Sketch, Death of the Wasp by Tom Lea, 1942

Texas artist Tom Lea becomes Accredited War Artist-Correspondent during World War II

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by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

El Paso native Tom Lea (1907–2001) is best remembered as a muralist, illustrator, and author whose works express the history and character of the Southwest.

Formally trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lea completed murals for post offices and other federal buildings, illustrated books, acted as an eyewitness artist war correspondent for LIFE magazine during World War II, and wrote numerous novels of his own.

During the summer of 1941, Lea received an invitation from the editorial staff of LIFE magazine asking him to create portraits of U.S. troops preparing for World War II. After stints at Fort Bliss in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he was promoted to Accredited War Artist-Correspondent. From 1942 to 1945, Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles to record U.S. and Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen in combat across the globe.

During the war, Lea traveled to the North Atlantic, the South Pacific, China, and Peleliu aboard the USS Hornet. On September 15, 1942, the USS Wasp was struck by three Japanese torpedoes. From the deck of the Hornet, Lea witnessed the sinking of the ship.

When I got into the open on the signal bridge we had turned south and there on our starboard beam five thousand yards away Wasp stood, afire. The breeze from southeast carried ugly coilings of flame-licked smoke over her stricken bow. She appeared to be nearly dead in the water. I stood there. There was nothing to do but look ... I found something for my own hands. I did have a stub pencil. I had a dog-eared fliers' chart of the Solomons [Islands] folded in my shirt pocket. On the back of the sweat-damp chart, with a shaky hand I made a sketch-diagram of Wasp dying, and wrote notations about the light and the color. As if I might forget. 

(Tom Lea, 1968)

Lea’s paintings of the war were published in eleven issues of LIFE and became some of the most recognized war paintings in the world.

Death of the Wasp and approximately 40 Tom Lea artifacts and artworks are part of a new exhibition, Tom Lea: Chronicler of 20th Century America, on view on the Museum's third floor until January 2016.

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Sketch, Death of the Wasp by Tom Lea, 1942 Artifact from El Paso, Texas
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