A painter that I greatly admire is Tom Lea, a native Texan who lived all his life in El Paso. He
gained early fame in his life as a mural painter for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. His murals depicted Native Americans, Conquistadors, and sweeping landscapes of the Desert Southwest, and they can be found at state fairgrounds, on fieldhouses, in parks, on libraries, and on post offices in Chicago and throughout Texas.
My connection to Tom Lea began in my grandfather’s library at his house in San Antonio. As a youngster I would pull down thick illustrated volumes on the history of World War II. One double volume that always captured my attention was published by Time-Life. The narration was penned by Winston Churchill. It was there one day that I was struck with horror by a graphic painting of a U.S. Marine wounded while landing on Peleliu Island in the Pacific Theater. His left arm and the left side of his face have been torn by a Japanese shell, and bright red blood pours down his body, dripping from his fingertips as he stumbles forward. Each time I went to my grandparents’ house, I would quietly go into the library alone, open this volume and go immediately to this picture. If I were with a friend or younger cousin, I’d proudly show them this painting and try to measure their revulsion.
The rest of the volume had other, realistic paintings by Lea. Lea was commissioned by Life Magazine to travel in 1941-44 to Britain, North Africa, India, Burma, China, and the South Pacific (he was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet) where he witnessed the war first-hand and painted what he saw for readers back in America. His works are varied, and they are so realistic that they seem like color photos. Evidently, Lea suffered from PTSD for a while after he returned to El Paso.
Another Lea painting that caught my attention was one of a Marine on Peleliu called, “The Two Thousand Yard Stare.” Lea captured the moment a Marine had come back down from the bloody ridges on Peleliu, after weeks of constant fighting with bulging, bloodshot eyes. The painting haunts you. Of the Marine Lea wrote: “He was wounded in his first campaign. 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?”
One painting that perhaps best captures the utter despair on Peleliu is entitled, “Padre.” In this painting, a weary Marine Chaplain stands watch over a corpsman pulling the blanket over a dead Marine, while other corpsmen in the background tend to wounded men. Of this painting Lea wrote in a dispatch: “The padre stood by with two canteens and a bible...He looked very lonely, very close to God, as he bent over the shattered men so far from home.” In my novel Above the Water, I write about my protagonist’s encounter with this chaplain. They make a connection on Peleliu and re-encounter one another at a naval hospital in San Diego.
Lea’s war paintings are beautifully catalogued in a book appropriately entitled, The Two Thousand Yard Stare. When asked what his favorite painting of all was, Lea answered diplomatically, the portrait he painted of his wife Sarah. Tom Lea passed away twenty years ago this week in El Paso.
Photos: Life Magazine