Monday, June 20, 2022

Alex Vraciu and the Mission Beyond Darkness

On this day in 1944, U.S. Navy ace Alex Vraciu, who the day before had downed six Japanese Judy dive bombers in just eight minutes, took off with other members of the USS Lexington's Fighting Squadron 16 on what became known as the "Mission Beyond Darkness" during the two-day Battle of the Philippine Sea.

At about four in the afternoon a plane from the USS Enterprise discovered the whereabouts of the Japanese fleet. Because of the distance involved between the two armadas (approximately 300 miles), there existed a good chance that many of the U.S. planes would not have enough fuel to make it back to their carriers, and those who did would not be able to make it back until night had fallen. Despite the risks, orders were sent to launch aircraft, and a force of seventy-seven dive bombers, fifty-four torpedo planes, and eighty-five fighters responded. The pilots had one main task in mind: “Get the carriers.”

Pilots on the Lexington were in and out of their ready rooms all day expecting a strike against the Japanese. When Vraciu finally received word of the enemy’s sighting, he said he and the rest of the fighter pilots figured their Hellcats would have enough fuel for the mission, but the same could not be said for the bombers. Many were also worried about the possibility of trying to land their planes at night.

Vraciu and eight other Hellcats, including his wingman, Ensign Homer Brockmeyer, flew escort for a group of fifteen dive bombers and six torpedo planes. “I saluted to the bridge as I took off,” he said, “because I didn’t think I was coming back. A lot of us didn’t.” The faster fighters had to continuously weave back and forth because of the bombers’ slower cruising speed.

The group came under immediate attack by a horde of Zeroes when it reached its target. A huge cumulus cloud hampered operations, as it separated Hellcats flying top cover from the planes below. “Brock and I were the only planes remaining with the bombers at that time and we appeared surrounded,” Vraciu remembered. Glancing down, he saw that one of the Grumman Avenger torpedo planes had been hit by the enemy and had caught on fire. The crew bailed out successfully and was later rescued.

The Japanese pilots encountered by Vraciu and his wingmen were tough opponents. “Now these guys were good,” said Vraciu. Both sides battled for position, hoping to slip in and rake their opponent with machine-gun and/or cannon fire. Outnumbered, Vraciu and Brockmeyer went into the defensive Thach Weave to hold off the Japanese and perhaps get into position to shoot down the enemy.

As the Americans struggled to survive, one of the enemy fighters caught on to Brockmeyer’s tail and fired. Vraciu was able to shoot down the Zero that had hit his wingman, but he had “the sad experience of seeing Brock going down. I still think I hear him faintly say, ‘I’m hit.’ I was able to get in another good burst at one of them, but I couldn’t tell whether he went down. I damaged it, I’m sure.”

Surrounded, Vraciu used a last-ditch defensive maneuver, diving down and away from the enemy. He flew on to the rendezvous area where he joined up with a damaged Avenger from another U.S. carrier. The pilot of the torpedo plane signaled to Vraciu that he was low on gas and did not have enough for a return to the American fleet. “The sun had already started to disappear on the horizon,” Vraciu said. “He stayed right down low and didn’t climb up for altitude.”

Eventually, the Avenger joined a group of seven planes circling low on the water; all of them were low on fuel and intended on ditching in the water. “It was dark by that time, and I gave them all a heartfelt salute,” said Vraciu. “I don’t know what ever happened to all those guys.”

Still several hundred miles away from the Lexington, Vraciu found himself alone in the darkening sky. Thanks to the lessons he had learned from his mentor, Butch O’Hare, he had been able to conserve his fuel and had enough to return home. Vraciu climbed his Hellcat to eight thousand feet to improve his radio reception so he could latch onto the directional signal from the fleet to help guide him back. Other American pilots were not as fortunate as Vraciu. “Some of the guys were real cool coming back that night,” he recalled, “but some of them were breaking down—sobbing—on the air. It was a dark and black ocean out there. I could empathize with them, but it got so bad that I had to turn my radio off for a while.”

U.S. naval officers were worried about their returning airmen. To aid in their return, the fleet sent out a signal for the pilots to land on the nearest carrier they could find. Admiral Marc Mitscher also sent out a simple order to his carriers: “Turn on the lights.” Otto Romanelli, who served on the Lexington, noted that he and other crew members “felt the tightness in our throats relax. We were doing the only thing that could be done to lead our ‘kid brothers’ home, at the risk of exposing our ships to any [enemy] submarines or bombers in the area.” The pilots who had been left behind on the carriers were astonished by Mitscher’s order. “They stood open mouthed for the sheer audacity of asking the Japs to come and get us,” noted Lieutenant Commander Robert Winston. “Then a spontaneous cheer went up.”

Some of the American flattops went as far as to point their twenty-four-inch searchlights straight up into the air to act as a beacon for their wayward pilots, and destroyers and cruisers helped by shooting illuminating star shells into the sky. One pilot described the scene as “a Hollywood premiere, Chinese New Year, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.” In the confusion, some pilots mistook destroyers for carriers, tried to land on them, and crashed or had to ditch into the sea. (Luckily for the U.S. fleet, there were no Japanese submarines in the area to take advantage of the situation.)

The sudden burst of lights from the fleet, however, stunned Vraciu and led him to think he had taken a wrong turn and ended up at Yap Island, a Japanese base in the Caroline Islands.

Although advised to land at the nearest carrier, Vraciu had enough fuel so he could wait and try to get back on the Lexington. He wanted to sleep in his own bunk that night and was “dehydrated and thirsty as hell and kept thinking about the ‘scuttlebutt’ [water fountain] on the ship.” Approaching his ship, he discovered a real mess. “Planes were everywhere, every ship was lit up, and some carriers had lost position,” he said. “They had overlapping traffic patterns; the upwind leg of some carriers seemed to merge with the downwind leg of others. I don’t know why there weren’t any collisions [between the vessels].”

After circling overhead for awhile, the way home began to clear and Vraciu started his approach to his ship. As he tried to land, however, the landing signal officer had a constant “wave off.” A damaged plane very low on fuel from another carrier had ignored a wave off from the LSO and crashed while trying to set down on the Lexington, killing and wounding some of the crew. Vraciu turned away and landed next door on the Enterprise on his first pass.

As he taxied his plane forward, Vraciu heard the blare of the crash horn, signaling that the aircraft landing behind him had slammed into the deck. “I was urged, after parking my plane, to get off the flight deck as quickly as possible,” he noted. “So I got off the flight deck in a hurry!” Vraciu retired to one of the ship’s ready rooms and found that the only other pilot he recognized was a dive bomber from the Lexington. “Thoughtfully,” Vraciu said, “the ship provided us with medicinal brandy to relax us.” He later discovered that each of the seven survivors from his squadron had landed on a different carrier that night. “It was a sobering thing—probably one of the toughest flights that any of the guys involved had ever had because of the way it turned out,” Vraciu added.

What came to be known as the “Mission beyond Darkness” led to the loss of eighty of the 216 American planes launched against the Japanese fleet, with most of the aircraft lost not through enemy action, but due to lack of fuel or accidents. Rescue efforts for lost crewmen were successful; only sixteen pilots and thirty-three crewmen died.

The June 20 strike did inflict considerable damage on the Japanese. U.S. planes sank the light carrier Hiyo and damaged two others. In addition, several tankers were destroyed and a battleship and cruiser received several hits, putting them out of action for a time. Also, sixty-five enemy planes were downed during the attack, leaving the Japanese with just thirty-five surviving aircraft from the 430 the fleet had the day before. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

The White Ships: Robert Sherrod and the Invasion of Saipan

Those Americans fighting the Japanese who were unlucky enough to be wounded during the invasion of Saipan (Operation Forager) in June and July 1944 were sometimes lucky to be routed for care not to the crowded bunks of transports, but to one of four, spotless white hospital ships—the Relief, Samaritan, Bountiful, and Solace. (For the Saipan operation, no more than 20 percent of the wounded could be taken aboard one of the specialized vessels.)

“The hospital ships’ names sound like funeral wreaths,” said Robert L. Sherrod, correspondent for Time/Life magazines, “but, actually, they were the most cheerful ships in the Pacific, and only about one per cent of the patients died before reaching a rear-area hospital.”

On a visit he paid to the Solace, which in civilian life had been the Clyde Mallory liner SS Iroquois taking passengers on the New York to Miami run, the correspondent found a different world than the one he had experienced on the island—a visit he shared in sometimes graphic detail for the era with readers of Time.
The sailors, attendants, doctors, nurses, and corpsmen on the ship were all clad in white, “contrasting sharply with other ships’ blue-dungareed sailors, and with the dirty, sweaty, bearded soldiers and marines whom they serve,” he said. Everything about the Solace, which had already evacuated one load of wounded men from Saipan to Guadalcanal, and the other hospital ships, were designed to make the more than 500 wounded men it sheltered “forget about mud and foxholes, the blackout and whine of artillery shells. Most soldiers, when asked about their main impression of battle, would probably name the dirt and filth. That is one reason why every effort is made aboard the Solace and her sister ships to keep everything white,” said Sherrod.
On a tour of the Solace, led by Doctor Howard K. Gary, a famous Mayo Clinic surgeon, Sherrod visited its six double-bunked wards, a three-tiered convalescent ward, five operating tables, an X-ray room, pharmacy, and all the other furnishings of “a first-class hospital.” Gray expressed his amazement to Sherrod about how well the men were able to recover from their often ghastly injuries.

“Good food, plenty of fluids, and some rest work wonders for them,” the doctor told Sherrod. “What they get is the best of attention, with a salt-air luxury-cruise thrown in. The equipment and the doctors aboard here are as good—or better—than they could get back home.” (On the Solace’s first trip from Saipan to Guadalcanal, the ship had lost only six patients out of the 583 it carried.)
According to Sherrod, to the marines and soldiers arriving from the battlefield’s filth, the most wonderful thing about the ship was the food it served. “The night I was there supper was chicken a la king and strawberry ice cream—honest-to-God, cold ice cream,” Sherrod exclaimed.
For his part, during his time on the Solace, the one thing that had impressed Gary was the courage and sense of humor shown by those wounded. One severely injured marine had been shot by an enemy solider standing only a few feet away from him and had a large portion of his chest blown out. The man somehow survived, and when doctors were able to talk to him they discovered that his attitude was one of "complete disgust" with Japanese marksmanship, Gray told Sherrod. “He said, ‘If that had been a marine he would have shot me square through the forehead.’”
Watching wounded men being loaded aboard the ship at about seven o’clock in the evening, Sherrod observed Doctor Richmond Beck, a psychiatrist by trade, act as the Solace’s embarkation officer, routing the injured into the proper location—“Medical One,” “Medical Two,” “Orthopedic,” etc.—as they were brought in from the portside and starboard gangways.
“After examining one particularly bloody case Dr. Beck said, ‘There is a delicate one. Looks like he got a hand grenade between his legs but I think we can save one testicle.’” Beck also handled a marine with a shattered kneecap; a man shot through his thigh; another who had at least five wounds in his chest, neck, and right arm; and another with a chest wound.

Each man received a white, cardboard tag from a compartmented box, Sherrod noted, and when the tags were gone, the doctors knew they had a full shipload. “The clothes of each wounded man were cut off him and thrown overboard,” said Sherrod. “The ship carried 2,000 pairs of fresh dungarees for those who could wear them when they were ready to go ashore at some distant time."

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Richard Tregaskis and Operation Watchtower

Preparing to get some rest one evening after a day spent talking to American pilots engaged in dueling with their Japanese opponents in the skies over the South Pacific, International News Service correspondent Richard Tregaskis, one of only two civilian reporters (along with Bob Miller of the United Press) covering the fighting on Guadalcanal in the Solomons, decided to take a chance, despite rumors about a possible attack, to sleep more comfortably for once. He pulled off his pants, shirt, shoes, and socks and climbed into his cot. It turned out to be a mistake.

Just after midnight, a shattering noise jolted Tregaskis awake. “I could hear the heavy gunfire, in a sequence that I knew instantly was ominous: the metallic, loud brroom-brroom of the guns going off, then the whistle of the approaching shells, then the crash of the explosions, so near that one felt a blast of air from the concussion,” Tregaskis said. He fumbled for his helmet, but could not find it, and finally dashed outside looking for a dugout to dive into for cover. 

What ensued was a bit of comic opera, as the correspondent and a U.S. Marine Corps officer, Colonel LeRoy P. Hunt, also clad in his skivvies, arrived at the dugout at the same time. “We bumped into each other at the entrance and then backed away and I said, ‘You go first, Colonel.’ He said politely with a slight bow, ‘No, after you,’” noted Tregaskis. They stood there for a few moments, arguing, as shells continued to rain down on their position, with one slamming into the earth close to Tregaskis’s canvas tent.

The comic aspects of the situation soon turned to horror. As the enemy barrage halted, Tregaskis could hear a “blubbering, crying sound that was more animal than human.” A marine ran up to the dugout’s entrance to report that several men had been badly wounded and required medical attention. The correspondent left the shelter, passed by a smashed tent, and found himself “amidst a scene of frightfulness.” He saw a body with a small, red hole in the middle of its chest. Another wounded man—the person who had been making the cries Tregaskis had heard—also lay nearby with a doctor and corpsman already attending to the man’s shattered legs. Additional wounds to the marine’s face “rained blood on the ground,” Tregaskis reported, noting that the stricken man’s shoulder had also been ripped apart by shrapnel. “He was crying, sobbing, into a pool of blood.

One of the wounded man’s hands moved in mechanical circles on the ground, keeping time with his cries.” Corpsmen loaded the wound into a nearby ambulance. Tregaskis long remembered the harsh squeaking of the wooden stretchers as they were loaded into the ambulance—“a sound much like that of a fingernail scratched across a blackboard.”

Tregaskis’s brush with death and destruction came a few weeks after he had landed on August 7, 1942, with the approximately 11,000 men of the First Marine Division tasked with the responsibility of taking from the Japanese the island of Guadalcanal, codenamed Cactus. The campaign was viewed by some U.S. military officials as foolhardy, believing as they did that there was “considerable room for doubt” that the marines could hold their ground. Even the marines’ commander, General Alexander Vandegrift, later noted that there were a “hundred reasons why this operation should fail,” and a First Marine Division report on the campaign lamented, “seldom has an operation begun under more disadvantageous circumstances.”

Aerial photographs and maps provided little help in planning, and the information offered by former colonial residents differed on geographical features and place names, so much so that the river called “Ilu” by the troops was actually the “Tenaru,” and vice versa. Lieutenant Herbert Merillat, the marines’ public relations officer on Guadalcanal, had a simple answer for all the campaign’s logistical difficulties: “The United States was simply not ready to support a major operation for the seizure, holding, and rapid development of an air and naval base open to heavy enemy counterattack.”

Years later, Tregaskis uncovered a report that an army transportation officer in Townsville, Australia, had been responsible for forwarding aerial photographs of Guadalcanal to marine headquarters in Wellington, New Zealand. “Apparently the tropical climate had got to the officer, or maybe he was in love, because he stalled around for ten days before forwarding the A-1 priority shipment,” said Tregaskis. By the time the delayed shipment reached Wellington, the marines were having trouble with union longshoremen, who balked at handling the needed supplies for the Guadalcanal campaign during New Zealand’s rainy season. Soaked by the rain, some of the cartons split open, spilling their contents onto the dock to be ruined. “When the Marines pitched in to do the loading,” Tregaskis added, “friction and confusion ensued, and somewhere in the shuffle the box of photo maps was lost.” Consequently, he said, the troops responsible for the first American amphibious operation since the Spanish-American War went into battle without decent maps.

Until he left the island on September 26, Tregaskis endured the same dangers faced by the troops, including withstanding bombing by Japanese aircraft during the day and shelling from their navy—dubbed the “Tokyo Express”—most nights. The marines also had to deal with inadequate supplies of food and equipment, and the constant fear of being overrun by a single-minded foe. These hardships were matched by the difficulties of fighting on the island itself—an often impenetrable jungle that limited vision to just a few yards, jagged mountains climbing to a height of 8,000 feet above sea level, sharp-bladed kunai grass, pesky and venomous insects, dangerous crocodiles, screaming birds, swarms of mosquitos that brought with them tropical maladies that could incapacitate a man for weeks or months, nauseating odors, and hot, humid conditions that bred all sorts of funguses and infections that were lumped under the description “jungle rot.”

Tregaskis and the marines longed for such simple pleasures as fresh bread and modern indoor plumbing. “One thinks of warm water, the smooth water-closet seat of civilization, and a bed with sheets as things that exist only in a world of dreams,” he wrote. With no laundry facilities, the correspondent had to do his washing by hand, using a wooden bucket and a cake of laundry soap. “After some hours of effort,” he reported, “I found the clothes were at least a tattletale gray, whereas they had formerly been a darker shade.” A simple matter of receiving a letter could instantly brighten downcast spirits. When the marines received their first mail shipment, Tregaskis noted that they were as happy as if someone had handed each man a hundred-dollar bill.

After a time, too, Tregaskis became hardened to scenes of death and destruction, particularly those that happened to the enemy. “War takes on a very personal flavor when other men are shooting at you, and you feel little sympathy at seeing them killed,” Tregaskis observed. Even seeing the horribly mangled bodies of the Japanese lying on the ground after a failed attack prompted in him no disgust. “The first one you see is the only shock,” he recalled. “The rest are simple repetition.”

Tregaskis’s journey to his first experience with ground combat and a Japanese army yet to be defeated in battle had not been easy. After securing the necessary paperwork from the public relations office at Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, he had been a passenger on the USS Enterprise as it and the escorting vessels of Task Force 16 sailed for a rendezvous with the Guadalcanal invasion force in the Tonga Islands. Although armed with the required official documents, Tregaskis had considerable difficulty making the transfer from the Enterprise to the troop transports. First, the carrier’s executive officer sent him to the wrong ship, a navy tender, and, upon returning to the Enterprise, the correspondent discovered that none of the ships’ boats were available to take him to the transports.

A desperate Tregaskis sought out Rear Admiral Thomas C.Kinkaid, commander of Task Force 16, who kindly gave the correspondent a letter securing him a place on one of the transports and also commandeered for him a ride to the USS Crescent City, a converted civilian ocean liner that had become the temporary home of the Second Marine Regiment. “Once aboard, I was able to relax with a feeling of satisfaction,” Tregaskis remembered. “This was at least the right ship. It was filled with Marines, and they knew they were heading for a landing operation somewhere, though they did not yet know where; nor did even their commanding officer, Col. John M. Arthur.”

Colonel Arthur and his executive officer, Major Cornelius Van Ness, both made a calculated guess that the expedition was on its way to the Solomons, and the marines’ objective would be either the island of Guadalcanal or Tulagi. “The colonel and the major spent hours pouring over charts of Tulagi and the surrounding islands,” Tregaskis said, “and of Guadalcanal, picking beach-heads and speculating over ways and means to land troops. Maj. Van Ness said he had drawn up tentative plans for a landing operation, just in case this particular group of Marines should win the Guadalcanal assignment; which struck me as being the height of enterprise.”

A push by American forces into the Solomons had been on the mind of Admiral Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet in Washington, DC, as early as February 1942, with the eventual goal of proceeding from the Solomons into the Bismarck Archipelago to seize Rabaul. Planning for the operation intensified when reports from Australian coast watchers and aerial photographs indicated that the Japanese had begun to build an airfield on Guadalcanal’s northern coast, making the little-known island—ninety miles long, thirty miles wide, and located just sixty miles south of the equator—a key objective. King came to an understanding with General George Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, to adjust the boundaries previously set as the operating influences between the U.S. Navy and General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific so that the navy could handle the operations in the Solomons.

Admiral Chester Nimitz selected Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley as the commander of the South Pacific Forces, and he eventually established his headquarters on Nouméa, the capital city of the French territory New Caledonia. Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner had charge of the amphibious force responsible for getting Vandegrift’s approximately 19,000 marines ashore on Guadalcanal and its surrounding islands (Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo) and supplying them. Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, a veteran of both the Coral Sea and Midway battles, controlled the carrier force consisting of the Enterprise, Saratoga, and Hornet (Task Force 61), which provided aerial protection for the operation.

Vandegrift viewed it as “unfortunate” that Fletcher had been given tactical command, as he was “not available during the planning phase.” When he met Fletcher, Vandegrift remembered thinking that the admiral looked “nervous and tired,” probably due to the strain of his recent battles against the Japanese. “To my surprise,” said Vandegrift, “he appeared to lack knowledge of or interest in the forthcoming operation. He quickly let us know he did not think it would succeed.”

The Marine general's operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Merrill Twining, described Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner as a “loud, strident, arrogant person who enjoyed settling all matters by simply raising his voice and roaring like a bull captain in the old navy.” Twining added that Turner’s peers understood the admiral’s moods and accepted them with “amused resignation because they valued him for what he was: a good and determined leader with a fine mind—when he chose to use it.” Twining’s commander, Vandegrift, possessed just the right attitude to deal with Turner’s bombast, as the general was a “classic Virginia gentleman. I have heard him harden his voice, but I never heard him raise it—not even at me,” Twining said.

Tregaskis had a pleasant voyage with the Second Marines as they sailed from the Tongas to the Fijis for a planned landing rehearsal on Kore Island. His ship, the Crescent City, which had carried passengers and freight between New Orleans and Buenos Aries, had been launched in 1940 and retained some of its former elegance. On its way to the Fijis, the Crescent City met a large fleet of transports, supply ships, cruisers, destroyers, carriers, and other warships “spread out over the whole horizon circle and beyond,” Tregaskis remembered. Those on the transport made a game of trying to identify the different types of ships stretching out before them. “We were conscious of the fact that this was one of the largest and strongest groups of war vessels ever gathered,” he noted, “certainly the largest and strongest of this war to date. The thought that we were going into our adventure with weight and power behind us was cheering.”

The next day, a boat came up alongside the transport to deliver dispatches that Tregaskis guessed included information about the fleet’s destination. After lunch, Tregaskis received an invitation to Colonel Arthur’s cabin “for a spot of tea.” Once there with a beverage in hand, Arthur told him, “Well, it looks as if we’re not going to have as much excitement as we first thought,” as his men would not be part of the attack on the Japanese-held territory, but instead would serve as a reserve force. If Tregaskis wanted to accompany beachhead troops, Arthur advised him to transfer to another ship. “I had come out here for action,” said the correspondent, so, after dinner, he packed his bags in his blacked-out cabin. “It took some resolution to do the job, for in the evening I had learned that the forces I would join are going to attack the Japanese strongholds on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands,” he recalled.

The top officers for Operation Watchtower met on the USS Saratoga, Fletcher’s flagship, on July 26. What occurred at the conference has been hotly debated over the years, with some involved describing it as “one long bitter argument” between Fletcher and Turner, with others remembering the conversations as “animated rather than stormy.” The main issue centered on how long it would take to land the troops from the transports and their supplies from the cargo ships (Turner estimated five days), and how long Fletcher would provide air support for the operation with his carriers. At the time of the Guadalcanal campaign, Fletcher’s carriers represented three-quarters of the U.S. fleet’s assets for that essential vessel, with no replacements for them from American shipyards expected for many months.

According to some accounts, Fletcher had said to those assembled: “Gentlemen, in view of the risks of exposure to land-based air[craft], I cannot keep the carriers in the area for more than 48 hours after the landing.” Vandegrift recalled that he had to force himself to remain calm, informing Fletcher that the “days of landing a small force and leaving were over,” and he could hardly be expected to “land this massive force without air cover—even the five days mentioned by Turner involved a tremendous risk.” According to Vandegrift’s account, although Turner backed him, Fletcher refused to budge, “curtly” announcing the Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp would only stay until the operation’s third day, and curtly ending the conference.

Years later, Fletcher could remember no bitterness involved in the discussions on the Saratoga, instead merely noting there were a variety of opinions “vigorously expressed” as to what could or could not be done. Twining, who said Vandegrift accepted Fletcher’s edict with “the best grace he could muster,” did give credence to the admiral’s cautious approach, noting that Fletcher had “seen U.S. carriers sunk in battle and was loath to risk our best carriers in action against a greatly superior force.”

A few days after the spirited conference on the Saratoga, Tregaskis left the Crescent City for Turner’s flagship, the USS McCawley, nicknamed the “Wacky Mac” by its sailors, to secure permission for his transfer to a transport carrying troops assigned to combat. The correspondent discovered that the McCawley’s wardroom was “clogged with Marine officers of all shapes and sizes, mulling over maps, mumbling secret advices and arguing moot points in groups at the tables. . . . . Officers with intent expressions passed in steady streams up and down the corridor leading to the admiral’s office.”

Although Turner was far too busy to see Tregaskis, the admiral’s marine aide, Colonel Harold Harris, took pity on him, took the reporter’s credentials to Turner, and obtained the admiral’s approval for Tregaskis to join one of the two transports carrying the assault troops for the landing on Guadalcanal. Tregaskis also had the opportunity to meet Vandegrift, who stopped to “exchange a polite word; he was cordial and cheerful, as I later found him to be, however desperate the situation, on Guadalcanal.”

Tregaskis had two shocks after leaving the Crescent City. He learned that the landing rehearsal on Kore Island had been a mess. The troops involved ran into problems with a coral reef that prevented many from making it to the beach; the transports drifted and came close to tangling with one another at the debarkation line; the landing boats were ponderous, experienced engine troubles, and roughed up their propellers on the reef; and the timing of the preliminary naval bombardment was off. Vandegrift, who later described the exercise as a “complete bust,” consoled himself with the thought that a “poor rehearsal traditionally meant a good show.”

The INS reporter also discovered that his new ship, the USS American Legion was an “ancient, angular horror, with a black, dirty hull and patches of rust on her flanks.” When he climbed up a rope ladder and set foot on its deck, he could see that not all the Americans heading into combat were traveling on the newest ships (the transport had been plying the seas for more than twenty years). “I had certainly come from the best and newest to one of the oldest and most decrepit,” Tregaskis recalled.

The American Legion’s deck was black with slime and grit because, as he later discovered, the ship had no modern equipment for pumping water. “The marines cramming the deck were just as dirty,” he noted. Tregaskis met with the Fifth Marine Regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Leroy P. Hunt, a World War I veteran, in the officer’s cabin, which at least had a clean floor. Hunt said his men might be unkempt and looked like gypsies because there was no water available to clean up, but he believed they would fight when called upon to do so. “They got it here,” Hunt told Tregaskis, tapping his chest in the region of his heart.

As the American Legion sailed south on the big sweep that would take it into Guadalcanal, Tregaskis got to know more about the marines and their commander. Hunt and his officers tried to be realistic about their chances, believing from intelligence reports that there were anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 enemy troops on the island, most of them labor troops, numbers that proved to be greatly inflated. The Japanese would probably be able to bring some large guns to bear upon the American landing craft on their way into the landing beaches located five miles east of Lunga Point, as well as machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. 

Zealous map interpreters, Tregaskis recalled, straining their eyes over aerial photo-mosaic maps, believed they had identified evidence of intense enemy defensive preparations on the beach chosen for the landing. “The interpreters said they saw worn truck tracks, indicating movement in the vicinity of the beach,” he recalled, “and conjured machine gun positions out of minute combinations of shadows in the beach area.”

One of Hunt’s aides confided to Tregaskis that he and the other officers expected about a third of the assault boats to be destroyed and a quarter of the combat troops would be casualties during the landing. The officers were also sure that Japanese reconnaissance planes would spot the U.S. armada long before it reached its destination and would send planes to bomb and strafe the ships, with the Japanese fleet not be far behind. “This estimate did not improve the pleasantness of the prospect of accompanying the assault troops in their attack,” the correspondent noted. Hunt remained confident that whatever might happen, the marines in the fifteen ships of Transport Group X-Ray, destined for Guadalcanal, would take the beachhead and “secure the problem.” When Tregaskis suggested the possibility of failure, Hunt was prompt in his reply, telling the reporter, “You mustn’t ever think of it that way. We’ll do the job.”

Although the enlisted marines were dirty and roomed in quarters no better than a dungeon, Tregaskis said they displayed a tremendous esprit de corps and supreme confidence in their ability to handle any assignment. One afternoon Tregaskis watched a group of enlisted men, most of whom came from either New York or Boston, cleaning and checking their weapons on the ship’s forward deck, treating them with an almost motherly care. Some of the men were also sharpening their bayonets, which, he noted, “seemed to be a universal pastime.” Others checked over their Springfield rifles and sub-machine guns, and a few busied themselves by fashioning homemade blackjacks—canvas sacks filled with lead balls to be used for “infighting,” he reported. A large part of the marines’ conversation during this time included tough talk about what they expected to do to the enemy.

Everyone seemed calm at breakfast on August 7, 1942, eight months to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The lack of any response by the Japanese to the invasion fleet made Tregaskis and the others on the American Legion feel “strangely secure, as if getting up at four o’clock in the morning and preparing to force a landing on the enemy shore were the perfectly normal things to do of an August morning in the South Seas.”

The Americans had achieved complete surprise. It seemed like a dream to Tregaskis: “We were slipping through the narrow neck of water between Guadalcanal and Savo Islands; we were practically inside Tulagi Bay, almost past the Jap shore batteries, and not a shot had been fired.” The ship’s officers were dumbfounded, with one lieutenant telling the correspondent that the enemy could not be so foolish. “Either they’re very dumb,” said the lieutenant, “or it’s a trick.”

Tregaskis’s boat finally headed for shore at 8:34 a.m., following, not far behind, the first wave of landing craft. Although he could not see the first men to reach the beach, he did see signals that the landings had been successful. Early that morning a Japanese radio operator on Tulagi had sent a message to Rabaul asking his superiors what was happening, asking: “LARGE FORCE OF SHIPS UNKNOWN NUMBER OR TYPES ENTERING SOUND WHAT CAN THEY BE?” Later, the commander on Tulagi, under assault by the men of the First Raider Battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson, radioed that the enemy forces appeared to be landing in overwhelming numbers. Despite the odds, the Japanese commander vowed to remain on the island and  defend his post “to the death.”

At 9:50 a.m. Tregaskis finally reached the island. “I jumped carefully from the bow and got only one foot wet, and that slightly; hardly the hell-for-leather leap and dash through the surf, with accompaniment of rattle machine guns, which I had expected,” he remembered. Instead of standing and fighting, the approximately 600 Japanese soldiers and 1,400 laborers based on Guadalcanal had fled their camps and disappeared into the jungle. Tregaskis credited the surprise of the Americans’ attack, and the fury of the naval and air bombardment preceding the landing, as the joint causes of the “precipitous retreat” the enemy made.

As darkness fell on that first day ashore, however, jittery sentries confronted any noise they heard with orders to “Halt!” that were “followed almost immediately by volleys of gunfire,” said Tregaskis. Close to midnight, the correspondent awoke to the sounds of a submachine gun firing near to the grove of tall coconut trees he had bedded down under with Hunt’s command. Numerous rifle shots rang out afterward, with five or six guns firing at once. He could see the bright, white tracers “zipping in several different directions over the grove where we slept. Some of the slugs whined through the trees close by. And then the firing fell off, and died, and we went back to sleep again.”

August 8 brought more good news, as the Americans captured the airfield, which, Tregaskis learned, had its main runway already graded and about two-thirds of it surfaced. The marines named it Henderson Field, in honor of Major Lofton R. Henderson, who had been killed while leading sixteen marine dive-bombers against the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway. 

On his way to the airfield that afternoon, Tregaskis had his first encounter with the enemy when he came upon two marines herding three prisoners to the rear. These Japanese did not appear to be seasoned warriors. “None of them was more than five feet tall, and they were puny,” Tregaskis noted. “Their skins were sallow. The first two in line had shaved heads and were bare from the waist downward; the marines had been diligent in their search for weapons.” An interpreter told the correspondent that the prisoners were members of a navy labor battalion and had been captured in a tent camp that lay directly ahead.

Reaching the former enemy facility, Tregaskis rummaged through one of the large tents and discovered serving dishes on a table still filled with meat stew, rice, and cooked prunes. Half-eaten bowls of food remained on the table, with chopsticks propped on the dishes or dropped on the floor. In other tents he found shoes, mosquito nets, toilet articles, soap, and other essentials. The Japanese at the camp had removed the ignition keys from many of the hundred-odd trucks and cars found there, but did not take the time, Tregaskis noticed, to damage the vehicles so that they could not be used by the Americans.

At Japanese headquarters at Kukum, Hunt’s troops uncovered large stores of food left behind—boxes of sweet biscuits; tins of hardtack; cases of soda; two varieties of Japanese beer; canned pears, peaches, and pineapple; goulash; crab meat; and shredded fish and salmon, “hardly the primitive diet on which the Japanese is traditionally supposed to subsist,” Tregaskis observed. He noted that the Japanese were obliging enough to also leave behind their cooking kettles.

A pleased Vandegrift described the bounty the marines had captured: “A power house, an alternate one, a radio receiver station with six sets with remote control to a sending unit 3 miles away, innumerable pieces of machinery such as generators, engines, pumps, etc. 9 Road Rollers, over 100 trucks so far found of the Chev[rolet] 2 ton types, Anti-air guns, loaded and locked—can you beat that. Tons of cement, some fifty or sixty thousand gals. of gas and oil and double that much destroyed by bombs.” 

A stirring ceremony occurred at Hunt’s command post that had been established at the old Japanese headquarters. Lieutenant Evard J. Snell of Vineland, New Jersey, a middle-aged World War I veteran on the colonel’s staff, had been brought in on a stretcher by corpsmen. Snell, accustomed to handling his commander’s paperwork, had been overcome by the heat and exertion four times that day, gamely struggled on with the marching column, and now could not move.

Trying to cheer up his aide, Hunt took from Snell’s pocket a small American flag the lieutenant had been carrying with him during his service with the marines in China and the Philippines and had it hoisted atop a now bare Japanese flagpole. “It was touching to see the little flag, proud but pitifully small, ride up the mast, to see Snell’s eyes watching it, and his mouth twisting and contorting as he tried to smile,” Tregaskis remembered.

As Tregaskis bedded down for the evening on August 8, sharing a poncho with Father Thomas Reardon, it looked as if the worst he could expect would be a storm. Rain started to thunder down upon him shortly after midnight, and the correspondent awoke and took shelter in one of the captured Japanese tents, which was already “fairly well filled with marines.”

Just as he dropped off to sleep again, he heard cannonading coming from offshore. “It had stopped raining. We stood in a quiet group under the palms, listening and watching,” Tregaskis recalled. “The flashes of the gunfire were filling the sky, as bright and far spreading as heat lightning. And a few seconds after each flash, we could hear the booming of the guns that had caused it.” He and the others realized they could be watching a battle that could decide their fate. If the Japanese won, it meant a desperate fight for survival, and soon.

Tregaskis felt helpless: “One had the feeling of being at the mercy of great accumulated forces far more powerful than anything human. We were only pawns in a battle of the gods, then, and we knew it.” The booming of the guns continued for more than an hour, and during that time the correspondent and the marines speculated among themselves just what was happening. By about 3:00 a.m. the firing stopped and Tregaskis left the crowded tent for the comfort of an abandoned Japanese sedan that had been left by the side of the road. “The soft cushions felt good,” he said. “Except for the slight disturbance of being bitten by mosquitoes, I was quite comfortable for the rest of the night.”

The sea battle Tregaskis witnessed from Guadalcanal had been a disaster for the U.S. Navy and the last in a chain of setbacks that left the marines’ position in the Solomons extremely perilous. At about 6:00 p.m. on August 8 Fletcher had sent a message to Ghormley that read: “Fighter-plane strength reduced from 99 to 78. In view of the large number of enemy torpedo planes and bombers in this area, I recommend the immediate withdrawal of my carriers. Request tankers sent forward immediately as fuel running low.” Before Ghormley could respond to his request, Fletcher took his carriers away from the danger zone. The news of Fletcher’s withdrawal, and the loss of air support, stunned Turner, who believed he had been left “bare-arse.” The admiral decided he had no choice but to begin withdrawing his transports and supply ships the next day, and informed Vandegrift of his decision during a conference on the McCawley in which he also shared Fletcher’s message.

Meanwhile, an impressive Japanese task force that included five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer under Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi was about to strike the American ships under the cover of darkness. The result—the Battle of Savo Island—was one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history since the War of 1812. The American cruisers Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria went down, and the Australian cruiser, Canberra, had to be abandoned and sunk. The only bright spot came when Mikawa decided to disengage from the fight and return to his base without pressing on to wreak havoc on the unprotected transports.

The marines on Guadalcanal had about a four-day supply of ammunition and enough food for seventeen days, plus an additional three days on C rations and ten more days if they used the captured Japanese supplies, according to U.S. officers on the scene. The Americans were without the heavy equipment needed for completing the airfield and such essential defensive supplies as sandbags, barbed wire, and long-range coastal defense guns. For weeks to come the troops, and Tregaskis, had to exist on two unappetizing meals a day. “God only knew when we could expect aircraft protection much less surface craft; with the transports gone the enemy would shift his attacks against us and we could expect surface attacks as well,” Vandegrift said. They would have to fight alone, living, as Tregaskis remembered, day after day, “under the shadow of dire peril.”

Although the correspondent remembered Vandegrift putting on a brave face after the naval disaster and the transports’ departure. The general did, however, caution Tregaskis that it might be a “long time before there would be another chance to make my exit,” the reporter remembered. Tregaskis walked to the beach where the last load of supplies was being dropped. “I watched the last craft shoving off one by one and then heading out down the line of Admiral Turner’s supply ships,” he noted. “I remember cudgeling the problem of whether to stay put and get that good story written, or to hightail it to the nearest cablehead with something like a news scoop.”

Being the indecisive type, “and phlegmatic to boot,” Tregaskis said, he hesitated until only a few transports were left on the beach, and, with his “usual Anglo-Saxon disinclination to sparkle,” trudged off into the jungle to rejoin the marines.

 

 


 

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

A Day in the Life: Malcolm Browne in Saigon

The call woke Malcolm W. Browne at 2:30 in the morning on September 18, 1964. He stumbled across his apartment, located above his Associated Press office at 158/D3 Rue Pasteur in Saigon, South Vietnam, to answer. It was from one of his police sources, who informed the AP’s bureau chief that there had been a fight at the docks involving Americans and he might want to visit the scene. 

Browne hastily dressed and drove to the docks in the office’s Land Rover, painted bright red with white signs in Vietnamese and English reading “Bao Chi,” identifying it as belonging to a member of the press. Once there, he learned that four seamen from Guam had been in a fight with some South Vietnamese Rangers and police; one sailor had been wounded in the throat but had survived. Browne returned to his office, wrote his story, and took it to the telecommunications center to send it to the AP office in Tokyo, Japan, for distribution to member newspapers in the United States. He finally made it back to his bed at 3:50 a.m.
 
At 7:15 a.m. Browne again arose, showered, and ate his breakfast of a bowl of Wheaties and a cup of strong, black coffee. Finished, he walked downstairs to the cramped AP office, which always looked to him “more like a command post than a news agency office.” Filing cabinets dominated one wall, while others were covered with floor-to-ceiling sector maps of the country with plastic overlays on which the staff kept track of important battles. Located near Browne’s desk was the field gear he could grab at a moment’s notice for a dash to the airport to board a helicopter when word came about a new firefight. 

He skimmed the morning newspapers, then told one of his colleagues to cover a meeting at nine that morning involving Major General Duong Van Minh with civilian politicians organizing a new advisory council. Browne also made sure to book a call to Tokyo from the AP office for later that day on the office’s lone cracked, green telephone. At 8:40 a.m. Browne called a U.S. military spokesman seeking any new developments in the conflict with North Vietnam. What slight details he received from the tight-lipped official he cabled to Tokyo. 
 
By 8:45 a.m. Browne was back in the Land Rover for a meeting with a Vietnamese student organizer, Ton That Tue, seeking his reaction to the formation of the new national council. Tue expressed his dissatisfaction with the new council to Browne, who also learned that the students would probably hold off on any new street demonstrations for now. The call from Tokyo came through at 11:17 a.m. and Browne dictated dispatches from himself and his colleague. He was off again a half-hour later, leaving the office to cover a demonstration ten blocks away involving dentists demanding a repeal of an old government decree denying them needed dental materials. The strike appeared to be related to general strike plans of several labor organizations. 
 
Returning to his apartment at 12:30 p.m., Browne ate lunch, consisting of a sandwich, a glass of milk, and more strong coffee. He did not stay alone long; five minutes after beginning to eat, he welcomed a police source, who shared with him new leaflets from the Viet Cong being distributed around Saigon at night. “Text was interesting to me but apparently not newsworthy, so did not file,” Browne recalled. He finished his lunch.

At 1:00 p.m. Browne went to see Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, whom he believed might be a good subject for a feature story. He waited outside Thao’s office for an hour, then was finally ushered in for “a long and instructive talk. I have known Thao for three years and we talk frankly.” 
 
Upon his return to his office, Browne wrote a dispatch to send to Tokyo, scheduled to be transmitted at 5:15 p.m. but which had to be at the telecommunication center by 4:00 p.m. After writing his Thao article, Browne phoned “an unofficial military source” and heard that six U.S. servicemen had been wounded in the past two days in various actions. He also checked with another official on a United Press International report that Viet Cong activity had been on the rise. “Official denied any noticeable upturn in activity,” Browne reported. He covered all this in one story and added a small piece on the new German ambassador presenting his credentials. 
 
At 4:00 p.m. Browne had time to read his mail, including a letter informing him that his grandmother had died. He also wrote four or five business letters, mainly in connection with money and staff matters. An hour later, he checked with student leaders on the outcome of their latest talks with the government and filed a fresh lead on his article. A spokesman from the U.S. embassy called Browne at 5:20 p.m. to describe Ambassador Maxwell Taylor’s activities during the day, including talks with Vietnamese officials and religious leaders. “Spokesman will not say what they talked about,” noted Browne. “File this as an add to unrest story.” 
 
At 6:30 p.m. he checked the night’s edition of the government’s news agency bulletin but found nothing newsworthy. Five minutes later, a government spokesman called the AP office to let Browne know of a press conference scheduled for the next morning; Browne assigned the story to others in the office. He also cabled Tokyo asking the staff there to call the Saigon office if they did not hear from the office by 10:00 a.m. the next day.
 
After a shower and a quick change of clothes, Browne went to dinner at 7:00 p.m. with the director of a Saigon radio station whose son had just been returned to him after being kidnapped. “This man is my friend, and I’m sorry about kidnapping,” Browne wrote. Back to the office by 8:35 p.m., he received a tip reporting that troops from Cambodia had invaded South Vietnam. “I check for 30 minutes all best qualified sources, determine report is untrue,” he noted. 
 
A little after 9:00 p.m., a representative from one of South Vietnam’s smaller political parties stopped by the AP office inviting Browne to an upcoming press conference. He thanked the man and said he would try to send someone if possible. At 9:30 p.m. the AP staff heard a loud explosion outside. Browne checked all his sources and discovered that what they had heard was “merely artillery on a routine firing mission outside” the city. Relieved, Browne and his staff talked about the next day’s schedule.
 
At 10:00 p.m. Browne, trying to shower, had to step out to answer a call from a U.S. intelligence source wanting to be briefed on what he had heard from Vietnamese students that day. A few minutes later, a Japanese correspondent called Browne also seeking an update on any newsworthy items. “I say nothing much happened,” Browne recalled. “This is approximately the 40th call of day from correspondents, principally American and Japanese, wanting to know what is going on, and I am in a bad temper because these people never give us anything in return. In fact, 90 per cent of their news is rewritten from the AP file.” 
 
Browne received his final telephone call of the day a little after 11:00 p.m.; it is from a police source letting him know that three suspected Viet Cong had just been arrested in Saigon’s fifth precinct. The suspects carried with them “some interesting documents.” Browne concluded that the information was not worth filing anything about. After finishing off another bowl of cereal, he finally gets to bed. “Unpleasant and unproductive day which left too many loose ends dangling,” he decided. 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

"He's All Right": Benjamin Harrison and Thomas Marshall

In the spring of 1873 Thomas R. Marshall, a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, found himself in deep trouble. Working as an editor for the college’s bimonthly newspaper, The Geyser, Marshall had written an article making fun of a visiting temperance speaker and teacher of elocution named Ida Leggett. He had accused the married woman of playing “footsie” (flirting) under a table with students living at a boardinghouse where she was staying.

Writing in a period when journalism, he admitted, was “in its incipient stage,” Marshall played to his readers’ basic instincts with his article. Featured in the student newspaper’s March 19, 1873, issue, his piece claimed that Leggett had “shown her cloven foot at last. Though the cause of her departure was kept a secret for several days, it leaked out at last. She was caught tramping on the feet of the boys boarding at her house and was immediately kicked out. We have nothing to say, however, as she gave us the worth of our money in her entertainments.”

Outraged by what she had read, Leggett hired a respected local lawyer, Lew Wallace, a Civil War general and future best-selling author and diplomat, to bring a lawsuit against Marshall and the rest of the Geyser staff for libel. She sought $20,000 in damages. Realizing the trouble he was in, Marshall, upon the urging of his fellow codefendants, sought legal aid. He traveled to Indianapolis to ask for advice from an attorney praised as having “no superior at the bar of Indiana”—Benjamin Harrison.

Like Wallace, Harrison had risen to the rank of general in the Union army and had also earned a reputation as a fine public speaker on behalf of the Republican Party after the war. “Some speakers had more fire, and some more magnetism, but few were more graceful and convincing in their motive,” said Reverend Ferdinand Cowle Iglehart in an magazine article on Harrison. GOP (“Grand Old Party”) leaders held great expectations for Harrison’s future in politics.

Marshall met with Harrison, showed him the article, and asked his opinion about whether or not it might be libelous. Remembering the meeting years later in his autobiography, Marshall said that Harrison carefully read the piece, looked up at him, and said: “Young man, if I had an enemy that I wanted to libel and could hire you to look after the job, I would not hunt further.”

A shaken Marshall explained to Harrison that he had no hope of raising 20,000 cents, let alone $20,000, if he lost the case. “He said I would have to justify the article by proof of the truth of what was written or have a big judgment which some time I would have to pay or have it everlastingly hanging over my head,” Marshall recalled. Luckily for the Wabash student, Harrison agreed to represent the young journalists. When the case was heard in New York, and after initial testimony had been given, Leggett withdrew her lawsuit.

A relieved Marshall, who later rose to prominence in the Democratic Party, serving as Indiana governor and for two terms as vice president under Woodrow Wilson, asked Harrison what he owed him for his services. He added that he could write his father to secure the necessary funds to pay the lawyer. “Not a cent,” Harrison responded. “I wouldn’t think of taking anything from you. You have been foolish boys and this will be a great lesson to you. Never hereafter in life charge anybody with wrongdoing or crime that you do not have in your hands undoubted proof that it is true before you make the charge, and even then don’t make it unless you are quite satisfied that by the making of it you are either defending yourself or performing some real public service.”

Although admired for his faith and honesty, Harrison sometimes was viewed by others as reserved and aloof, even to his supporters, while his opponents referred to him as a “human iceberg.” A close associate, William H. H. Miller, who served as attorney general in his administration, said Harrison was not “a cordial man” with anybody except his close friends. Often, even when dispensing favors, Harrison caused ill feelings with his brusque behavior, and seemed to possess a talent for “doing the right thing in the wrong way.” On one occasion, a person close to the president warned a visitor before meeting with Harrison, “Don’t feel insulted by anything he may do or say . . . it is only his way.” A historian of his administration described Harrison’s manner perfectly when he noted that he “preferred directness, simplicity, and unusual frankness; and he unnecessarily made enemies in the process.”

One of Harrison’s Republican friends noted that if Harrison spoke to a crowd of 10,000 his oratorical skills could make everyone in the audience his friend, but “if he were introduced to each of them afterward each would depart his enemy.” Another Republican, Chauncey Depew, said Harrison’s stiff personal manner was due to the fact that his career had been “one of battle, from his early struggles to his triumphant success.”

In his dealings with the press, Harrison could also seem remote. Hilton U. Brown, who covered Harrison for the Indianapolis News, recalled that the general “never toadied nor flattered and could be flatfooted and hardheaded to the press when he thought best to decline to be interviewed, or to venture random or casual remarks.” Brown added that when agreeing to give remarks “off the record,” Harrison’s manner changed dramatically, and he could be “as gracious as any man in public life of that period.” Also, the newspaperman observed, Harrison, when dealing with former comrades in arms, fellow church members, and to those he knew from his college days, “he revealed a genuine warmth of sentiment not suspected by some of his contemporaries. Life to him was full of purpose and he could not be deflected from an objective: but there were ‘hours of ease’ when he paid homage to his friends and to friendship.”

Harrison knew he could be viewed as unsympathetic, even by his supporters. On one occasion, several years before he became president, he was on his way to give a political speech in an Indiana city. Before leaving Indianapolis, his friend, John C. New, one of the few people who called him by his first name, advised him: “Now Ben. I know you’ll capture them with your speech, but for God’s sake be a human being down there. Mix around a little with the boys after the meeting.” A few days after his return, Harrison saw New and said to him: “John, I tried it, but I failed. I’ll never try again. I must be myself.”

Marshall, known for having a well-developed sense of humor, believed that the reports of Harrison having a “cold-blooded nature” were unfounded. Often, Harrison was “too busy thinking, reasoning, seeking the right, to be a light-hearted man such as I am,”  Marshall recalled. Whatever anyone might have thought of him, Marshall believed that Harrison’s “heart beat true to all the finer and nobler instincts of our nature.”