On December 7, 1941 the Japanese surprised the United States with an all-out aerial attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. For America, World War II began. Anger and patriotism drove thousands of Americans to join the service immediately. Ralph was 20 years old, and like many Americans passionate about his country. He joined the Marines via the recruiting depot in San Francisco on January 27, 1942 ̶ a mere 7 weeks after Pearl Harbor. Tyree was assigned to the 2nd Recruit Battalion, Recruit Depot at the Marine Corps Base in San Diego. Private Tyree was infantry rifleman and a member of the 22nd regiment of the 6th division just before his departure to Samoa in July, 1942.
On July 19, 1942 Private Tyree and his fellow Marines of the 22nd regiment set sail on the SS Lurline for America Samoa in the South Pacific arriving there on August 1, 1942. With the start of WWII in early 1942 General Charles Price was placed in command of the 2nd Marine Division for the defense of American Samoa. This base would be the staging center for Pacific Theater of Operations of the US Marine Corps. The Marines recognized Tyree’s artistic talents and reassigned him on October 7, 1942 from the infantry to Headquarters and Security unit (Intel) of the 22nd regiment and with his specialty was changed to “Draftsman” for making maps. Tyree would remain as a “Draftsman” until August 10, 1943 when his specialty title was changed to “Sign Painter“. Tyree’s artistic abilities soon caught the eye of his commander, General Charles Price. And as of November 1943 title was changed to the most unusual title of “General Price’s Portrait Painter”. Under Price’s orders Tyree had several responsibilities: creating morale boosting murals in the officer’s mess hall, as well as, other artistic endeavors such as illustrating menus, and painting portraits of the officers and their wives.
Tyree quickly improved his portrait painting using his officers and their loved ones as subjects. He set up a studio so that he could jump to his general’s demands and wishes regarding. .The young artist was pampered with gallons of paint and art equipment, flown in from Honolulu. He saw beauty where there was so much destruction and death. Many of his war related paintings have not been found, probably lost. We know these works were exhibited with other US Marine artists at the de Young museum in San Francisco (1944 & 1945) as well as an exhibit in Philadelphia.
Interestingly, in 1943 a young naval officer stationed in the Pacific, James Michener, was asked by his naval superiors to investigate possible fraud by the military leaders on America Samoa. Michener’s experiences there with the natives and on the other nearby islands inspired him to write Tales of the South Pacific which he published in 1947. This book would win the Pulitzer Prize and later become a successful Broadway musical and movie (South Pacific, 1958). It is fascinating that James Michener, the sailor, and Ralph Burke Tyree, the Marine, began their respective artistic careers from these remote islands of Samoa. Whether these two young World War II servicemen ever crossed paths while together on America Samoa is not known.
Private Tyree, US Marine Corps, starts painting a large mural in officer mess hall in Samoa