The Art of War

The paintings of Tom Lea, Life magazine’s artist-correspondent during World War II.


In 1944, Lea would accompany the 1st Marine Division on its campaign in the Palau group of the Carolines; the division would sustain more than 6,500 casualties. Of their September 15, 1944 landing on Peleliu Island, Lea wrote, “As a Life War Artist my purpose in going ashore was to record the United States Marines in combat. On the beach I found it impossible to do any sketching or writing; my work there consisted of trying to keep from getting killed and trying to memorize what I saw and felt under fire.” Lea produced ten paintings based on his experience. When they were shipped to Life for publication, managing editor Dan Longwell took a long look at the paintings, saying, “Print every damn one of them in color, and I never want to see them again.”

When Lea returned home, he continued to write for Life. With the publication of The Brave Bulls, in 1949, became a best-selling novelist. (The book was made into a movie starring Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn.) The Wonderful Country, which came out in 1952, was also made into a movie (starring Robert Mitchum). Lea’s wartime paintings were used as book covers and to illustrate magazine articles; one of his Western-themed paintings, The Hills of Mexico, provided the cover for Larry McMurtry’s 1997 novel Comanche Moon. And when President George W. Bush was in office, Lea’s Rio Grande hung in the Oval Office. Tom Lea died on January 29, 2001, at the age of 93.

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