Thursday, October 26, 2017

Upcoming Book Signings

Shortly after his best-selling book Tarawa: The Story of a Battle was published in 1943, Robert L. Sherrod, a World War II correspondent for Time and Life magazine, observed, "I was naive enought to supporse that an author was finished with a book, once it was written."

As Sherrod learned, there is plenty to occupy an author's time once his or her book has been published. With that in mind, I will be available to sign copies of my new book about Sherrod's wartime experiences, Dispatches from the Pacific: The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod, at several locations over the next few months. The times and dates are as follows:



Friday, October 6, 2017

Writing in Wartime: Robert L. Sherrod and Tarawa

Late in the afternoon of March 7, 1944, Robert L. Sherrod, a reporter who had been covering the war in the Pacific for Time and Life magazines, boarded an Eastern Airlines plane for a flight from New York to Washington, D.C.

Sherrod was in a good mood because his first book, Tarawa:The Story of a Battle, detailing his experiences with the Second Marine Division battling Japanese troops on Beito Island in the Tarawa Atoll, had just been published—an event, he noted, that “lives in the memory, like the day I was married, the day my first child was born, the day I got my diploma.” That same day the book had received a glowing review in the New York Times, with the reviewer, John Chamberlain, writing that Sherrod’s work marked the first “real book-length introduction to what war can actually mean to a peace-loving people.”

As Sherrod settled happily into his seat, he turned and noticed that sitting next to him was a skinny navy lieutenant who looked too young to be a veteran of combat. Sherrod was astonished to see that the officer was carrying a copy of his new book. He took all of five minutes before he turned and asked the officer his opinion about what he was reading. “It’s O. K.,” the young veteran said, “pretty bloody but that’s the way it is out there.”

The officer, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, went on to explain that he had just been released from a naval hospital on Staten Island and was on his way to Florida to visit with his family. One thing that Kennedy forgot to mention, Sherrod recalled later, was his heroic exploits after his Patrol Torpedo boat (PT-109) had been sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer, the Amagiri, one dark night in August 1943 in the Solomon Islands. For his courage during the ordeal, Kennedy had earned the Navy and Marine Corps medal.

After Sherrod introduced himself as the book’s author, Kennedy passed his copy over to him and asked him to autograph it for his mother, Rose. It was the start of a nineteen-year acquaintance between the two men that ended at a White House luncheon President John Kennedy gave for Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia in October 1963—just a month before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. “You were my first fan,” Sherrod reminded the president.

Sherrod’s book had its start on December 14, 1943, when he received a contract from the publishing firm of Duell, Sloan and Pearce for delivery of an approximately 40,000-word manuscript about Tarawa to its offices before February 1, 1944. As he prepared to work on the book, which was based on notes he had taken while the battle still raged around him and without the benefit of any official documents, Sherrod kept one thought in the back of his mind: To tell “wishful-thinking Americans that war is not always the romantic, smashing adventure the afternoon newspaper headlines make it; nor is it a duel that is won by swarms of high-flying airplanes. War is a cruel, desperate necessity which calls for courage and suffering. It is too bad, but it is true.”

The editor Sherrod worked with, Charles A. Pearce, had high hopes for the book’s success, writing Sherrod early in December, “The more I think about your book the more convinced I am that it is going to be a very much needed contribution and I wish we had it in hand to send off to the printer today.” Although he noted that war books had enjoyed an “uneven fate,” with some selling extremely well and others faring badly, Pearce promised Sherrod that his book would be the biggest on the publisher’s spring 1944 list and would be given “the absolute, fullest backing from the home office in advertising and promotion.”

In outlining his plans for the project, Sherrod said that although many people were trying to find someone to blame for what the heavy casualties that had occurred on Beito, the battle had been won “by sheer courage—when the Marines had nothing else to fall back on, they had courage.” The correspondent also noted that although his work would not be the best-written book of the war—he usually revised his work two or three times but would not have the time to do that with this book—he firmly believed it would be “one of the most exciting books of the war, and I believe it will be the best covered battle story of the war because I lived through every minute of it and I experienced it as thoroughly as anybody on the island did.”

Sherrod urged Pearce to be prepared to have the book printed as soon as possible, as the Marine Corps had asked him to help with a book by its own correspondents about Tarawa—an offer he had declined. Also, it might not be long before “there will be other battles perhaps bigger and bloodier than Tarawa. It seems we should strike while the name is hot.”

The reporter had received permission from his superior at Time, T. S. Matthews, to proceed with his Tarawa project, and Matthews agreed to review the manuscript when finished, making a suggestion here, turning over a paragraph there, crossing out a few words, and marking certain passages “this doesn’t make sense.” To make doubly sure of his accuracy, Sherrod brought aboard Mabel Schubert, who had served as fact checker on some of his articles for Time. He told her not to hesitate to make corrections when needed. “I’d rather have it right than come out ahead of the other books about Tarawa,” he said.  Before going to the printer, the manuscript would also have had to pass a review by the U.S. Navy’s book censor in Washington, D.C., Lieutenant Commander Harold Say.

Sherrod, who had rented a room in a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel to have the solitude necessary for writing, made sure to let Allen Grover, a vice president at Time Inc. and assistant to publisher Henry Luce, know about his new project. “I think it is a story that should be written,” Sherrod explained to Grover. “The people are wise enough to know that their own press has misled them these past two years—like their own sons overseas, they are beginning to suspect that we actually have not been knocking [the] hell out of ’em the past two years.” The manuscript should be finished by January 15, 1944, Sherrod estimated, and he expected to be back in the magazine’s New York office by February 1.

Grover gave his blessing to the project, but did express some reservations, noting that sometimes, when Time’s writers used their vacations to write books, they would “write themselves out—and return to the magazine stripped of ideas, emotion and vigor. But I know you have a hell of a supply of all three, so I’m not worried.” Sherrod wrote Glover back telling him not to worry, noting he should have the opportunity to get a couple of weeks’ rest before returning to his Time duties in early February. “You see the pressure is on me,” Sherrod said. “But I think I’ll make it.” He even anticipated being able to work on the book as he flew to Detroit, Michigan, on January 10 to make a speech before the Automotive Engineers Society.

By January 9, Sherrod had reached the halfway point in his work, and was racing madly to meet his deadline. “My wife, who is actually my severest critic,” Sherrod wrote Pearce, “thinks that first half is swell. She likes practically nothing I write, so I don’t know whether to be comforted or not.” Sherrod was less sanguine about his progress in an earlier letter to an officer friend in San Francisco, Captain C. A. Woodrum Jr. of the Fifth Amphibious Corps, admitting that the work “is killing me.” Although it seemed simple enough to write a narrative on a subject for which he had fairly complete notes, Sherrod had found it “awfully hard to put words between two hard covers.”

His publisher had high expectations for the Tarawa book, believing it would be read by more people than war correspondent Richard Tregaskis’s 1943 best-seller Guadalcanal Diary, later made into a film with the same title, or any other book yet produced about the war. As a “gloomy fellow,” however, Sherrod could not “see any reason to share their optimism.” Sherrod and his publisher did agree on one thing—a title. As he had worked on his manuscript, the correspondent had suggested “Report from Tarawa,” but later agreed with Pearce on the sales conference’s consensus, “Tarawa: The Story of a Battle,” noting, “it suits me.”

By January 19 Sherrod found himself still 4,000 to 5,000 words short in spite of working for thirty-six straight hours and finishing 144 pages. He faulted himself for repeating too many verbs, but noted there were only so many he could use to describe bombing and shelling in his dazed state of mind. “I have used the word ‘fucking,’ which my wife objects to strenuously and I don’t like overly,” he admitted to Pearce. “I have used the word ‘ass,’ which is a favorite Marine word several times. Perhaps too many times. But I’m in favor of retaining it where no other word can very well be substituted.”

Sherrod did express some confidence in the book’s chances with the public. “This is no masterpiece,” he said, “but it is factual reporting to a degree that hasn’t been done before. And the evaluation is solid, I’m sure, after talking to the smartest officers I know.” By late January, Sherrod had finished, and celebrated his achievement by traveling to Hot Springs, Virginia, for a well-earned rest, sleeping sixteen hours one night, twelve hours the night before, and fourteen hours the night before that, he wrote Matthews.

Published on March 7, 1944, with a first printing of 25,000 copies, Sherrod’s Tarawa: The Story of a Battle, proved to be a hit with the critics, the public, and the military, having to go into a second printing of 15,000 copies by the end of the month and edging into the best-seller lists of the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune—all this for a book whose last thirty-some pages listed the names of those who were killed or wounded in action on Beito.

By the first of May Sherrod could report to John E. Drewry, his old journalism teacher at the University of Georgia, that the book had done far better than he had expected, with its first three printings totaling 50,000 copies having sold out. (Later, the book appeared in a dozen languages, including Hungarian and Serbo-Croat, and sold five times as many copies when it was printed in Japanese in 1950 than it had in English, noted Sherrod.) “Booksellers generally think the public is fed up with war books, and I am frankly surprised that mine is doing as well as it is,” Sherrod wrote a friend.

The book’s initial success had been spurred in part by a positive notice from one of the country’s most respected critics, Edmund Wilson, whose reviews appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Wilson called Tarawa an “altogether exceptional book produced by a war correspondent,” as it eschewed the usual “vices of journalism, and provides perhaps the best first-hand description of action that has yet come out of the war.” The battle, he continued, had been reported by Sherrod “in all its misery, mischance, and confusion just as it was lived through by one man. Not, however, that Mr. Sherrod is particularly interested in himself; he differs from certain other reporters of wars in not being at all preoccupied with his own reactions to danger; he merely notes, along with other things, as details of the general picture, his frights or forgetfulness of bullets. He sets down what people say, what they do, how they look.”

John Chamberlain of the New York Times reiterated Wilson’s view, describing Sherrod’s effort as “the first real book-length introduction to what war can actually mean to a peace-loving people,” capturing, as it did, the sights, noise, and smell of battle."

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The General and the Reporter: George Marshall and Robert L. Sherrod

The telephone call came early in the morning on Saturday, November 15, 1941, in the Washington, D.C., home of Robert L. Sherrod. He had been expecting a busy day, as he needed to pack for a trip to cover U.S. Army maneuvers in North Carolina as part of his work as Time magazine’s military reporter. The 295,000 members of infantry and mechanized units set to clash in the region between the Catawba and Dee Rivers needed to train all they could that fall. Nazi Germany soldiers had already overrun much of Europe and were closing in on Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. Closer to America’s own shores, German U-boats ruled the Atlantic Ocean, daring even to sink ships from the U.S. Navy.

Sherrod had been in Washington, D.C., as correspondent for Time Inc.’s office in the nation’s capital since 1936 and had seen the staff grow from two people to twelve for the three publications in Henry Luce’s empire—Time, Life, and Fortune. Since June 1941, however, Sherrod had switched from the political beat to covering the slow buildup of American military forces. It had been a long, uphill fight to respectability for an American army that ranked seventeenth in size and combat ability, just behind Romania, when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

In the summer of 1941 Sherrod had traveled to the swamps of Louisiana to report on how approximately 400,000 U.S. troops fared in maneuvers—then the largest the army had ever held—that ranged over an area of 3,400 square miles under the direction of General Lesley J. McNair, chief of staff, General Headquarters, U.S. Army.

The reporters covering the maneuvers, including Sherrod, had been impressed with what they had observed of the soldiers, some of whom were equipped not with the modern weapons needed for battle, but ersatz substitutes (wooden signs marked where machine guns, antiaircraft guns, and foxholes should have been situated on the battlefield). “These maneuvers have been very good for the army,” said Sherrod. “There have been a lot of mistakes, but they have learned a lot. It’s a good thing. . . . Their morale is much better than it was two or three months ago. For one thing, they have to work so hard during maneuvers they dont have time to think about morale. Morale among the Armored Forces and Air Forces and among all the Southern troops, who are busting to get into war, is especially high.”

At his house in Washington in December preparing to cover additional army maneuvers, these in North Carolina, Sherrod was surprised to have his packing interrupted by a telephone call from Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Grogan, the War Department’s deputy chief of public relations. “Can you come to a secret conference with General [George] Marshall at 10:15?” Grogan asked. Sherrod agreed, and Grogan promptly hung up the phone, as he had calls to place to other journalists.

Including Sherrod, seven Washington correspondents—Ernest Lindley of Newsweek, Charles Hurd of the New York Times, Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune, Eddie Bomar of the Associated Press, Lyle Wilson of United Press, and Harold Slater of the International News Service—gathered in Marshall’s office at the Munitions Building for what Sherrod remembered as “the most astonishing press conference” he ever attended in a journalism career that spanned more than three decades.

Filing into Marshall’s office, Sherrod observed that the general stood before a massive map of the Pacific, embellished with, as Sherrod noted, “connecting semicircles and quarter circles.” Marshall, the army’s chief of staff since 1939, impressed the Time reporter, who described him as exuding “the same sort of integrity one finds in a [Gilbert] Stuart portrait of [George] Washington.” Marshall started off by saying he was embarrassed at calling a press conference that would not produce any news, as what he had to say had to be considered top secret. Dressed in civilian clothes, as he customarily did in peacetime, the sixty-year-old Marshall told the assembled reporters that there were some things he wanted to tell them, Sherrod recalled, “in order that our interpretations of current and forthcoming events did not upset essential military strategy of the United States. In other words: Be careful what you print.”

Without raising his voice, the general said, “The United States is on the brink of war with Japan.” Sherrod was not surprised by this statement, as anyone who had been reading the newspapers knew that relations between the two countries “had gone from bad to terrible, particularly since President Roosevelt had frozen Japanese assets four months earlier, which effectually cut off Japan’s oil supply.” If war did break out, Marshall said the United States had an asset the Japanese did not know about, as the American military had “access to a leak in all the information the Japanese are receiving concerning our military preparations, especially in the Philippines,” where General Douglas MacArthur had been called back to active duty as commander of army forces in the Far East.

“In other words,” Sherrod quoted Marshall as saying, “we know what they know about us, and they don’t know that we know it.” The reporters did not know it at the time, but they had been given a hint at one of the government’s most closely guarded secrets—American cryptographers had been able to decipher Japan’s diplomatic code, an operation codenamed MAGIC, and could intercept and decode the messages sent from Tokyo to Japan’s overseas embassies (U.S. Navy cryptographers later broke the Japanese Imperial Fleet’s code, helping win the crucial Battle of Midway).

Marshall told the reporters that counter to what the Japanese believed, the United States was not only prepared to defend the Philippines, but that the American military also expected to undertake the offensive against Japan. In addition to sending a large number of advanced B-17 Flying Fortresses to MacArthur, Marshall said shipments were headed to the general that included the military’s new 75-mm gun, as well as tanks and dive-bombing units that had participated in the recent maneuvers in Louisiana.

“This information will be allowed to leak to the Japanese (it is miraculous that they haven’t learned about the Flying Fortresses, but the two attempts that have been made to publish the fact have been thwarted),” Sherrod wrote in a confidential memorandum about the meeting to his Time editor, David Hulburd. “But it must be allowed to leak privately, from the White House or the State Department directly to Japanese officials. . . . If it got out publicly, the Army fanatics in Japan would be in a position to demand war immediately, before we were better fortified.” If the leak went only to the right officials, they could, Sherrod added, say to top members of the Japanese government that the Americans meant to bomb their cities and possessed the means to do so. “In that way,” Sherrod wrote, “no public face-saving would be necessary, and war might be averted. The last thing the U.S. wants is a war with Japan which would divide our strength. The Germans are pushing the Japanese from 19 directions to get them into war with the U.S., as everybody knows.”

Marshall told the assembled reporters that if war did break out with Japan, the United States would “fight mercilessly,” intending to send B-17s on missions to set the country’s paper cities ablaze, and the Flying Fortresses would soon be joined by the new, long-range B-24 Liberator bombers. “Nothing that I am telling you today is publishable, even in hinted form,” Marshall warned the journalists.

One aspect of a war with Japan had gone without mention by the army chief of staff—the role the American navy would play in the Pacific. Given that a number of the country’s fighting ships had been diverted to the Atlantic to meet the U-boat threat, Marshall, in a comment that seems incredible in light of what was to come, stated, according to Sherrod’s account: “The grand strategy doesn’t include the use of much naval force.” (Navy men to whom Sherrod talked to expressed confidence they could “polish off the little bastards” in a matter of three or maybe six months, he recalled.) Marshall believed that U.S. bombers would be sufficient to deter Japanese naval strength, with America’s “high flying big bombers” able to wreak havoc on the enemy. Sherrod noted that army air corps officers were enthusiastic about their bombers’ ability to drop their loads “into a pickle barrel from 15,000 feet” with the aid of the top-secret Norden bombsight. The bombers did display considerable accuracy, he added, at least “on a clear day with no enemy to harass them.”

Gasoline and bombs were already in place at landing fields in Australia, New Zealand, and Borneo, Sherrod reported, as well as a half dozen other spots, and supplies were being sent to India, where the British were not yet prepared to protect shipping in the Indian Ocean. Marshall warned the reporters that the “danger period” for the United States was the first ten days of December. “If we get by that, we’re OK until February,” Sherrod wrote. “By then MacArthur will have plenty in the Philippines.”

(Unfortunately, the dive bombers never made it to the Philippines, nor did the additional B-17s. A few weeks after the December 7 Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, and its subsequent quick dispatch of U.S. aircraft in the Philippines, Sherrod was part of another media conference with Marshall in Washington. His only recollection of that meeting is the general “shaking his head and saying: ‘It’s all clear to me now except one thing. I just don’t know how MacArthur happened to let his planes get caught on the ground.’”)

In spite of admonitions from Marshall that his remarks should be kept in confidence, news reports about the general’s assessment of the coming conflict with Japan slowly began to make their way into print. On November 19, just a few days after Marshall’s media conference, the New York Times ran an article by Arthur Krock that outlined how the long-accepted view that the United States would not defend the Philippines in case of an attack by Japan had been altered and now America had the ability “to attack any far Eastern power that strikes at the island.”

Sherrod also played a role in passing along what he had learned from Marshall, confiding in a friend, fellow reporter Ralph McGill. The two men had worked together at the Atlanta Constitution—McGill, at first, in the newspaper’s sports department and Sherrod as the “greenest cub reporter.” After finishing his assignment covering the army maneuvers in the Carolinas in early December, Sherrod had lunch in Atlanta with McGill, now editorial page editor for the Constitution. Sounding off in all of his Washington wisdom, Sherrod relayed to his friend that the United States was soon “bound to be at war with the Japs.”

On December 2, in his column “One Word More,” McGill passed along to his readers an “interesting story” he had heard—the Japanese had been told by the American government that it was determined to defend the Philippines and could launch a counter-attack on any foe in the Pacific from its bases on the archipelago. “This country is ready to go to war with Japan,” McGill wrote. “Japan now knows it. She knows what some of our plans are. She reportedly knows what we have [militarily] in the Philippines.” McGill went on to write that the Roosevelt administration preferred a course of peace, and saw “no reason to fight Japan so long as Japan does not encroach on our interests.” Still, the columnist concluded, because the Japanese government was firmly “in the grip of a military clique which must fight to survive,” Japan would likely “go to war even though the people do not want it. It looks like war and that soon.”

After his meeting with McGill, Sherrod flew to U.S. Army Air Corps command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, staying there a day or two during a bout of miserable weather waiting for the skies to clear for a flight home to Washington. He arrived in Washington about noon on December 7, immediately going to bed with a cold. “My wife woke me about 3:30 [p.m.], and announced calmly: ‘The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor.’ I knew then I wouldn’t be in the U.S. much longer.” 

He was correct. By February 1942 Sherrod, joined by thirteen other correspondents and photographers from a variety of news agencies, was on his way to Australia on a convoy with army troops sent to bolster the meager defenses against a possible Japanese attack—a situation that correspondent John Lardner of the North American News Alliance grimly recalled as “the unready and peace-loving [the United States] against the swift, hungry, and prepared [Japan].”


Sherrod and his compatriots survived a rumored near-collision with an enemy submarine and a violent storm that delayed their arrival at Brisbane. Standing at the rail of the ship looking at the green Australian horizon, Sherrod asked the man next to him, Captain John Dice, a Tennessee-born graduate of West Point, what it took to win a war in addition to guns, ammunition, and planes. The captain replied: “Just guts—guts to sit under guns when you know your next breath may be your last.” When Sherrod wondered if the young men he had grown to know on the voyage had what it took for such an effort, Dice responded: “Hell Bob, these are American soldiers."