This story is from Texas Monthly’s archives. We have left it as it was originally published, without updating, to maintain a clear historical record. Some of the language in this archival story regarding matters such as race and gender may not meet contemporary standards.
In 1941 Tom Lea was already famous for his huge murals of American pioneer life. But as the United States prepared to enter World War II, the El Paso artist signed on as a war artist for Life magazine and turned his sights to more sobering subjects. He accompanied Allied forces to Iceland, North Africa, the Pacific, and China, witnessing the death and devastation firsthand. From his battlefield sketches, he painted dozens of finely detailed, carefully finished oils—the most extensive and authentic body of American art of World War II.
Lea’s war works, reproduced faithfully in Life, represented a distinct shift in style. Recalls Lea, now 87: “I didn’t paint with any idea of showing war with a capital W. I went as a reporter who wanted to record exactly what he saw, clearly and concisely, and to make up nothing. So the war paintings have more of an attitude than my other work, which is of a somewhat lyrical nature.” Lea included explanatory text for each final picture; those notes were reprinted extensively in the newsmagazine’s pages. He went on to write, as well as illustrate, several acclaimed books, including The King Ranch and The Brave Bulls.
Fiftieth-anniversary fever has renewed the nation’s interest in World War II, although the hoopla has centered largely on D-day and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Overshadowed are dozens of equally heroic military undertakings, such as the American assault on the tiny Pacific island of Peleliu, which Lea graphically chronicled. At dawn on September 15, 1944, he waded ashore with the men of the 1st Marine Division and witnessed the first 32 hours of a horrific ten-week clash. Lea remembers: “All I carried was a musette bag with a nine-by-twelve sketchbook, pencils, and a couple of fountain pens. I made a few sketches, but it was impossible to attempt any real drawings ashore. I wasn’t holding the pencil too steadily; I was too busy trying to keep alive.”
Lea’s depictions of the assault on Peleliu are the grimmest and, he says, “the most representative” of his war canvases. Some 1,200 Marines died before the Japanese fell, clearing the way for the Allies to invade the Philippines. One casualty is depicted in The Price, a gruesome portrait of a mortally injured Marine awash in blood. “Life got all sorts of letters from people complaining that it was too horrible to show to the children,” Lea says. “But that’s how I remember it. I was lying on the beach under heavy mortar fire, and there was the wounded Marine.” In confirmation of the accuracy of his memory, Lea heard last year from Bill Tapscott of Red Oak, near Waxahachie, who identified himself as the Marine who had lain next to Lea on the Peleliu beach, and who also recalled the dying Marine exactly as Lea had depicted him.
On these six pages is a scrapbook of Lea’s Peleliu experience, from his rough foxhole scribbles to his final, studio-polished canvases. Three of Lea’s paintings appear through September 5 in a tribute to war correspondents at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; more go on display sometime in September through the end of the year in a World War II retrospective at the United States Marine Corps Museum at the Washington Naval Yard in Washington, D.C. Half a century hasn’t diminished the power of Lea’s paint, nor his ability to convey, as he phrased it fifty years ago, “the continual stream of resignation, suffering, and death.”