In 1941, Lea went to sea with the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Patrol. He returned to El Paso briefly, but was immediately sent to the USS Hornet, the carrier famous for holding the line for a month—alone—in the Solomon Islands, and for launching the Doolittle raid. Lea would spend a total of 66 days on the Hornet. “I’ll never forget how big the Hornet looked that bright August afternoon when I saw her for the first time,” wrote Lea in his 1942 Life story. “We went out to her, across Pearl Harbor, in a motor launch. Lieutenant Jim Bassett, who was taking us out to put us aboard, was in a fine humor as [writer] John Hersey and I craned our necks and looked up, up under her bow, and felt her spread out there and cover half the sky. ‘You’ll have a swell time, boys,’ Bassett said, ‘just a tidy little suicide mission.’”
On board the Hornet when a torpedo hit the carrier, Lea asked the boilerman about the unfamiliar sensation. “It weren’t no yellow cab!” the boilerman replied.
The Hornet came under attack at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands; the carrier sank on October 27, 1942. Lea had left the Hornet just one day earlier to file his story. The legend on this painting reads, “Mac brings a T-12 home again to the Hornet’s Nest, and she turns into the wind to land him.”