Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Biographer and the Governor: John Bartlow Martin and Adlai Stevenson

On July 14, 1965, Adlai Stevenson II, two-time Democratic presidential candidate and diplomat, was in London following a speech in Geneva, Switzerland. During his stay, Stevenson had met with British prime minister Harold Wilson and visited friends. That day after lunch he and Marietta Peabody Tree, his confidante and lover, went for a walk in Grosvenor Square near the U.S. Embassy as he wanted to show her the house he had lived in with his family while working on the UN Preparatory Commission following World War II. The house, however, had been torn down and replaced with a modern building, which caused Stevenson to sigh and comment, “That makes me feel old.”

The duo walked on toward Hyde Park, but Stevenson asked Tree to slow down before uttering his final words, “I am going to faint.” He fell over backward, hitting his head on the pavement, unconscious. Although passerbys, including a heart doctor, tried to help, and an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital, Stevenson died, the victim of a massive heart attack.

The news about Stevenson’s death reached John Bartlow Martin, who had worked as a speechwriter in his 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, while he and his family were vacationing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That night he and his wife, Fran, took a train to Chicago, where they spent time in Adlai Stevenson III’s office working with Newton Minow and others on funeral arrangements before taking a flight to Washington, DC, to attend a service for Stevenson at the National Cathedral. There, offering his condolences to Martin on the loss of his friend, President Lyndon B. Johnson said of Stevenson, “He showed us the way.” Flying back on the presidential plane taking Stevenson’s body home to Illinois, Martin fell into a conversation with his friend and fellow Stevenson speechwriter Arthur SchlesingerJr., who told Martin he should write a biography on the two-time Democratic presidential candidate.

At first, the Stevenson family turned to another person close to their father, Walter Johnson, a longtime University of Chicago history professor, as its choice to write the definitive Stevenson biography. Johnson certainly had the knowledge to accomplish the task, as he had been national cochairman for the movement to draft Stevenson as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and became a close friend of the former governor.

Instead of tackling a biography, however, Johnson decided to serve as editor of a collection of Stevenson’s letters, writings, and speeches. “I felt it was time to get the solid material out,” Johnson later said. “When I began I was thinking of two or three volumes. But there was so much good material, and it soon became evident that it would require several more volumes.” The Papers of Adlai Stevenson, published from 1972 to 1979 by Little, Brown and Company, grew to eight volumes under Johnson’s editorship, assisted by Carol Evans, Stevenson’s secretary for many years.
 
According to Martin, Adlai III, a few months after his father’s death, had sought his advice about the biography, asking him if any writer the family selected might be willing to share royalties to help support the establishment of a Stevenson Institute. “I told him that I myself had never split royalties but that in these circumstances, to help the institute and because of my feelings for his father, I probably would,” Martin recalled. He suggested names of several writers as possibilities, but none of them panned out, and after a time Adlai III asked Martin to take on the project. “I’ve always been a fact writer and I’ve always written about people. These two elements come together better in biography than in any other form,” Martin noted.
 
In October 1965 Martin wrote Ivan Von Auw Jr., one of his agents, along with Dorothy Olding, at Harold Ober Associates, that he had been in talks about the biography with Adlai III and Minow. “They’re for me, and so are most others, but I think two important people [Martin did not name them] are not; and while Adlai and Minow seem to be all but certain that I will be anointed, I’m somewhat less so.”
 
Fran had counseled her husband to reject the assignment, as she considered doing the Stevenson biography as “going back,” and she wanted him not to “relive the past but to move forward.” She added that to do a proper biography on Stevenson’s life would take a long time and the family might prove to be difficult. Fran’s reservations had some validity in the end, but Martin decided to forge ahead and with the biography on someone he considered to be “an extraordinarily appealing civilized human being.” Martin also realized that he had always been a fact writer and written about people, and those two elements “come together better in biography than in any other form.”
 
Doubleday and Company, the publisher of Martin’s Overtaken by Events, which highlighted his time as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, agreed to back the project, offering financial support of approximately $200,000, with a due date for the book of January 2, 1969. Martin approved splitting his royalties with Stevenson’s sons, and gave Adlai III, acting for the family, the right to review the manuscript before publication. They also established a procedure to follow if they could not reach agreement on suggested changes, with the issue going for binding arbitration to Carl McGowan, a federal judge and Stevenson’s former chief of staff, or, if McGowan was unavailable, to Minow, Stevenson’s former law partner.
 
The legal precautions were spelled out ahead of time to avoid the problems William Manchester had experienced with Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in writing about John Kennedy’s assassination in The Death of a President, eventually published in 1967 after long, tense negotiations and a lawsuit prompted by Jacqueline Kennedy. Martin later said he did not like the idea of the book being Stevenson’s “official” biography, as the word conveyed the “idea that the [Stevenson] family controlled the manuscript, and therefore the book cannot be trusted entirely. That’s not the situation
 
Martin started his work on the Stevenson biography in December 1965. For a few months, he and his family rented and lived in Stevenson’s farm in Libertyville, Illinois, where Martin had visited him often during his lifetime, finding the place to be “light and airy, filled with sunshine, cheering.” Martin kept expecting to see Stevenson’s “dumpy figure waddling up the sloping field from the Des Plaines River, picking up dead tree branches as he came; to enter through the sun porch, blue eyes wide, cross the living room and, looking slightly perplexed, hesitate by the fireplace; then, grumbling about ‘this appalling task,’ go into his study to work on a speech.”
 
With the assistances of his old friend, Francis Nipp, who worked for a time as his research assistant, Martin catalogued Stevenson’s library and discovered that it contained reference books, bound copies of Stevenson’s speeches, family histories, and numerous items on Abraham Lincoln and Illinois. “He was a man of Illinois, always; even after he belonged to the world,” Martin said of Stevenson, “Illinois history, the Illinois prairies, and above all these seventy acres held him.” Scattered about Stevenson’s office were a bust of President Kennedy, “gorgeous” pictures of a cruise Stevenson had taken on a private yacht during his United Nation years, an autographed picture of President Johnson, a collection of plaster donkeys (the Democratic Party’s symbol), and mementos of Stevenson’s travels around the world. “Under his desk blotter was a scrap of paper containing in his handwriting a notation that Artie, his Dalmatian, was buried by a tree outside his study window,” Martin recalled.
 
The biographer found that his subject had been “a string saver; he almost never threw anything away.” On the wall of the basement stairs Martin saw a lithograph from the 1892 presidential campaign, when Stevenson’s namesake had been elected vice president as the running mate of Grover Cleveland, plus one from 1900 when the elder Stevenson lost with Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The basement also included an old filing cabinet with one drawer stuck tight. “I finally pried it open—and found Stevenson’s daily appointment books covering his entire four years as Governor,” remembered Martin.
 
In addition to the items he uncovered at Stevenson’s home, Martin explored materials at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; the State Department in Washington, living for a time in a rented house in Georgetown; the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York; and Princeton University, where Stevenson had graduated in 1922. Martin also received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on the book while staying with Fran and his son Fred at the foundation’s Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como in Italy. Fran brought with her seventeen footlockers crammed full of items on Stevenson.
 
During his search of what Martin called Stevenson’s “enormous” archive, he found not only the longhand first drafts of the presidential candidate’s famous speeches, old love letters, campaign contribution lists, and income tax returns, but such minutiae as ticket stubs to Princeton football games and old dance programs. 

Martin and Nipp copied several hundred thousand pages of Stevenson’s papers, placing the copies into looseleaf binders, each containing upwards of two hundred pages. They numbered the binders and gave each one a special symbol designating whether it contained correspondence, speeches, or other material. “We indexed the copies, making an average of perhaps a thousand 5-by-8-inch cards on each of the sixty-five years of his life, and arranged them chronologically,” said Martin, who used the cards to write the rough draft, as they guided him to material in the binders. “I write from the actual documents,” he noted. Martin acknowledged that there was “a certain amount of accountancy to this type of research,” but it was the way he worked. “It’s clumsy, it’s awkward, it’s slow—it takes a lot of time—but you don’t make many mistakes this way,” he noted. “And that’s the whole purpose.”
 
To fill in any gaps in the information, Martin interviewed, in all, nearly two hundred people involved in Stevenson’s life, dictating his interview notes and indexing them in binders as well. The interviews included some he did in the summer of 1966 in Bloomington, Illinois, with Stevenson’s family and friends. These were especially important because Martin believed nobody could understand Stevenson unless they understood the town where he grew up. “It was there that I discovered that Stevenson’s childhood, far from the happy time usually pictured, had been a horror,” said Martin, including a tragedy in which Stevenson accidentally killed a young friend with a rifle.
 
In the fall of 1966 Martin and his family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and it was there that he realized the “generous” royalty advance, which he had invested “for my future,” and research grant he had received from Doubleday would not be enough to finish the book (Martin had originally estimated it would take him three years to write; it ended up taking a decade to accomplish).
 
Looking for supplementary income (he estimated it would cost him $30,000 more in research funds to complete the Stevenson biography), Martin thought of writing once again for the national magazine market, writing Olding that he did not mind borrowing “more money from the bank to carry expenses if there seems a good chance of writing pieces that will sell for enough to repay the loans and keep me going.” Martin, however, had the good fortune to receive a one-year appointment as a visiting professor in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. “After that, Arthur Schlesinger had me appointed visiting professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he himself now taught,” said Martin. He commuted to CUNY from Princeton to teach his seminar, which dealt with the limits of American power in foreign policy.
 
When he began his work on the book, Martin expected it should take him three years to finish. It took him far longer than that because of the great volume of material he had uncovered about Stevenson. “I have to say that I came away from the whole exercise admiring him more than I had when I began,” Martin said of his subject. “I always knew he had political courage—I was with him when he attacked [U.S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy and President [Dwight] Eisenhower wouldn’t,” said Martin. “But I didn’t know how miserable, how horrible his private life had been. I learned he also had private courage.”
 
Stevenson had to deal with a sometimes traumatic childhood, “a foolish father, a pretentious and suffocating mother, a domineering older sister, a disastrous marriage, and, despite all the friends and comings and goings, an essentially lonely life,” Martin said. His subject never complained about these hardships, assuming, Martin noted, that a person’s private life was supposed to be torture.
 
On June 5, 1970, Martin, who averaged writing fifty pages a day, finally finished the rough draft of his manuscript, which ran more than 16,000 pages and contained some two and a half million words. “I write a long, awkward—and lousy—rough draft,” Martin noted. “It’s simply an attempt to get facts down in some order.” For the next year and a half, he spent his time in cutting and rewriting the manuscript into a semifinal draft of approximately 3,200 pages, or nearly a million words.
 
Martin spent another three years clearing the manuscript with people he had promised to show it to in return for their cooperation (among them George Ball, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Theodore White, Jane Dick, and Newton Minow), and obtaining clearances for quotations from letters other people had written to Stevenson, including such important figures in his life as Jacob Avery, Agnes Meyer, Carl McGowan, Dore Schary, Wilson Wyatt, Louis Kohn, John Kenneth Galbraith, and many others.
 
Although some biographers paraphrase letters written to their subject in an attempt to avoid the trouble of seeking permissions, Martin wanted to include verbatim quotes from the letters, especially those from Stevenson’s female admirers, in order “to preserve the flavor of their friendships.” Final approval also had to be obtained through negotiations with Stevenson’s eldest son, Adlai III—meetings that included Minow as potential arbiter, and sometimes included Martin’s editors from Doubleday, Samuel S. Vaughan and Ken McCormick. There were times when Martin lost his patience and wondered if he was in danger of writing a book by committee. “If we make this Stevenson book so that it pleases everybody,” Martin wrote his agent Dorothy Olding, “we will not have a book worth reading.”
 
The storm passed, however, and Martin believed he had endured the troubles for a good cause. “He [Adlai III] raised numerous objections, but we never were forced to arbitration,” Martin said. Most of the younger Stevenson’s protests involved the book’s explorations of his father’s relations with his female friends, some ill-timed statements Stevenson had uttered about Jews, and his feelings about African Americans. “I must say I thought young Adlai behaved well; I am not sure I would want to read a candid biography of my own father,” Martin said. “In any case, he did not gut the book, nor did I falsify it.”
 
When he wrote the rough draft, Martin had, he confessed, been too keenly aware of his status as a Stevenson partisan, and, consequently, to be objective, “had been hypercritical of him,” focusing too much attention on his subject’s flaws and weaknesses. This caused a reader of one of the drafts to tell Vaughan that he believed the author did not like his subject. Adlai III’s critical comments and suggestions for changes, which were adopted in the final draft, helped to restore balance to the book, Martin said. It had not always been possible to unravel all the complexities of Stevenson’s life in writing the biography of this “sometimes ambiguous man,” but Martin believed he had answered all the important questions.
 
The manuscript for the Stevenson biography proved to be too long to publish in one book, so Doubleday released the book in two volumes: Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (1976), covering his life from birth to his first presidential campaign in 1952, and Adlai Stevenson and the World (1977), exploring Stevenson’s career after the 1952 campaign up until his death in 1965 and published just twenty-five years after Martin had first met him; together the books became known as The Life of Adlai Stevenson.
 
No stranger to biography, Schlesinger praised the books as “superb” and complimented his former speechwriting partner for his ability to combine “affection, insight, and objectivity” into what he regarded as “one of the greatest American political biographies of the [twentieth] century.” Taken in full, the more than 1,600 pages produced by Martin represented, noted Jeff Broadwater, a subsequent Stevenson biographer, one of the “most impressive pieces of detective work in the history of American biography,” an opinion, with some reservations about the books’ relentless amount of detail, that was shared by many other reviewers. 

As John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his review of the first volume in the New York Times Book Review, Martin had been able to organize the vast amount of material on Stevenson into “a far more coherent and interesting story than anyone would think possible. Some writers take many words to say little; John Bartlow Martin takes many words, but fewer than would be supposed, to say everything.” There was no malice or meanness of thought in the book, and Galbraith said that Martin never allowed his friendship with Stevenson to affect his narrative.
 
Although not always flattering to a man Martin unabashedly considered to be one of his heroes, the books represented an honest and unflinching look at one of the leading U.S. politicians and statesmen of the twentieth century. The striking and rigorously documented biography demonstrated to all who read it that Stevenson’s polished speeches, his candor, and his forthrightness had worked together to elevate the tone of America’s politics, according to a review in Time magazine. “He [Stevenson] set a standard that later presidential aspirants have yet to match,” the reviewer for Time concluded. Martin’s former hometown newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, gave him the highest compliment a biographer could receive when its reviewer noted, “After reading Martin’s book, one can say with some degree of satisfaction that he knows Adlai Stevenson—knows him, in fact, about as well as he could have been known as a living person.”
 
Martin had started work on the Stevenson biography while still in his fifties—a time, he said, when a person is expected to earn his highest income and do his most important work. He spent this vital period of his life immersed in writing about Stevenson, and never had any regrets about his decision. “I’ve heard it said that some writers who spend so long on a biography become bored with their subject, or, worse, come to resent him for taking so much of their lives to write his,” said Martin. “Luckily I escaped both infections.”
 
After the dissatisfaction he had experienced while working as a speechwriter for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, Martin had been inspired in writing his book by the pleasant memories of his days with Stevenson during the Illinois governor’s 1952 run for the presidency, marked as it was by “a sort of ebullience, a freshness, a verve” not seen since in politics. Stevenson took politics “out of the gutter,” Martin said, and believed it to be “a high calling, and that showed through in the way he handled himself as a politican. I think that was the thing that attracted all of us to him in the first place.”
 
Martin’s experience with the Stevenson biography had its setbacks. Both volumes were “widely and favorably reviewed,” but sales were only modest, Martin noted. He also shared Fran’s disappointment that neither volume won a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award. Martin came to believe that if he had written the biography fast and it had been published in one volume shortly after Stevenson’s death, it probably would have become a best-seller and won at least one major honor. “On the other hand,” Martin said, “it would have been a very different book.”
 
The enormous amount of documentation he uncovered contributed to the biography’s length, but it did not overwhelm him, Martin said. He always tried to remember that he, alone, had complete access to all of Stevenson’s papers and he owed an obligation to history to provide a complete view of the former governor’s life. “Adlai Stevenson was one of the most important figures in my life,” Martin said. “In life, he gave me a great deal, and I like to think I helped him.”
 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

A P-38 and a Reporter: Richard Tregaskis Takes Flight

Reporting from northern Europe during the late summer and early fall of 1944, International News Service correspondent Richard Tregaksis took a break from covering combat with the Third Armored Division, an experienced he recalled could give “a man gray hairs, and possibly the worst scares of his life.” While resting at the resort town of Spa, Belgium, he heard news of a mission he had been trying to be a part of since his return to combat—hitching a ride on a “droop-snoot” Lockheed P-38 Lightning during a bombing mission into Germany.

Although Tregaskis had nagged
General Elwood “Pete” Quesada, commander of the Ninth Tactical Air Force, about being allowed on a mission with the Lightning, which had the guns in its nose replaced by a transparent Plexiglas cap so a passenger could peer out, he had believed that the odds were about five to one against hearing anything more about his request.

Surprised to hear that his flight had been approved, Tregaskis ended up flying with Captain Wayne G. McCarthy of the 367th Fighter Group, 39th Fighter Squadron, which was headquartered at the time at A-71 Clastres Airfield, located south of Saint Quentin, France. The late-September mission had the American planes attacking a rail line beyond the Moselle River in the German Rhineland. “If we were lucky, we might catch a freight train on the track,” Tregaskis remembered. “Each aircraft had two thousand-pound bombs.”

As he climbed into McCarthy’s P-38, Tregaskis, wearing a backpack parachute, noticed that the droop-snoot compartment in which he would travel had been equipped with a new, bright yellow cushion for him to sit on; an intercom system to communicate with McCarthy; and an instrument panel on which he could monitor the twin-engine fighter’s airspeed, altitude, and other vital readings.

The correspondent neglected, however, to check out one item he might need for the long mission—a relief tube if he needed to urinate. “Another item I should have checked, but didn’t, was the oxygen system for me, the passenger. There wasn’t any,” Tregaskis noted. “But I didn’t realize that until a much later and more critical juncture.”

Passing over the Moselle, Tregaskis caught sight of small villages and farms as they entered Germany. “Then everything was happening at once,” he recalled. “We were at ten thousand feet, over railroad tracks like a set of silver threads over rolling hills. And we were diving, diving on the track, in a great roaring and whistling, with our nose down, and in the rush and scream, I saw that there was a toy freight train puffing below us on the metal band of the track.”

As McCarthy pulled up after releasing his bomb, Tregaskis’s vision grayed over and he almost passed out from the g-force. As he strained to see where the plane’s bombs had hit, the pilot informed him over the intercom that his bombs had failed to release and he had to make another attack, climbing up to twelve thousand feet and causing the correspondent to worry about his condition in the thin air. “Down we went again,” Tregaskis reported. “It seemed to be straight down. I glimpsed the airspeed meter. It was reading around three hundred [miles per hour]. I gulped for air.”

Straining, he glimpsed out of his window in time to see an explosion on one of the train cars, which “slowly keeled over and fell off the track.” As McCarthy zoomed up toward the clouds, Tregaskis heard through radio static other planes in his flight report seeing “five bandits at angels eighteen, six o’clock.” German Messerschmitt 109 fighters had joined the fray and were after the reporter’s P-38, which had no machine guns due to the droop-snoot.

McCarthy maneuvered his craft into a tight spiral to lose altitude to escape his attacker, causing his passenger to believe that his pilot had been shot and they were in danger of crashing. It also marked, Tregaskis believed, the first time during the war that a fighter aircraft carrying a reporter had been involved in a dogfight with the enemy.

Relieved to hear from McCarthy that they were heading back to the American airfield, Tregaskis, after surviving another scare, a near hit by antiaircraft fire, began to worry about another problem—he needed to relieve himself. He proved unsuccessful at holding his bladder and realized “something vital had to be done. I looked at the magnificent, lemon-colored cushion which was my seat in the droop-snoot, and I felt creeping qualms of a schoolboy conscience. I hung on a few minutes more. Then I could hold on no more.”

After landing and struggling out of the nose compartment, Tregaskis remembered that McCarthy climbed out of the plane’s cockpit and bounced over to ask what he thought of the mission. “I had to tell him the truth,” Tregaskis noted. “‘You scared the p___ out of me,’ I said, ‘and if you don’t believe me, look at my cushion.'"

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Reporter and the Photographer: Richard Tregaskis and Robert Capa

Writing an article in 1966 for the Overseas Press Club, veteran correspondent Richard Tregaskis pondered an essential question: why reporters drawn to covering wars despite all of the dangers being in combat posed? He examined the question by examining a conversation he had in Sicily in 1943 with famed Hungarian-American photojournalist Robert Capa, who had covered the Spanish Civil War and continued to document war as Allied forces won victories in North Africa and Sicily.

“Good war correspondents, like other people of action, generally are loath to make themselves heroes,” Tregaskis explained, “but most will admit that they take chances in war zones for the same reason the mountain climber gave when asked why he wanted to scale Everest: ‘Because it is there.’”
 He added that reporters were often drawn “to front areas because they are usually well known as danger zones, and wars, like mountains, are exciting,” and war could be “as exciting as anything in life.”

Despite the deaths and disabilities of war, Tregaskis noted that there was another aspect of it that drew people “whatever their personal persuasion or sex: the instant elimination of personal ambition in favor of unselfish sacrifice to a great cause. Never mind that the fact that the cause is the destruction of an enemy and the expenditure of resources—including life and health—to destroy something the foe considers highly valuable.”

Tregaskis remembered talking about his theories with Capa when they were in a small Sicilian town called Licata with the men of the 82nd Airborne Division. “At that time, just before the Allied landing at Salerno and the invasion of Italy, the 82nd was expecting to be dropped in Rome, and Capa and I were going with them,” Tregaskis recalled.

“The top secret plan was that we would drop on Rome the day before the Salerno invasion. The Italians were to cooperate by lighting the way to Ciampino airport and keeping the German fighters on the ground,” noted Tregaskis. “Fortunately, the mission was aborted at the last minute—fortunately, because it was discovered that five German divisions surrounded the airfield.

On the night before the operation with the 82nd, Capa and Tregaskis were sitting on the edge of the Licata airfield, filling the time with conversation. “I mentioned that I had flown over from North Africa in a C-47 with one of the ranking officers of the division and that I had said to him that war is such a tragic waste and such bloody double destruction,” Tregaskis said. “The officer, a veteran, battle-toughened trooper, smiled and said frankly, ‘I like it.’” (The officer Tregaskis mentioned was probably Colonel James M. Gavin, who later commanded the division.)

Telling Capa about this, Tregaskis went on to venture the thesis that there existed “a distinctive philosophy about a frontline area (in those old days, you remember, there was always a clearly delineated front). I vouchsafed the idea that when you were at the front you didn’t expect to live long. Thus you tended to be free of the petty selfishness that governs us in times of absolute safety and assumed longevity.”

“At the front,” Tregaskis continued, “if someone wants your shirt you’ll give it to him. Men are unselfish and self-sacrificing as never elsewhere. While they’re trying to kill people on the other side they’ll die for people on their on.”

The reporter who had witnessed the Doolittle Raid, the Battle of Midway, and the relentless fighting on Guadalcanal, went on to tell Capa one of his related theories about war (“after all, this was a bull session, war-style”). Tregaksis said that one of the most dramatic stories anywhere was that of two intelligent human beings trying to kill each other. He mentioned Wilkie Collins’s famous story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which claimed that big-game hunting “was boring but to pit man against man—that was something.”

According to Tregaskis, Capa’s usual temper was “sardonic and cynical, and his upbringing in central Europe led him to poke fun at many of my ideas as ‘over-American.’ We were good friends, but he violently opposed some of my theses as too idealistic and unrealistic; at such times he would address me as ‘Tregasgoose.’ This time he called me by that name but subscribed to my idea—which was quite a concession for him:

“I agree with you Tregasgoose; fighting is exciting.”

Capa went on to quote to Tregaskis a saying familiar in any battle: “War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense anxiety.” But, the photographer added, according to Tregaskis, that the intense anxiety “always makes life very dramatic.”

 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

A Wounding in Italy

Walking down from the mountain, the man in the American uniform could hear the scream of something sinister headed his way. Months of previous combat experience caused him to instinctively dive to the rocky ground for safety. It was too late. He felt a “smothering explosion” engulf him. In the fraction of the second before unconsciousness came, he knew that he had been hit by a German shell.

He sensed a “curtain of fire” rise, hesitate, and hover for “an infinite second.” An orange mist, like a tropical sunrise, arose and quickly set, leaving him, with the curtain descending, gently, in the dark.

Unconsciousness came and went in seconds. When he awoke, he knew that he had been badly wounded. In that moment he realized something he had long suspected—there was no sensation of pain, only a “movie without sound.” 

Still stretched out on the rocky ground of Mount Corno in the Italian countryside, he could see, a couple of feet from him, his helmet, which had been gouged in two places—one hole at the front and the second ripped through the side. Catastrophe. How could he mange to make it to safety, nearly a mile away down the trail, where the officers that had accompanied him earlier on the mountain, Colonel Bill Yarborough and Captain Edmund Tomasik, he hoped, were waiting?

It was eerily quiet, as if time stood still. He could still move a bit. He sat up and saw figures of crouched men he did not recognize running up the trail. He tried to yell at them but found that his voice produced only unintelligible noise instead of words. Although rattled at first, he became calmer when he realized he could still think—he had lost his power of speech, but not his power to “understand or generate thought.”

Another shell came screaming down. He hugged the ground and braced for the imminent explosion. When it came, he found it was a “tinny echo” of what had before been powerful and terrifying. A frightened soldier skidded into his position to escape the danger, and he tried to talk to the man, seeking his help, but only produced the strangled question: “Can help?” As another shell burst farther down the mountain slope, the soldier, with terror etched across his face, could only say, before he ran away, “I can’t help you, I’m too scared.”

In a haze, he barely remembered the medic who flopped beside him, bandaged his wounded head, and jammed a shot of morphine into his arm. Almost as soon as he had appeared, the medic was gone, and again he was alone. He realized that if he wanted to ever get off that mountain, he had to get up and walk.

Almost miraculously, he found his glasses, unbroken, lying on the rocks a few inches away. He tried to pick them up with his right hand, and realized his entire right arm was stiff and useless. Using his left hand, he picked up his glasses, put them on, and, almost, absentmindedly, placed his helmet on his bandaged head, where it sat, a fine, if precariously balanced, souvenir.

As he staggered down the mountain, he kept dropping and picking up his helmet, and came under fire from a procession of shells. Once a shell burst so close to him that he could have touched it. He was not frightened, but only startled at its nearness.

Finally, he wedged his tall, lanky frame into a small cave to wait out the barrage. He remembered being unconcerned about his plight; nothing seemed to disturb him. In fact, it seemed somehow that after escaping so many close calls during the war, his luck would finally run out. Only his instinct for self-preservation told him what to do. Despite the blood running copiously down his face, blurring his vision, he got up and staggered down the mountain like a robot, unsteady on his feet but under some directional control.

Rounding a bend in the trail, he saw Yarborough and Tomasik trying to help a wounded enlisted man. A surge of pleasure surged through him as he realized he would be saved. The colonel started to wave to him, then stopped, noticing his bloody glasses and blood-soaked shirt. With Yarborough’s help, he made it to a house to await transportation for medical assistance.

The wounded man, Richard Tregaskis, a correspondent with the International News Service, looked across the room and saw a line of soldiers, with “fascinated, awed looks on their faces as they stared at me, the badly wounded man.” Those spectators, he noted, imagined more pain than he felt. “Such is the friendly power of shock,” Tregaskis remembered, “and the stubborn will for preservation.” Reflecting on his experience, he felt almost a sense of relief that at last it had happened—he had been hit. He felt sure he was supposed to die, but he did not.

Finally transported to the Thirty-Eighth Evacuation Hospital, Tregaskis underwent several hours of brain surgery performed by Major William R. Pitts. A shell fragment had driven ten to twelve bone fragments into Tregaskis’s brain and part of his skull had been blown away, with the brain, said Pitts, “oozing out through the scalp wound.”

Recuperating, Tregaskis received a visit from one of the biggest stars of journalism in World War II, Ernie Pyle, columnist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. After chatting with his colleague, Pyle wrote in his popular column that if he had been injured as Tregaskis had been, he would have “gone home and rested on my laurels forever.”

Tregaskis did go back to the United States—to the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, where doctors put an inert metal (tantalum) plate to cover the hole in his skull. It seemed an end to what had been a brilliant wartime career that included witnessing the Doolittle Raiders take off from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier to bomb Japan, being in the thick of the action during the Battle of Midway, surviving seven nerve-wracking weeks with U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal, writing a best-selling book about his experiences (Guadalcanal Diary), and accompanying American and British troops for the invasions of Sicily and Italy.

Despite his brush with death, and several months of painstaking effort on his part to regain his power of speech and the feeling in his right hand, Tregaskis did not decide to remain safely at home; he returned to the war. He traveled to Europe for the Normandy beachhead, then followed the First Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”) across France, Belgium, Holland, and into Germany.

Asked by the editors of a national magazine to return to the Pacific to follow the crew of a B-29 Superfortress as it prepared for bombing missions against Japanese cities, Tregaskis was asked by an editor, “Do you really want to go?” Without hesitating, Tregaskis gave an answer that any reporter who covered World War II would understand: “I don’t want to go, but I think I ought to go.” He went.

 

 

 

Monday, October 10, 2022

Richard Tregaskis and "Stronger Than Fear"

In May 1961, former war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, author of the classic book of combat reporting, Guadalcanal Diary, sat down to write about what he considered to be the most important book he wrote about the war, Stronger Than Fear, a novel based upon his experiences covering the Battle of Aachen. Here is what he wrote:

In the late fall of 1944, I was working as a war correspondent alone the western front of World War II trying to keep up with our plunging armored columns as they swept through France, across Belgium and into Germany. The Third Armored Division crossed into Germany at a little town called Rotgen, and shortly after Rotgen our forces hit some sizeable cities in the Rhineland: Aachen, Duren, Eschweiler, Koln.

The street fighting in these German communities reminded me of the jungle campaigning I had seen on Guadalcanal and elsewhere in the South Pacific. The enemy fought hard in his home ground, and everything was close in, the rows of houses were like trees and street-corners were like thickets, and every house was a potential sniper’s nest or machine-gun position.

In the city of Aachen, I worked along with a squad of Company C, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, of the Fighting First Division.

It was a great, battled-tested division with one of the best combat records of any of our fighting outfits, starting with the early days of North Africa and on through Sicily and into Europe. I had been with the First in Sicily through several hard engagements and I was full of admiration for these men and their know-how of night fighting, clever concealment, skillful use of fires and rapid movement through rough country.

Now, as at least we were penetrating Germany, the division was still a marvel of military know-how but by this time, two years after the North Africa landing and after many bloody battles, and casualties of more than a hundred percent of its strength in killed and wounded, it was showing signs of wear.

The platoon of ten men to which I attached myself was made up of soldiers none of whom had take part in the Sicilian or North African campaigns. And just as I joined them, two new replacements were reporting. Naturally, they were from Cook’s and Baker’s School, which was what you expected as qualification for front-line infantry in these days of American Blitzkrieg and the far-stretched battle line that came with lightning advances of tanks and truck-borne infantry. We had no reserves, our companies were stretched out like rubber bands and the few veterans who were still with the First Division knew our position was perilous.

Being veterans, they also knew the chances they were taking as the companies ploughed through the streets of Aachen, block by block and house by house. And those who had been wounded before knew that the likelihood was they would be wounded, not killed, if they were hit, because the odds were four or five to one that you would be wounded, not killed. Those were the statistics that the veterans knew, they had outgrown the presupposition of the raw recruit that he would either be killed or completely spared, and that naturally it would not happen to him.

They knew better, they knew what it was like to be ripped by the jagged steel of shell fragments, they knew the wrenching crump of mortar explosions that could rip your body apart, they knew that the snapping bullets of snipers or machine-guns could do more than make neat holes in arms as in the movies (only a flesh wound), they knew these bullets could tear out eyes, smash jaws and cheek bones, or lodged properly in the back, paralyze a man from waist or neck down.

My company commander was a veteran and he knew these things. His name was Ozell Smoot, he came from the Deep South and I watched him in admiration, almost with reverence, as he coolly ran his company through the advance into Aachen, through so many blocks per day, through smashing artillery shelling, through black nights in the cellars while tanks roamed the streets with rattling, grinding engines and fired down the boulevards; through the days of pushing through the jungle of the houses, and dodging down the streets to avoid giving the snipers and machine gunners good shots, and getting aid men to the unlucky ones who got smeared so their wrecked bodies could be carried to the rear.

By this time, I had seen a good deal of war action on the ground, in the air and at sea, in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and in Europe, and as I watched Ozell Smoot doing his job expertly, I reflected on a central question: to a veteran, like Ozell Smoot and many another good fighting man I had seen, what does it mean when it becomes a way of life, the reality, and peace is only a dream?

What, in other words, are the real values that emerge in a man’s character during a war? I had seen enough of war to know that war brings out nobler traits in a man than he might otherwise know in a thousand lifetimes. I knew that men at the front could be more generous, kind, unselfish than I had ever seen them elsewhere. It was a strange paradox that in a way of life devoted to killing, maiming and destruction of the enemy, men could be kinder and more unselfish and self-sacrificing towards those on his own side than he had ever been before or probably ever would be if he survived the war.

Eight months after the street fighting in Aachen I had finished a novel that grew from watching the men of the 26th Infantry and a company commander named Ozell Smoot at work in the business of war.

I think this is the most important book I wrote about World War II because it strikes closer to the heart of war than any other I wrote. The New York Times critic Francis Hackett called this book “white-hot, ice-cold” and those were the temperatures of by observations and feelings about war as this story worked itself out of the back of my mind.

I believe it stands up well after the years because it hits into the basic human values involved in a war, aside from politics or patriotism. Some of the critics said I drew on some of my own battlefield experience to write about being wounded and combating fear.

At any rate, the characters show how much I like and admire good fighting men, and they are not literal transcriptions of actual people but drawn from many scores of soldiers I watched at work. Captain Paul Kreider is not Captain Ozell Smoot but he stands for many military men who fought the big battle and come out winners, even if they were killed doing their jobs. That’s what war or anything else is really about, if you get down to fundamentals. Captain Ozell Smoot was killed about a month after Aachen, in the front line in the Hurtgen Forest, but I saw enough of him to know that he was a winner in the important battle, the one that goes on inside. That’s what the book is about.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Carole Lombard: Hoosier Actress

Before the days of cable and satellite dishes, when there were only three major networks available for viewing, one of the few things on television that always sparked my interest was the perennial showing of old movies, usually on lazy Sunday afternoons.

The films ranged from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meeting a host of monsters (Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man to name but a few) to the detective adventures of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. My favorites, however, were the sophisticated, and often hilarious, screwball comedies produced by Hollywood studios during the height of the Great Depression in the 1940s and early into the 1930s.

These films, which often matched the wits of dazzlingly daffy females with those of hapless males, featured the talents of such well know stars as Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Cable, and Claudette Colbert. Who hasn’t chortled over the budding romance between a spoiled heiress and a recently fired reporter in It Happened One Night (1934), the misunderstandings between a married couple in The Awful Truth (1937), the madcap search for a missing dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and the underhanded attempts of a newspaper editor attempting to lure his ex-wife back to her former job in His Girl Friday (1939)?

My favorite screwball comedy, however, involved an actress who became a fixture in this film genre: Carole Lombard, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on October 6, 1908. In 1936 Lombard starred alongside here ex-husband William Powell (“the only intelligent actor I’ve ever met,” according to Lombard) in the Universal movie My Man Godfrey.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, the movie tells the story of Godfrey “Duke” Parke (Powell), a former Boston Brahmin who after a failed romance begins living at the city dump with victims of the depression. A scavenger hunt organized as part of a society fund-raiser for the underprivileged brings Parke—the proverbial forgotten man—in contact with Irene Bullock (Lombard), a young and scatterbrained member of an eccentric Park Avenue family who, upon their first meeting, charms him with such remarks as “You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody’s gone home.” Irene hires Godfrey as the family’s butler and eventually falls in love with her new “protégé.”

Of course, as often happens in screwball movies, Godfrey, representing the decency and forthrightness of the common man, teaches the wealthy family a thing or two about life and saves them from financial disaster. Godfrey, however, has a surprise or two waiting for him when Irene sweeps aside his reservations about romance and drags him to the altar.

A box-office hit at the time, the movie featured fine acting from not only its stars—both Lombard and Powell received Academy Award nominations for their performances—but also from its supporting cast. I still marvel at the fine comedic timing of Mischa Auer, who played Carlo, the piano-playing protégé of Irene’s mother, and Eugene Pallette, who portrayed the harried patriarch of the Bullock family. Not even a fine physical comedian such as Jim Carrey could hope to match Auer’s side-splitting imitation of a gorilla to amuse Irene during a (fake) crying spell.

Her role in My Man Godfrey reinforced Lombard’s developing image as the queen of the screwball comedy. Lombard, who had moved to California from Indiana with her mother and two brothers, had labored early in her acting career in minor roles in silent comedy films for Mack Sennett, had found in films such as Godfrey and 1937’s Nothing Sacred (famous for Lombard using her childhood boxing lessons to good form by punching co-star Fredric March) an outlet for her own often zany behavior, which included the ability to swear like a sailor when the opportunity called for it, a talent she learned from her brothers. She became America’s favorite screwball actress, both on the screen and off.

In addition to her film success, Lombard also found personal fulfillment with her marriage to screen idol Gable in 1939. Nicknaming each other “Ma” and “Pa,” the couple enjoyed an idyllic life together on their twenty-acre ranch located in the San Fernando Valley. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Lombard was finishing her last role, that of Maria Tura in the comedy To Be or Not to Be with Jack Benny.

Both Lombard and Gable immediately offered their services on behalf of the war effort to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Lombard who participated, with her mother alongside her, in a whirlwind bond drive back home in Indiana, with several events in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942, including leading the crowd in a singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Cadle Tabernacle.

“As a Hoosier,” Lombard told the crowd, “I am proud that Indiana led the nation in buying Liberty Bonds in the last war. I want to believe that Indiana will lead every other state again this time—and we will! We won the last wary, and with your help we will win this war!”

On January 16 the plane carrying Lombard and her mother back home to California crashed outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, killing everyone aboard. To honor Lombard’s sacrifice, Roosevelt posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
                                   
           

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Richard Tregaskis and "Guadalcanal Diary"

For two months in the summer of 1942, Richard Tregaskis, a young correspondent with the International News Service, had toiled away in the Southwest Pacific to report on the news from a little-known island in the Solomons named Guadalcanal. Tregaskis had joined the approximately 11,000 men of the First Marine Division who stormed the beaches on August 7, 1942, to seize the island from the Japanese. 
Tregaskis was no stranger to combat at this point in his career and had always been eager to be close to where American forces were fighting, serving as an embedded reporter long before the term came into use. He watched from the deck of a U.S. Navy cruiser as Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle’s B-25B Mitchell bombers took off from the carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo. Later, he was on the Hornet to witness its dive-bombers and torpedo planes, several which did not return, hurtle off the ship’s flight deck on their way to attack the Japanese fleet during the critical Battle of Midway.
 
The Guadalcanal landing marked America’s first use of ground troops in a major offensive against the Japanese Empire. Tregaskis’s dedication to his job during his time on Guadalcanal impressed the marines’ commander, General Alexander Vandegrift. The general recalled that Tregaskis, one of only two reporters with the marines during their first uncertain weeks on the island, seemed to be everywhere, and the information he acquired was “factual and not a canned hand-out.” 
 
Tregaskis turned his experiences of the often-hellish fighting on the island into a best-selling book, Guadalcanal Diary. Still in print today, the book is one of the best of its kind by modern war reporters for its ability to capture in print a ground’s-eye view of combat and its debilitating effect on the marines. 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. 
 
All 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.
 
Tregaskis’s manuscript outlining his time on Guadalcanal in an easily understood diary format arrived INS offices at 235 East Forty-Fifth Street, New York, without fanfare in early November 1942. It had made quite a journey. The pages had been transported from Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, via airmail. 
 
Barry Faris, INS editor-in-chief, wrote Tregaskis that he had turned the manuscript over to Ward Greene, executive editor of King Features, owned and operated, as was INS, by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Faris told his reporter that Greene would make every attempt to get Tregaskis’s manuscript accepted by a book publisher and subsequently serialized in magazines. “I did not have a chance to read it thoroughly as I would have liked,” Faris informed Tregaskis, who would be splitting the revenue from the book fifty-fifty with his employer, “but from what I did see I think you did a magnificent job on it.” 
 
One person who did take the time to read Tregaskis’s writing from beginning to end was Bennett Cerf, cofounder with his friend Donald Klopfer of the New York publishing firm Random House. Greene had distributed copies of the manuscript to nine publishers and asked them to bid for the opportunity to publish the book, a method “that had never been done before,” Cerf noted. 
 
Just the day before he received Tregaskis’s text, Cerf had been talking with his colleagues that the first book that came out about Guadalcanal would “be a knockout because Guadalcanal marked the turning of the tide” in the war in the Pacific, which had been going badly for the Allies since the Japanese had bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. As the publisher noted, “the dictators were ready and the liberty-loving people were caught unprepared.” 
 
Cerf received the manuscript from King Features on November 11, took it home with him, read it that night, called Greene at nine the next morning, and told him: “I’ve got to have this book.” A pleased Cerf related years later that Random House had signed up to publish the young reporter’s work before “any of the other eight publishers had even started reading it.” 
 
Cerf’s premonition that the American public would be interested in learning more about the marines and their pitched battles with the enemy on a remote island thousands of miles away turned out to be accurate. Rushed into print on January 18, 1943, Guadalcanal Diary became a best seller and the first Random House book to sell more than 100,000 copies. Critic John Chamberlain of the New York Times wrote that Tregaskis’s book served as “a tonic for the war-weary on the homefront,” showing, as it did, to the Japanese and those who doubted America’s resolve, that a country “doesn’t necessarily have to love war in order to fight it.”
 
During his time with the marines on Guadalcanal, Tregaskis carried in his pockets notebooks on which he would write information about what he had seen and experienced. Once he had filled a notebook, he would transfer the information nightly into a black, gilt-edged diary. “The theory and practice was that I could get all the details I needed by referring to the notebook number, 1, or 3, or 4 when and if I could later get to writing a book from my notes,” Tregaskis recalled.

After leaving Guadalcanal via B-17 Flying Fortress on September 26, Tregaskis started writing his book while in Noumea, New Caledonia, where he was waiting for a military transport plane to take him on to Honolulu. While waiting for his orders, Tregaskis secured living space in a one-room flat for a dollar per day from a French woman, Madam Rougon, and tried to settle down to do some writing.

For days, however, he found himself out of sorts, with his vitality sapped by “a great desire to sit still, to just be quiet, to vegetate.” Being yanked away from the unending danger of bombing and shelling was “a sudden and tremendous change,” he reflected, as well as being a great letdown. “I wanted to stay where I did not have to move and where no one would speak or make any sound,” he remembered. Talking to others who had similar experiences in the field, Tregaskis discovered that his reaction was “quite normal.” 

After some time on Nouméa, the effects of his adventures in Guadalcanal began to fade, and Tregaskis returned to writing what became Guadalcanal Diary, getting a “good bit of work” accomplished. He recalled that the writing went “fairly fast,” but the memory of his time under fire on Guadalcanal, and the way it shaped his behavior, continued. “Even in Noumea, I found that my nervous system put me automatically in a state of alertness whenever lightning flashed in the sky or distant thunder rumbled,” Tregaskis remembered. “These phenomena had become associated with gunfire, in my consciousness, and my instant impulse was to look for cover.”

Tregaskis believed there was nothing “abnormal” about his reaction, as “one develops certain habits which fit any type of existence to which he is exposed, if he is exposed long enough, and it is just as natural for a man who has been living in a fighting zone to view thunder and lightning cautiously, as it is for a city dweller to look up and down before he crosses the street.”

When Tregaskis finally returned to Honolulu, his writing had to be done in the navy offices at Pearl Harbor, going there every morning, working under the censor’s gaze, and watching as his diary was locked in a safe every night; he never got it back and could not find out what happened to it. “And as fast as I could write my manuscript, a naval intelligence officer took my efforts and hacked away with a pencil and a pair of scissors,” Tregaskis reported. “That was the way it was with sharp-eyed military censorship in those days.” 
 
Although a likeable fellow personally, the censor Tregaskis worked with was “stiff as a porcupine when it came to his official duties. He even chopped out a mention of the fact that the Japanese camps usually had a sweetish smell. He apparently felt that if they read my story the enemy might start using a deodorant as a kind of camouflage.”
 
Unfortunately, Tregaskis later noted that he never got back the black, gilt-edged diary from naval authorities. He did manage to keep some of the pocket notebook. “They are vastly detailed and any comparison of them with the final text of Guadalcanal Diary will show that there are 20 or 40 or 50 facts in this kind of notebook for one which survives in to print,” Tregaskis noted. (For his later works, including his book Vietnam Diary, published in 1963, Tregaskis had evolved into a simpler system—all his notes were written into one large diary book. One benefit of doing so he said was that, because of its size, it was hard to misplace.)
 
Random House published Guadalcanal Diary on January 18, 1943, and Tregaskis’s work made a steady climb up the best-seller charts, reaching, the publishing company’s advertisements were quick to report, the number-one position on lists compiled by the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune. Sales of the book, which cost $2.50, were boosted by positive reviews from critics across the country, who praised Tregaskis not for his literary flair, but for his factual and honest reporting about what the marines faced in the Solomons.
 
Years after the war ended, Tregaskis could boast to a friend that his classic book of war reporting had sold more than three million copies, counting all editions and had been translated into twelve languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, and Danish. Its continued popularity bolsters Tregaskis’s belief that among the American ideals, “courage remains the most valuable of all.”