On 5 March 1957, 37-year-old artist Clarence Joseph Tibado visited the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum to donate six of his paintings. The canvases depicted some of Tibado’s wartime experiences on board the heavy cruiser USS Pensacola (CA-24), “the Grey Ghost of the Pacific.” Tibado served on board the cruiser for all 13 of her battle stars, including at Midway, Santa Cruz, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Painted at sea while he served in a succession of positions, from deckhand to lookout to radarman, Tibado’s artwork is a brilliant, albeit largely unknown, window into the life of the Grey Ghost of Cruiser Division Five.
Born in Yankton, South Dakota, on 14 June 1920, Tibado spent his formative years near Tampa, Florida.1 As a grade school student in nearby Lake Wales, he exhibited a talent for drawing and painting. While he was a self-admitted poor student, Tibado’s artistic skill drew the attention of wealthy patrons, who funded art supplies, trips to area art shows, and eventually course work at the Miami Art School and the Detroit Art Institute.2
In mid-1941, he left Lake Wales and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to work as a Disney artist. But Tibado was disillusioned with the monotony of animation, his hopes vanished, and he took up work at an antique store, where his painting skills helped sell a few items.3
With war raging in Europe and not wishing to be drafted into the Army, Tibado enlisted in the Naval Reserve on 28 October 1941. No less than former heavyweight champion James “Gene” Tunney, then-Lieutenant Commander Tunney, swore in Tibado to naval service. At the onset of his enlistment, a Los Angeles Times article reported his “plans to sketch Navy life . . . and later will turn the sketches into full-size paintings.”4
After boot camp at San Diego Naval Training Center, Tibado shipped out to Hawaii, arriving in mid-January to scenes of destruction wrought the previous December. Received on board the Pensacola on 20 January, Tibado was assigned as a lookout—a fortuitous position for an artist as it allowed him to observe the battlespace.5 As lookout on 20 February 1942 near Bougainville, he reported sighting Japanese bombers and witnessing the destruction of the enemy attackers, including several that fell victim to the aerial prowess of Lieutenant Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, who became an ace in one day.6
On 4 June, off Midway Atoll, Tibado once again witnessed the ferocity of Japanese air attacks. His painting of the action on that day is of the afternoon strikes by aircraft from the Japanese carrier Hiryu against the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5). At the scene of the action, the Pensacola can be seen in the foreground on the right. The stricken Yorktown is listing and dead in the water as two enemy torpedoes slam into her amidships, and B5N “Kate” torpedo planes continue to bore in while flak bursts pepper the sky. One Kate is burning from a hit by the Pensacola, the plane’s rear gunner seemingly waving while enveloped by fire.
After Midway, the Pensacola returned to Pearl Harbor before joining the fight in the waters off Guadalcanal. On 30 November, she sailed with the cruiser-destroyer complement of Task Force 67, commanded by Rear Admiral Carleton Wright. Early that night, the force steamed silently through the Lengo Channel past Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and entered “Ironbottom Sound.” Just after 2300 hours, U.S. radar operators located a force of eight destroyers of Rear Admiral Raizo¯ Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2 attempting a resupply of Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. At 2330, Wright’s destroyers launched torpedoes, his other ships fired star shells, and the entire U.S. force opened fire on Tanaka’s lead vessel, the destroyer Takanami. While the Takanami drew the majority of U.S. fire, she launched a spread of eight torpedoes as other Japanese destroyers laid a smokescreen and fired torpedoes.
Less than ten minutes after the opening salvo, two Japanese torpedoes slammed into the hull of the USS Minneapolis (CA-36). Within seconds, a torpedo struck the New Orleans (CA-32), cutting off the cruiser’s bow forward of turret two and killing 183 of her crew. Third in line, the Pensacola maneuvered around the two burning ships but to their port side, silhouetting her in front of the burning cruisers. Meanwhile, Tibado was observing the battle unfold from the ship’s well deck.
Suddenly, a fourth Japanese torpedo struck the Pensacola abreast the mainmast on the port side. At the moment of impact, Tibado saw the deck rise “like an ascending elevator. It sounded like huge redwoods cracking and falling. The forward part of the Pensacola and the foremast moved as if elastic in an earthquake.”7 The point of impact opened a full oil tank, blowing fuel oil everywhere. The blast knocked out three gun turrets, flooded the engine room, and coated the mainmast with oil, which soon ignited, burning from midnight until morning.
The fires on board ship managed to boil off the water in the flooded magazines for turret three and, one by one, some 150 8-inch shells detonated. The crew continued to fight to save the Pensacola, aided by fire hoses from the destroyer Perkins (DD-377). The cruiser set out around 0344, limping to Tulagi at 9 knots. All told, the Pensacola lost 7 officers and 118 men.8
The fighting and losses cut Tibado deeply. An entire year’s worth of his paintings, which he noted “had no difficulty passing naval censorship by Admiral [Chester] Nimitz at his CINCPAC office in Pearl Harbor,” were lost in the fires.9 Far more painful was the loss of his friend, Fireman Third Class Robert L. Weston from Colorado. Writing years later, Tibado recalled Weston told him of a dream in which he died in the ship’s next battle. Weston conveyed a particular detail: Tibado receiving the address of Weston’s mother from her last letter to her son, so he could visit her and relate the details of her son’s death.
With the Pensacola ablaze, Weston undoubtedly found himself in the fury of the storm, although Tibado did not know what had become of his friend. Himself drenched with oil, Tibado helped where he could as his ship struggled to Tulagi. There he stripped off his oil-soaked clothes, left with nothing more than a Navy bathing suit and memories of how “the smell of burnt flesh filled the air as bodies were brought out of the hot, steaming compartments and placed upon the well deck.”10 At Tulagi, an officer stationed Tibado at the stern scupper with orders to keep it clear of debris as a bucket brigade bailed out the compartment below. As he cleared debris, Tibado spied an errant, oil-soaked V-mail letter at his feet. The letter was addressed to Weston’s mother.11
As part of a skeleton crew, Tibado helped sail the Pensacola back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. After the ship arrived in late January 1943, he received 30 days leave and went to Los Angeles to meet with Weston’s parents. Perhaps during this period or in the ensuing months as the Pensacola underwent repairs, Tibado created two paintings of the battle. The first, titled Battle of Tassafaronga, portrays the action prior to the torpedo strike. The darkness of the night is lit by star shells and the fires of battle. The Pensacola is firing at the Japanese destroyers while the New Orleans is seen with her bow blown off in the background. The Minneapolis is depicted at the moment she takes her second torpedo hit.
Tibado’s real masterpiece is titled Pensacola Torpedoed. Photos fail to accurately capture the detail. As fires burn in the background, the torn, oily U.S. flag is flying amid the smoke and flames. Wounded men are carried away on stretchers, while other sailors prepare to don gas masks or form up for damage control parties. This painting is the only work of Tibado’s to be featured in the Pensacola’s wartime cruise book, and he would enter the painting in the Association of Honolulu Artists’ annual nonjury exhibition in November 1943.12
By that month, the Pensacola once more was ready for battle. Now a radarman third class, Tibado found himself stationed in the ship’s combat information center (CIC). As part of Task Group 50.3, the Pensacola sailed for the Gilbert Islands to support the Marine landings on the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. On 19 November, Cruiser Division 5 shelled Betio and nearby islands, with the Pensacola expending a total of 600 8-inch shells. Tibado’s painting of the bombardment shows the cruiser division in line of battle, with the USS Chester (CA-27), Salt Lake City (CA-25), and Pensacola firing at Japanese shore batteries while enemy shells landed nearby. As the landings commenced the next day, the Pensacola screened the carriers USS Essex (CV-9), Bunker Hill (CV-17), and Independence (CVL-22), whose aircraft were conducting strikes on Betio.
That evening, the Pensacola cruised with the Independence, with Tibado on duty at the radar set. A lookout spotted a large group of aircraft on the horizon he thought to be Japanese G4M “Betty” bombers, but Tibado did not see any enemy aircraft on the radar. The aircraft he observed on radar were squawking identification, friend or foe (IFF) signals, but they were flying straight and low; he thought they might be carrying torpedoes. Tibado called to the bridge, “Bogies, closing fast on relative bearing 090!” as an officer demanded an explanation.13
At that moment, the Pensacola came to battle stations and opened fire. The group of 16 Bettys came in low at the Independence and Pensacola. Tibado’s subsequent painting of the action features the Pensacola with guns depressed, blazing away as Bettys fly just above the wave tops amid a field of flak bursts. The cruiser knocked down one bomber and damaged two others. The Independence managed to shoot down six of the attackers, while one torpedo struck home on the starboard quarter; still, she survived. Tibado was called to captain’s mast for his actions but received no reprimand; green fighter pilots from the Independence had charged at the Bettys but forgot to turn off their IFF signals, thus explaining the radar report.14
After the Gilberts, Tibado continued as a radarman on board the Pensacola and painted in his free time. In a 20 May 1944 letter home to his parents prior to shipping out once again, Tibado mentioned, “I’m bringing along a nice set of new art materials so to paint the engagement” and noted how “I’m proud to paint such a gallant ship as the Pensacola.”15 That June, the cruiser sailed north to the Kuriles and shelled shipping, airfields, and installations at Paramushiru.16 Tibado’s painting, On the Way to Paramashiro [sic] dated 14 June, depicts a PBY Catalina flying boat passing overhead as an Omaha-class cruiser steams in the background in heavy fog.
The relatively quiet operations of 1944 gave way to a life-altering period for Tibado in 1945. In operations off Iwo Jima on 17 February, the Pensacola closed to within 250 yards of the shore to cover minesweepers clearing approaches to the future invasion beaches. That morning, during Tibado’s time wearing the CIC headset, in communication with the bridge and sky forward, he had a premonition of something terrible about to take place.
Sensing death, he moved across the CIC and sat down in a chair, trembling. Within an instant: “A shell blast appeared above the head of radarman [Herbert F.] Stone as he stood across the room. Stone disintegrated before my eyes. Many more sailors were torn apart by shrapnel as the lightning-like flash killed the room.”17 Glass shattered, and light streaming in from the jagged hole in the bulkhead provided partial illumination to the terrible scene. Tibado fell unconscious and later awoke covered in blood but unwounded. The experience convinced him that God had touched and spoken to him, and this experience would place Tibado on a journey that resulted in creation of the 7-by-10-foot painting The Divine Command.18
At the war’s conclusion, Tibado’s service with the Navy came to an end. He arrived at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, received his honorable discharge, and journeyed back to Lake Wales, Florida. After having his wartime paintings refined by “1,200 critics on board and the crew always putting in their two cents worth,” Tibado found a public demand for his art.19 He had lithographs made of 14 of his wartime paintings, funded by $11,000 in seed money from his shipmates, and sold sets of the lithographs at $5. Tibado’s art found a place in homes across the country.20 When the Navy commissioned the Anchorage-class dock landing ship Pensacola (LSD-38) in 1971, a set of the same lithographs decorated the officers’ wardroom.21
Six of the original canvases for the prints came to the Smithsonian; five donated by Tibado in 1957 and a sixth by his sister, Lorraine Tibado Duncan, in 2015. One of the canvases donated in 1957 remains unpublished, until now. The painting, titled simply Night Scene of Carrier—Sailor Sleeping on Deck, is a tranquil work. As a carrier and possibly a battleship steam under the silver rays of the moon, two sailors at a 5-inch gun take in the moment. On the Pensacola’s deck, a sailor is seen sleeping, dreaming of who knows what exactly. Having spent the entirety of the war sleeping on deck, it is likely this painting is a self-portrait of the artist.22
After a life of art and spiritual discovery, Tibado passed away in Lakeland, Florida, on 16 December 2014.23
1. Clarence J. Tibado, My Life and The Divine Command (Winter Haven, FL: Lorrill Enterprises, 1993), 65.
2. Tibado, Divine Command, 15–16.
3. Tibado, Divine Command, 17–19.
4. “Navy Class Prepares for Induction by Tunney,” Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1941, 8; Tibado, Divine Command, 19.
5. Report of Changes of the USS Pensacola (CA-24), 20 January 1942, Ancestry.com; Tibado, Divine Command, 20.
6. “Pensacola III (CA-24),” Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (hereafter DANFS), Naval History and Heritage Command; Tibado, Divine Command, 21.
7. Tibado, Divine Command, 29.
8. “Pensacola III (CA-24),” DANFS; Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 493–518.
9. Tibado, Divine Command, 27. A newspaper article later lists this as the loss of nine paintings; “Armed Forces Parade,” Tampa Tribune, 13 December 1944, 18.
10. Tibado, Divine Command, 31.
11. Tibado, Divine Command, 31–32.
12. “Non-Jury Show at Art Academy,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 20 November 1943, 12; USS Pensacola CA-24, 1929 thru 1946 (San Francisco: Phillips & Van Orden Co., 1946), 27.
13. Tibado, Divine Command, 35.
14. Tibado, Divine Command, 34–36; “Independence IV (CV-22),” DANFS; USS Pensacola (CA-24), 31–32.
15. Clarence J. Tibado to Mr. and Mrs. C. H. Tibado, 20 May 1944, Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
16. USS Pensacola (CA-24), 37.
17. Tibado, Divine Command, 40.
18. Tibado, Divine Command, 38–43; USS Pensacola (CA-24), 44–48.
19. Tibado, Divine Command, 27.
20. “Paintings Slated in Institute,” Orlando Sentinel, 16 January 1957, 1; Tibado, Divine Command, 46.
21. Tibado, Divine Command, 75.
22. Tibado, Divine Command, 45.
23. “Clarence Joseph Tibado,” The Ledger (Lakeland, FL) 24 December 2014.
Listen to a Proceedings Podcast episode about the artist below: