. She feared bombs, but also know that probably only torpedoes would sink her.”
“There is no way to describe how terrible a torpedo seems as it heads for a carrier. It leaves a strange wake, a rather thin, white, bubbly line like fluid ice, cold as the death is presages. Against the ship’s side, it explodes with an appalling concussion and a wild flash of pink flame. Within the ship, there is a terrible wrenching. Decks and bulkheads are twisted like tissue paper, and all things not secured by iron bolts are smashed.”
“The Hornet died under a moonlit sky on a shining tropical sea. She had been hit by two waves of Jap planes, the first in the morning, the second in the afternoon… Then came the last order: ‘Abandon ship.’ The men went over the side on knotted lines, down to life rafts, to floating debris, or simply to the water.”
“Behind them their ship died a smoking death.”
“The great carrier was not alone. She had destroyers and cruisers with her, and they aided in the work of hauling the Hornet’s crew from the sea. In a few hours, it was all over. Those whose fate it was to live were alive, and those who had to die were dead.”
“A tropical sunset colored the hulk of the carrier and the stars came out faintly. After dark she went down.”
-LIFE Magazine, “HORNET’S LAST DAY: Tom Lea paints death of a great carrier”
Next, fate found him landing with the 7th Marines at the green hell that was Peleliu. The 11 paintings he produced from that front line horror are some of the most haunting military art of all time and should be viewed by any politician who claims there is no alternative to starting a war.
“GOING IN – FIRST WAVE” “For an hour we plowed toward the beach, the sun above us coming down through the overcast like a silver burning ball….Over the gunwale of the craft abreast of us I saw a Marine, his face painted for the jungle, his eyes set for the beach, his mouth set for murder, his big hands quiet now in the last moments before the tough tendons drew up to kill.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“2000 YARD STARE” “Down from Bloody Ridge Too Late. He’s Finished – Washed Up – Gone”
“As we passed sick bay, still in the shell hole, it was crowded with wounded, and somehow hushed in the evening light. I noticed a tattered Marine standing quietly by a corpsman, staring stiffly at nothing. His mind had crumbled in battle, his jaw hung, and his eyes were like two black empty holes in his head. Down by the beach again, we walked silently as we passed the long line of dead Marines under the tarpaulins. He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“THE BLOCKHOUSE” “There were dead Japs on the ground were they had been hit. We walked carefully up the side of this trail littered with Jap pushcarts, smashed ammunition boxes, rusty wire, old clothes, and tattered gear. Booby traps kept us from handling any of it. Looking up at the head of the trail, I could see the big Jap blockhouse that commanded the height. The thing was now a great, jagged lump of concrete, smoking.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The Peleliu Invasion by Tom Lea
“THIS IS SAD SACK CALLING CHARLIE BLUE” “We found the battalion commander [Lt Col Edward H. Hurst, CO, 3/7]. By him sat his radioman, trying to make contact with company commands. There was an infinitely tired and plaintive patience in the radioman’s voice as he called code names, repeating time and time again, ‘This is Sad Sack calling Charlie Blue. This is Sad Sack calling Charlie Blue.’ “Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“SUNDOWN AT PELELIU” “Sick Bay in a Shellhole. The Padre Read, ‘I am the resurrection and the Light’ “The padre stood by with two canteens and a Bible, helping. He was deeply moved by the patient suffering and death. He looked very lonely, very close to God, as he bent over the shattered men so far from home. Corpsmen put a poncho, a shirt, a rag, anything handy, over the grey faces of the dead and carried them to a line on the beach to await the digging of graves.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“COUNTER-ATTACK” “I do not know what time it was when the counterattack came. I heard, in pauses between bursts of fire, the high-pitched; screaming yells of the Japs as they charged, somewhere out ahead. The firing would grow to crescendo, drowning out the yells, then the sound would fall dying like the recession of a wave. Looking up, I saw the earth, the splintered trees, the men on their bellies all edged against the sky by the light of the star shells like moonlight from a moon dying of jaundice. The phone rang. A battalion CO reported the Jap’s infiltration and the beginning of the counter attack. He asked what reserves were available and was told there were none. Small arms fire ahead of us became a continuous rattle. Abruptly three star shells burst in the sky. As soon as they died floating down, others flared to take their place. Then the howitzers just behind us opened up, hurling their charges over our heads, shaking the ground with their blasts.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“THE PRICE” “Lying in terror looking longingly up the slope to better cover, I saw a wounded man near me, staggering in the direction of the LVTs. His face was half-bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in the stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patiences I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
“We saw a Jap running along an inner ring of the reef, from the stony eastern point of the peninsula below us. Our patrol cut down on him and shot very badly, for he did not fall until he had run 100 yards along the coral. Another Jap popped out running and the marines had sharpened their sites. The Jap ran less than 20 steps when a volley cut him in two and his disjointed body splattered into the surf.” Life Collection of Art WWII, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Base sketch for the above, from the UTSA Libraries Special Collections.
From the El Paso Times:
After taking his paintings to Life headquarters in New York, Tom heard what happened: The paintings were lined up so the managing editor Daniel Longwell could review them. Longwell entered, looked, and said: “Print every damn one of them in color, and I never want to see them again.”
It was also his last wartime assignment.
After the war he remained active and produced art for books and novels, while trying his hand as an author and historian.
Marrakech Tom Lea 1947
Muster at Bore 60 1973 tom lea
And There He Was by Tom Lea
Tom Lea following his last wartime tour as a LIFE artist correspondent – landing on the island of Peleliu with the 1st battalion 7th Marines. On the easel is The Price, 1944.
Much as he was born in El Paso and lived most of his life there, he also passed away there in 2001 at age 93. He is buried in the city next to his wife, whose portrait reportedly took him the longest of all paintings to complete.
Today, his trail of murals are celebrated across the Lone Star State while the Tom Lea Institute is located in El Paso which produces the annual Tom Lea Month celebration in the city.
His work is on public display a numerous U.S. Army museums and bases, the Smithsonian, the White House, as well as galleries and museums across the Southwest.
Thank you for your work, sir.