Monday, November 16, 2009

WWII in HD and Artist Tom Lea

Last night millions of viewers tuned in to the first installment of the History Channel's much-heralded WWII in HD, a 10-hour documentary culled from "thousands of hours of lost and rare color archival footage."

Narrated by Emmy Award winner Gary Sinise and with soldier diaries read by Hollywood talent like Rob Lowe and Jason Ritter, the documentary ─ shot entirely in HD ─ will air for two hours each night through Thursday.

While WWII in HD promises footage most Americans have never seen, many are likely familiar with Life Magazine-commissioned artist Tom Lea's iconic paintings.

In 2008, Texas A&M University Press released an unprecedented collection of Lea's never-before-seen firsthand accounts of his assignments, powerful sketches and unforgettable paintings in The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea's World War II, edited and with introductions by retired Marine Corps Aviator Brendan M. Greeley.

An excerpt:

"My watch said 0340 when I woke up on the blacked-out weather deck below the bridge. Barefooted and in my skivvies, I got off my cot and stood by the rail rubbing grit from my eyes. Dead ahead, framed between the forward king-posts, there was flickering light on the black horizon. Sick yellow balls of fire flashed low in the clouds like heat lightning, but continuous. It was the Navy shelling Peleliu with the final punch before we landed. The black silhouette of a seaman on watch by the rail turned to me and said, "Them Japs are catching hell for breakfast."

Dawn came dim with low overcast. In the first gray light I saw the sea filled with an awe-inspiring company of strangers to our troop ships. Out to the horizon in every direction were lean men-of-war, fat transports, stubby landing craft, gathered around us like magic in the growing light. It was D-Day.

We ate our last meal together, dressed in baggy green dungarees, on the plank benches of the troop officers' mess. We washed the food down our dry throats with big mugs of coffee, and put all the oranges in our pockets. Getting up to go, Captain Farrell repeated his instructions for Martin (Robert "Pepper" Martin, Time Inc.) and me, the two correspondents, 'Be at Number Three Net, starboard side, at 0600.'

Growing dawn had brought the ship violently to life. Power winches rumbled, hoisting our landing craft over the side. The marines, after long captivity in their crowded holds, moved at last to their stations by the rail, battle gear buckled, the last oil in the gum, the last whet to the knife. I felt some almost palpable spirit walking, the emptying holds and passageways and along the crowded decks, with a word for every man.

Lea photographed flying cadet Bill Kelly in the cockpit of his trainer as the basis for his final painting. (Courtesy U.S. Army Center of Military History)

In the corner where I kept my gear I checked it carefully and finally. There was the belt with the two filled canteens, first-aid kit, and long black-bladed knife; and the pack with the poncho and shovel, the gloves, headset and K-ration, the waterproofed cigarettes and matches and candy bar─and my sketchbook and pencils and camera and films wrapped in the target balloon. All set. I checked my pockets for my watch and identification wrapped in rubbers-and my grizzly coin for luck.

Martin and I buckled our belts, slung our packs, and put on our helmets. Inching along throught he marines, we found Farrell and his men standing shoulder to shoulder with all their gear on the jam-packed main deck near the rail over Number Three Net. The main deck looked queer without the landing craft that had loomed overhead on the long convoy days, making shade for marine card games. Now these boats were down in the water ready for the loads.

'Free Boat Two,' bellowed the squawk box on the bridge, and Farrell said. 'That's us. Leg's go.'

Flying the Hump in the moonlight. (Courtesy U.S. Army Center of Military History)

We gave a hitch to our packs, hoisted our legs over the rail, and went down the rope net, down the scaly side of our sea-bitten ship by swinging handgrips and tricky footholds between the swaying knots, down to where the bobbing net met the pitching deck of our little iron tub. When we were loaded the coxswain gunned our engine in a blue stink of smoke and we cast off."

Lea with The Price in his El Paso studio. Courtesy Adair Margo Gallery.