Friday, June 28, 2019

The Dark Horse: Wendell Willkie and the 1940 Election

In late June 1940, just days after France had fallen to Nazi Germany, delegates to the Republican Party’s national convention gathered in Philadelphia. They had before them two strong possible candidates to challenge incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office. Both Robert A.Taft, a U.S. senator from Ohio and grandson of William Howard Taft, and Thomas E. Dewey, famed for his exploits as New York’s district attorney, had names recognizable to most Republicans.

There was, however, a third candidate for the presidential nomination, a newcomer to politics who had begun to attract widespread attention from the media and young people who had never before been part of the political process—Wendell Willkie of Indiana.

Willkie, a lawyer and utilities executive who had been a Democrat only a year before, had been described by best-selling author Booth Tarkington as “a man wholly natural in manner . . . a good, sturdy, able, plain Hoosier . . . a man as American as the courthouse yard in the square of an Indiana county seat.”

These attractive qualities, however, failed to attract Old Guard Republicans, who were suspicious of Willkie’s liberal views, including his support for aid to England in its war with Germany. While walking through the lobby of his Philadelphia hotel, Willkie ran into James E. Watson, a conservative U.S. senator from Indiana. When Watson refused Willkie’s request for support for the nomination, citing his former ties to the Democratic Party, Willkie noted Watson was a Methodist and asked if he believed in conversion. “Yes Wendell,” Watson replied, “if the town whore truly repented and wanted to join my church, I’d welcome her. I would greet her personally and lead her up the aisle to the front pew, but I’d be damned if I’d ask her to lead the choir the first night.”

There were, however, powerful figures ready to offer Willkie their support, including publishing giant Henry L. Luce and fellow New York businessmen. In an unprecedented move, the New York Herald Tribune ran an editorial on its front page calling on Republicans to support Willkie and describing him as “heaven’s gift to the nation in time of crisis.” Delegates were inundated with telegrams and letters urging them to pick Willkie as the GOP standard-bearer. Kenneth F. Simpson, a leader of the Republican Party in New York, told reporters he had received more than a hundred thousand messages leading up to the convention touting Willkie’s candidacy. “I have never seen anything like it,” Simpson declared.

Willkie defied the odds and managed to take the lead in balloting at the convention. With supporters demanding “We want Willkie! We want Willkie,” delegates finally turned to the neophyte politician on the sixth ballot, giving him the GOP presidential nomination. Willkie told delegates that he and his running mate, Charles L. McNary, a conservative U.S. senator from Oregon, would conduct “a crusading, aggressive fighting campaign.”

Residents of Elwood, Indiana, Willkie’s hometown, reacted to the news with jubilation. According to reports from the New York Herald Tribune, residents of the town “slapped each other on the back, asking whether they had ever expected such an achievement for ‘Wendell.’ Those who could collect their wits to answer vowed they had ‘known it all along.’”

The scenes of joy that greeted reports of Willkie’s nomination paled in comparison to the reaction the native son received when he returned to Elwood on August 17 to formally accept his nomination. Throngs jammed the Madison County community’s streets to catch a glimpse of the new presidential candidate and to hear his speech at Callaway Park.

Although both Roosevelt and Willkie shared similar views when it came to foreign policy, especially the need to aid England in its desperate struggle to survive against the Nazi onslaught, the campaign was marked by some tough tactics by both parties. The Republicans had intercepted some embarrassing letters written by Henry Wallace, the sometimes eccentric and mystical Democratic vice presidential candidate. The GOP had to relent on release the letters, however, when their opponents threatened to reveal details of Willkie’s suspected affair with noted writer Irita Van Doren. Wallace went on the offensive himself, telling crowds that Willkie would be the Nazi’s preferred candidate.

Willkie attempted to sway the electorate, many of whom were unwilling to commit America to armed conflict, by warning them that if Roosevelt won, American women could expect to start preparing “wooden crosses for sons and brothers and sweethearts” killed in the fighting. For his part, Roosevelt tried to ignore Willkie, telling his supporters to refrain from ever mentioning his opponent by name. “Many people, hundreds of people, just cannot remember names,” Roosevelt noted. “If they don’t hear the opponent’s name, that is a clear gain for us. They have heard my name so often and so long that it in itself is a politic asset, and you can trust them, particularly the Roosevelt haters, to say my name plenty of times.”

In the November election, Roosevelt defeated Willkie by approximately five million votes, as well as winning by a large margin in the Electoral College, 449 to 82. Still, Willkie had run impressively in the farm states of the Midwest and had polled more than six million more votes than had the GOP’s 1936 candidate for president, Alfred M. Landon. Willkie, who died on October 8, 1944, had earned the respect of his opponent, Roosevelt. “You know,” Roosevelt told a friend, “Willkie would have made a good Democrat. Too bad we lost him.”

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Ace: Hoosier Fighter Pilot Alex Vraciu

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, those in the United States that were listening to their radios were stunned to hear of an attack by the Japanese Empire on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. At 2:26 p.m., Len Sterling, staff announcer for WOR Radio in New York, interrupted a broadcast of a professional football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants at the Polo Grounds to read the following bulletin from the United Press news agency: “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President [Franklin] Roosevelt has just announced.”
Soon, other radio stations broadcast the momentous news to a stunned and disbelieving nation. Some even thought that broadcasters were trying to pull a hoax similar to the one Orson Welles had done with his famous October 30, 1938, War of the World broadcast on Halloween that tricked some Americans into thinking the nation was being invaded by Martians. Others, however, were determined to avenge the defeat and began lining up at recruiting centers for the army, navy, and marines.
In December 1941 twenty-three-year-old Alex Vraciu, born in the Indiana Harbor section of East Chicago, Indiana, the second child and only son of a longtime police officer in that community, was stationed at the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Glenview, Illinois. There he had received training to become a fully qualified navy pilot. Vraciu had recently graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was respected for his athletic ability, but best known for having a wicked sense of humor and for playing an elaborate prank with his fraternity brothers on a psychology professor that received nationwide attention.
During a summer break from his college studies between his junior and senior year at DePauw, Vraciu had earned a private pilot’s license through the federal government’s Civilian PilotTraining Program. Relaxing at the home of his uncle in the Chicago suburbs that fateful Sunday in December, Vraciu remembered being as shocked as millions of other Americans were when they heard the news over the radio about the disaster at Pearl Harbor. “I had a big mad on . . . after Pearl Harbor,” recalled Vraciu, whose anger also grew as he later saw his friends fall to Japanese gunfire. He vowed to gain a measure of revenge on the enemy, and his uncle promised to pay him $100 for each Japanese aircraft he destroyed.
Vraciu earned his navy wings in August 1942 and eventually became one of the more than 300 navy pilots flying from U.S. carriers in the Pacific Theater to earn the title of an ace (downing five confirmed enemy aircraft in aerial combat). He did so while flying the famous F6F Hellcat fighter plane built by the Grumman Aircraft Company of Bethpage, New York. “The Hellcat gave us not only the speed, range, and climb to compete successfully against the Zero,” Vraciu noted, “but it could dictate the rules of combat.” One Hellcat pilot spoke for many when he exclaimed: “I love this airplane so much that if it could cook I’d marry it.”
While stationed in Hawaii early on during his service, Vraciu became the wingman of a legendary pilot, Lieutenant Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare, who had been awarded his country’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for shooting down five Japanese bombers. “We were training with a legend. I learned my trade from one of the best!” Vraciu said of O’Hare, for whom O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is named. “He taught you lessons you didn’t realize until you are fighting in combat yourself that may have saved your life.”
Vraciu learned well with O’Hare’s Fighting Squadron 6. Finally making it into combat at the end of August 1943 as part of a strafing raid on a Japanese base on Marcus Island, Vraciu earned his first aerial victory by shooting down a Zero in October during a mission against Wake Island. Vraciu’s feud with his opponents in the air had become much more personal when he learned that his mentor, O’Hare, had been killed in combat on November 26, 1943, apparently by a Japanese Betty bomber during a confused night battle. He vowed to shoot down ten of the same aircraft to avenge O’Hare’s death.
The Hoosier pilot began to make good on his promise and achieved ace status on January 29, 1944, when he downed three Betty bombers near Kwajalein. “Between the vow on Butch and Pearl Harbor, I think that probably was the biggest single motivator—driving force—in my life as to why I preferred to be out there rather than back home,” Vraciu later explained. “I’d rather be in combat. That’s really what it did to me. That’s the honest truth.”
Possessed with keen eyesight, quick reflexes, excellent shooting instincts, and a knack for finding his opponent’s weak spot, Vraciu became skilled in the deadly game of destroying the enemy in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. “That was our job,” he noted. “That is what we were trained to do. You can’t be squeamish about the thing or you don’t belong in a cockpit of that kind of an airplane [a fighter]. Nobody told you it was going to be an easy job.”
For a period of four months in 1944, Vraciu stood as the leading ace in the U.S. Navy. He shot down nineteen enemy airplanes in the air, destroyed an additional twenty-one on the ground, and sank a large Japanese merchant ship with a well-placed bomb hit. He also earned a distinction as “Grumman’s best customer,” as he twice had to ditch his Hellcat in the ocean due to battle damage or mechanical failure, and two of the carriers he served on were torpedoed (but not sank) by the Japanese.
Perhaps Vraciu’s most notable achievement in the war came on the morning of June 19, 1944, while part of a carrier task force protecting American forces landing on Saipan in the Mariana Islands. Facing an attack from a large Japanese fleet, Vraciu and other American pilots rushed to their planes to protect the American ships in a lopsided air battle that became known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.
Calling the mission a “once-in-a-lifetime fighter pilot’s dream” when he spotted a large mass of enemy planes bearing down on the U.S. fleet, Vraciu, launched from the USS Lexington, pounced on the Japanese and shot down six dive-bombers in just eight minutes. “I looked ahead,” Vraciu told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “There was nothing but Hellcats in the sky. I looked back. Up above were curving vapor trails. And down on the sea, in a pattern 35 miles long, was a series of flaming dots where oil slicks were burning.”

The Hoosier pilot had accomplished this stunning feat despite a number of mechanical difficulties. Engine trouble caused Vraciu’s windshield to be smeared with oil, which meant he had to fly his Hellcat close to the enemy so he could see what he was aiming at. Later he also learned that he flew his mission with his plane’s wings not securely locked into place (aircraft serving on carriers usually had folding wings in order to be stored in the tight confines of the ship). Returning to the Lexington, Vraciu found that he had used just 360 rounds of ammunition from his Hellcat’s six .50-calibre machine guns—an impressive display of shooting.

Vraciu’s luck, however, finally ran out on December 14, 1944, during a strafing run against a Japanese airfield before the American invasion to retake the Philippines. Heavy anti-aircraft fire hit his Hellcat, puncturing his oil tank. “I knew I had it,” he remembered. “Oil was gushing out and going all over my canopy, and my oil pressure was rapidly dropping. There was no way I’d be able to get back to my carrier.”
After safely bailing out of his stricken plan, Vraciu parachuted to the ground close to enemy-held territory near Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano. Luckily he was almost immediately rushed to safety by a small group of U.S. Army of the Far East guerrillas, who had been battling the Japanese in the area for the past few years. The small force was under the command of an American who had escaped from Japanese capture after the surrender of U.S. troops in 1942.
The navy flyer spent the next five weeks with the guerrillas, receiving the honorary rank of brevet major while with them. “For the final week of this episode,” Vraciu recalled, “I found myself in command of 180 men, dodging Japanese to meet General [Douglas] MacArthur’s advancing Americans.” He finally marched into an American camp carrying with him a captured Japanese pistol and sword. Unfortunately, because of his time behind enemy lines, Vraciu was prevented by navy officials from participating in the last missions against the Japanese home islands. When the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, Vraciu, the navy’s fourth-ranking ace, was in the United States flying as a test pilot at the Naval Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland.
After the war, Vraciu remained in the navy, working in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. During the 1950s he reached the “ultimate desire of all fighter pilots” when he took command of his own squadron, becoming the leader of Fighter Squadron 51, flying North American FJ-3 Fury jet fighters. Retiring from the navy in 1964 with the rank of commander, Vraciu began a career in banking for Wells Fargo in California, and raised with his wife, Betty, five children (three daughters and two sons).
Vraciu died at the age of ninety-six on January 29, 2015. To the end, he remained modest about his exploits during the war, and his achievements as an ace. In an oral history interview, he noted, “We didn’t say, ‘Ah, I’m going to be an ace!’ Nor did many people say, ‘Congratulations, Ace.’ More probably, they’d kid you. You’d say: ‘How do you spell ace? With an s or a c?’”

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Reporter and the City: John Bartlow Martin and Chicago

As a boy growing up in Indianapolis, John Bartlow Martin remembered a memorable trip his parents took him on to visit a distant male cousin who lived not far from Wrigley Field in Chicago. A bookish, small child, Martin had been immediately impressed by the city, including the “unbelievable Lake Michigan,” as well as his relative’s audaciousness. One night, as Martin’s cousin and his wife were driving to a movie, his car broke down, “so he traded it on the spot for a new one,” a “magnificent gesture” that Martin later thought of as “having something to do with the Chicago spirit.”

Chicago had a siren call for Martin, as it was the home of novelist Sherwood Anderson, the place where labor leader Eugene V. Debs had led the Pullman strikers, attorney Clarence Darrow had battled for justice in the courtroom, and “a country boy” named John Dillinger had been gunned down by lawmen. It also seemed to be a place “hospitable to new and sometimes hostile ideas,” he noted, pointing to Chicago having as its poets Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, and Theodore Dreiser ad James T. Farrell its novelists. “The horizons in Indiana seemed suffocatingly close,” said Martin, “the ceiling in Chicago unlimited. And as fast as I could I went.”

With the failure of his first marriage, Martin, a former reporter with the Indianapolis Times, packed his bags and decided to move to Chicago to make his mark as a freelance writer. In the fall of 1938 he found a room at the Milner Hotel, located at the northwest corner of Rush Street and Grand Avenue. Part of the coast-to-coast empire of 130 units in twenty-six states owned by company founder Earle Milner, the hotel offered the tired traveling businessmen and tourist basic lodging at a reasonable price—“A Room and a Bath for a Dollar-and-a-Half,” boasted the chain’s motto. In addition to the Milner’s inexpensive rates (five dollars a week monthly), its management paid the cab fare from the railroad station for guests and also provided them free laundry service. “It suited me fine,” said Martin. “I had nothing but one suitcase and a portable typewriter. I had a room with a bed and through the dirty window a view of the fire escape.”

Having escaped from his depressing Indianapolis childhood (two of his brothers had died at a young age), Martin was thrilled to be in a vibrant and colorful city and delighted in its “free-wheeling, go-getting” spirit. While a high school student, he had wandered with a friend though Indianapolis’s scanty slums, disappointed they were so small, while in Chicago “there were acres and acres of them, all mine.”

Martin even enjoyed the noisy traffic on the Outer Drive and Western Avenue, the sound of the elevated trains as they “roared by overhead on the wondrous El, reared against the sky,” and the bright lights of Randolph Street’s theatrical district. “There was nothing like this in Indiana,” he said. As he had while he was a freshman at DePauw University, Martin, suddenly single, behaved foolishly for a time, sleeping most of the day, writing at night, and drinking beer while he worked. He soon discovered, however, that he could not keep up such a lifestyle and make a living and fell into a regular routine he followed for years to come—writing from nine in the morning to five in the evening and avoiding drinking alcohol between those working hours.

The near north side neighborhood in which the Milner stood, and its sometimes shifty clientele, offered their own distractions for the budding freelancer. A scattering of garrets, apartment houses, French restaurants, and nightclubs filled with artists, writers, performers, and hoodlums dotted the neighborhood. “In the expensive nightclubs,” Martin remembered, “you could see not only well-to-do suburbanites, but big shot Syndicate men with their show girls. Ever since [Al] Capone’s time, Chicagoans have enjoyed gangster watching.” A disappointed Martin soon discovered that many who inhabited the area were, like himself, “kids out of college drinking beer by a fireplace at the Pub [a bar across the street from the Milner], and most went into the advertising business and moved to the suburbs or to New York.”

Gambling—roulette, craps, blackjack—was widespread, with dice games running twenty-four hours a day in saloons along Rush Street. Upon entering a tavern, patrons could flirt with the “26” girls who ran a dice game whose prize often included coupons for free drinks. Jazz singer Anita O’Day, who got her start as a “26” girl at Kitty Davis’s University Bar and Cocktail Lounge, noted that a “bunch of pretty girls in low-cut, slit-skirt gowns were a big attraction for any guy who wandered in.”

Everyone Martin met in Chicago seemed to have paid a bribe to a policeman or expected to do so. Bar patrons nervously eyed one another, “each wondering,” Martin observed, “if all the others were gangsters, and it seemed to be part of the code not to talk to strangers, but to stand at a bar hour after hour almost shoulder to shoulder, never speaking, never quite touching one another, lest a false move, as in a Grade-B Western, trigger bloodshed.” Martin took to carrying his money loose in his pocket instead of in a wallet. “It was all rather innocent foolishness,” Martin said of those days.

While living at the Milner, Martin befriended a man who claimed he worked as a newspaper police reporter, but he never seemed to be at his job, carried a large roll of cash, and drove a flashy Cadillac. The man delighted in driving close to traffic policemen on rainy nights, splashing them, and shouting curses at them as he drove away at top speed. “When I discovered he carried a gun,” said Martin, “I stopped seeing him.”

Martin made a steady living by writing articles for editor Harry Keller’s true-crime magazines Official Detective Stories and Actual Detective Stories of Women in Crime, known in the trade, respectively, as OD and AD. During its heyday from 1935 to 1945, the true-crime genre attracted millions of readers across the country, with consumers having their pick of as many as seventy-five different periodicals on the average corner newsstand. A host of notable names in American literature wrote for these magazines, including Dashiell Hammett, Earle Stanley Gardner, Jim Thompson, Harlan Ellison, Ellery Queen, and Nunnally Johnson.

Unlike some fact-detective writers, Martin visited the scenes of the crimes to make his descriptive passages even more convincing. “I tried to get some of the flavor of Chicago itself into the stories,” he said, “sometimes using Chicago dialect in the dialogue and the grim Chicago humor.” The stories he wrote served as perfect training for his later career writing serious fact pieces for national magazines, teaching him how to conduct research and how to interview people. It also introduced him to the real Chicago—not the luxurious shops and restaurants his former wife had taken him to, but its vast political wards, where millions of workingmen, the people who built the city, lived in two-family dwellings, and the numerous slums that bred the thousands of criminals who gave Chicago its unsavory national reputation.

Years later, he still remembered taking the streetcar to the Criminal Courts Building and Cook County Jail on the city’s southwest side. While the streetcar clattered its way to its destination, passing along the way the city’s Jewish and Italian neighborhoods, Greek coffee shops, and gypsy encampments, Martin sat inside, absorbed in reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

During the 1940s and 1950s one name, Martin had gravitated from writing for true-crime magazines to influential national magazines, including Harper’s and, especially, the mass-circulation Saturday Evening Post, where he produced multipart articles on such provocative topics as mental illness, divorce, abortion, and desegregation in the South. In the Post he also introduced national readers to the ins and outs of Chicago politics, especially its Democratic organization that had its start during the Great Depression under the control of Mayor Anton Cermak, who was killed on February 15, 1933, during an assassination attempt against president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, Florida. The organization continued to prosper under Mayor Ed Kelly and became, as Martin noted, “the most powerful of the old-fashioned big-city machines in America.” He described it as embracing all sorts—“black men and white, Irish and Jews, Poles and Lithuanians, good citizens and crooks.”

The organization exerted its control over the city’s fifty wards and 4,157 precincts through ward committeemen, who appointed a captain for each precinct. These were highly sought-after positions, as they offered one of the few ways out of the slums for many. Martin described a typical precinct captain as uneducated but intelligent, hard-working, and a longtime resident of a ward. “The captain is the man a citizen telephones if the garbage isn’t collected or a dead tree needs cutting down,” he related in the first of a two-part series he did on the 1955 Chicago mayoral election for the Post. “The City Hall government is remote; the precinct captain lives down the street. He is the government.” They were particularly useful in slum wards, where residents were often in trouble with police and needed legal help and favors. 

Each election, captains were responsible for bringing in about 350 voters. Those who had yet to vote before a polling place closed received reminders of past favors from the captain of their precinct, and the grateful recipients of the machine’s largesse dutifully followed the instructions. “That’s the effectiveness of an organization,” a ward politician told Martin. “And a man who hasn’t got an organization is just in a hell of a fix.”

During his time in Chicago, Martin had been lucky enough to be on hand for the rise to the mayor’s office and control of the city’s Democratic organization by a man he considered one of city’s best, and later most controversial, chief executives—Richard J. Daley. In Daley the machine had picked a man it knew and could trust to look after its interests, and the interests of the city he loved. “My opponent says, ‘I took politics out of the schools; I took politics out of this and I took politics out of that.’ There’s nothing wrong with politics,” Daley proclaimed in a speech to his fellow Democrats during his first campaign for the mayor’s office. “There’s nothing wrong with good politics. Good politics is good government.”

Daley also regarded the Cook County machine “with the fierce protectiveness of a mother bear,” said Martin, who found the professional politician to be liberal-minded, friendly, and fast-thinking. Later, he realized that Daley possessed two flaws—he had “an ineradicable blind spot” when it came to race relations, especially when it came to African Americans, and before he died he had failed to groom a successor.”

Martin, who had remarried and started a family, eventually moved out of the city to the suburbs, finding and renovating a Victorian home with his wife, Fran, a Chicago native, in Highland Park. The city, however, continued to captivate Martin, and in October 1960, while working for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he wrote an article about the city for the Post, titled, “To Chicago, With Love.” In the piece he recalled how he glamorized the city when he first came there as a young writer. Now, older and wiser, he realized that the El no longer seemed romantic, but was an “obsolete nuisance. The slums are not picturesque, just appalling; Randolph Street and Rush Street not glamorous, just tinsel cheap; gangsterism not exciting, just dreary and dangerous.” 

For the few how could afford to live on Lake Shore Drive, life in Chicago was “lovely,” Martin noted, but for the millions existence in the city meant “toil and ugliness, if it is not squalor and privation.” Still, Martin had no doubt that while he wrote his article, some young man had gotten off a train from Indiana in Chicago “longing for excitement and opportunity, and found it here.”

Martin’s article attracted quite a bit of attention from Chicago readers, with the Post reporting to him that it had sold 40,000 copies in the city, whereas usual sales figures for an issue reached only 25,000. Flying into Chicago near the end of his presidential campaign, a bemused Kennedy, who had read the piece and enjoyed it, called Martin into his cabin, showed him a copy of the Post that contained his Chicago article, and, kidding, asked him, “What are you trying to do—lose Illinois?” Martin also recalled that Mayor Daley had held a press conference and when asked about the article had said, “I think John must have come through Chicago with blinders on.” Martin responded by writing Daley to tell him that he hoped that people read his article “in the spirit in which it was written—an attempt to express an affectionate light-hearted view of our city’s reputation and its problems, both serious and trivial.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

With the Marines on Saipan: Robert L. Sherrod

Early in the morning of June 4, 1944, Time magazine correspondent Robert L. Sherrod had his sleep interrupted when a telephone operator at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, called to wake him an hour after midnight. By 1:30 a.m. Sherrod was in a taxi on his way to the naval air station on Ford Island, where he boarded a PB2Y Coronado flying boat for his fourth trip into war since Pearl Harbor on his way to Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands.

Three days before, Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson, the army’s Central Pacific commander, had told Sherrod during a meeting in the general’s office at Fort Shafter outside Honolulu that the “serious phase of the war in the Pacific” was about to begin, with an ambitious schedule of hitting Saipan on June 15 and, three days later, Guam. The Marianas operation involved 775 ships, more than 100,000 infantrymen, and nearly 25,000 sailors and was, by far, noted Sherrod, the largest the Americans had attempted in the Pacific. “Saipan is a sort of Japanese Pearl Harbor,” he said, “where soldiers, marines and flyers are staged for the entire West and South Pacific. Said one high-ranking officer: ‘If we can land on Saipan we can land anywhere there are Japanese.’”

The afternoon following his arrival on Eniwetok, Sherrod attended the opening of the base’s officers club (only beer and gin available) situated in a two-story Quonset hut with screened-in porches and a long, elaborately illustrated bar. Guests at the club included a host of top brass, including Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet and “on-the-spot commander of the land, sea, and air forces involved,” who told Sherrod that he expected the Saipan operation to be “tough ashore, but I’ve got a lot of faith in the Marines.” Even more impressive than the admiral, however, were a dozen nurses from the hospital ship Bountiful, who became the first white women to set foot on Eniwetok. “To men hungry for the sight of a woman the nurses looked good,” said Sherrod, “even if they wore unflattering slacks instead of frills.”

For the invasion of Saipan, Sherrod had been assigned to accompany the Second Marine Division, the same troops he had been with during the Battle of Tarawa. Brigadier General Merritt A. Edson, assistant division commander, was a Sherrod friend, so the correspondent asked to be assigned to his transport, the USS Bolivar, and agreed to go ashore with the general on D-Day. Sherrod’s roommate on the ship was another Tarawa veteran, Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones, the youngest battalion commander in the Marine Corps. “This is not going to be easy,” Edson told Sherrod. “Maybe I’m wrong and I hope I am, but you know I’ve got a reputation as a pessimist.” Sherrod noted that because the victories at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands had been “easy,” some correspondents had the opinion that the rest of the Pacific war should be a pushover. “The correspondents aren’t the only ones in that frame of mind,” Edson said, with a fleeting smile, recalled Sherrod.

The night before the landings, a marine colonel predicted to the correspondent: “I’ve just got a hunch this is going to be the easiest one of all.” Sherrod noticed that most of the marines were less tense than they had been before Tarawa. “An air of quiet confidence permeated the conversations of these veterans,” he noted. “Every man, I supposed, considered the possibility of death, but nobody spoke of it. Death is something that happens to the other fellow. If men did not believe that, they would be more reluctant to go into battle.” 

Many times Sherrod had heard of soldiers who had a premonition of death, but he had never talked to one. “I never heard a man say that he felt he was going to get it,” he said. One episode stuck in Sherrod’s mind. A few days before the invasion, a destroyer had come alongside the Bolivar to deliver mail for the troops, but had mistakenly unloaded a sack that should have gone to the Third Battalion, Eighth Marines. “A lot of men in 3/8 will die without ever having read that last letter from home,” thought Sherrod.

On June 15, the morning of the landings, Saipan looked to Sherrod, peering at it from the deck of the Bolivar, like “a low-lying prehistoric monster whose high, rising spine was Mt. [Mount] Tapotchau.” On the Marines’ maps the island seemed to be shaped like a pistol pointing north toward Tokyo, he noted, with the Americans attacking on the west side, along the top of the pistol’s butt. The Second Division was poised to hit the beach north of the sugar-mill town of Charan Kanoa, while the Fourth Division hit the southern edge of the town (the Twenty-Seventh Division was held in reserve). Unlike what had happened during the Battle of Tarawa, there were plenty of amtracs available to ferry the marines ashore, and, because of the “gallant men” of the underwater demolition teams, which correspondents were forbidden to write about at the time, they knew many details about the beach and reef conditions.

At 7:45 a.m. Sherrod climbed into LCVP Number PA-34-25 with Edson and his staff. In a few minutes they had transferred to Subchaser Number 1052 and began rolling in toward the rendezvous point. “It was still several hours before we would start for shore,” Sherrod recalled, “but the old feeling of anxiety was already there: ‘Will I ever see this ship again; will I ever make it all the way down that long, watery road from ship to shore?’”

From six miles offshore, Saipan began to “look like a furnace seen through a haze,” with American warships closing in and firing with their guns. Even from 3,000 yards, Sherrod could smell the strong, acrid stench of gunpowder. After a shell splashed 150 yards off the subchaser’s bow, Sherrod heard its captain, Lieutenant Arthur Phillips of Detroit, Michigan, note: “I think we’re being sniped at.” Shortly before 9:00 a.m., Sherrod witnessed his first death on Saipan as a fighter aircraft, a navy Hellcat, was hit by Japanese antiaircraft fire, flared briefly, and plummeted into the water, which, he said, “extinguished the flame as quickly as it did the life of the pilot.”

The first of the more than 700 amtracs involved in the invasion made it to shore at 8:44 a.m. and within twenty minutes the Americans had approximately 8,000 assault troops on Saipan. A Japanese sergeant who witnessed the invasion remembered that the enemy advanced “like a swarm of grasshoppers. The American soldiers were all soaked. Their camouflage helmets looked black. They were so tiny wading ashore. I saw flames shooting up from American tanks hit by Japanese fire.”

Still waiting to land, Sherrod and Edson’s staff transferred to an amtrac, Number 410, and took cover (except for the general) as best they could as enemy artillery fire splashed in the water around them. Sherrod noticed he was crouching on boxes containing 81-mm mortar shells, and he figured a direct hit on his boat might “preclude the necessity of deciding which way to swim.”

Sherrod’s amtrac reached shore at 2:30 p.m. and those onboard jumped over its side and ran for cover to a tank trap a few yards inland. For the rest of the day and the night, Sherrod was in considerable doubt whether he might leave the island alive. “An artillery shell or a mortar shell—I have never found anyone who could definitely tell them apart as they exploded—landed near us every three seconds for the first twenty minutes,” he recalled. Most landed in the water, some hit the beach, and all missed hitting inside the seven-foot-deep tank trap where Sherrod and others had taken cover. At a nearby aid station, there were fourteen casualties, and the water that seeped through the sand “was already red with blood,” noted the correspondent.

A few yards to the right of the aid station, five enemy soldiers lay dead in a hole next to their dismantled machine gun. “It was more Japs than I saw in any other spot that first day,” said Sherrod. “They had evidently been taking their machine gun apart for withdrawal inland when a bomb or shell scored a direct hit on their hole.” As a souvenir-hunting corpsman tried to remove a bayonet from a Japanese’s scabbard, a colonel yelled at him to stop: “You’ll get yourself mixed up with a booby trap. Now, goddam it, leave him alone!”

The fierce Japanese shelling continued as the first day ashore ended. From 8:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., from 11:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m., and from 4:00 a.m. until 5:00 a.m., Sherrod counted one shell bursting every five seconds, but Sherrod said nobody in his area was hit during the night. “Men in holes are hard to hit,” he said.

The correspondent had a brief scare, however, as he dug his foxhole in an incident that highlighted the battle’s brutality. A Marine near him shouted that he had seen an enemy soldier under some nearby logs. The command post’s security officer handed a concussion grenade to a marine and told him to blast the enemy from his hole. Before he could, a skinny, short Japanese soldier jumped out of his hiding place, waving a bayonet. An American grenade knocked him down, but he struggled up, Sherrod said, and pointed his bayonet into his stomach and attempted to cut himself open in hara-kiri fashion. He failed because a Marine shot him with his carbine. “But, like all Japs, he took a lot of killing,” Sherrod reported. “Even after four bullets had thudded into his body he rose to one knee. Then the American shot him through the head and the Jap was dead.”

Sherrod’s first night on Saipan held none of the terror that had gripped him his first night on Betio Island during the Battle of Tarawa. Partly, it came from having become accustomed to getting shot at. Any man in combat, he noted, “begins to adopt a sort of ‘Is it mine or ain’t it?’ philosophy, after a while,” but it also came from the Americans’ ability to keep the battlefront illuminated with star shells so they could anticipate any counterattacks. Japanese records captured after the battle reported that as soon as its night-attack units went forward, the Americans would call in star shells that “practically turn night into day. Thus the maneuvering of units is extremely difficult.”

Sherrod also had the comfort of what was for him, plenty of room, as there “was a solid 500 yards between the front lines and my hole in the sand,” he recalled. “That was better than the 20 feet we had at Tarawa. This time I got a few hours of sleep.”

Thursday, June 13, 2019

No Place to Go: John Bartlow Martin and James Hickman

For millions of veterans following the end of World War II, their return home resembled what they had gone through upon their induction into military service—long waits in long lines. On Friday, February 16, 1946, after filling out the necessary paperwork at an army separation center at Camp Ulysses S. Grant, located on the outskirts of Rockford, Illinois, John Bartlow Martin, who in civilian life had been a freelance writer, achieved what he had been seeking for many months—discharge from the U.S. Army and regaining his status as a civilian. He took a train to Chicago and by 8:00 p.m. was back home in Winnetka with his wife, Fran, and daughter, Cindy. Upon walking through the front door, Martin hugged his wife, turned to hug his daughter, and then the three of them embraced one another.

Martin had trouble readjusting to life as a civilian. Harried by the army and its regimented ways, he had longed for “the old comfortable things” of his former life but discovered that they began to weigh on him after a time. He admitted to a friend F that it was going to take him several months to recover his bearings. Writing a story about a private detective, William V. Pennington of San Francisco, Martin found that he was “a lot less facile and more awkward than I used to be—and facility was never a strong point of mine, writing always did come hard. It comes like molasses now.” He had also lost a bit of his confidence, telling a friend it would be some time before he could say to an editor: “The legwork will take 6 days, 3 days to write, 2 days to revise, two in the mail—you can have the [manu]script in 13 days from now.”

Luckily, before leaving for stateside service during the war, Martin had developed a solid relationship with Frederick Lewis Allen and the staff at Harper’s magazine. Although it had a small circulation (109,787 in 1940) and offered its contributors paltry fees (usually $250 for articles) in comparison to other magazines, Harper’s reached a vital audience, what one of its editors described as “the intelligent minority” of opinion makers in the United States, “the thinking, cultured reader who seeks both entertainment and an enlarged and broadened point of view.” Allen, who had taken over as Harper’s editor in October 1941, said the magazine under his watch intended to print within its pages “the exciting, the creative, the lustily energetic, the freshly amusing, the newly beautiful, the illuminating, the profound.”

Martin’s post–World War II work for the magazine examined crime and the social context that produced it (Martin said he never consciously set out to specialize in crime, but criminal cases did offer “an opportunity to write about people in crisis, and their problems”). His pieces in Harper’s included an examination of the killing of Don Mellett, a crusading newspaper editor in Canton, Ohio, who had been uncovering corruption among the city’s police and politicians (“Murder of a Journalist”), and the killing of Toledo, Peoria, and Western Railroad president George P. McNear, whose armed strikebreakers had shot dead a union member on the picket lines during a strike (“The McNear Murder”). 

Martin’s Harper’s story on McNear’s still unsolved murder had been reprinted in Reader’s Digest, and the editor who handled it for the magazine, Paul Palmer, had been intrigued enough by it to suggest that Martin should explore a recent mine disaster in Centralia, Illinois. The resulting Harper’s article in March 1948, “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” made Martin’s reputation, with writer Marc Rose, in a 1952 issue of The Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, calling the Centralia story “one of the most magnificent examples of magazine journalism” he had ever seen.

A piece Martin did for Harper’s just five months after his Centralia investigation proved to be just as powerful and moving as his exploration of the mine disaster, and it opened the nation’s eyes to racial segregation in a Northern city years before the Civil Rights Movement and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brownvs. Board of Education decision striking down separate public schools for white and African American schoolchildren. “I wanted to do not an article, crammed with demographers’ statistics,” said Martin, “but, rather, a story about a man.”

As he explained, Martin tried to avoid doing what he called “articles,” preferring instead to think of them as “stories.” The difference to him was that an article was “about a subject while a story is about a person.” He tried to find a broad subject area to write about and then find a specific person “to whom something has happened, so that the piece will have a narrative story line. There has to be drama.” Although such a piece might never have the same penetrating quality as truly great fiction, Martin said it could have “more penetration . . . than any ‘article’ or second-rate fiction.”

The person he found for his Harper’s story, published in August 1948, was James Hickman, an African American who had moved from the Deep South to Chicago in 1945 seeking a better life for himself and his family. Instead, Hickman ran headlong into tragedy with a fellow African American, his landlord, David Coleman, whom he shot and killed after a suspicious fire burned to death four of Hickman’s children in their tiny apartment at 1733 West Washburne Avenue.

To prepare for his Harper’s story, Martin read Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s classic 1944 study of race relations, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which Myrdal described as “not a study of the Negroes but of the American society from the viewpoint of the most disadvantaged group.” Martin conducted extensive interviews with Hickman and his wife, as well as with Coleman’s relatives. “I simply told the story of Hickman’s and the landlord’s lives,” said Martin, “and their world—the world below.” Martin visited the slum neighborhood where the Hickman family lived, making notes and gathering atmosphere for his story by walking the same streets they had walked.

Hickman had been born on January 19, 1907, “in the country,” as he put it, near Louisville, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers raising corn and cotton. At the age of sixteen he married a neighbor girl, Annie Davis, and when their first child, Arlen, was born, Hickman, a deeply religious man, had vowed to God: “I was the head of this family and had to make a support for them. I was guardian to see for them as long as the days I should live on the land.” Trying to raise a family that eventually included nine children on the paltry wages sharecropping afforded, Hickman looked to the North for the opportunities, including education, denied to African Americans in the South.

Staying with an older daughter who had married and lived in Chicago, Hickman found a job with International Harvester’s Wisconsin Steel plant near the Indiana border, receiving $1.25 an hour for guiding the burning steel as it rolled off the hotbed. “On the farm I’d be charged for a lot of things, I couldn’t see what it was for,” he said of his experiences as a sharecropper. “In the factory work it [his wages] come to my hand.” He marveled at the size of the country’s second largest city, as well as seeing whites and blacks riding together in buses and his fellow African Americans working in banks and post offices.

Life in a northern city provided its own hardships for Hickman, particularly when it came to finding decent and affordable housing for his family. By the mid-1940s approximately 80 percent of Chicago’s residential housing was covered by racially restrictive covenants that excluded blacks from buying or renting property in white neighborhoods. The city’s African American population of 400,000 squeezed into a seven-square-mile area, called the “Black Belt” by Martin in his article, located on the south side from Twenty-second Street (Cermak Road today) to Sixty-second Street between Wentworth and Cottage Grove Avenues. European immigrants who prospered in their new homeland could scatter throughout the city, noted Martin, disappearing and blending into the general population. “‘Disappearing’—how can a black man disappear?” he asked. “He is not wanted. He is condemned to inhabit the areas nobody else wants.”

Landlords in the black ghetto, African American and white alike, did all they could to maximize their profits as the demand for already scarce housing rose during and after World War II. They divided apartments into smaller and smaller units, often called “kitchenettes,” and charged outlandish rents for the tiny spaces they provided their tenants. “In this artificially restricted market, people of means bid high for hovels; rentals skyrocket; landlords gouge,” Martin said. Hickman also had trouble finding a place to live because many landlords did not want to rent to someone with children.

Unfamiliar with Chicago, Hickman sometimes wandered into white neighborhoods seeking a place to rent. He experienced little trouble, as people guided him to areas where African Americans were allowed to live. “I was born in a country where there’s nothin’ but white folks,” Hickman told Martin, “and I knowed how to talk and carry myself and they treated me mighty fine.” After a year of painstaking effort, Hickman finally found a home for his family at a four-story brick tenement owned by Coleman, who had also come to Chicago from Mississippi, worked hard to improve his station in life, and thought of himself as a businessman.

Hickman, his wife, and six of their children huddled together in a small room in the building’s attic that measured about fourteen feet by twenty-one feet in size. “There was no electricity; they used a kerosene lamp,” wrote Martin. “There was no gas; they used a stove and heater burning kerosene. There was one window. There was no water; they had to go down to the third floor to use the toilet or to get water for washing and cooking.”

Hickman later told people he had never lived so poorly in Mississippi as he and his family had to live while in Chicago. Coleman had hinted to Hickman that a larger apartment might soon open up for his family on the second floor, but it never materialized, and Hickman, tired of the runaround and wanting back the $100 down payment he had paid Coleman, tried, but failed, to have his landlord arrested. To increase his rental income from the property, which he needed in order to meet his own late payments on the building, Coleman had sent a contractor to 1733 Washburne to divide the existing apartments into the more lucrative kitchenettes, but the tenants had resisted, saying it would take a court order to evict them. A defiant Coleman had threatened: “I am the owner, I don’t have to go to Court to do that, I will get everybody out of here when I want to if it takes fire.”

Coleman’s dire threat came true on the evening of January 16, 1947. Hickman had gone to his job at the steel mill at 9:00 p.m., leaving his wife to help their children with their homework. The family went to bed at about 10:00 p.m.; an hour and a half later Annie woke up after hearing the “paper popping” on the ceiling—a fire. As flames raged throughout the attic space, Charles, the Hickman’s nineteen-year-old son, escaped down the stairs, and Willis, the oldest son, and Annie barely managed to escape the fire by going out the window and falling to the ground below, escaping with only minor injuries. Unfortunately, four Hickman children—Leslie, fourteen; Elzena, nine; Sylvester, seven; and Velvena, four—were killed in what a Chicago fire chief called a “holocaust” of flames.

Told at work that there had been trouble at home, Hickman returned at about 7:30 a.m. the following morning, only to be greeted by another tenant, who told him: “Mr. Hickman, I hate to tell you this, four of your children is burnt to death.” The news devastated Hickman, who fell to the ground and had to be carried into the building’s basement. “Mr. Hickman looked pretty bad, like he was losing his mind,” a neighbor said to Martin. Hickman kept thinking about the threat Coleman had made to burn down the building if the tenants failed to clear out. A coroner’s jury, however, failed to deliver any indictments for arson.

Convinced that Coleman had been responsible for the fire, and that justice had failed him, Hickman became bitter, sitting alone and having conversations with his dead children. “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags,” he said again and again. “Not people. People wasn’t made to burn.” Taking a .32-caliber pistol he owned with him, he took a streetcar and bus to Coleman’s residence, found the landlord reading a newspaper while sitting in a Buick taxicab owned by Coleman’s half-brother, engaged in a brief conversation with him, and shot Coleman several times. “I had put a heavy load down and a big weight fell off of me and I felt light,” recalled Hickman, who took a streetcar home and confessed what he had done to his wife. The Homicide Squad arrested him that afternoon and he confessed his crime to them. After Coleman died three days later, authorities indicted Hickman for the landlord’s first-degree murder.

Interviews of Hickman by two local newspapers, the Chicago Defender, the city’s leading African American newspaper, and the Chicago Daily Tribune, caught the attention of an organizer for the Socialist Workers Party, Mike Bartell, who found a lawyer to defend Hickman, M. J. Myer, a local labor and civil rights attorney. Two other attorneys—Leon Despres and William H. Temple—joined Myer in the case and they formed a Hickman defense committee to raise money to defend him in court and to educate the public about the horrible conditions in which African Americans lived in Chicago. Groups involved included the American Federation of Labor, the Independent Voters of Illinois, and the Committee on Racial Equality. “Many such groups degenerate into luncheons and resolutions,” Martin observed. “Hickman’s defenders worked hard, effectively, fast, and according to plan.” The committee held rallies, collected donations from jars set out in African American businesses, and sought help from other like-minded organizations.

During his trial, Hickman spoke eloquently and almost biblically, noted Martin, about what had happened to his children. When asked by his lawyer to describe his feelings between the fire and the shooting, Hickman responded: “I had two sons and two daughters who would some day be great men and women, some day they would have been married, some day they would have been fathers or mothers of children; these children would have children and then these children would have children and another generation of Hickmans could raise up and enjoy peace.”

The defendant’s first trial resulted in a hung jury, with six men and one woman voting for acquittal and five women for conviction. Thanks to pressure brought on Chicago’s political establishment by the defense committee, and people from all over the country, however, an agreement was reached with Assistant State Attorney Samuel L. Freedman and, on December 16, 1947, a judge found Hickman guilty of manslaughter and placed him on probation for two years; he was home in plenty of time to celebrate Christmas with the surviving members of his family. “We really felt good when it was over,” WilloughbyAbner, an African American labor leader who had been involved in organizing assistance for Hickman, told Martin. “It shows everything isn’t in vain, isn’t all injustice, people will rally, it shows what can be done.” The Hickman family found new accommodations in a housing project near the airport and intended to stay in Chicago. “I like Chicago,” said Annie Hickman. “I used to like it very much when I had my children.”

Martin failed to share Abner’s optimism, pointing out that both Hickman and Coleman had been victims of Chicago’s segregated system of housing—a system that showed no signs of changing. “The North has failed the Negro no less than the South, there is no place in this country for a black man to go,” Martin wrote, calling Chicago’s postwar housing record a total failure. “The housing problem is bad everywhere in America, in no major city is it worse than in Chicago, and Negroes are at the bottom of the heap because we put them there and keep them there.” The more African Americans who moved to the city for a supposedly better life, the more they would be met with fierce white resistance—new restrictive covenants, Molotov cocktails and rocks thrown at their homes in white areas, and political speeches promising “racial purity.”

A year after the fire, Martin returned to 1733 West Washburne Avenue and found the building where the Hickman children had died deserted, its windows boarded up and charred, black timbers poking up to the sky. Martin came across an elderly black man tending a fire behind the abandoned building. The old man told him that he had heard rumors of the building’s owner fixing it up and offering it for sale. Asked by Martin if anyone would ever again live in such a place, the man laughed and said people would “be lined up here putting in their application. People got no place to go.”

The powerful indictment of Chicago’s segregated housing had been aided immeasurably by sixteen drawings provided by the artist who had also illustrated Martin’s Centralia article—Ben Shahn, who did the haunting drawings for the Hickman piece in just three weeks and for only $250 from Harper’s. Shahn’s illustrations included the shack the Hickman family lived in while sharecroppers, four-year-old Velvena pretending to study with her siblings, flames leaping from the brick building’s upper windows, and the four dead Hickman children huddled together with their eyes closed in death.

Martin and Shahn had discussed the story while in the paneled library at Harper’s New York office. “He was a big burly man with the kindest eyes I ever saw,” said Martin. “We became friends and collaborators.” They spent weekends at each other’s homes and when Martin visited New York the artist took him on walking tours of the Lower East Side slums where Shahn had grown up, and Martin reciprocated by taking Shahn on tours of Chicago’s African American and white criminal slums “where dwelt the people I wrote about,” said Martin.

In preparing his drawings for Martin’s story Shahn at first had assembled visual material, then discarded it, said Martin, “for he felt the universal implications of the event transcended the immediate crime.” The artist also abandoned an abstract approach, finally deciding to concentrate on “the small family contacts, to the familiar experiences of all of us, to the furniture, the clothes, the look of ordinary people”—an approach that Martin also followed in his writing (during an interview he always made notes on the items in a person’s home or apartment). Shahn, who had survived a tenement fire as a child, could not get the Hickman saga out of his mind after he had finished his drawings. The tongues of flame rising from the burning Chicago tenement building figured in one of his most powerful paintings, Allegory, with the figure of a great red beast—part lion and part wolf—standing over its victims, children huddled together.

Shahn later said that he had developed a “curious sense of responsibility” about the Hickman fire and believed he owed “something more to the victim himself.” Shahn gave Martin and Fran a copy of the painting and under it wrote, in Aramaic, “Where there is a pen there is no sword; where there is a sword there is no pen.”