From the foxhole: American newsmen and the reporting of World War II.

Author:Buljung, Brianna


As the fighting occurred on the beaches of Normandy, in the mountains of Italy, and on the islands of the Pacific, Americans craved news about those battles and the fate of their loved ones serving in the military. Over 2,000 men and women who served as war correspondents during World War II supplied that information to them through newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, and the newly invented television. The life of the average American war correspondent was little better than that of the soldiers they covered. Many newsmen, like Ernie Pyle, a Scripps-Howard correspondent, lived with the units they covered, enduring mud, enemy fire, and army rations just as they did. Some, including Pyle and Bill Mauldin, a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, spent considerable time at the front. War correspondents followed the scoop, sending news of the latest action home via telegraph and radio. Often, they were assigned to a particular theater of operations or battlefront, but could travel as they pleased between rear areas and the front. Their work enlightened the home front on the course of the war and offers historians valuable contemporary perspectives of World War II.

In the 1930s and 1940s, most Americans relied on print journalism as their primary source for news. (1) Local and national newspapers brought the latest information from around the world to their readers. Magazines and syndicated news sources provided a broad national audience with the work of the most popular political and feature writers of the period. This era also marked a turning point in the history of communication as Americans experienced new and exciting ways of receiving information. Widespread ownership of radios, popular attendance at newsreels, and the advent of television increased the American public's access to information pertaining to the war.

As American soldiers fought in Africa, Asia, and Europe, newspapers served as the primary connection between the home front and the troops. Unlike the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers who fought in World War II did not enjoy the luxury of instant communication with loved ones back home. Mail delivery from war zones was sporadic and heavily censored. Journalists posted stories to their newspapers from the front every day. Within days of a battle, their words spread the story across the United States. Pyle and Mauldin provided both information about the war and insight into the men fighting in it. Pyle had contact with soldiers in Europe and the Pacific. He also interacted with a wider cross-section of the American armed forces, interviewing flyers, infantrymen, medics, civilians, and naval personnel. Mauldin focused on infantry soldiers who fought in Europe, particularly those involved in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns. Neither

journalist could fully and truthfully portray the war as he saw it. Their work was restricted by censorship guidelines implemented by the military. They also self-censored their work due to the "good fight" mentality that prevailed during the war. Journalists understood the importance of their work, both at home and at the front, and were expected to aid the war effort by maintaining high morale. (2)

The work of the news media during World War II is an important source for historians in that it provides a contemporary perspective on the tides of battle just as the American public received such information over sixty years ago. News materials composed during the war are available to historians in a variety of forms. The most valuable source is the original report printed in newspapers and magazines. By informing the public of the course of the fighting, these reports shaped its perception of the war. Their placement among other articles and advertisements which appeared in those newspapers and magazines reveal the prominence of a particular writer and his/her story.

Upon their return home, publishing and film companies approached these journalists with offers to purchase the story of their work on the battlefield. Much of their published work emphasized the romantic and adventurous aspects of being a war correspondent. They focused on dangerous escapes and close encounters with the enemy rather than the daily monotony of war. (3) The published works of prominent journalists were compiled into collections by either the reporters themselves or an editor, thus preserving their work for future readers. Yet, in doing so, they have removed the articles from their original context. (4) Consequently, one cannot grasp how people reacted to their stories in order to realize the true impact of these reporters on the home front.

The majority of scholarly work on American wartime correspondents can be divided into three categories. Some scholars have limited their studies to a particular journalist, providing the reader with a detailed account of the writer's childhood, education, and professional career. Such works include James Tobin's biography of Ernie Pyle and Vincent Sheen's work on Dorothy Thompson. These all-inclusive biographies offer substantial detail about the adventures of the journalist but rarely address the form and content of his/ her work. They focus on the actions and perceptions of a particular journalist without offering an in-depth analysis of the topical, grammatical, and tonal structure of the work they produced. (5) A second group of scholars have explored the transformation of the field of journalism over time. Their work analyzes long periods of the history of journalism with little critical insight into the content of the work written from the front lines. Still, such sources are important for studying trends and technological changes in the history of the journalistic trade. Frank Luther Mott and Phillip Knightly's studies of war correspondents provide good examples of this type of historical text. (6) A third group of scholars have focused on individual eras, such as World War II, but essentially create lists of the prominent correspondents. Each reporter is featured in a chapter depicting their adventures, but there is little discussion of their literary work. Lilya Wagner's study of female journalists and John McNamara's work on American correspondents each consign a reporter to a chapter with little effort to discuss their work comparatively. (7)

Each type of source, in its own way, is important for an understanding of American wartime journalism. They all contain valuable information about individual journalists and overarching trends in the industry. Moreover, they provide important background information for any study of the period. But there is one major drawback--none offer a critical assessment of the work produced by the journalists themselves. They focus on the exploits and interactions of reporters rather than the work that defined them. Prominent journalists, whose names have survived through the decades, are remembered because they brought something unique to their craft. Some, like Stephen Crane, Theodor Geisel, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and E.B. White, combined successful journalistic and literary careers. (8) Pyle, a forty-something travel writer, brought the stories of soldiers home to their families. Dorothy Thompson always had a ready opinion. Edward R. Murrow became the voice of broadcast journalism. Mauldin gave a face to every American soldier who served at the front. These journalistic giants need to be evaluated based on how their work effected the development of journalism.

The journalists featured in this study will be examined using a basic set of criteria. First, this study considers the physical location and method of publication for each reporter. Battlefield conditions and their impact on journalists varied greatly depending on the theater of operations and season. Second, this study explores the stylistic elements of their work. How did each journalist approach his/her work? Ultimately, all journalists accomplished the same goal of providing important information about the war to the public, but their methods of execution differed greatly. By looking at the stylistic peculiarities of a journalist, one can see how they shaped the public's perception of the war and the common soldier. Another aspect of wartime reporting that bears scrutiny is the audience of each journalist. Each reporter related to their audience in different ways because they were paid to provide specific information to a particular subgroup of the American population. They did so under censorship regulations particular to their theater of operations and type of work. All of these dimensions can be found in the work of any wartime correspondent, but they are particularly visible in the work of Pyle and Mauldin. Their work has come to define the image of the soldiers who fought in that conflict. (9) Accordingly, Pyle and Mauldin have become iconic representations of war reporting. Pyle shaped the American public's understanding of the war by featuring individual soldiers in his articles. In doing so, he highlighted their personalities and accomplishments through vignettes. Mauldin used his cartoon characters, Willie and Joe, to reveal the everyday trials and tribulations of American infantrymen at the front.

Although Pyle did not survive the coverage of his first war--he was killed by sniper fire in April 1945--he was an exceedingly popular wartime journalist and is still regarded as one of the best who ever served in that capacity. His journalistic career began at Indiana University, where he worked as the night editor for the Daily Indianan. (10) During the 1930s, Pyle made a name for himself as a roving reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, one of the largest newspaper conglomerates in the United States, comprised of papers from every region of the country (e.g., Washington Daily News', St. Louis' Post-Dispatch, and Rocky Mountain News). Pyle traveled around the United States for three...

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