Ernest Hemingway may be the most legendary war reporter, but there are many unsung heroes among the war correspondents of World War Two whose lives of bravery and skill deserve wider recognition. Hoosier historian Ray Boomhower seems to be on a one-man mission to address this neglect, giving us in just the last four years two major biographies of journalists whose epic careers on the front lines have faded from public memory.
First came Dispatches from the Pacific (2017), Boomhower’s book on correspondent Robert Sherrod, of Time and Life, whose reports from the front lines at Iwo Jima are still harrowing to read. And now we have the historian’s second work in this field, an ambitious effort to recover the amazing story of a long-forgotten reporter, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam.
Though he was never a famous name, Tregaskis created early in his career a classic of war reporting that was a great critical and popular success. His eyewitness account of the Marines fighting their first major campaign in the Pacific, Guadalcanal Diary (1943), was eagerly read on the home front, where in a pre-television era there was a great hunger for vivid accounts of combat. The book became the basis for a film that almost seems at times a documentary, with a cast full of lesser-known actors at the time battling the enemy on the rugged shores of the Solomon Islands.
Tregaskis’s book remained popular for decades, selling more than three million copies and appearing in twelve foreign translations. It became a model for other reporters all the way up to the Vietnam era. Damon Runyon was so impressed that he said the author was another Stephen Crane with a talent for “presenting a word picture of war that you can not only see but feel.”
As we learn from Boomhower’s excellent research, what was never widely known until this biography’s appearance was the high personal price that Tregaskis paid for his work and other reporting assignments in his long career. He started off with several disadvantages for a life immersed in combat, including being nearsighted and unusually tall for the times, measuring an inch taller than the military’s height limit of six feet five inches. More problematic was his history of diabetes, which he tried to control with varying degrees of success. (At the front he carried tins of sardines for his meals instead of relying on the high-carbohydrate military rations.)
He was so determined to follow the fight at such close quarters that he always assumed death was waiting just around the corner. Danger only emboldened him. The closer he came to “getting killed,” he observed, “the better my story would be, if I survived.”
In Italy, covering the European front near the end of 1943, his luck almost ran out. Shrapnel from German artillery struck him in the head, leaving a hole in his skull which he described as “the size of a soup spoon.” Though the injury sidelined him for months, he was able to resume his work and cover the last months of the war in both Germany and Japan.
Tregaskis never again had a scoop as big as the one he found in the Battle of Guadalcanal, where he was one of only two reporters to land with the Marines. But it was the story of a lifetime, and he had both the courage and the journalistic instincts to capture the action in a memorable fashion. As one admiring critic said, his book became for many Americans at the time “the long letter home we have longed for.” Thanks to this fine new biography, we can at last appreciate the story behind a great classic of wartime journalism.
Professor Michael Shelden of Indiana State University is the author of six biographies, including the Pulitzer Prize Finalist Orwell: The Authorized Biography, which was also a New York Times Notable Book and has been translated into five languages. His study of Mark Twain’s final years, Man in White, was chosen as one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor and Library Journal. For 15 years, he was a features writer for the London Daily Telegraph, and for 10 years he served as a fiction critic for the Baltimore Sun. His work has also appeared in The Shakespeare Quarterly, the Times of London, Victorian Studies, the Washington Post and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His most recent book, Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster in New York and London. A popular speaker, Michael has given lectures for the Churchill Centre, the National World War Two Museum, the Commonwealth Club of California, the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the London Library.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.