Covering World War II in the Pacific: Richard Johnston “could scarcely believe he had survived being such an inviting target when wading ashore with his typewriter clutched above his head.”

From a Wall street Journal review by Jonathan W. Jordan of Steven Casey’s book “The War Beat, Pacific.”:

The immense scope of World War II ignited an explosion of rock stars with typewriters. Ernest Hemingway, who drank, loved and fought his way through France and Germany, remains the heavyweight champ of war-reporter fame, but others proved more influential. CBS News’s Edward R. Murrow became so respected during the London Blitz that several journalism awards and a university center are named for him. Walter Cronkite, a guest on bombing runs over Germany, became the most trusted man in America. Photojournalist Robert Capa immortalized D-Day’s terrors through the lens of a camera.

These men cemented their reputations in Europe. The Pacific War, by contrast, with its strange names, oceanic expanses and appalling hardships, was a theater where a reporter’s voice could be lost amid war’s roar. Few writers became household names. Boxed in by tight censorship rules and isolated on distant shores, Pacific War correspondents struggled to bring war’s grim reality to the public they served.

Steven Casey’s “The War Beat, Pacific” recounts the toils of the Americans behind the dispatches on the long road from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay. Beginning with the reflexive shroud of censorship that fell over the nation on Dec. 7, 1941, Mr. Casey describes an uneasy triangle among the military brass, the war reporters and their newspaper editors back home. At the senior level, “War Beat” presents leaders like Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Navy’s chief, Adm. Ernest King, in a conventional light. The vainglorious MacArthur “always enjoyed seeing his name in print,” while the tight-lipped King would have preferred to release no information except to announce Japan’s surrender.

In the dark days of December 1941, MacArthur issued wildly optimistic communiqués, and his headquarters, starved for victories, pressured correspondents to toe the general’s line. After one Japanese bombing raid on Manila, a group of correspondents “saw burning wooden shacks, dead civilians, and indescribable damage to vital military installations,” Mr. Casey notes. “But when it came time to write up their stories, they willingly followed MacArthur’s lead and focused on the U.S. response.”

While the Army and Marines gave reporters unprecedented access to the front lines in the war’s early months, getting to the scene of battle could be surprisingly difficult….Even understanding the outcome of a battle proved challenging….

As the war progressed, dangers grew. Time magazine’s Robert Sherrod, who rode in with the Marines at Tarawa, an atoll in the Central Pacific and the site of a ferocious battle late in 1943, “could see dead bodies everywhere,” Mr. Casey writes. Richard Johnston of the United Press “could scarcely believe he had survived, having presented such an inviting target when wading ashore with his typewriter clutched above his head.” To immortalize six Marines and a flag atop Iwo Jima, Associated Press cameraman Joe Rosenthal dashed through a hail of fire “so intense that Rosenthal could scarcely believe that he had made it through alive.” Not all did; Ernie Pyle, the war’s most famous frontline reporter, took a bullet to his head while pinned down by Japanese machine-gun fire.

Army and Navy censors were an obvious obstacle to the flow of information home, but loss of reportage was not always the military’s fault. Other problems were ingrained in a news industry unprepared for the complexity and scope of a global war. Reporting on a long campaign, Mr. Casey explains, rarely promoted a writer’s career. “Once the invasion-day excitement had abated, seasoned war correspondents faced a dilemma,” he writes. “They knew that their assault stories would be the ones to make it onto the front page. After that, the interest of most editors would start to wane, even though the campaign would invariably drag on.”…

Though salted with vignettes of war’s perils, “The War Beat, Pacific” doesn’t attempt a deep dive into the lives of the Pacific Theater reporters. Mr. Casey… focuses “on uncovering the main contours of what actually made it into print.” There was often a disconnect, he writes, “between the peculiarly savage combat that the reporters observed and the relatively anodyne stories that their editors published—a disconnect that was crucial because it shaped how the home front perceived so much of the fighting in this distant war.” What “The War Beat, Pacific” occasionally lacks in smoke-and-fire adrenaline, it makes up for in thought-provoking analysis of how America learned about war.

Jonathan W. Jordan is the author of “American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II.”

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