October 1, 2023

1951. "Korea Toughest of Them All" by Don Whitehead

Veteran Correspondents Cover the Korean War
War correspondent Don Whitehead in Anzio, Italy in 1944 (source)

Article by Don Whitehead in The Quill magazine, March 1951, pp. 10-12:

Korea Toughest of Them All


That's what the veteran war correspondents call it . . . and many are men who covered North Africa and Italy, Normandy and Germany

Time: A warm night in August.

Place: Taegu, Korea

Scene: A little balcony on the rambling old building which served as the U. S. Eighth Army Press center.

Characters: A group of war correspondents, retreads from World War Two grown a little balder, a little grayer, and resigned to the possibility that war reporting may become a life-time job.

•      •      •

We sat in the warm darkness watching the flare of artillery and the glowing beads of tracer bullets strung from the muzzles of machine-guns in the distance. Occasionally, there was the swish of an enemy shall passing over. Then an explosion. A lone North Korean gun somewhere out there in the hills was pumping shells into the city.

Finally, the talk turned to past campaigns—battles in Africa, Sicily, Italy, Europe and the Pacific. We dredged up stories which, for a fleeting moment, brought back names and faces and places long forgotten.

The talk droned on far into the night, with occasional bursts of laughter, until a young reporter on his first war assignment exclaimed: "Are we going to sit here all night listening to the reminiscences of tired old war correspondents?"

The kid's barb hit its mark. We laughed—but with the sheepish realization that our yarns were beginning to have the ring of an old soldiers' reunion, although only five years separated us from the last war. 

Actually, a war correspondent is merely a police reporter who is covering a shooting where they use 105 millimeter artillery instead of .32 caliber pistols. Someone has said a veteran at the business is one who finds he is at the front and suddenly asks himself: What the hell am I doing here?"

I had asked myself that question long ago but I found myself asking it again while en route from New York to Korea last July with Hal Boyle of the Associated Press.

Hal and I had reported the last war together and I don't think I'd ever agree to any war assignment without the Irishman. He always brings along a heart as big as his grin, plus a satchel full of laughs to ease the tension when the going is roughest.

The two of us had arrived in Tokyo and were preparing to shove off for Korea next day. It was the shank of the evening and we were sitting in the Correspondents Club having a cool drink when the door burst open. In came Bill Downs of CBS, an old friend just returned from Korea. Bill's clothes were filthy. A tangled beard sprouted below his blood-shot eyes. He smelled like a rice paddy on a hot night.

Downs took one look at us and croaked: "You stupid sob's! Go back! Go back! This ain't our kind of war!"

He was accurate on all points but it was too late to turn back. Five months later, the AP messaged Boyle to return home as soon as feasible. Boyle received the message in Korea and said: "I wonder where Feasible is? I can't leave until Feasible gets here."

That started a great search by the correspondents for Feasible. He must have arrived at last, because Boyle is back in the United States.

•      •      •

My own experience as a war reporter began in 1942 when I flew from New York to Egypt to join Montgomery's British Eighth Army in its drive across the Western Desert.

For the correspondents, this was a leisurely sort of war and a soft touch compared to Korea. Each three correspondents had a conducting officer to do most of the worrying. We had a sedan in which to follow the army and a truck—pardon me, a lorry—to catch food, water, and camping gear. Each morning, Bert, the truck driver, would wake us for a steaming cup of tea.

Our only communication link with Cairo, the censorship and cable point, was by courier plane once a day. This meant we had ample time to get our stories, write them, and even polish up the prose.

Since then, the tempo of war reporting has increased by bounds as a result of better communications in the field and keener competition to get news to the American public. Rapid transmission from war zones is a break for the daily newspapers and the readers—but the wear and tear on the correspondents is terrific.

The Korean war—uncensored until late December—added some staggering burdens which made it the most difficult war of all to cover. (Note: I went into Korea in July with 185 pounds and a 38-inch waistline. I came out with 159 pounds and four inches less suet around the middle.)

•      •      •

When General Patton took his 7th Army into Sicily in July, 1943, combat reporting still was on a comparatively leisurely basis. We often went into the line to live with the troops and follow them in battle to get the feel, sight and smell of war at close range. After four or five days, we would return to the press camp and write a series of stories to describe that particular phase of the campaign. These dispatches went by courier plane to Algiers for relay home.

The Sicily campaign ended a month after it began and in September the Allies invaded Italy. The pressure increased on correspondents for faster coverage of frontline developments.

The army had radio facilities for transmitting dispatches to Algiers from Italy. This called for a new technic, at least for the reporters representing wire services and the large dailies which were in competition. Except for columnists such as Ernie Pyle, who had no spot news deadline to meet, the correspondents were forced to battle for minutes. Stories filed with the censors were released on a first-in, first-out schedule. There was no time for leisurely reporting or polishing a story. A two-minute headway on a story filed in Italy might stretch into a twelve-hour beat in New York.

On the invasion of Europe, the reporting was geared to its present swift pace. The cause of it all, for better or for worse, was the arrival of mobile Press Wireless transmitters which handled press dispatches exclusively. They followed the combat units closely. A story filed by Press Wireless was in New York in a matter of minutes.

This rapid transmission, even faster than it was in Italy, put a premium on mobility of reporters in the field, quick judgment on news values, and speed in getting the story from typewriter to censor.

I remember the day that Cherbourg fell to our troops. I entered the city with Clark Lee and H. R. Knickerbocker. We followed the troops in the street fighting to the center of the city where we wrote our eyewitness stories of the fight.

We completed our stories at 12 noon (Cherbourg time) and sent them by courier to the Press Wireless unit a few miles behind the fighting front. My story was radioed quickly to New York. It appeared in the 9 a. m. editions—by a quirk of time three hours "earlier" than I had written the story—since we were in a time belt five hours ahead of New York time.

An old campaigner, Knick said later: "Wars are getting too fast for me. Now you write a story that may appear in print before you have written it."

•      •      •

Veteran correspondents agree Korea has been the toughest of them all. The country itself is depressing. And then there was the weariness of constantly fighting for communications. You spent one-fifth of your time reporting and the other four-fifths getting the story to Tokyo. There were 100-mile jeep rides over washboard roads to find a telephone. There were weeks when the correspondents traveled as much as 4,000 miles between Korea and Japan to file dispatches.

The army in Korea had no mobile radio transmitters such as the armies in Europe. The only direct link with Tokyo was by telephone or teletype from 8th Army headquarters—an unreliable link often denied to us by the crush of official army business.

Cut off from a telephone, we had only one alternative—to send our stories to Japan by Air Force courier or else carry them back ourselves. Most of the time we took the stories back ourselves to avoid delays.

When the 8th Army began its retreat before the Chinese hordes last November, it was one of the great tragedies of our times. The United Nations army had been defeated. General Douglas MacArthur's "end the war by Christmas" drive was shattered. All hopes for a quick end to the conflict were destroyed.

I was with the 25th Infantry Division at the time and watched the drive falter, grind to a halt, and then fall apart. I had to get the story out—but to telephone from division C. P. through Corps to Army headquarters in Seoul was impossible. The lines ware jammed.

There was only one thing left to do. I hitch-hiked a 20-mile ride by truck, then persuaded an artillery observation pilot to fly me across a mountain range to an air strip near the west coast. An ambulance filled with wounded took me to an evacuation airfield at Sinanju. From the Sinanju strip, I thumbed a plane ride to Ashiya, Japan, from where I dictated the retreat story to Tokyo.

The trip spread over seven hours but was worth it. I was able to give my office the first news that the 8th Army was falling back in retreat.

This experience is cited only as an example of what all the correspondents in Korea were doing to get stories to their papers. The trip was not unusual and, in fact, was an everyday sort of thing.

Frequently we had the premonition we were pushing our luck too far in riding the war-worn cargo planes day after day. Seven correspondents were killed and others injured in plane accidents. We began to feel that plane rides were a greater hazard than the enemy.

Once a British correspondent, Denis Warner, was returning to Korea aboard a "flying box-car" loaded with 500-pound bombs. The two-engine ship was an hour out of Ashiya when one of the engines dropped off. The plane rapidly began losing altitude.

The pilot ordered the cargo jettisoned. Warner pitched in to help the crew shove bombs into space as air gushed into the open doors and threatened to suck him out of the cabin.

Finally the bombs were pushed into the sea and the plane limped back to Ashiya. Warner recalled: "I didn't know I was frightened until I opened my mouth to speak and not a sound came out."

Before Warner could regain his speech, an Air Force officer had pushed him aboard another plane and he was on his way to Korea again. This time he rode with a load of high octane gasoline.

Sometimes we worked to the point of complete exhaustion, traveling from the front to a communications point—then hurrying back to the front to start all over again.

Covering the Southern battlefront in the early part of the war was a cruel test of stamina for some of us whose joints were beginning to creak a bit. Day after day, we went to the front at Chindong-ni to get the story of the fighting. Then we would climb into a jeep for the 50-mile ride to Pusan, three hours of teeth-rattling over one of the roughest roads in Korea.

Usually, we arrived in Pusan before midnight. Often it was dawn before the story was finished and dictation completed by telephone to Tokyo. I have seen reporters like William H. Lawrence of the New York Times, Phil Potter of the Baltimore Sun and Bob Miller of the United Press hunched over typewriters—filthy and gray with fatigue—punching out stories in the slow motion of men whose fingers refuse to keep pace with their thoughts. After two or three hours of rest, they would return to the front.

•      •      •

Tempers became ragged in this rat-race. We felt keenly that the army was giving us little help with transportation and communications. Once a group of us called on a major general who was in charge of the port operations at Pusan. He greeted us cordially and then announced if he could do anything for us—all we had to do was command him.

Frank Holeman of the New York Daily News unkinked his six feet seven inches and growled: "Would you tell your people, General, to quit treating us like pisoners of war?"

After that, our relations with the army in Pusan were a little better.

There were occasions, of course, when the impossible happened and communications were perfect. Once I picked up a telephone at the 25th Division C. P. and dictated a bulletin to AP's Leif Erickson at 8th Army headquarters—the Reds were in retreat toward Chingju. Within eight minutes that bulletin was flashed across the United States.

On another occasion, Lee Ferrero of International News Service completed three consecutive calls from a division C. P. in North Korea to Tokyo while other reporters sweated for hours to get their calls through over the same circuit. But these small triumphs were the exception. For the most part, the battle of communications in Korea was heartbreaking.

Two of the most fabulous characters in all Korea were the Jones twins, Gene and Charlie. Ex-Marines, they took some of the greatest television movies of the war for NBC. They swarmed all over the front, causing Hal Boyle to comment: "That Jones boy works so hard you'd think there were two of him."

During the Inchon landing, Gene was hit in the chest by mortar shrapnel. He spent weeks on a hospital ship. Finally, Charlie brought Gene to Japan for a rest. I met them at Ashiya where I had flown with a story.

The Jones boys were hungry as usual. Neither of them had a dime. I took them to a little snack bar at the Air Force base and asked them what they wanted.

They chorused: "Malted milks."

I lined up eight malted milks—four each—and they went to work on them. Finally Gene looked up and said dreamily: "Malted milks! They're better than women."

That is a point of view not shared universally—but the story illustrates at least what the rigors of war reporting can do to a man.