They say that the Peleliu landing in September 1944 was pointless: “they” being military historians, armchair strategists, and buffs of every stripe. The operation cost thousands of lives, offered no real strategic benefit, and contributed nothing to the final victory. As a result, a lot of people think the American decision to invade Peleliu was one of the worst calls of the war. Count me among them.
I had to rethink that position recently, however, when I visited an exhibition of works by wartime artist Tom Lea. A talented guy from El Paso, Texas, Lea signed on with Life magazine during the war to paint far-flung battlefronts for a fascinated audience back home. And he was good! Whether depicting convoy battles in the North Atlantic or South Pacific carrier warfare, Lea could meticuolously render a scene. He painted a group of destroyers huddled around their tender in foggy Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, that look for all the world like cubs huddling around their momma bear. And his portrait of Claire Chennault captures this firm-jawed tough guy better than any photograph I’ve ever seen. I felt like snapping to and saluting it.
Tom Lea didn’t just paint, though. Unlike many of us who talk about Peleliu, he actually took part in the landing. Up until then, we can’t say that he had truly experienced combat. Oh, he had seen it, to be sure, but from a relatively safe distance. Even his most violent painting, depicting the tremendous explosion onboard the USS Wasp as it takes three Japanese torpedoes in the gut, was a long-range one.
On Peleliu, Lea closed that range with all the finality of a prison gate slamming shut. He felt the fear, heard the screams, and saw the different ways combat can shatter a man: physically by fire, or emotionally by the inhuman stress of the fight. Lea was pretty modest about his role. “My work [on Peleliu] consisted of trying to keep from getting killed,” he later wrote. His short stay on the island changed him, however, and resulted in two of the war’s most harrowing images.
That 2,000-Yard Stare is Lea’s iconic look at a Marine who has had enough: too much danger, too much surging adrenaline, and one too many synaptic jolts. The poor guy has checked out, perhaps for an hour or a day, perhaps for a lot longer than that. His eyes give him away; they are wide, out of phase, unfocused. Lea described them as “two black empty holes.” The Marine is here in the moment, but he is also a long way away. You want to reach into the painting and comfort him, tell him that he is going to be all right, but you know he won’t be listening. He is looking into some empty space where few of us would ever wish to go.
The second is an action shot. The Peleliu landing is in progress, and a Marine is hitting the beach. Lea paints the precise moment when the beach hits back. A Japanese mortar shell has wounded our hero. No—“wounded” doesn’t really do justice to what is happening here. It’s more like “shredded.” His left eye is gone, his arm looks like hamburger, he is leaching bright red blood all over the place. What struck Lea was the look of abject patience in the dying Marine’s eye, as if he had all the time in the world. Or as if time no longer mattered. He called this horrible creation The Price.
Peleliu was the place where Tom Lea, artist, gazed into the face of war. Peleliu was where he learned the truth, and where he showed America the price its sons were paying every day.
Was Peleliu pointless? I’m no longer sure. It might have been the most important battle of the war. ✯