July 19, 2019

1951. Anatomy of a Korean War Correspondent

What Makes War Correspondents Run
Korean War correspondent Marguerite Higgins reviewing maps in October 1950 (Photo by Carl Mydanssource)
Article by Bob Considine in the June 1951 edition of Esquire, pp. 18-26:


What makes war correspondents run, covering Wars I through II½, and especially Miss Higgins

A war correspondent is a foreign correspondent without a black Homburg. Other than that they strike no average, seldom shape up into a type, except when they are created by Hollywood or the stage. They all wear Abercrombie & Fitch trench coats, talk in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney with lockjaw, and advise the living hell out of generals.

Foreign correspondents are smoother and duller than war correspondents. And slicker. A war correspondent who is hard-pressed for something to write will interview another war correspondent. A foreign correspondent quickly learns to eliminate one-half of that assembly. He interviews himself, in moments of great stress, and only his inherent modesty (and a lively terror of the New York office) keeps him from revealing that he, in truth, is the "anonymous but unimpeachable source close to the heart of the tinderbox situation in the Balkans."

But let us take quick leave of the foreign correspondent. We'll concern ourselves here with overseas reporters who get a war on their hands. What they do about that problem is pretty much up to each one individually. And no three are alike.

War correspondents come short and tall, fat and lean, good and worse, brave and gutless, just like other tradesmen. They come sentimental and they come case-hardened. The ones who have learned (or knew all along) how to pour the sweet syrup get the most readers—because war, for all its savage nature, arouses torrents of sentiment and sentimentality where most of the reading is done, on the home front.

One vaguely recognizable type of war correspondent (loosely grouped in that he seldom wears his uniform except to the general's parties) is the fellow who must stay so far behind the actual fighting that, well, he sees a lot of the general. This sometimes sedentary hack is the headquarters man. Usually he is a fellow sprung loose from the rewrite desk back home and sent abroad because he knows exactly how to meld the scattered mercury droplets of news—news from the ground, air and sea correspondents—and wrap up the stuff in a compact lead fit for Page One, Column Eight.

Big-verb man, this fellow. Especially if he is covering for a wire service. When he makes that fast hard decision as to which of the droplets to feature in his lead, he then must come up with that living, breathing, spitting verb that is going to guarantee his lead a better reception and play, back home, than the similar leads of his part-time pals from the other wire services.

For him, our side just can't be dismissed with the notation that it "won" from the enemy. Our side must "barrel" through to victory; or "sledge-hammer," "mash," "annihilate," "exterminate" or "wreak utter destruction."

Why? Well, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus behind the various telegraph editors' desks in the newspaper shops of the land. Instead, it's a thin Joe with a permanent furrow in his brow and a case of ulcers à la mode, which is an ulcer on an ulcer. He barely survives the tidal wave of wire-service copy that floods his desk by keeping one flaring nostril above the surging hyperbole. This posture adds nothing to the sweetness of his disposition. Besides, his best man on the copy desk is drunk and so he must select, from the wire-service leads concerning the war, the one story which practically will write its own head. That's where the value of the arresting verb comes in.

The headquarters man tends to develop a curvature of the spine if his war lasts long enough. That comes from looking down on short, wind-broken briefing officers, who supply him with the Old Man's concept of what the hell's happening way up front, or from looking up at maps which are pinned too high on the briefing-room walls to make much sense. Except on those rare occasions when the headquarters city is bombed, as was London when it was possessed with headquarters of E.T.O., the only raids to which he is exposed are the occasional M.P. sorties against some parlor of debauchery to which our man has repaired to escape a "rocket" from the home office. A "rocket" is a message which says:



Because he is generally a little older than the brave bulls in the field, and his feet are beginning to feel better in slippers, our headquarters man gravitates toward domesticity. A well housebroken man, he begins to miss the wife and kids with something akin to the sad yearning for his old Buick, which had a nice pickup. This sometimes drives him into leasing an apartment or house, which in turn drives him back to such literary circles as his favorite bar. When this palls on him, and the weather turns brisk, he sometimes tries to relieve the bad-housing situation by inviting a courageous native patriot to share his bed and board. Simultaneously he discovers that nearly every courageous native patriot is a girl.

In a majority of these rare cases, the courageous native patriot eventually learns that there is more loneliness than lechery in her patron. So, with high resolve and determination to mend her life, she moves on to some worthier calling, like living with a colonel. She gives the correspondent custody of his "rockets."

Then there's the correspondent who lives with the Infantry or the Marines, dropping back now and then to the crudely fashioned field PIO (it's that red brick schoolhouse over there, Mac; where the hell did you think it would be) to lick his wounds or write his pieces—if that ain't redundant. As soon as he has seen action he regards the headquarters man as a copeless fuddy who doesn't know his brass from a foxhole. Too, he regards the correspondents who picked or were assigned to the Navy and Air Force in the same light that he regards the well-uniformed Hollywood U.S.O. hambones who carry there own mimeograph machines with them.

The front-line Joe lives like a hybrid of a private and a general. He shares the dirt and dangers of the private when out on a patrol or when his face is in the mud of a pinned-down command post. But he has the mobility of a general: that is, he usually has his own jeep, more dough in his pocket, and he doesn't have to ask anybody's permission to get the blue blazes out of there when he's had enough.

Some get fed up, or have enough, quicker than others. But the trend is toward more and more bravery on the part of these correspondents. They did things in World War II½, in Korea, that far outshone anything their colleagues did in W.W. II. They ventured into spots where angels and Richard Harding Davis would not have dared to tread. In doing so they diluted what used to be one of the more arresting war stories: the death or blood-letting of a correspondent. For a time in Korea they were getting knocked off at a rate calculated to place the misfortunes of successors in the agate type of the soldier casualties.

The model of some of them in Korea seemed to be Ernie Pyle. In 1945, at a flea-bitten place named Ie Jima, Ernie had graphically shown his predecessors exactly how close a fellow must get to get it. Ernie left the latter-day front-line correspondents a stern heritage which weighed heavily on them in Korea: the acceptance of death as well as life with troops, and the onerous need for getting names and hometowns. To wit:
With a 2-Man Patrol Near Poontang, Oct. 13 (Friday)—"Blub" said Pfc. Herman J. Mickolajczyk, of 3974 Quagmire Terrace, Oswatomie, Kansas, today when an enemy mortar made a direct hit on his plastic helmet.

Corp. Manny "Killer" Goldfarb, of 23613 Grand Concourse, The Bronx, New York, nodded knowingly.
The Korean War, whose front-line correspondents sometimes bitterly referred to themselves as police reporters, produced two additions to the now involved array of war historians.

The first was the young ex-serviceman turned correspondent, often a former Marine who had seen grueling action in the Pacific as a slightly younger man before picking up a newspaper or radio job during the five quick years of peace that led to the following war. This lad had a contempt of fear that made some holdover correspondents from the other war avoid him like the plague. He knew how to use the gun which was thrust into the hands of correspondents working out of Taegu, Masan and such places. He was in much better physical condition than other correspondents and knew more about fighting than did a vast majority of the troops he wrote about. Some of them seemed to revel in the hot fights in which they found themselves engaged—like kids getting back to a favorite game which had been barred to them for five years. These are the forerunners of the front-line correspondents of World War III and the wars beyond that. They're just better at that sort of work, and somebody in the accounting offices on the papers or wire services back home will make the happy discovery that these fellows will work for less dough than will the front-line stars of World War II.

Up front, correspondents get along well together, despite the temperature of their competition. They swap stories more often than the writers and speakers of the rear areas, and have been known to share perilously won scoops. What they will not tolerate is a colleague who fakes a dangerous date line . . . that is, if he begins his story with a heading that goes something like, "Inside Wingding with the First Cavalry," when, as a matter of fact, he is not inside the city.

But breaks like that are seldom made. For the sake of a single beat (which might find a wastebasket after it gets to the office) few reporters will risk alienating the affectations and co-operation of men with whom they must continue working.

Korea's second contribution to the realm of war correspondence was the arrival of The Ladies. Sure, they had skirted the edges of World War II, and a few of them like Lee Carson and Inez Robb had done more than skirt. But in Korea they landed with both feet, and if they aren't in war to stay, I'm a monkey's aunt.

Their presence on the front in Korea shocked many a male reporter but probably none of the shockees was given more of a jolt than the veteran Australian war correspondent, Jack Percival. With his mind filled with the impending reunion with such masculine pen pals from the last war as Frank Conniff, Hal Boyle, Don Whitehead, Homer Bigart, Bill Downs, Jimmy Cannon and Bill Lawrence, Percival stumbled into the blacked-out press camp at Taegu one blistering night and, finding the camp asleep, lay down on his blanket for a little shuteye. But there was no chance. The body next to him was snoring sonorously, and answering with an alto snore. Jack pondered this for a time, then remembered an article he had read years before in Coronet. It had contained a suggestion that snoring could be stopped by turning the body of the snorer over on the stomach.

Jack reached out in the darkness to a lay a hand on the snorer, and something akin to lightning or a reasonable facsimile shot up his arm. His quivering arm stayed in the same position for a full minute, while he tried to make his astonished mind realize that somehow, as preposterously incredible as it seemed, he was holding a breast, Jack leaped up and fled for fresh air, to revive his sanity. And outside he confided to an incoming correspondent his unbelievable experience. The correspondent yawned.

"We're getting lousy with them," he said, and turned in.

Lest one suspects from the above that the Korean front at times resembled a bacchanal, let him promptly dismiss the thought. If anything, the girls were resented by their male counterparts. Their bravery was annoying or embarrassing, especially the abundance of that commonly possessed by Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune. From the beginning of the fighting, she made men correspondents solemnly agree that it's damned unnerving to be huddling in a hole, frightened, and look up long enough to see a good-looking babe moving up closer to the fighting.

One day while out on a dangerous patrol action, Miss Higgins and the handful of troops she was following were pinned down by a heavy mortar attack. She and the young G.I. hit a ditch simultaneously and lay there close together as the enemy moved closer. Soon it was apparent that the little group would be wiped out.

In this awful moment, Miss Higgins is reputed to have said, "Well, I've had a full and interesting life. I don't mind dying."

The young G.I. at her side yelled, "Maybe so, lady, but goddammit don't go including me!"

Apocryphal or not, there doesn't seem to be any other way of ending this, except to tip my hat respectfully to the current crop of war correspondents, and to repair to the nearest public house to bestir the memories of the dead ones with Scotch on the Rocks. One gets himself a mess of grave misgivings every time a newspaper or radio pal has himself blown to kingdom come while attending to the dirty legwork of war. I don't know one dead one from W.W. II or Korea who is remembered with anything except great tenderness. There weren't any better soldiers, living or dead, than the dead who recorded the plight of the accredited fighters. They gave their lives for much more than love or fear of the gruff bastards in editorial chairs back home. They gave their lives in the great cause of translating the tedium and horror of war into words that enabled the people at home to understand and weigh. They fought throttling brass-hat censorship with a vehemence worthy of that menacing foe.

At the headquarters of the Overseas Press Club of America, in the old New York Times building, we have a gallery of pictures of dead correspondents. It gets larger. If we get into a toe-to-toe brawl with Russia that gallery will fill a wall, and the free world will be poorer for the number of pictures it holds. War correspondents have little knack for phrasing nice plaques to go with pictures of the dead. They fear the element of corn more than they fear almost anything else. So . . . if all goes well . . . we hope someday to tack a neat little bronze over those pictures at our club. And it will be inscribed: SEE YOU LATER.