Reviewed by Dennis Showalter
By Richard Tregaskis
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2004
Writer and correspondent Richard Tregaskis covered World War II, Korea and Vietnam from a frontline perspective. He remains best known for his first book, Guadalcanal Diary. Landing with the Marines in August 1942, he was a forerunner of today’s embedded reporters. His empathetic, perceptive interviews of the officers and men who held the line in those first desperate weeks made the book an instant classic and a frequently reprinted bestseller that inspired an equally successful movie. Tregaskis’ matter-of-fact approach and understated writing style contributed not a little to forming the modern Marine “voice,” much as Rudyard Kipling’s short stories did for the 19th-century British soldier serving in India.
In July 1943, Tregaskis switched theaters, arriving in the Mediterranean just in time to cover the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. The dispatches he composed over the next six months, until a serious wound caused his evacuation to the United States, form the basis for Invasion Diary. Written in the same chronological diary format as its predecessor, it is in many ways a more polished work. Tregaskis shows a developed insight into the nature of frontline combat in a war that on one hand featured unprecedented levels of technology and on the other made no less unprecedented demands on the men who did the fighting. If there is less of the urgency that gave Guadalcanal Diary its cutting edge, that reflects the changing nature of the war Tregaskis was reporting. By mid-1943 the tide had turned. Defeats were clearly local setbacks. At all levels, from foxholes to high headquarters, men were learning how to do their jobs and recognizing that the only way home was over dead bodies and destroyed cities. There is little sympathy in these pages for Italian civilians caught in the crossfire, and less for the German soldiers whose skill and determination prolonged the conflict.
For practical purposes, war correspondents did not exist in the United States of 1939. The nation’s mobilization was covered by reporters who transferred from other specialties and learned the nuances of their new beat on the job. One result was a flourishing of a variant form of celebrity journalism. Focusing on personalities was a familiar way to reach a mass audience: From Babe Ruth or Clark Gable to George Patton and William Halsey was not a big leap. Celebrity reporting continued in the European Theater well after the first overseas deployments. But the North African campaign inaugurated a change in emphasis. In part that was a consequence of an initial policy that limited journalistic access to the fighting. With little real reporting to do, reporters began filing human interest stories about home-town boys at war in an exotic land. Ernie Pyle proved himself a particular master of the genre. For several years before the war, he had written a nationally syndicated column focusing on the lives and hopes of ordinary Americans coping with the Depression. He applied the same approach to depicting the lives of ordinary soldiers coping with the war.
The Pyle approach did not abandon celebrity journalism. It transformed GI Joe into a celebrity, giving every American in uniform a least the prospect of 15 minutes of fame. In this structure, generals were remote figures, having little to do with the grim everyday realities of combat. If exceptions were made, they were for those senior officers who came on as homespun, rumpled and unassuming—men like Omar Bradley, who was arguably Pyle’s discovery if not his creation.
Like Pyle, to whom he is frequently compared, Tregaskis is more concerned with depicting the common soldier than with describing grand events. Like Pyle as well, Tregaskis neither glorifies nor glamorizes his own experiences and those he reports. In his introduction to this edition, Flint Whitlock, himself a historian of the Mediterranean campaign, suggests Tregaskis concentrated on what he was doing in relation to the soldiers he interviewed, as opposed to Ernie Pyle, who concentrated on the soldiers themselves. The distinction is a fine one—too fine for this reviewer. Tregaskis is perhaps more consciously literary than Pyle, more interested in presenting set pieces, what Mark Twain calls “effects”: a night attack by troopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, the feelings and reactions evoked by a German artillery barrage—or the head wound that almost cost his life and the battlefield surgery that sent him back to the United States and out of the war in late 1943. But he stands alongside his better-known colleague as a master chronicler of the GIs’ war, and Invasion Diary correspondingly rewards purchase and perusal.