Honoring Reporters And Recorders Of World War II

A National Portrait Gallery exhibit showcases journalism's critical role with photos, artwork, videos, and cartoons

BY 1939, five major daily newspapers had fully-staffed European offices and over 700 Associated Press, International News Service, and United Press reporters were overseas: The print, photo, and radio reporting of World War II was responsible for bringing the war home to the American people.

``It is hard to recapture the flavor of that time for generations with a different view of patriotism and national purpose, and a far more negative view of warfare as a national undertaking than was prevalent in the 1940s,'' writes Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery. Indeed, reporting the war was part of this national undertaking.

For the generation now reaching adulthood - too young to remember even the Vietnam War - timely war reportage has become the realm of television.

``Up-to-date'' now is equated with live coverage, as seen during the Gulf war. In light of modern media, it may be difficult to grasp the pivotal role newspaper correspondents played in shaping the public's sentiment about World War II. ``Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II,'' an exhibit of artifacts, photos, paintings, posters, videos, and cartoons, succeeds in capturing the flavor of that time, and journalism's role in the war.

The wartime sacrifices the public was asked to make were far-reaching during World War II: shortages of food, clothing, appliances - not to mention a national draft. ``One of the fundamental components of this exceptional national discipline was the role of the press and the other communications media in keeping the American public informed about the war, so that they could understand why they were being made to undergo such considerable sacrifices,'' Mr. Fern observes.

Many reporters and their editors found it difficult to maintain their integrity (and to maintain their restraint in wanting to scoop other papers) while refraining from publishing information useful to the enemy. Often, exact locations, accurate casualty reports, names of ships, and the size of fleets and troops could not be reported.

Between the Office of Censorship (which encouraged self-censorship) and the Office of War Information, the government tried to maintain security.

Foreign censorship also thwarted many reporters, who became frustrated when they could not report a complete and honest story.

William Shirer, a radio correspondent for CBS in Berlin, had promised himself that he would only stay as long as he could report enough of the story to make the truth. Eventually, German censorship eliminated so much of his broadcasts that he resigned. Shirer recalls on video receiving a telegram from CBS radio management: ```Shirer, we want you to remain in Berlin even if all you do is to broadcast Nazi communiques.' Well, I picked up the phone immediately through Geneva and said, `You've got to get somebody else to read Nazi communiques. You can get anybody to do that, not I.''

For women, World War II offered growing journalistic opportunities. Though women were discouraged from covering combat, they were able to gain a toehold in their coverage of hospitals and human-interest stories. Some pushed the limits until they were able to cover bombing missions and add their own tactical analysis of what was considered a ``masculine matter.''

Helen Kirkpatrick, later a leading war journalist, turned down a job after college at the New York Herald Tribune when she was told that, as a woman, her career prospects in journalism were not good. After a stint at Macy's department store, Kirkpatrick moved to Europe and began freelancing. She ultimately became a top reporter at the Chicago Daily News, which often promoted its papers with advertisements like ``Read Helen Kirkpatrick's Reports on the Invasion.''

Particularly enlightening are videos of various correspondents' recollections. Bill Mauldin, the young and sometimes controversial cartoonist for the Army's daily newspaper ``Stars and Stripes'' recalls his role in portraying the war, which eventually occasioned a summons from General George Patton. ``... He got up from behind this desk and came around and shook my hand. I thought, all right, we're off to a good start here,'' Mauldin says. ``And then he went to work on me and spent about 45 minutes [scolding me.]'' But Mauldin, who originally joined the Army to further his art career, felt a responsibility to relating the world of the enlisted soldier, regardless of Patton's objections to portrayal of comic scruffiness and insubordination. ``They needed reading material,'' Mauldin says. ``I mean they would get absorbed in the printing on a K-ration box, you know, because there was nothing to read. And so I pitched to them strictly, I made no bones about it.''

Not only was reporting the war an intellectual challenge - how best to write a truthful story - but it was also a physical challenge - how to do one's work while facing the same perils as soldiers.

Photographer Carl Mydans and his wife, Shelley, a writer, spent 21 months as prisoners of war, first in the Philippines, and then in Shanghai. Ernie Pyle, a syndicated columnist and a favorite of the soldiers about whom he wrote, died in sniper fire in Okinawa.

``Reporting the War'' illustrates the lives of those reporters, photographers, broadcasters, and artists who covered World War II.

The examples of their work - from Margaret Bourke-White's photo of the fiery German air raid over Moscow to Tom Lea's haunting portrayal on canvas of a weary soldier - give perspective to today's war coverage and add to understanding of an era past.

* `Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II' is at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington through Sept. 5.

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