For the 110th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Nick Hirshon, biographer Ray Boomhower follows the career of war correspondent Richard Tregaskis from Guadalcanal to Korea to Vietnam.
Senior editor of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, ex-reporter Ray Boomhower has written biographies on such notable figures as Richard Tregaskis, Robert Sherrod, Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Benjamin Harrison, John Bartlow Martin, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall.
Featured image: Ensign Paul R. Stephens goes over details of a bombing mission against Japanese targets with Richard Tregaskis in the ready room aboard the USS Ticonderoga, July 1945.
Ray Boomhower: I think he really wanted to have the experience of being in combat, get that down on paper, so that people back home would know the rigors that the men overseas were going through and what they were sacrificing for their country.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Ernie Pyle is the best-known World War II correspondent. He dove in and out of foxholes to chronicle the plight of the average American doughboy. And when he was killed by Japanese machinegun fire in April 1945, the commanding general mourned the loss of a man who had made, quote, “such a great contribution to the morale of our foot soldier.” But Pyle was not, of course, the only journalist to document the horrors of the conflict that killed tens of millions of people. A generation of readers learned about the travails of the United States Marine Corps by reading Guadalcanal Diary, a 1943 memoir that recounts the early stages of the months-long battle on the southwestern Pacific Island. The author was Richard Tregaskis, a reporter signed by the International News Service to cover the Solomon Islands campaign.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we review Tregaskis’ career with Ray Boomhower, the senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society Press and the author of Richard Tregaskis –
– Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam. Well, Ray, thank you for joining us to talk about your book, Richard Tregaskis Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam, which was published last November by the University of New Mexico Press. And our listeners may be familiar with the World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle, the folksy columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and was killed by enemy fire in 1945. You previously wrote a book on Ernie Pyle titled The Soldier’s Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle, but how did you learn about Tregaskis? And why do you think he is worthy of a biography?
Ray Boomhower: Well, I’ve been interested in war correspondence since I was in high school, and I remember reading Guadalcanal Diary, probably Tregaskis’ best-known book at that time. And as you mentioned before, I wrote about Ernie Pyle; I’ve also written about another World War II correspondent Robert Sherrod, who wrote for Time Life Magazine –
– and followed the U.S. Marine Corps through the central Pacific during the war. So he was kinda like the Ernie Pyle of the Marine Corps. So I thought about kinda completing my what I’m jokingly calling my World War II correspondent trilogy, and I thought of Tregaskis. And I was pressed by the wide range of his activities during World War II, and in addition, I discovered, in doing some initial research on him, that we share a birthday.
So, it seems fated that I would write about him for my next book, and which I did. And I was glad I did because he’s one of those I consider kinda the bravest of the brave war correspondents during the war, considering all he went through. And just the scope of his travel during the war impressed me greatly, starting out in the Pacific being involved in some of the early key battles in that theater, then going on to cover the invasion of Sicily.
Also, the invasion of Italy. And coming up against some tough, tough situations during his travels. And finally kind of he was beating the odds quite a bit in the Pacific, but he finally fell and was wounded severely by a German shell in Italy. And after that, after writing Guadalcanal Diary, which was a bestseller, Invasion Diary which was also a bestselling book about his time in Sicily and Italy, you’d think he had done enough, particularly being very severely wounded as he was.
But he went back into action, you know, he had to see for himself, as one of his friends, Robert Considine, said. Both of them wrote for the International News Service during the war. So, that was what drew me to him and to his life and to his exploits during the war.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and that’s a great way to kind of open this up, because I was thinking, as I was reading your book, I teach journalism, and when my students are writing feature stories, I always remind them –
– “Ask sources about their motivations. Why does that person do what they do?” And as you were just describing, why would Tregaskis risk his life, time and again? He must’ve thought this was very important. So, to that point, your book opens with a quote from his Invasion Diary, in 1943, that may tell us a little about his motivation in war reporting. He says, quote, “The lure of the front is like an opiate. After abstinence and the tedium of workaday life, its attraction becomes more and more insistent. Perhaps the hazards of battle, perhaps the danger itself, stir the imagination and give transcendent meanings to things ordinarily taken for granted,” end quote. So, what does that quote tell us about why he risked his life to cover the war? What can you tell us about his motivations?
Ray Boomhower: Well, he was motivated by a sense of duty really a double sense of duty. He was very patriotic and was very disappointed that, because of his height – he was probably one of the tallest war correspondents, more than 6’5″ –
– poor eyesight, and also, he was dealing with diabetes during the war. He had just learned right after Pearl Harbor was bombed that he suffered from this debilitating illness. So he was turned down by the draft, very disappointed in this, almost suicidal, he notes in his memoirs, and wanted to really, you know, do his bit for the war. He was able to do that as a war correspondent for the International News Service. He was going to originally be sent to Australia, but they decided to go ahead and send him to Hawaii to cover fleet operations there.
And I think he really wanted to have the experience of being in combat, get that down on paper, so that people back home would know the rigors that the men overseas were going through, what they were sacrificing for their country. And trying to get that on, down on paper –
– and, as best he could, despite the censorship of the day, get the stories of the fighting men back to the home front.
Nick Hirshon: And so, you’re mentioning the rigors that those men overseas were going through and different war correspondents had different styles of how they would do it, and Ernie Pyle was known for that very folksy style, as I was saying before. So I’m curious more about Tregaskis’ style here. He seemed to have more of that personal approach, and, of course, all of his books contain the word “diary,” as you mentioned, Guadalcanal Diary, Invasion Diary, Vietnam Diary. And while he was covering Guadalcanal, you talk in your book a little bit about this process, he carried these small notebooks in his pockets, and at the end of the day, gets to transfer his notes into this black gilt-edged diary every night. So, how was his style unique that way?
Ray Boomhower: What he tried to do, he was not someone you’re going to turn to for the big strategic view of the war, you know, what the plans were from the, like, General Marshal in Washington, D.C. You went to –
– Tregaskis because you wanted to experience the day-to-day rigors of battle, the day-to-day experiences of being near the frontlines or very close to the frontlines as he could. As you said, you know, you needed to get upfront and get as close as you could to the action. You know, war can be exciting as anything in life, and it’s dangerous but you had to sometimes risk your life. He said, you know at least he’d get a good story in the process.
And so, what he would try to do is to go with the men at the front get their personal stories, and report on what he actually saw. So, when you’re reading his books, you’re experiencing what he experienced on a day-to-day basis. So, what you read is very accurate, because he’s only talking about what he’s seen personally. And I know that, I think it’s Richard Frank who wrote the major book on the Battle of Guadalcanal, he was talking about Tregaskis’ work –
– in Guadalcanal Diary, said it’s very, very accurate, because he’s only talking about what he saw personally. And so, he’s giving very intricate details about what he sees and what he experiences.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and we also hear a lot today about those day-to-day experiences of battle that reporters are trying to convey, but that’s complicated by the problem of lack of access and how do they work with soldiers and generals who may not always trust them, who may be wary of their motives. And just there’s, of course, logistical challenges, it’s a dangerous place, and how are you going to traverse all of these different battlefields. So, what can you tell us about that, you know, was he concerned about making sure that he is covering the war accurately and completely, if maybe the American forces that he’s traveling with are limiting his access to certain things? Or how was he working with those men in the field to try to get the most accurate picture as possible?
Ray Boomhower: Well, he had great luck, you know, he started out as a war correspondent very young –
– 26 years old, and his very first assignment overseas for the INS was covering the secret Doolittle raid, the bombing mission with Jimmy Doolittle’s pilots taking off in their B25 Mitchell bombers off the USS Hornet. So he’s on a nearby cruiser watching these bombers take off. He’s engaged on the Hornet in the crucial battle of Midway, and then he’s there for the first seven weeks of the Battle of Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division. And for a few weeks, was one of only two civilian reporters, along with Bob Miller of United Press, to be with the troops on Guadalcanal.
So he had a real knack for finding where the action was going to be. He was able to ingratiate himself with the troops because they knew that, you know, he was suffering along –
– with them. He was eating the same meals, the same bad rations that the Marines were eating on Guadalcanal, he was being shelled and suffering the shock of having the Japanese bomb them every night on the island so he suffered along with them. And he went along on various missions with the first Marine raiders on the deep strikes into Japanese-held territory. So that’s how he’s getting these stories. He’s finding the men who are doing the fighting, going along with them as best he could, and he really impressed soldiers both in the Pacific and also in Europe by his ability to report on the action and do it well.
And they said, you know, one of ‘em, soldiers, said to him, “Why are you doing this? It, you know, beats the hell out of me, you know, you don’t have to be here, but you’re here.” And he said, “Well, we, you know, of course we have to be here, you know, that’s, that’s our job,” and he saw it as his job to, uh –
– be in harm’s way along with the men doing the fighting.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, I mean, you’re describing how he certainly showed that bravery, and I guess that makes an impression on the soldiers around him. I’m wondering, then, what could a young reporter today learn from Tregaskis. Uh, you know, you described how he’s suffering the shock of having the Japanese bombing them every night, and so, he’s also, I guess, experiencing some of the same mental health challenges and emotional trauma that the people he’s covering are. How did he deal with that? And are there certain, you know, steps that you think he took that someone who now is interested in war correspondence life, you know, that they could also follow?
Ray Boomhower: I think being open to the experience being able to connect with the individual soldiers. Of course, it’s a little bit easier in World War II when everyone was on the same side, if you’re on the American side, you know, you’re fighting fascism –
– against Germany, you’re fighting the imperial Japanese empire so, you know, everyone’s on the same side. It gets a little dicier in other wars, particularly in Vietnam later on, when there’s questioning of, you know, “Should we really be here?” Well, that was not a question in World War II that Tregaskis and other correspondents had. They knew what they were doing for the most part. And so, Tregaskis was able to connect with these individual soldiers, and try to tell their stories as, as best he could.
Like Pyle, if you read his work, you’ll see that he gives, when he’s talking to a soldier or a Marine, he tries to give you their hometowns. That’s something that a lot of correspondents did, not just Ernie Pyle, although he’s best known for that. Uh, so he’s telling their stories, and I think they recognize the fact that he’s trying to –
– uh, put a human face on the war. If you were a soldier in World War II, you know, you’re one of just, you know, millions, you’re just a number on your dog tag, and so you appreciate those people who try to give you back your individuality, as Ernie Pyle did, as Robert Sherrod did, and as Tregaskis did as well.
Nick Hirshon: And I know you talk also, in the book, about a shift in the style of war reporting and journalism in general from when Tregaskis was reporting during World War II to Vietnam. So, what were some of these changes? Uh, you know, we talked about his very personal style, maybe the changes in access to the frontlines, and also, of course, there’s a big change in the way that Americans are receiving the war. In World War II, I imagine newspapers were the dominant form of information. There may have been newsreels and radio reporting, but I would think that, still, many people reading the newspapers. As we get closer to Vietnam, it’s more of a television war and – um, so –
– what are some of those challenges? How is he dealing with maybe that different popularity and media trying to keep his readers engaged?
Ray Boomhower: Well, of course, during the Vietnam War, he’s a little bit different in the fact that he’s not writing for a day-to-day newspaper audience. He’s going there to do a book on his experiences. So, he’s what I think some of the resident Saigon correspondents would call a paratrooper: he would paratroop in and do his reporting. He wasn’t there on a, you know, day-to-day basis as they were, so I think that’s where some of the tension comes later on when he’s there with reporters like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan with UPI Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, who were there, you know, dealing with their sources, they’re going out on a daily basis when they can to cover the fighting going on in, in the countryside –
– dealing with government and the repressive regime that was. And so they see Tregaskis coming in, you know being treated as a celebrity by MACV and the U.S. embassy, and giving this grand tour and giving the best of everything.
So I think they’re a little leery of him, and he’s a little leery of them because they’re not on the team, as it were. Uh, they’re questioning, sometimes the south Vietnamese government, and also American officials, you know, “Are we doing the right thing here in Vietnam?” And that’s something I think that’s why he clashed sometimes with those young reporters, who were, you know, his same age, at that time, and covering the Vietnam War as he was in World War II, but now he’s an older, more celebrated, more secure figure. And so some of those tensions come out in his writing about the Vietnam War, in his book Vietnam Diary.
And David Halberstam tells, you know, a famous story about taking Tregaskis, who was one of his heroes, you know, he had read his dispatches, as a young man, from World War II, taking him out and sharing his sources in the Mekong Delta. And they’re, they’re coming back from, from a long day of going from village to village, and Tregaskis says to Halberstam, “You know, if I were doing what you were doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.” And that’s something that really struck, that was, those words really hurt Halberstam more than some of the rockets he was getting from the folks at New York Times or from the U.S. embassy officials. So, there’s this clash of generations when it comes to the Vietnam War, between the young reporters and the reporters of the World War II generation.
Nick Hirshon: Sure, and I imagine some cynicism settling in after decades of covering war. And it’s very interesting to think of the breadth of Tregaskis’ career, here, that, you know, he’s covering two of these very differently received conflicts, and how, you know, World War II was obviously a much more popular war –
– at home than Vietnam. Um, like many journalists, Tregaskis also aspired to do more than just journalism. He had interests in poetry and fiction and screenwriting and – I’m curious about his non-journalistic pursuits. Uh, you know, you do discuss how he never stopped traveling, for instance, so, for major magazines such as Collier’s, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and, you know, you might think that he would be getting tired of some of these excursions after, you know, facing all these difficulties in the front. But he still seems very passionate about it, which is why I like to get into motivations.
And then, he also had this brief career as a screenwriter. So, what can you tell us about his non-war reporting career, some of these other writing pursuits?
Ray Boomhower: I think after World War II, he was struggling to find that same excitement that he experienced during the wartime. So, he was chasing that same, that same feeling in his various pursuits, including a brief stint in Hollywood. And he –
– was very lucky to make a career as a freelance writer, and to connect with True Magazine, for a time, where they send him around the world to find, you know, the perfect spot to settle down. So that gives him a wide range of ability to travel and report on various new countries and, and new experiences. Uh, but he never really, I think, caught that excitement and that feeling of belonging that he did in World War II. Uh, but he was able to make a career for himself; it cost him a couple of his marriages because, you know, you want someone at home, sometimes, if, if you’re a wife or a loved one.
And he’s out and gone for months at a time, and that put a big strain on his marriages. He was finally able to settle down a bit near the end of his life, in Hawaii. Uh, he married for a third time to Moana Tregaskis –
– who just recently passed away, who was a big help when I was writing my book. And she went along with him as his photographer, so they kind of coordinated. He taught her how to become kind of a war correspondent, depended on her for her photographs to go along with his articles that he wrote on a freelance basis. So, they were quite a good team, they made a good team, particularly.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and you mention, now some of the reporting that you did for your own book. You know, Tregaskis died in 1973, decades before you were really working on this project, and so I imagine that many of his contemporaries, at least from the early years of his career, were not around, you know, from World War II. But you do talk about his, you know, his wife being around. Can you talk about that research process? Uh, obviously, when you’re writing about journalists, you have their work itself, what was being published in the newspaper, and that’s a great help. You had his books. Um, I know there was some archival research that you were doing, too. But were there, were there people around –
– still, who were able to offer any insights, or any other sorts of nontraditional sources you were using?
Ray Boomhower: Not really. I had to really depend on the archival record, and that’s key, of course, if you’re doing any kind of nonfictional writing, particularly biography, you have to go to the source. And I was lucky in that he left behind a treasure trove of documents to look into. Uh, there’s a collection at the Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, not too surprising, because he’s a Harvard grad, so it makes sense that his some of his papers ended up in the Boston area. Uh, but I was also a little surprised to see that a large trove of his materials is at the University of Wyoming, in the American Heritage center out there. And that was a great resource, because I found that he had started before he died a memoir about his life.
And he had finished it up to his time on Guadalcanal. So that was a great resource, because there was not a lot of material about his early days as a young man growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and his, you know, his experiences with his family. And how he became a reporter working. Uh, even when he was in some private schools, growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he was able to support himself by writing for a variety of Boston-area newspapers. He wanted to be a reporter, went to Harvard and wrote for Boston-area newspapers, while he was there reporting on news from that university. And finally was able to connect with some Boston newspapers, went to International News Service, which was the kind of the low man on the totem pole when it came to news services at that time period.
You had AP at the top, United Press kinda –
– in the middle, and the International News Service was the little stepchild trying to compete with the bigger organizations. Where you had one man, where AP might send ten people to cover a story, UP would send, like, four or five, and you had one person from the INS trying to cover a large area to get their readers’ attention for their newspapers across the country. And it was great also, because he wrote for the INS, that I could use newspapers.com, don’t have to rely on the old-fashioned microfilm get myself a headache by scrolling through these old newspapers, but can just go online. And his dispatches, you know, are read all over the country, and that was a great thing, because back then, you, of course, you didn’t have television, you might have some radio broadcasts with news from the front.
Uh, but most people who were living in the United States –
– depended on people like Pyle, like Tregaskis, to get their war news. And so that was a great resource to have. You can see how someone in Wyoming, someone in Massachusetts, someone in Michigan is reading his dispatches and getting information about what was going on in the war, from them.
Nick Hirshon: Well, it’s interesting, though, ’cause you’re talking about his far-reaching impact and that people across the country are reading his work, and I wonder, why did no one else choose to write a biography about him earlier than you? You mentioned some of the deterrents, like, okay, people didn’t wanna go through microfilm and scroll and scroll. And now a lot of the stuff has been digitized in more recent years, and maybe, you know, just some people for whatever reason, they focus on more popular war correspondents like Pyle and – but do you have any sense of why someone who was so well-read at the time and seemed to have such an impact on his readers didn’t have –
– a biography before you came around?
Ray Boomhower: Probably because he tells his story so well in his own books that you get a lot of detail from if reading Guadalcanal Diary, if you read Invasion Diary, you think, “Well, that’s the story right there, he’s telling the story there.” But there’s a lot more to find if you go into the actual archives and really dig into them, and so, there’s a lot more to tell. And he had, you know, a wide-ranging career that’s not covered in the book. Even after he’s wounded, you know, and returns to Europe covers the Battle of Aachen in Germany – his nerves are on edge because of his wounding in Italy but was able to report on the war after the invasion of D-Day. Returned to the United States and you think, “Well, this is it, you know, he’s done all he could.”
But the editors at the Saturday Evening Post, uncovered these variety of articles he did for that –
– national magazine, which was, you know, the magazine, at that time, a little – still operating today, but not, doesn’t have the scope that it had back then. You know, and they ask him to go back to the Pacific, you know, to follow this crew of a B29 bomber from the United States all the way to Guam, and then on bombing missions against Japan. And they ask him, you know, “Do you really wanna go?” and he said, “Not really, but I think I have to go.” And he went, and he went back, so that’s what really impressed me about him.
Nick Hirshon: His story does seem inspirational in the sense of somebody who faced a lot of, you mentioned, physical challenges with his diabetes diagnosis, of course, getting injured in the war. And then, consistently, though, over the course of decades, wanting to go back, feeling that there was some sort of a mission that he faced to bring this information home. And that’s, I think, you know, should motivate a lot of young reporters today who are covering conflict or aspiring to cover very difficult –
– themes at a time when journalism is under attack, certainly in our country. So as we kind of wrap up our interview, and we thank you so much for being on the podcast today, I just want to post a question to you that we ask all our guests on the podcast: Why does journalism history matter?
Ray Boomhower: I think it matters because, you know, it’s the hoary old thing, you know, the first rough draft of history. And I think that’s still true. Uh, I think that as my next subject talked about in, in his work, I’m doing a book on Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and his time in Vietnam, he said, you know there’s this battle between truth-tellers and truth-suppressers. And he wanted to be on the side of the truth-tellers, and getting that information to the American public, so they can decide for themselves on, you know, what’s actually going on. And that you have to have, you know, that sense for the truth, as well as –
– uh, the willingness to have what do you call it, muddy boots, to go out there, actually get your, you know, boots muddy going out there, slogging through the rice paddies, as he did in the Vietnam War, or the jungles of Guadalcanal, as Tregaskis did in World War II, to get that story and get it back to the public.
Nick Hirshon: Well, well said. We really appreciate your time here today. The book, again, is Richard Tregaskis Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam, from the University of New Mexico Press. The author is Ray Boomhower. Thanks, again, Ray, for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Ray Boomhower: Thank you, Nick, it was great.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: goodnight and good luck.