November 30, 2016

1943. The Occupational Risks of a War Correspondent

The Dangers of Covering the Front Lines
"Making a test to judge how much he'll be able to see when combat action occurs in a storm, W. R. Higginbotham of the United Press dons Navy 'foul weather gear' aboard a warship. Jack Rice (left), Associated Press photographer, and Tom Wolf of the NEA await his report with interest" (Official U.S. Navy photograph - source)
From the column "Lardner Goes to the Wars" by John Lardner in Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 20:

Occupational Risks of a War Correspondent

With the Fifth Army in Italy—Big Dick Tregaskis, able and energetic correspondent of International News Service, was put out of action here by shell slivers which penetrated his tin hat.

Back on the beaches of Salerno some weeks ago Jack Belden of Time, Life, Fortune, and The Architectural Forum, the gifted author and red-dog player who is known in the trade as Shanghai Jack, had his leg broken by German rifle fire. Between times two British reporters and an Australian, probing a town where no Germans should have been, were killed by enemy tank fire.

These events all happening here in this campaign have made other correspondents a little self-conscious. I don't mean at all that they are getting "windy" as the British say, but I do notice lately that when some grave outsider, soldier, or civilian brings up the theme: "You fellows run quite a lot of chances, or do you?" The boys consider the matter equally gravely and begin to argue the chances and percentages.

This is directly contrary to the newspaper tradition that I know. Newspapermen—outside of a few hypochondriacs and professional scarehead lecturers who may emphasize peril for sales reasons in the old Floyd Gibbons manner—are inclined to kid about such occupational hazards as may come along, especially if they are hazards with a sort of bogus glamor attached to them like gunfire. They kid the subject or duck it entirely. Cirrhosis of the liver, which Mr. Stanley Walker once described as an occupational disease in the newspaper business, is a much more decent topic of conversation.

I am talking about them now because I suddenly find them a subject of general interest here on a frozen front and therefore newsworthy. G.I. soldiers who get killed and wounded in droves without fanfare, private ceremonies, or tables of batting averages are beginning to ask reporters about their dangers and hardships instead of dwelling on their own. It's often true, of course, that the enlisted man in the Army has 20 to 500 per cent more curiosity about a correspondent than the correspondent has about him.

"Well, so you guys lead a pretty dangerous life, do you?" a soldier will ask, thinking that maybe we really do. It seems to me this question is so far beside the point as to be out of sight entirely—in addition to which it concerns only the front-line or bombing-mission journalism which is a small fraction of the business of covering the war. However, since the point had arisen, I polled two elder statesmen, two hoary deans of the trade, on what they thought of this red-hot topic.

William Stoneman of The Chicago Daily News was wounded in person in Tunisia, though he roared fierce oaths from his hospital bed when they tried to catch him off-guard with a Purple Heart. "I will tell you," Mr. Stoneman replied to the poller as he leafed thoughtfully through his collection of early Italian pistols and Renaissance bed socks. There are certain stories worth risking something to get and certain stories which are not worth a damn. The difficulty is knowing which is which."

When your correspondent moved on to H. R. Knickerbocker of The Chicago Sun, who has been showered with dirt by bursting shells almost continuously since the campaign began, he found this operative engaged in blocking out a lecture tour.

"Your question is one to which I have given some thought," said Mr. Knickerbocker, "and if you will arrange to catch my act in Boston or Toledo two years from now, you will get the answer."

The simple truth is that the reporters I have known who were hurt—Tregaskis, Stoneman, and Belden—were good newspapermen working hard at a job they enjoyed doing. The same is true of most reporters I know who have been killed. There are many worse ways to die.