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“I reported in pictures what I saw with my own two eyes, wide open.”

It’s been said that if you look into an infantryman’s eyes you can tell how much war he has seen. Gaze into the eyes of the warriors portrayed by World War II combat artist Tom Lea and you know that his subjects have seen hell. 

Thomas Calloway Lea III (1907-2001) covered the war for Life magazine, a publication that prided itself on being a photographer’s journal. Yet the editors at Life knew Lea’s paintings captured something the camera lens could miss: his affinity for the men he covered, combined with a relentless pursuit of accuracy.

“I did not report hearsay; I did not imagine, or fake, or improvise; I did not cuddle up with personal emotion, moral notion, or political opinion about War with a capital W. I reported in pictures what I saw with my own two eyes, wide open,” Lea stated.

He was also a talented writer whose dispatches were frequently published alongside his artwork. Combined, his paintings and his words are among the most potent testimonials about the suffering of ordinary men to emerge from the war.

A native of El Paso, Texas, Lea studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, then traveled to Paris where he fell in love with the work of the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. During the Great Depression, he considered himself fortunate to paint murals for the federal Works Progress Administration that decorated U.S. Post Office buildings in Texas and a Treasury Department building in Washington, D.C.

Lea’s association with Life started in 1941 when he and six other artists were assigned to fan out across the nation and capture what the magazine called the “period of national defense.” The Pearl Harbor attacks were still months away, but the U.S. government had launched the first peacetime draft authorized by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940; Lea painted and sketched men of the prewar army who would eventually shape civilians into soldiers.

Lea’s work impressed Dan Longwell, Life’s managing editor, who asked if he would be interested in an assignment covering the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Patrol that protected supply ship convoys heading to Great Britain. By November 1941, the navy granted Lea full access to the fleet, allowing him to live and work among the sailors battling German U-boats during the so-called Neutrality Patrol. But his experience with neutrality was short-lived; Lea was aboard the destroyer tender USS Prairie when he and the sailors received word of the Pearl Harbor attacks. 

After the United States declared war on the Axis powers, Lea received additional Life assignments that made him one of the few American artists who covered multiple theaters of action. He sketched and painted life onboard the USS Hornet off Guadalcanal in 1942, Allied operations in China, and U.S. Marines assaulting Peleliu in 1944.

His penchant for sharing the same risks as fighting men meant he narrowly escaped death several times. “On the beach, I found it impossible to do any sketching or writing,” Lea wrote about his landing on Peleliu during the Marines’ assault. “My work there consisted of trying to keep from getting killed and trying to memorize what I saw and felt under fire.”

After the war, Lea’s portraits and murals graced university museum collections, the Oval Office, and the Smithsonian. He also wrote two novels that are regarded as classics of American literature of the Southwest. But as long as he worked, he kept in his Texas studio the same Marine Corps Ka-Bar knife he carried with him on Peleliu. Lea used it to sharpen his sketching pencils. ✯


THAT 2,000 YARD STARE (1944): Lea’s portrait of an unnamed Marine on Peleliu is one of the most compelling portrayals of combat-related psychological trauma captured by an artist. “He was wounded in his first campaign,” Lea wrote. “He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded…. How much can a human being endure?”

SICKBAY IN A SHELLHOLE (1944): Casualties at the Battle of Peleliu were grievous: more than 10,000 Marines—22 percent of the total U.S. force—were killed or wounded. Lea portrayed navy chaplain John J. Malone (opposite, top) at a makeshift aid station set up in a shell crater. “The padre stood by with two canteens and a bible, helping,” the artist wrote in a dispatch. “He looked very lonely, very close to God, as he bent over the shattered men so far from home.”

GOING IN (1944): The decision to battle the Japanese on Peleliu, an island of questionable military value, was controversial from the start. Some critics saw Lea’s painting of a bold Marine ready to hit the beach (opposite, bottom) as an exercise in jingoism. Lea bristled at the idea that he was simply a propagandist. “I wasn’t lying—it was what I saw,” the artist told an interviewer in 1994. “It’s a point of pride with me that I painted exactly what I saw during the war.”


THE TALKER IN THE WHEELHOUSE (1943): The haunted eyes of a sailor behind a bomb-scarred armor plate speak volumes about the stress and danger mariners faced on patrol. Lea spent a considerable amount of time sketching and painting shipboard life onboard U.S. Navy vessels, and considered the sailors, officers, and aviators he met as friends, often rendering portraits of them while at sea.

THE LAST LOOK (1943): Part of a series of 18 images chronicling the sinking of the USS Hornet, Lea depicted three rescued crewmen, one unable to look as the carrier slips below the horizon (opposite, bottom). The images were one of the rare instances when Lea portrayed something he did not personally witness; he instead relied on memories of his earlier time onboard the carrier and the stories of shipmates who survived the doomed ship’s final day.

THE PRICE (1944): At a time when war photographers’ combat photos were frequently censored because of graphic content, Lea’s paintings stood out because of their often gut-wrenching quality. Lea’s depiction of a Marine stumbling ashore after his body was shredded by mortar fire is one of the most powerful images of the war.


All images: U.S. Army Art Collection, U.S. Army Center of Military History, except where noted.

This article was published in the June 2020 issue of World War II.