Monday, November 15, 2021

Richard Tregaskis Biography Now Available

Considered by his contemporaries as “the bravest of the brave war correspondents” of World War II, journalist and author Richard Tregaskis risked his life on countless occasions to bring the brutal realities of combat to light for Americans on the home front. Now, his story is available in a new book Richard Tregaskis: Reporting under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam, published by the University of New Mexico Press's High Road Books.

Tregaskis was a firsthand witness to such major combat operations of the war as the Doolittle Raid, the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal, the invasion of Sicily and Italy, fighting in France and Germany, and B-29 bombing missions over Japan. He did all of this while suffering from a potentially fatal illness, diabetes.

Although the tall, gangly reporter had been lucky to escape from Guadalcanal unharmed, producing the classic Guadalcanal Diary in the process, his luck ran out on a hill in Italy. Shrapnel from a German shell pierced Tregaskis’s helmet, leaving him gravely wounded. He spent the next several months re-learning how to speak by reciting poetry, returning to action with a metal plate in his head covering a hole in his skull.

Tregaskis eventually returned to the Pacific on a B-29 bomber, following its crew into battle for a series of articles he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. In accepting his assignment, Tregaskis, when asked by his editor if he really wanted to go, responded, “I don’t want to, but I think I ought to go.” According to the Post, “ought to go” had been Tregaskis’s first commandment “ever since he began chasing the war, three months after Pearl Harbor.”

Author/ex-journalist Ray Boomhower’s riveting new biography of war correspondent Richard Tregaskis embeds the reader in the battles that Tregaskis covered. Tregaskis was the eyes and voice of the “everyman” soldier, sailor, aviator, and marine to the world. Boomhower’s well-rounded presentation of the author of Guadalcanal Diary, Invasion Diary, Vietnam Diary, and many other best sellers of the time presents a portrait of a man of courage, sensitivity, and intensity, while very much human and flawed.

Tregaskis later reported on Cold War conflicts in China, Korea, and Vietnam. In 1964 the Overseas Press Club recognized his first-person reporting under hazardous circumstances by awarding him its George Polk Award for his book Vietnam Diary. Boomhower’s book is the first to tell Tregaskis's gripping life story, concentrating on his intrepid reporting experiences during various wars, and his fascination with combat and its effect on the men who fought it

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Catching Hell: Jack Watson and a B-17 Mission to Germany

They came from everywhere out of the sky. Flocks of German single-engine Messerschmitt Bf-109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters, twin-engine Junkers Ju-88, and Messerschmitt Bf-110 attack bombers swarmed through the formations of American B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 303rd “Hell’s Angels” Bombing Group, Eighth Air Force, on their way to strike an aircraft plant at Oschersleben, Germany, in early 1944.

The enemy planes blasted away at the bombers with 20-mm cannons, machine guns, and rockets. If all else failed, the German pilots aimed their machines at the invaders head-on. “There seemed to be no end to the Hun fighters,” one bomber pilot recalled, “and as we shot them down, others rose and took their place.” Another remembered that if he lived to be 200 years old, the date of the Oschersleben raid always brought to his mind nightmare visions of his comrades’ aircraft being shot to pieces, bursting into flame, and spinning, out of control, taking his friends to their deaths. “Planes seemed to be going down everywhere,” a crew member on one of the bombers noted grimly years after the war.

One of the B-17s on the mission, nicknamed Meat Hound, part of the group’s 358th Bombardment Squadron, lost one of its four engines before reaching the target. Undeterred by its mechanical difficulty, fighter opposition, and flak unleashed by antiaircraft fire from below, Meat Hound released its full load of 500-pound, general-purpose bombs on the German aircraft plant. Its troubles, however, did not end as the plane turned to make its way to its base located near Molesworth, England.

Enemy attacks caused one of its gas tanks to catch fire, forcing its pilot, Second Lieutenant Jack W. Watson of Indianapolis, to order everyone to bail out over the German-occupied Netherlands. (Two others in the ten-member crew were also Hoosiers: Staff Sergeant Samuel L. Rowland of Indianapolis and Sergeant Eugene R. Stewart of Anderson.) Only one of the crew, the freckle-faced, twenty-one-year-old Watson, returned that day to England. Eight crew members either drowned or were captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. The remaining crewman, copilot Clayton C. David, evaded capture and, after some harrowing adventures, was returned safely to Allied hands.

Watson, who later called Oschersleben “the toughest” mission of his wartime service, steered his crippled and battered bomber to a safe landing at a U.S. fighter airfield near the coast of England. The pilot’s perilous flight mirrored, in part, his daredevil antics upon leaving the United States. As more than sixty thousand fans looked on from their seats at Yankee Stadium, Watson and his comrades flew “dangerously low” during the first game of the October 1943 World Series pitting the American League’s New York Yankees against the National League’s Saint Louis Cardinals.

According to news reports, the B-17s made several passes over the stadium, with one flying dangerously close over the roof of the stadium’s upper deck. As the New York Times reported, to the vast audience listening to the game on its radios “the roar of the plane was worse than static, since it virtually drowned out the play-by-play broadcast.” The incident enraged New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who called on military officials to take “proper disciplinary action” against those involved. La Guardia’s opinion about one of the miscreants, Watson, however, later softened due to the pilot’s combat heroics.

Watson and one of his crew, Stewart, took different paths to the war before flying together on bombing missions. A 1939 graduate of Indianapolis’s Shortridge High School, where he enjoyed studying English and playing basketball, Watson enrolled at Butler University, taking classes for two years. Watson’s studies were interrupted by news of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor, which plunged the country into the war. Watson left Butler to join the military, eventually earning his pilot wings. A graduate of Anderson High School, Stewart spent his time after graduation working at one of his hometown’s automotive parts plants, Delco-Remy, as a buffer, polishing electrical parts (distributors, generators, etc.) for military aircraft before enlisting in September 1942. Although Stewart spent his basic training in Mississippi studying the intricacies of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber systems, he ended up doing his flight training on a B-17G nicknamed Thru Hel’en Hiwater, joining Watson’s crew in Walla Walla, Washington.

Watson received training in one of his country’s most potent weapons, the multiengine Boeing B-17 designed and built by the Boeing Aircraft Company. With a range of more than 1,800 miles, the heavy bomber could strike deep into an enemy’s airspace to deliver its approximately 4,000-pound bombload with pinpoint accuracy, guided by the top-secret Norden bombsight. The B-17 also possessed a ceiling of 35,000 feet, a cruising speed of 160 miles per hour, and an armament of more than ten .50-caliber machine guns at positions scattered throughout the aircraft.

The Fortress earned a reputation for extreme ruggedness, taking all manner of punishment but remaining in the air. When the army air force asked crews who flew the B-17 if they believed they had the top aircraft to fulfill their responsibilities, 92 percent of them agreed. “Because of the many times a ‘Fort’ got our crews back when it could have dropped them into the drink,” noted Harry Crosby, a navigator from the 100th Bomb Group, “we were grateful to it, and emotional about it. The sound of a B-17 brought tears to the eyes of anyone who ever flew one.” A navigator with the 100th  spoke for many who flew in the big bomber when he noted: “It was a miracle how some of those damaged B-17s got home—with tails shot off, gaping holes in the fuselage, engines and electrical systems shot out, and with dead and wounded crew members.”

A B-17 crew consisted of four commissioned officers and six noncommissioned officers. In addition to the pilot and copilot, the other commissioned officers were a navigator and bombardier, located forward and in front of the pilots. “They shared the compartment in the nose of the airplane,” David noted. “In simple terms, the navigator was expected to guide the pilots to the target area so that the bombardier could deliver the bombs on the target. They assisted each other when needed and saw that one or the other could man the guns in the nose of the plane at all times.” The flight engineer sat to the rear of the pilots, checked with the ground crew to make sure the aircraft was in proper condition to fly before a mission, kept a watch on the plane’s performance during the mission, relayed information to the pilots when needed, and operated the top gun turret.

The bomb bay, David explained, separated the five men at the front of the B-17 from the five crewmen to the rear. “A narrow catwalk through the center, where the bombs were hung on either side,” he said, “provided access to the next compartment, which was the radio room,” manned by the radio operator. Behind the radio room was the space occupied by the ball turret, which hung below the plane during flight and had to be cranked back into place before the aircraft could land. A tail gunner handled the two machine guns at the B-17’s rear, while the waist gunners operated .50-caliber guns on either side of the fuselage, with one also serving as an engineer and the other with training as a radio operator.

The waist-gunner positions proved to be particularly dangerous during combat, as they lacked armor protection; only a thin aluminum skin stood between the gunner and potential doom. “Each man had the responsibility for maintaining his guns and having a supply of ammunition,” David noted. “Each person also needed to understand the critical aspects of the area of the airplane where he was stationed and how he and the aircraft might be affected by possible battle damage.” All the crew hoped their luck held overseas so that they could complete twenty-five combat missions (later increased to thirty and eventually thirty-five) and return home.

Before joining the American bombers engaged in strategic daylight raids from bases in England aimed at crippling Nazi Germany’s war-making ability, Watson and his crew joined a group of B-17s—the Iseman Provisional Group—selected for secret training in Brooksville, Florida. The crew was there to test a new glide bomb, the GB-1, also known as the “Grapefruit Bomb.” Given the tough opposition presented by flak from the dreaded German 88-mm antiaircraft artillery pieces, it made sense for U.S. industries to develop a winged 2,000-pound bomb B-17s could carry under each wing to be released miles away from danger and guided to the target by a gyrostabilizer-based autopilot. Larry Peacock, a navigator on one of the bombers testing the new weapon, recalled:

“We would fly across Florida to some island in the Bahama chain that was uninhabited. When we reached the I.P. [Initial Point] at 20,000 feet, the Bombardier would engage the gyros. This was about 20 miles from the small island (target). The pilot would drop the nose of the 17 to let the air speed build up to 195 mph while holding a heading toward the island. When released, the bombs were supposed to glide on the same heading into the target area. The idea was to perfect the technique so these glide bombs could be used against targets in the Ruhr Valley. . . . When the glide bombs were released, they could glide into the target and the B-17s could turn away before getting into the flak concentrations. The Air Force figured that any strike in a vast industrial complex would result in considerable damage even without pin-point targets.”

Called upon to join the 303rd in England, the B-17s of the Iseman Group prepared to leave Florida in early October 1943, headed first to a base at Presque Isle, Maine. Four aircraft received permission to leave early for the journey, including a B-17 flown by Watson. Accounts differ on the other pilots who accompanied Watson, but they all agree that the group earned La Guardia’s ire by “buzzing” Yankee Stadium on their way to Maine. “We knew we were headed for the combat zone,” one of the pilots, Joseph C. Wheeler of Fresno, California, later told a reporter, “and dropping in on the world series seemed a good idea at the time. . . . We thought nothing about it until later when we found out we’d caused a sensation.”

Often credited for being the pilot who barely scraped his B-17 over the stadium’s roof, Watson joked that he and his fellow pilots would like to get together “some day and drop in on the Rose bowl game.” La Guardia did not see anything funny about the incident. The Republican mayor threatened civil action if the military did not act. “I know it is a violation of Army rules and also a flagrant violation of our altitude laws. . . . If anything had happened, a thousand people would have been killed.”

Military officials did try to discipline the wayward flyers. Stewart remembered that when the Thru Hel’en Hiwater landed military police arrested Watson and his copilot, John C. Doty Jr. Authorities threatened to keep the pilots under lock and key and fly the rest of the crew on to England, causing a mutiny. “We trained with this pilot and copilot and we felt if they were going to be punished, we should be, too,” Stewart explained. Luckily, because they had been involved in a top-secret project, the GB-1 glider bomb, the officers involved in the World Series affair escaped a court martial but were fined seventy-five dollars apiece and received letters of reprimands in their records. An air force officer told Watson that he saw no need to punish him, as he and his crew would probably be killed in action. Stewart noted that Watson had the last laugh. After taking off, Watson returned to buzz the control tower, coming so close to it that he almost took off its top.

Watson and his crew were assigned to the 303rd’s 358th Bombardment Squadron, which had entered combat in November 1942. The 303rd also included the 359th and 360th Bombardment Squadrons, as well as the Thirty-first Reconnaissance Squadron. The group had the distinction of having one of its B-17s, nicknamed “Hell’s Angels” after the 1930 Howard Hughes film, become the first heavy bomber to finish twenty-five missions in the European theater of operations.

By war’s end, the 303rd’s aircraft had flown 364 missions (the most by any B-17 bomb group) and dropped more than twenty-five thousand tons of ordnance on the enemy. Watson and the other young pilots joining the 303rd seemed eager to join the fray. “It’s the first mission that counts,” an unnamed rookie flyer told a reporter from Yank: The Army Weekly, while relaxing at their quarters at Molesworth. “Once I get over the hump on that one I’ll gain my bearings. I’m just itching to get that first one in.”

Watson and his crew finally got a taste of combat on December 1, 1943, hitting targets in Solingen, Germany. For his first three flights, Watson served as a copilot, with the Thru Hel’en Hiwater piloted by an experienced officer, Martin L. Clark, who guided the rookie flyer through his combat orientation. Watson finally received his opportunity to handle the controls of his B-17 as its commander on December 20, 1943, for a mission striking Bremen, Germany. As aircraft commander, Watson was, as his pilot’s training manual emphasized, “responsible for the safety and efficiency of the crew at all times,” not just while in combat, but for “the full 24 hours of every day while you are in command.”

For Watson’s sixth mission—the group’s ninety-eighth—he and his crew endured one of the toughest outings the bombers had experienced to that time. On January 11, 1944, the Eighth Air Force unleashed 633 B-17s and B-24s from a host of squadrons against fighter aircraft factories in Oschersleben, Brunswick, and Halberstadt, Germany. The 303rd sent forty of its B-17s to hit a Focke-Wulf 190 assembly plant, AGO Flugzeugwerke, at Oschersleben, located about a hundred miles southwest of Berlin.

Before waking early that morning in his bunk inside a curved metal Nissan hut, Watson had to prepare his equipment for the mission, including an escape kit, emergency rations, parachute, life vest, winter underwear, fur-lined jacket, electric flying suit (temperatures inside the unpressurized aircraft during the winter could get as low as 60 degrees below zero), gloves, armored flak vest, oxygen mask, maps, and personal items. Before being briefed about the mission, the more than four hundred squadron members trooped to the mess to enjoy a special meal prepared prior to combat missions—fresh eggs instead of the usual powdered version, a practice that usually prompted dark jokes about condemned men eating a hearty meal. For many of the 303rd, it marked the last hot meal they would eat for a long time.

Brigadier General Robert F. Travis, who led the mission to Oschersleben, remembered his men assembling for the briefing before a covered wall map. Seeing him enter the bitterly cold and damp room, one of the young pilots saw him and commented: “We have had it. The Old Man is going.” As the men saw the planned route northeast across the North Sea, Holland, and into Germany, “a sigh of intense expectancy and trepidation arose from the entire room,” noted Travis.

Harold A. Susskind, a navigator on a B-17 dubbed The Duchess, remembered that one of the items that drew the most attention was a comment from an officer at the briefing who noted that “there are over 500 single-engine and twin-engine enemy aircraft within 100 miles of your route.” Fortunately, Susskind said he also heard the pleasant news that the bombers could expect friendly fighter escort from Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, and North American P-51 Mustangs, with the latter capable of providing air cover all the way to the target area. “Great emphasis was placed upon the importance of destroying this target,” Travis reported. “An explanation was made to the crews as to what great bearing it would have upon the ultimate defeat of Germany. We knew that to get to this target would cost us a great price and these boys must be convinced that the loss of life and aircraft was well worth what we hoped to accomplish.”

For the Oschersleben raid, Watson served as pilot on a B-17F nicknamed Meat Hound. Those joining him on the bomber for his sixth mission were David, copilot; Second Lieutenant John G. Leverton, navigator; Second Lieutenant Vance R. Colvin, bombardier; Rowland, engineer; Staff Sergeant Harry Romaine, radio operator; Sergeant Fred H. Booth, ball-turret gunner; Stewart, left-wing gunner; Sergeant William H. Fussner, right-wing gunner; and Sergeant Roman P. Kosinski, tail gunner.

As the 303rd reached the Dutch coast, the enemy attacked in earnest. “I never saw so many fighters in my life,” Stewart remembered. Susskind noted that the intercom on his B-17 “was filled with shouts of, ‘Fighters at 6 o’clock low, fighters at 12 o’clock high, fighters lobbing in rockets from 3 o’clock,’ as the various crew positions called in the directions from which the enemy aircraft were attacking. Minutes seemed like hours and hours dragged on like days.” Some aircraft had to take such violent evasive action that crewmen were knocked off their feet and onto the floor.

Gunners in the bombers fired more than fifty-thousand rounds of ammunition in a desperate attempt to hold off the ruthless German attackers. To one radio operator from the 303rd, James S. Andrus, it seemed as though the “whole German Luftwaffe must have been up there, because most of the B-17s didn’t have a chance.” Viewing the destruction from the copilot’s seat on his aircraft, nicknamed The ‘8’ Ball, Travis felt “heartsick and yet proud as I saw the terrific pounding my boys were taking and the valor and determination they exhibited, as they closed their dwindling formation, flew even closer, and fought their way on to their target.”

As the B-17s from the 303rd battled for their lives, the weather worsened over England, forcing the new Eighth Air Force commander, Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, to issue a recall of the bombers; most of the fighters also returned to their bases. Travis decided to press on to Oschersleben, as he was only ten or fifteen minutes away from the point where he could turn on course to the target. “I felt that our losses had been so great that success of the main mission must be accomplished,” he reported.

Major James H. Howard, the pilot of a P-51 fighter, fought off thirty German fighters as a “one-man air force” for thirty minutes, downing four of them. “I seen my duty and I done it,” Howard later told a New York Times reporter. “I’d just see one, give him a ‘squirt’ and go up again, look around and see another and give him a ‘squirt,’ then go up again, look around and repeat. There was an awful lot of them around and it was just a matter of shooting at them.” For his actions that day, Howard received the nation’s most prestigious military decoration, the Medal of Honor. “With utter disregard for his own safety,” the citation for Howard’s medal read, “he immediately pressed home determined attacks.” The 303rd and the other bomb groups who hit Oschersleben were honored with a Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary heroism and tenacity against a determined foe.

Early in its flight, Meat Hound lost its number three engine, the one located on the right wing next to the copilot, to fire from a German fighter. Watson could see the engine “burning like hell” but still found his way to the target and released the bombload. Travis remembered that as he turned for home he looked back and could see the “entire factory suddenly burst into a huge cloud of dirty black smoke which blossomed upwards for 5,000 feet and then mushroomed out to a white edge cloud with a dark center. Our destruction could be seen when we were a hundred miles on our way toward home.”

Despite its success at hitting the target, the 303rd continued to be harassed by the enemy. As Watson turned away from the target, a shell from a German fighter ripped a large hole in his plane’s left elevator, while another hit between the right wing and fuselage. A third shell struck near the number two engine, which started smoking. “I feathered it then, and the fire soon appeared to go out,” Watson reported. “But a little later the left waist gunner [Stewart] reported smoke and flames pouring out of that engine.”

As Meat Hound reached the airspace over the Netherlands, David could see low clouds developing and obscuring his view of the ground. “At this point we had given up about 8,000 feet of altitude for enough speed to keep up with the [B-17] formation above us,” he noted. “However, with 15,000 feet of altitude and two good engines, we believed we would safely survive the battle which had now lasted for at least two and one-half hours.” Navigator Leverton had reported that the aircraft was just east of Amsterdam, over the Zuider Zee, when another German fighter pressed in for an attack, hitting the plane and starting a fire near its number two gas tank.

Noticing that his plane was over water, Watson turned his crippled aircraft to the south “to allow us to bail out over land. All the rest of the boys jumped, one by one.” When he went below to bail out from his assigned exit, David could see that the navigator and flight engineer had followed proper emergency procedure and had preceded him out of the plane. He was surprised, however, to see the bombardier still in the plane. “When I inquired of the bombardier, ‘Are you OK, or have you been shot?’ He assured me that the was all right and said, ‘I’ll jump after you.’ This he did,” recalled David. Other crew members used the side exit to the B-17’s rear to bail out. Although disappointed at failing in his goal of flying twenty-five missions, David hoped to achieve another goal—to have a successful parachute jump and escape capture.

Hitting the ground on a narrow strip of land between the Zuider Zee and Lake Kinselmeer, a few miles east of Amsterdam, David was fortunate to evade the Germans with the help of a friendly Dutch farmer. Resistance fighters aided David in his long journey from the Netherlands through Belgium and France and on to Spain, where he was arrested by police before finally being released and making it to British-controlled Gibraltar. He arrived back in England on May 25, 1944, the only one of the 109 missing-in-action crewmen from the 303rd to return to his base before the war ended. Others on his crew were not so lucky. Stewart, Leverton, Romaine, and Kosinski were captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. Four men—Colvin, Rowland, Booth, and Fussner—did not survive their jumps, drowning after landing.

As for Watson, he had expected to bail out with the rest of his crew. He had set the plane’s automatic pilot, put on his parachute, and started to crawl out the escape hatch. When he looked down through a small break in the clouds, however, all he could see below was water. “I was scared to death,” he later told a reporter. “I didn’t want to go into the channel. I decided I would rather blow up with the Fortress than drown in the channel. I took a heading in the direction of England and said to myself: ‘Here goes.’”

Now alone, Watson could only watch helplessly as two enemy fighters attacked his B-17 from each side. Fortunately, the worsening weather forced the Germans to break off and return to their base. “It was pretty lonesome up there,” he remembered. “I radioed to the landing fields: ‘If you see a B-17 with two engines out, you’ll know it’s me.’”

With two engines out and fires blazing, his left elevator shot off, a shattered connection between one wing section and the fuselage, and battling terrible visibility, Watson steered his severely damaged aircraft to a successful landing at Royal Air Force Metfield, then home to the American 353rd Fighter Group, which flew P-47 Thunderbolts. Watson recalled that on the radio he could hear the airfield’s control tower call to him, “Come on in big friend.”

According to an article about the incident in the Stars and Stripes newspaper, Watson “made what Thunderbolt pilots there called a ‘beautiful landing.’” The bomber pilot watched as firefighters spent some time, nearly two hours, trying to put out the fires threatening to engulf his aircraft (the Meat Hound had to be scrapped, becoming one of the eleven B-17s lost by the 303rd from the mission). As he watched, he heard one of the ground crew call out: “‘Watson, look what I found under your seat.’ He reached down and pulled out an unexploded 20-millimeter cannon shell.” Safe at Molesworth, Watson wondered if La Guardia might finally forgive him. Later, the pilot received a message from the New York mayor that read: “All is forgiven. Congratulations. I hope you never run out of altitude. Happy landings. Will be seeing you soon.”

Watson survived the war, finishing his service with more than thirty combat missions. By then, he had seemingly grown tired of being reminded about his World Series stunt, shrugging when asked about it by an Indianapolis News reporter and commenting, “That’s water over the dam.” In peacetime, Watson flew for a time with Pan American Airways before settling down in Indianapolis for a long career in the insurance industry, retiring in 1983 and dying ten years later. His traumatic experiences in the skies over Germany had marked their changes on him even while he served overseas. When David returned to London in May 1944, for security reasons he had to be identified by someone who knew him. “Jack Watson arrived from our base to identify me,” David remembered, “and it was a great relief to see him. I was pleased to see him wearing captain’s bars but shocked to see that his beautiful black hair had turned mostly grey during the four and one half months we had been separated.”

Both David and Stewart seemed to hold no grudge against Watson for his decision to remain with his B-17 after ordering the rest of his crew to bail out. Stewart, who died in Anderson in 2000, noted that Watson had made the difficult decision that he would “rather blow up than freeze to death” if he ended up in the English Channel, and if all the crew had remained in the aircraft it might not have made it to England.

While waiting to return from Spain, David, talking to a fellow American officer who had been shot down after he had been, learned that Watson had beaten the odds and returned to England without a scratch. “My immediate thoughts,” David wrote in his memoir, published before his death in 2009, “were then, as they have remained, ‘Thank God he made it!’ No good can come from wondering if we might have gotten back had we stayed with the plane.” David firmly believed that their best odds at that moment over the Netherlands “favored the decision that was made” by his commander.


Friday, September 17, 2021

Guerrilla Pilot: Alex Vraciu in the Philippines

On December 14, 1944, Alex Vraciu, one of the leading U.S. Navy aces in the Pacific, flew two missions with Fighting Squadron 20 from the USS Lexington near the former American airbase Clark Field in central Luzon in the northern Philippines about sixty miles from the capital of Manila. With no Japanese planes in the air, Vraciu and his fellow pilots concentrated on destroying enemy aircraft on the ground.

Pulling away from a low strafing run on his afternoon mission, Vraciu realized that his plane had been hit by enemy fire in its engine’s oil tank. “I knew that I’d 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.”

Pilots on the Lexington had been warned by the ship’s intelligence officers that if they were hit and had to bail out of their aircraft over Luxon to head westward away from the lowlands, an area that held the majority of Japanese troops in the Philippines. The hilly western section of the island, which included Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano, included dense forests from which several guerrilla forces fighting the enemy and gathering intelligence were active. Also, it was possible for downed pilots to make their way to the coast for possible rescue by an American submarine. “It’s hard to head away from the direction of your carrier,” said Vraciu, “but it had to be!”

Following the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese earlier in the war, some of the American and Filipino troops had escaped and fled to the jungle or hills to continue to fight the enemy, particularly in Luzon, as U.S. Army Forces in the Far East guerrilla groups. According to historian William Manchester, by the end of 1944 more than a hundred and eighty thousand Filipinos had fought with or aided the guerrillas in some manner. These groups included former members of the Philippine army, sometimes led by American soldiers that had escaped the Bataan Death March, and the Hukbalahap (Huks), the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines.  

Preparing to bail out of his stricken aircraft, Vraciu opened his canopy and began throwing out any items he did not want to have with him if he happened to be captured by the Japanese (any information that might be useful to the enemy). “When I dared not wait any longer, I climbed out on the wing of my plane and impulsively held on to the side of the cockpit and trailing edge of the wing—waiting—so I could get farther out of the lowlands and get into the hills,” he noted. “It probably was just for a matter of a few seconds, but it sure seemed like a long time.”

Jumping free of the plane, Vraciu had only a short time to think before he hit the ground. “I remember coming down, saying to myself, ‘Alex, what have you got yourself into this time!’” He landed about a half a kilometer away from the city of Capas in the Tarlac province. A member of the Filipino guerrilla force who lived in Capas remembered hearing Japanese anti-aircraft guns “barking furiously” as he cultivated his garden. Looking up, the resistance fighter saw a lone American aircraft flying over the city to the west and Japanese soldiers gathering to follow to see if the pilot would survive the crash.

Vraciu had made up his mind that he would not allow himself to be captured by the enemy, and snatched his .45-caliber gun from his holster when he noticed about eight men running toward where he had landed. A slightly dazed Vraciu heard the group shout: “Filipino! Filipino! No shoot!” In a short time, the men had changed the pilot’s oil-soaked flight suit and helmet for a straw hat, shirt, and pants he could only button the bottom two buttons on. “A couple of the men gathered in my parachute and picked up my backpack, and then they said we had to leave quickly because the Japanese would be converging in ten minutes because they had an encampment nearby,” Vraciu said.

The group headed off in the direction of the nearby hills, passing through a small village along the way. After going by the village, the group entered a field of tall grass. They were led by a young Negrito boy who could see the path through the vegetation. “They picked me up a couple of times along the way and then put me down again,” said Vraciu. After this happened to him the second time, the pilot asked what was going on. The guerrillas showed him that they had set bamboo traps in the tall grass to discourage the Japanese from following them. “One of these traps could rip off the whole calf of your leg, they said,” Vraciu noted.

Because he did not know where he was being taken, Vraciu felt some concern about his would-be rescuers. His worries ended, however, when a couple of the young men in the group came over to him as they were heading into the hills and asked him two questions. “They wanted to know if movie star Madeleine Carroll was married the second time and whether Deanna Durbin [a Hollywood actress and singer] had any children yet,” said Vraciu. “Now, I half smiled and thought to myself, ‘Why am I worrying if this is all they were concerned about?’”

There remained, however, one nagging concern for the downed airman. Vraciu could not help but worry about how his new wife (they had married in August) might take the news that he had not returned to the Lexington. Back in East Chicago, Kathryn Vraciu told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that the last time she had heard from her husband had been in a December 10 letter in which he had written: “You won’t be hearing from me again for a long time.”

Fred Bakutis, commanding officer of Fighting Squadron 20, wrote a letter to Kathryn on December 18 in which he noted that although Vraciu had been with the group only a short time, “his friendly, cheerful personality had already contributed much to the morale of the squadron. Moreover, he was a most competent pilot and a real asset to us. His missing status has been a great shock to all of us even though we hold considerable hope for his eventual recovery.”

After explaining the circumstances of how Vraciu was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and offering some hope of his safe return, Bakutis cautioned Kathryn that was not “beyond the realm of the possible, that he may, or already has fallen into enemy hands.” Later, on Christmas Day, Kathryn received a dozen roses her husband had earlier ordered for her.

For several weeks Vraciu stayed in a guerrilla camp headed by Captain Alfred Bruce, a gaunt and thin survivor of the Bataan Death March who commanded the forces in the South Tarlac Military District. “I got there a couple of days too late for these guerrillas to take me over to the west coast of Luzon to be picked up by an American submarine,” Vraciu noted, “but I was lucky because that submarine was sunk by a Japanese submarine.” 

Vraciu and a couple of other American pilots rescued by the guerrillas stayed in a hut built over a chicken coop. Visitors to the camp could always tell how long the pilots had been in the Philippines by the length of their beards, he recalled. On December 17 Bruce appointed Vraciu as a brevet major in the guerrilla forces and gave him the job as administration officer.

Food, a scarce item in the Philippines, became an important part of what the pilots thought about as they waited for American troops to invade Luzon. They soon became sick of constantly eating rice (upon his return to the United States, Vraciu banned rice from his family’s dinner table for three years). For a change of pace, the Americans happily dined on what the Filipinos said was wild duck, but turned out to be fruit bats. “It wasn’t too bad,” Vraciu remembered. For their Christmas dinner, the pilots were lucky enough to have turkey. A rookie chef, Vraciu did not cook the turkey long enough, but the pilots were so hungry they ate the meat practically raw.

To help keep his mind occupied during his weeks with the guerrillas, Vraciu befriended a monkey he and the other pilots named Dugout Doug, an unflattering nickname that had been given to General Douglas MacArthur by American troops. Vraciu also kept notes on what was happening on Japanese airfields in the valley below. When his frustration level at not being in combat built high enough, he took a potshot with his .45-caliber pistol at a low flying enemy airplane. He learned, however, that his freedom came at a price. One day a visiting guerrilla told Vraciu that Japanese soldiers had killed twenty-two men from the village “near where I landed, trying to get them to tell them where I had been taken.”

On the morning of January 9, 1945, approximately sixty-eight thousand troops from the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the coast of Lingayen Gulf and began the long march to retake Manila from the Japanese. News of the landing reached Bruce’s guerrilla camp through another downed pilot who had been brought there. Bruce decided to send 150 members of his force north to hook up with the U.S. military. The guerrillas hoped to pass along to their allies information on the strength of Japanese troops in the area and to obtain arms and ammunition to continue their fight.

The activity aroused Vraciu’s interest, and he received permission from Bruce to join the small guerrilla group. Before leaving, Vraciu asked Bruce if there was anything he wanted, he would try, when he rejoined his squadron, to fly over his territory and drop it to him. Bruce thought about what he wanted for a moment and replied: “Two cans of beer.”

Just prior to starting out, the guerrilla force’s leader, Major Alberto Stockton, suffered a recurrence of malaria. “Just like that, I found myself in charge—a navy lieutenant,” laughed Vraciu. “I was called major and had an aide I called Wednesday.” For the next week, the group, armed only with a few pistols and rifles with no ammunition, evaded Japanese patrols and made its way toward the U.S. lines, growing larger and larger in size as they passed through various villages. “They [the Filipinos who joined] wanted to get in on the action with the Americans coming in,” he noted. “Some called them ‘sunshine patriots.’”

On its journey, the group stopped for lunch (rice) in the village of Mayantoc. While there, Vraciu met the local mayor and an American woman married to a Filipino who lived in the village. While together the three of them read leaflets dropped by U.S. planes and signed by Sergio OsmeƱa, president of the Philippines. The leaflet called upon Filipinos to rally behind General MacArthur “so that the enemy may feel the full strength of our outraged people.”

Suddenly, a member of another guerrilla group came face to face with Vraciu and half pointed a rifle at the pilot. “He could see that I wasn’t a Filipino, and he appeared to be a little puzzled about what to do,” said Vraciu. At first, the guerrilla mistook Vraciu for a member of the Hukbalahap, saying, “You Huk!” The pilot told him he was an American and, realizing what he was about to say sounded like a scene from a bad Hollywood film, told him: “Take me to your leader.”

As the two men went down the trail, one of Vraciu’s men ran toward him for protection. Members of the other guerrilla group, under the control of an American survivor of the Bataan Death March named Albert Hendrickson from the North Tarlac area, fired and killed one member of Vraciu’s band and seriously wounded another man. Visibly outraged, an angry Vraciu ordered the shooting to stop and yelled at the opposing force’s commander that while the Americans were trying to wrest control of the Philippines from the Japanese, they were spending “more time killing each other than you were fighting the Japs!” The shooting ended, and the two groups combined forces and agreed to travel to Hendrickson’s camp.

On the nighttime journey to Hendrickson’s camp, Vraciu traveled in style, riding on the back of a small horse. Unfortunately, the horse was none too pleased at having a rider, and attempted to bite him whenever he could. About two hundred yards from the entrance to Hendrickson’s camp, the horse finally got the better of the American pilot. “He just laid down and wouldn’t go another yard,” Vraciu recalled. “He made me walk the rest of the way.”

After a few days of inactivity, Vraciu, anxious to connect with the advancing U.S. forces, told Hendrickson he would be taking his guerrilla group and leaving the next morning. Hendrickson seemed reluctant to have his group leave, telling Vraciu that if the American army planned on coming into his territory, they should report to him. When Vraciu indicated he planned on leaving no matter what, Hendrickson changed his mind and agreed to have his men go as well.

That evening, the camp was on alert for a possible Japanese attack from across the river to the west. Someone gave Vraciu a carbine and he lay out that night with the others waiting for the enemy to strike. As he peered through the darkness, Vraciu remembered asking himself: “What is a good fighter pilot doing laying on his stomach in the middle of this God-forsaken country?”

Late the next morning, Vraciu participated in what he called the “strangest join-up of forces on the American side during the war.” Both guerrilla groups marched together up the Philippine National Highway and were led by a bugler and three men displaying the flags of the United States, Philippines, and the guerrilla forces. “Following the flags came twelve of us ‘chosen few’ on horseback,” said Vraciu. “This horse was a little bigger and didn’t try to bite me.”

As the group passed through villages on its way north, it picked up small groups of women, children, and dogs, who joined the march. This strange procession drew the attention of an American Avenger aircraft attempting to figure out who they were. “We’d just wave at the plane and wonder what kind of thoughts the crew may have had about us,” Vraciu noted.

The group finally came upon an advance outpost manned by what Vraciu remembered as a six-foot, eight-inch-tall private who did not know what to do with what he saw. The soldier decided to let someone else deal with the problem, telling Vraciu: “Da sergeant’s down da road.” The group continued and finally came to the outskirts of the 129th Infantry Regiment, a former National Guard outfit from Illinois. “When they found out I was from the Chicago area,” said Vraciu, “there were warm feelings all around. They quickly broke out coffee, wafers, and beans.”

After visiting for a short time, the pilot mentioned that he had valuable information that he had to turn over to the commanding general. “They called somebody right away,” said Vraciu, who while waiting said goodbye to his guerrillas.

In no time at all, a one-star general showed up with an aide, and Vraciu joined them for a trip to the city of Camiling in an American Jeep. The general drove and Vraciu sat beside him in the right seat. The two men talked on their way to General Robert S. Beighter’s headquarters in Camiling.

During a lull in conversation, the aide sitting in the back seat said, “You’re Vraciu, aren’t you?” It turned out that both men had attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, at the same time, but Vraciu could not remember what class the aide had been in. At Camiling, Vraciu had lunch with General  Beightler and remembered devouring an entire loaf of bread, which the general “got a big kick out of.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

“The major’s dead”: Richard Tregaskis and Major Don B. Dunham

Throughout his time covering combat in World War II for the International News Service, correspondent Richard Tregaskis discovered many captivating individuals to write about. While on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on its way to confront the Japanese at the Battle of Midway, he latched onto the confident commander of the ship’s Torpedo Squadron 8, John C. Waldron. 

During the tense struggle by U.S. Marines to hold Guadalcanal, Tregaskis tagged along with the men of the First Raider Battalion on a raid deep into enemy territory and became close to Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson, whom he later described as the “bravest, the most effective killing machine” he had ever encountered in his career covering combat with troops of twelve nationalities.

The courage of one fighting man Tregaskis wrote about, however, Major Don B. Dunham of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, has not received the attention it deserves. The powerful dispatch Tregaskis produced about Dunham’s courage on a hill overlooking the village of Altavilla in Italy—an action that led to the major’s death on September 17, 1943—was delayed in publication due to Tregaskis’s subsequent near-fatal wounding on another Italian mountainside in November. The article finally reached readers in the United States in early December, and the correspondent included the incident in his 1944 book Invasion Diary.

Preparing for the invasion of Italy while resting in Algiers in late August 1943, Tregaskis had spent time making the necessary mental preparations for the coming ordeal. While scrounging for needed supplies—bedding roll, knapsack, mess kit, map case, and an air mattress, the “golden prize of every field soldier’s possessions”—at the public relations office, he found a quiet room where he could sit and look down on the streets of Algiers and think about what was to come. “Always before a mission I try to calculate the odds,” he recalled. “This is a dangerous job, no denying that. . . . I figured my chances of getting killed or wounded would be three of four out of ten. I had the customary confidence that the worst could not happen to me; that chance would stay on the side.”

Tregaskis and Seymour Korman of the Chicago Tribune had been assigned to accompany the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment for the invasion. Before landing with the paratroops on September 15, Tregaskis met the regiment’s officers, including its commander, Colonel Reuben H. Tucker of Ansonia, Connecticut, and Dunham of Lemon Cove, California. 

While discussing details of the upcoming mission, the conversation, Tregaskis recalled, turned to discussing “the disposal of personal effects” in the event of an officers’ death. “If I get killed, turn my personal effect over to the vultures [his fellow officers],” Tucker joked. Dunham told the reporter: “I want you to be damn sure that I’m killed first.”

On the evening of September 16 Tregaskis received his first taste of action in Italy, joining Tucker and about 150 men in seizing two objectives, including its main goal, the hill commanding Altavilla. “We walked carefully through the narrow path in the moonlight, and reached the last knoll, which was almost bare on top, though edged with thick trees,” Tregaskis reported. “Here some of us lay down for a minute, exhausted.” 

Because the Americans had to divide their forces between the two objectives, he noted that there were only no more than seventy men available to defend the position he was in, Hill 424, against a possible German attack. Dunham sent a two-man patrol down into the valley, trying to get through to the frontlines for reinforcements. “We never heard from them,” noted Tregaskis. Dunham left to hunt for snipers, moving, the correspondent remembered, “like a practiced hunter. I watched his feet, and the one knee bending and unbending like the rocker arm of an old side-wheeler, disappear over the crown of the slope.”

Throughout the night Tregaskis could hear heavy fire, including the “Brrdddt-t-t-t, brrdddt-t-t-t, brrdddt-t-t-t” from German Schmeisser machine-pistols firing in short bursts and the screeching of artillery shells against the hill they had left behind. “The German batteries were giving us hell,” he said. In spite of the clamor, Tregaskis managed to get some sleep on the rough, stony ground before being awakened at about 3:00 a.m. by Dunham’s return. “I couldn’t get the sniper,” the major told the reporter. “Things are not so good. No support has come up. Somebody’s got to get through and ask for help.”

Accompanied by a sergeant, Dunham decided to take the risk. He gave his map case and pistol to Korman for safekeeping, grabbed a Thompson submachine gun and two clips of ammunition, and shed his unneeded equipment. Dunham shook hands with Tregaskis and said good-bye in a way that caused the correspondent to believe that the major did not expect to return. “I am going to try to get back,” Dunham said before he and the sergeant slipped off into the night and into the dangerous valley below. 

“A few minutes later we heard bursts of machine-pistol fire, saw the sharp darting lights of tracer bullets amongst the black of the trees down there,” Tregaskis reported. “Answering fires came from our weapons. We wondered if Don Dunham had got through.”

The major had not made it. While Tregaskis busied himself with digging a foxhole, the sergeant returned, and the correspondent could see that his eyes had “the haunted, hunted look of a man who has been in mortal danger.” The sergeant reported that he believed Dunham was dead, as he had heard “death rattlin’” coming from the major’s throat. That left only one officer, Tucker, still available for action. Later, as Tregaskis continued to toil on his foxhole, a medic and the sergeant came by to confirm Dunham’s death. “The major’s dead,” the sergeant noted. “We went out and found him, and he’s hit in the head, the neck and the chest.”

Unlike Dunham, Tregaskis survived. While safe behind the lines the correspondent learned that Dunham had been posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his action on the hill. Tregaskis wrote an article outlining the major’s bravery—a piece published a month before Ernie Pyle’s famous column from Italy about the death of another officer, Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, on an Italian hill, a piece that appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country. In Tregaskis’s article, he recounted Dunham’s death, writing:

“After that, I may say frankly, I forgot about Don Dunham: the shock of knowing he had died, faded in the strong and urgent light of the need that faced us: the fact that we were still cut off and almost helpless; that the Germans beginning at dawn would throw a tornado of artillery fire at us; and those men in camouflage suits that looked like awkward shapes of foliage would try to charge up the slopes leading to our hilltop; that tanks would be brought in to add to our torment; and that our colonel [Tucker], the only remaining officer who had not been killed or wounded but a man who lived for fighting, would hold us there till hell or relief came. These thoughts filled my mind then, and during the dawning, when the shells, tanks and charging Germans came as expected; during the day, when the shells came closer and closer; when there were bloody-bubbling wounds carved into layers of tissue by the score; when a nasty little tank came as expected and blasted away point blank; when, finally, through the squeak of sniper’s bullets and the crash of shells some few of us got back to bring the word of need for reinforcements for those on the hill. Such experiences would stop the most confirmed philosopher from thinking.

 “But after that ugly experience became a memory, we who had seen him go out to die thought of Don Dunham; and the steady, calm look of his eyes when he said ‘I’m going to try to get back.’ The mission he undertook had been a failure; but in his death he had been a success and a hero; no man who has that look in his eyes of knowing death and facing it willingly—can be other.”

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Old and New Journalism: John Bartlow Martin at Northwestern

As a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois, Jim Borg took an independent writing class in the fall of 1975 that required him to research and write an article that might be suitable for publishing in such national periodicals as Esquire or The New Yorker.

A few months earlier, Chicago newspapers had been full of reports about the death of Steven Stawnychy, a recruit at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center who had been abused by his instructors. On the evening of June 3, 1975, Stawnychy had committed suicide, letting himself be struck by a Chicago and North Western Railway train. “He walked over and laid his head down on the tracks,” said the engineer of the train that hit Stawnychy. “When I realized what he was up to, I just went into ‘emergency’ and tried to stop—but, of course, it was too short a distance.” For his article, Borg, wanted to “put all the pieces together into a comprehensive story that also looked at Stawnychy’s background” to unravel why the recruit had taken his own life.

On a gray day late that fall, Borg took an early draft of his article to be critiqued by his professor, John Bartlow Martin, during a meeting in the study at Martin’s Victorian home in Highland Park, just a thirty-minute drive from the Northwestern campus. “The study was modestly furnished and obviously a place where work was done, nothing for show,” Borg recalled. “The ashtray on his desk was nearly overflowing but I don’t remember him smoking as we worked.” Martin showed Borg how to cut and blend the story, paring down each of his sentences to ensure that every word counted.

The result was magic, said Borg. He described his editorial session with Martin as “the most instructive half hour of my life.” Martin also assisted Borg in obtaining a grant from Medill that enabled him to travel to Stawnychy’s hometown in Minnesota to complete his research. Borg completed his article, had it published as the cover story in the April 1976 issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and won an award for it in a United Press International competition.

Martin’s teaching career at one of the country’s top-ranked journalism schools began in 1969 had first joined the staff at Medill in 1969, when he started as a visiting lecturer. He accepted the job in order to help support his family while he labored to finish his Adlai E. Stevenson biography. His hiring had been part of Dean Ira William “Bill” Cole’s effort to bring professional reporters and nationally known individuals in the profession to teach at Medill.

In addition to Martin, others who became familiar figures at Fisk Hall were Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman, and Sig Michelson, the former CBS News president. “I was a fan of John’s work,” said Peter Jacobi, who began teaching at Medill in 1961, remained there for eighteen years, and served as assistant and associate dean during that time. “His magazine pieces were so carefully reported and brilliantly written. I felt he would make an excellent teacher for our students, particularly the more advanced ones.” Jacobi remembered there was a “certain pride” felt at Medill for having secured Martin as a teacher, and, “because he was a true gentleman, we came to like him as a colleague.”

After just a year at Medill, Cole promoted Martin to full professor rank, complete with tenure, a salary that topped out at nearly $30,000 a year, plus health insurance—a benefit that proved to be vital over the ten years he remained at the university, as health woes plagued Martin, exacerbated by his longtime smoking habit. Although Martin always told his students that writing could not be taught, he did believe that if they already had the ability to write a decent English sentence, he could, perhaps, “teach them to write a better one,” as well as instructing them on how to do the legwork necessary to produce a decent magazine article.

During his time at Medill, Martin taught two graduate-level seminars, including one on the limits of American power, similar to one he had taught at the City University of New York. His other seminar, officially known as Journalism D26, Independent Writing Projects, focused on the how and why of producing serious nonfiction magazine articles. The class helped students improve their writing, sharpened their reporting skills, guided them in organizing their research, and showed them how to structure their material in a way suitable for magazine publication.

The class met irregularly as a group, with Martin spending more time in one-on-one consultations with his students about their projects than in a formal classroom setting. He required them to read, and discussed with them, two well-known books that had often influenced his own work: The Elements ofStyle by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, and A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. Martin discovered that some of his students had been previously introduced to Strunk and White either in high school or as undergraduates, but “doting fathers read Huckleberry Finn to small children before they are old enough to understand that Huckleberry Finn is a book about human freedom. Students read Strunk too soon. They need to read him while they are trying to write seriously.”

GreggEasterbrook, a student of Martin’s during the 1976–77 school year and today a well-known author, recalled that when students slipped up even verbally from the dictates of Strunk and White, they were sure to hear about it from their professor. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly,” Easterbrook said.

From Fowler’s classic tome, Martin shared articles on such issues as the that/which problem, formal words, hackneyed phrases, paragraph rhythm, pedantry, meaningless words, and others. “He was very strict about formal grammar rules,” Easterbrook said, adding that Martin’s lessons on the subject came during a time when the proper use of grammar had been in decline.

As a way to improve their style, Martin also encouraged his students to read good writing, using as examples his own magazine stories from Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post; Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War; Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento; and Paul Horgan’s Approaches to Writing.

Most of the fifty-four students who took Martin’s advanced writing classes at Medill each year had no experience producing anything more complicated than a spot news story, but Martin still made them submit an outline for a magazine article, then report and write and rewrite a story running anywhere from fourteen to eighteen and a half pages. He allowed his students to pick their own topics and let them use newspaper clippings and library materials to prepare their outlines. For their rough drafts and finished article, however, they had to use only interviews, documents, and other primary sources. “The rock-bottom foundation of all journalism is reporting,” said Martin. “Writing is important, editing is important. But in the end everything depends on reporting.”

For those students who were unsure of what to write about, he provided a list of potential topics, using such local stories as the possibility of a third airport for Chicago, a slum fire, voting patterns in Chicago and its suburbs during presidential elections, and public housing. Martin also distributed as a guide a 1954 outline he had done for Post editors on a possible story about the life and death of Gus Amedeo, a Chicago burglar who had killed a policeman and had been gunned down in return (published in the Post in 1955 as “The Making of a Killer”).

Although by the time he joined the Medill faculty general interest magazines such as the Post, Life, and Look were on the decline, hurt by television’s domination of the home entertainment market, Martin maintained an abiding faith “in the ability of a good writer to make a living by simply being able to communicate facts, whether in magazines, books, TV, or elsewhere. The writer serves truth. He is needed.”

When he began his career at Medill, universities across the country, including Northwestern, had been beset by unrest. These were the days, Martin remembered, of the shooting by National Guard troops of students at Kent State, the radical actions of the Weather Underground, and the militancy of the Black Panters—a time known in Chicago as the Days of Rage. Martin said he had been, by and large, on the side of the students, overlooking their long hair, beads, sandals, and chains. While some of them insulted and harassed their professors, Martin said he escaped such outbursts. “It was a hard time to be a student, a hard time to be a parent, and even a rather hard time to be a teacher,” said Martin. He preferred the turmoil of that period—“students were at least alive,” Martin noted—to the “inertia and careerism” that infected students in the post–Vietnam War era.

After a few years of unmet deadlines, broken appointments, and sloppy article drafts seemingly dashed off at the last possible moment, Martin began approaching “each new student somewhat warily.” Writing for magazines proved to be beyond the capabilities of most of his students, as they tended to produce academic papers, not magazine pieces, while nearly most had great difficulty in structuring the material they collected. All too many of them simply could not “write a clean crisp English sentence,” and Martin wondered if elementary schools and high schools in the United States had somehow stopped teaching basic English grammar, let alone syntax. 

Worst of all, students had a lackadaisical attitude about the profession they had chosen. “They do not understand,” said Martin, “that writing is a serious and difficult business. They have an unspoken contempt for their material. They need to be made to take it seriously. A writer bears a heavy responsibility. They do not seem to feel it.”

Growing weary of marking the same errors again and again on every article draft he received, Martin, to save time, had a set of rubber stamps created that offered such straightforward criticisms as: “awkward,” “loose, wordy,” “not entirely clear,” “says little,” and “what mean?”

Many years after his days at Medill, Easterbrook still remembered the corrections Martin made on one of his assignments. Martin had invited Easterbrook, whom he considered be one of the most promising writers he had in his course, to his Highland Park home to discuss his manuscript about the Republican Party in Chicago. What struck Easterbrook, besides the fact that his professor had been willing to invite him to his home and talk to him for a half an hour about his work, was that when Martin returned his article he had made comments on almost every sentence, with some sentences having more than one suggestion for improvement. The corrections—“dull,” “sloppy,” “overwritten,” “bad grammar,” for example—were stamped on his manuscript using orange, green, and red ink. “My God,” Easterbrook said he thought to himself at the time, “this guy uses these words so often he had stamps made.”

Martin also dissuaded his students from erroneous usages that had slowly crept into the English language—“media” for “television,” “image” for “reputation,” as well as “impact” as a verb for “affect” and “input” for “suggestion.” Easterbrook in particular recalled Martin’s maxim that good writing had to be rigorous and that every word on the page had to be there for a reason. It was a lesson that should be learned by a writer in any style or genre, said Easterbrook.

Taking a class with Martin could be an intimidating experience for Medill students, as he had no problem in telling them exactly what he thought about their writing. Niles Howard signed up for Martin’s course while at Medill in the early 1970s, believing it would put his career on the fast track, or so he thought. He believed so even though neither he nor his fellow students were sure what the difference was between a newspaper article and a magazine article.

When Martin, whom Howard described as “a little introverted, not gregarious, not a back-slapper, but thoughtful,” returned his first writing assignment to him, the professor had scrawled on it, “This isn’t even an article. Why don’t you try again?” A chagrined Howard went to Martin’s office and asked for guidance on what he might do to improve his piece. The two of them talked for almost an hour on “how I might salvage my academic standing (let alone my ego),” said Howard. 

The memory of what he and Martin talked about has faded over time, but one point his teacher made stuck with him, and it is advice he still hears whenever he sits down at a keyboard and starts to write. “A magazine article is not a bunch of facts and quotes,” Howard quoted Martin as saying. “It’s a journey from point A to point B. Your job is to persuade the reader to ride along.”   

If students took their work seriously, Martin treated them with courtesy and did all he could to help them hone their craft. An army veteran from Alabama, Mike Plemmons arrived at Medill in the late 1970s with considerable newspaper experience, having worked at two daily newspapers in the South and another newspaper in Massachusetts. Plemmons spent his first semester at Medill in Washington, D.C., reporting for the Medill News Service, which allowed students the opportunity to live in the nation’s capital and report on the activities of the federal government. A professor-editor at the News Service recommended to Plemmons that he study with Martin when he returned to his studies at Northwestern.

The next semester, Plemmons took Martin’s advanced writing class and decided to create what he called an “experimental” article on the education system, giving three points of view side by side—a seventh-grade student, his parents, and his teacher. Halfway through his project, Plemmons began to be sorry he had ever taken it on. The interviews were easy enough, but he could not find his “lede,” the opening paragraph enticing readers to go further into his twenty-page manuscript.

One day, while going over a draft of the article with Martin, Plemmons remembered that Martin circled a paragraph in his story, a quote from a seventh-grade teacher, sat forward in his creaky chair and said, looking directly at him, “This is good.” Rewriting a piece that size in the days before laptop computers and digital word processing required hard, tedious work, but Plemmons decided to take Martin’s advice, abandoning his previous story structure and restarting his piece with the paragraph Martin had circled. “It worked, of course,” said Plemmons. “The rest of the story wrote itself.” 

On the last page of Plemmons’s finished article, Martin simply wrote: “I like this piece.” Although he never published the story he wrote for Martin’s class, Plemmons kept the manuscript in his possession for several years, cherishing the memory of a time when a professor took his writing seriously and treated him like a colleague.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a large number of Medill students were drawn, thanks to the work of such reporters as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, to careers as investigative reporters, or to find jobs where they could practice the New Journalism that had been pioneered by such talented writers as Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion. Journalism historian Marc Weingarten noted that in the turbulent 1960s, Wolfe and his cohorts had realized that traditional reporting was “inadequate to chronicle the tremendous cultural and social changes of the era.”

Martin, however, had quite a different viewpoint—he still believed in the old-fashioned advice from Strunk and White that a writer should always place himself in the background and write in a way that drew the reader’s attention to the writing, rather than to the writer. In his estimation, New Journalism required a writer to give his views about every fact, to constantly perform, and to “become, indeed, virtually the principal actor in the drama.”

Few of his young writers, however, had anything interesting to say, Martin noted, while the elders they wrote about “have a good deal interesting to say but we cannot hear them because of the authors’ noise.” He also was annoyed with young writers who did not take the trouble to learn grammar, how to write a clear English sentence, or invented dialogue or fabricated “composite characters” without first informing their readers. “To my mind, this is writing fiction, or, less politely, faking a story, lying,” said Martin. “To all this, my students would reply that I am an old grouch. They would be right.”

Today, Medill honors Martin's decade of teaching and his remarkable writing career through its sponsorship of the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism.