WW II Correspondent

Front Line to Front Pages

The by-lines of John Steinbeck During WWII

by Felicia M. Preece, MA - University of Toledo

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Created after the First World War, the Geneva Convention was an agreement between countries regarding the rules of warfare. These rules attempted to make war as humane as possible and protect the basic rights of anyone involved in future wars. Under the First through Third Geneva Conventions, the journalist was given the same treatment as actual members of the armed forces. If a correspondent was sick, wounded, or captured, they were to be treated with the same regulations as though they were an actual soldier. The correspondent, however, was not to actively engage in combat, carry weapons, or direct the troops (icrc.com). They were intended to be the all-seeing and silent eye of the unit: reporting events and important (but not classified) information to the folks back home. Often, these rules were broken under times of great duress; it was not uncommon for a correspondent to be asked to take up arms if the unit were under heavy fire. One correspondent, Bill Walton, recalled his experience on D-Day. During his briefing, the commanding officer told him he would be issued weapons. Walton, in an attempt to uphold the Geneva Convention, protested. The officer insisted anyone traveling with his unit would be fully armed. Walton went on to admit there were times when he did more than simply carry arms. "Every now and then" he said "in a very tight situation, an officer would hand me arms and say, 'For Christ's sake HELP!' you know. And we didn't advertise this. We never discussed this" (Coté 102). Whether or not Steinbeck was ever in the position to switch from a mere observer to an active participant cannot be found within his dispatches.

During World War II, the most popular type of article being printed in the United States was the human-interest piece. The human-interest style of journalism was popularized by Ernie Pyle, a reporter/war-correspondent who focused on individual soldiers' stories and considered Steinbeck a literary hero of his. Many journalists, following in the footsteps of Pyle attempted to get in close with the infantry and write the stories which they felt accurately represented what was happening on the front. The dispatches sent back from the European theaters were all Americans, separated from the many of the realities of war, had to inform them beyond official notices from the White House. White House announcements were vague, often only listing names of battles, the outcome, and information regarding casualties, whereas the human interest pieces made famous by Pyle focused on individual soldiers and units, using full names and hometowns to humanize those fighting. These articles did not attempt to valorize the soldiers but rather show them as people with hopes, fears, and quirks.John Steinbeck with a captured Nazi flag

Aside from showing the human side of the war, these articles were a way for those back home to hear about how their loved ones were doing. Steinbeck wondered if perhaps the greatest grievance of the soldiers was the problems with the postal service. It might take weeks for a letter from either the States or the front to make it to its destination. By publishing the names of individuals or their units, the soldiers became local heroes and their current safety was established.

For Steinbeck, there was no glitz and glamour to being a correspondent. His name still promised paper sales, but his function was much more subdued compared to other "celebrity correspondents." Correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck, and even Pyle brought a greater readership to the papers back home; however, this was not the only reason they were particularly valuable during the war. Because of their celebrity statuses, these men were able to see more, talk to more people, and do more than the average correspondent. Pyle as the exception (his fame came from his journalism during the war, while "celebrity" correspondents were famous for other reasons before the war), this celebrity status seemed to help in many situations, except in gaining the respect of the other correspondents. Steinbeck, who never had a successful journalism career, was considered under qualified and inexperienced.

Steinbeck spent the early months of 1943 moving to New York, marrying his second wife, Gwyn, applying for and being rejected for several OWI (Office of War Information, a precursor to the CIA) commissions, and finally attempting to find any excuse possible to get to Europe. After his last attempt to secure OWI approval to make a film (for use as propaganda) in England fell through, Steinbeck appealed to his friend Lewis Garnett to help him get a position with the New York Herald Tribune as a correspondent. This job would "not only give him the opportunity to taste the action that he now craved, but would also finally free him from all the petty jealousies and all the red tape that had been throttling his work for the government" (Simmonds 165). After receiving the final accreditations from the paper, the War and State Departments, and the commander of the North European Theater, Steinbeck was cleared to head to England. The plan was that he would be sent to England to cover the preparation of troops to be sent to the Second Front and to remain with them when the invasion occurred. He would submit five hundred to a thousand words per day on whatever topics he chose (Simmonds 166). The draft board in Monterey, California still had to release Steinbeck so that he could sail for London. While the State Department of California took their time processing Steinbeck's draft release request, he applied for and received his passport. By the end of May, he would be on a troopship headed for London.

It did not take long for Steinbeck to discover the animosity felt towards him by the other correspondents. It seemed to the rest of the correspondents that Steinbeck's entry into the war was a mere publicity stunt and it was obvious he was an amateur in the field. Steinbeck never wanted to cause problems or draw attention to himself, he had no interest in encroaching on the space of his fellow correspondents either; all he wanted to do was write "the sort of stories they [the other correspondents] had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to cover" (Simmonds 172). The London Daily Express, in announcing the forthcoming articles of Steinbeck's, wrote that Steinbeck would be "looking at the war not with the object of giving you the latest news and giving it to you quickly, but from the point of view of the man in the ranks" (Simmonds 172). The Herald Tribune happily wrote that Steinbeck's articles were exceeding expectations and that Reader's Digest paid a handsome sum for the rights to reprint them. For the four and a half months Steinbeck was in Europe, he traveled throughout England, North Africa, and Italy. His articles focused on the daily routines of the soldiers, their habits and superstitions, as well as anecdotes about what it was like to be in countries so directly affected by the war.

The tone and style of Steinbeck's articles from the war reflect the style he had developed from his earlier writings such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The prose is clear and concise and lacking in extremely flowery language. He employs few metaphors, choosing instead to adhere to the decade old adages of Imagism: the direct treatment of the thing is always best. His sentences are not complex, he does not use contractions, and he does not use inappropriately large words. This style is particularly important to Steinbeck's correspondent work because it allowed his readership to understand and connect with his stories. Families from the backstreets to Wall Street could identify with, and understand, what Steinbeck was trying to portray.

Steinbeck had already shown he was capable of writing wartime propaganda. His novel-turned-play-turned movie, The Moon is Down, as well as Bombs Away! both focus on the war from different perspectives. While The Moon is Down was specifically written as a propaganda piece and while Steinbeck had been trying to get permission from the US and British governments to make a propaganda film, it is not clear that he specifically intended his news articles to be taken as such. Regardless of intent, these articles gave the people back home faith in their troops as well as the overall cause. By showing the soldiers as humanely as he did, Steinbeck created images of the war that people could connect with.

In one dispatch, Steinbeck shares a story about a soldier who recovered a large, ornate mirror from a bombed out house and how he took great measures to transport the mirror and keep it safe. Even while on the front line, Steinbeck shows, the soldiers can still see beauty and they are still able to think about their lives back home. The soldier's mirror eventually breaks and his response is simply that he supposed it wouldn't have looked good in his house back home, anyways (Steinbeck 168-170). This story includes several important notes on the war – the hardships of being on the front lines, observing first-hand the ruins of bombed cities, and the sense that things (or people) coming back home from the war might not acclimate well into a society which had been touched far less by the war. Aside from these sometimes more subtle themes, Steinbeck's articles reminded readers exactly who was fighting the war: neighbors, sons, brothers, husbands; not faceless, emotionless, fearless, thoughtless drones. The portraits Steinbeck paints of the soldiers he is with gave people back home heroes they could root for.

The newspapers were already filled with articles loaded with technical language and names of places which meant little to the average American. Steinbeck provided readers with articles which were quite different from the work of most other correspondents. Steinbeck's attention to detail and his ability to create a vivid picture of what it was like to be among the common soldiers gave his audience an image of war that could almost make them forget there was a war. Indeed, once his articles were collected and published, he wrote in the Introduction "[o]nce upon a time there was a war, but so long ago and so shouldered out of the way by other wars and other kinds of wars that even people who were there were apt to forget" (Steinbeck ix).

The role of the war correspondent, in general, served to inform the general population of things which might have been difficult to understand. Most Americans had never traveled to Europe, some had only a vague idea of where these important battles were taking place. The correspondent had to ensure that their audience was able to understand not only what was happening, but also why. Their job was to build the morale of every citizen during wartime, to gain support for the war effort, and to give the people the hope they needed to carry on. Correspondents whose work gained them fame, like Ernie Pyle, and writers whose fame was already known before they picked up their portable typewriter and sailed for Europe were able to reach a wider audience than the average correspondent. With writings like Steinbeck's, the war became more than statistics, more than body counts and name and place name dropping. The war became a real event, with real people. Even though most people never saw what was happening on the front lines, they were still able to feel its effect and imagine the scenes Steinbeck created with words.


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