Death of the Wasp, first color study, 1942 Oil on canvas, 25" x 42" U.S. Army Center for Military History, Washington, D.C. © James D. Lea

Death of the Wasp, first color study, 1942 Oil on canvas, 22" x 40" U.S. Army Center for Military History, Washington, D.C. © James D. Lea


Fantasma de Guerra: Torpedo Junction graphite study © James D. Lea

Fantasma de Guerra: Torpedo Junction graphite study © James D. Lea




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.

Spreads of torpedoes, from submerged Japs in the midst of us, were coming at Hornet. "Hey Mister – " a lookout yelled' "Godamighty, the N.C.-" I jerked my eyes around to where he pointed. The dirty spew of smoky water and oil – a torpedo hit – had shot up tall and now was falling away thinning into vapory mistiness from the side of North Carolina. The big battleship kept going. Hornet kept twisting, dodging.

We were making radical turns at twenty-eight knots, hightailing. I was seeing Wasp over our port quarter, losing sight of North Carolina, thinking I saw a torpedo track, finding Wasp again to starboard, noticing suddenly that our nearby destroyer O'Brien was smoking, cruelly hit; seeing growing fires on Wasp – and her destroyers speeding around her tossing depth charges that spurted up out of the glinty water like silvery plumes.

I found something for my own hands. I did have a stub pencil. I had a dog-eared fliers' chart of the Solomons 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.


Lea, Tom, A Picture Gallery, Boston: Little Brown, p. 64