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Book Review: Typewriter Battalion (Jack Stenback) : WW2

8/12/2001 • Reviews, World War II Reviews

Correspondents such as Walter Cronkite and Ernie Pyle went in harm’s way to report on the progress of the war.
Journalists often ply their craft in difficult situations, but none is more demanding than combat. Many correspondents began outstanding careers during World War II. Others burst upon the scene with classic brilliance, only to have their lives cut tragically short. In Typewriter Battalion: Dramatic Frontline Dispatches from World War II (Willaim Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, 1995, $23), editor Jack Stenback has gleaned some of the finest work of World War II correspondents from a treasure-trove of material.

This anthology of front-line dispatches from World War II leaves no doubt about the dedication of the correspondents, who often accompanied the troops into battle and shared with them the dangers and vicissitudes of combat. It provides a striking contrast to the press’ style in more recent military episodes, particularly Vietnam, where, as Walter Cronkite notes in his introduction, there was an adversarial relationship between the press and the military. Cronkite blames the military for this, but the Pentagon saw it differently. One military official put it this way, “The reporters were on our side” in previous wars.

They were, indeed. Some 32 war correspondents gave their lives during World War II. In proportion to their numbers, the casualties they suffered exceeded those of the men in combat. Their dispatches were always upbeat. Even after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, ultimate victory was never in doubt.

Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor happened to be in Honolulu on December 7, 1941, and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor. “It [war] has come,” Harsch wrote. “Underneath the feeling of shock, horror and resentment, there already is a widespread feeling of relief. At least the uncertainty is over. At least the time for vacillation and controversy has ended.”

Typewriter Battalion includes 58 entries, some only two or three pages long, by such writers as Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart, Drew Middleton, Kingsbury Smith, Bert Andrews, Bob Considine, John Lardner, Ross Munro, H.R. Knickerbocker and Richard Tregaskis.

Cronkite contributed an entry of his own dated February 27, 1943, written when
he was 26 years old and one of the first American correspondents to fly with the U.S. Eighth Air Force on a raid over Europe. “It was a hell 26,000 feet above the earth,” he wrote, “a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting flak, of crippled Flying Fortresses and flaming German fighter planes.” The target was the Wilhelmshaven naval base in northwest Germany. Seven American planes were lost in the operation, and it was a white-knuckle experience for the young reporter.

“We saw Wilhelmshaven through broken clouds,” Cronkite continued. “It looked like a toy village from 26,000 feet.” The “toy village” was a city of 100,000 persons. If Cronkite was concerned about civilian casualties, his story gave no hint of it. His counterparts in the Vietnam War a generation later wrote of little else.

Robert C. Miller of the United Press went ashore at Guadalcanal with the first wave of U.S. Marines on August 7, 1942, and was there the following February to describe the final battle that capped the first American offensive of the Pacific war: “Her navy smashed repeatedly at sea, her ‘Zeros’ and Mitsubishis erased from the skies and her proudest regiments now masses of rotting corpses, Japan has tasted defeat for the first time in a thousand years….It was a magnificent example of American bravery, tenacity and resourcefulness which the enemy was unable at any time to match.”

Military historians and even amateur World War II buffs may not be impressed by many of these stories. Although journalists like to think of their dispatches as the first drafts of history, they have certain obvious limitations. They reflect only what was known and reportable at the time.

War correspondents did not have the benefit of data subsequently derived from the debriefing of participants, or–much later–from the postwar recollections of the other side. Newsmen were not military experts, and they could witness only one corner of a battle at a time. For the big picture they had to rely on official briefings.

Nevertheless, these dispatches should be of interest for what they tell us about how the war was reported at the time and how it was perceived by the civilians back home. In the opinion of this reviewer, a veteran of nine campaigns in World War II, these stories have an impact and a capacity to stir memories–even after 50 years–that no film documentary or history book can match.

Victor F. Morris

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