Chronicling the War
World War II was one of the most thoroughly reported military events of the twentieth century. Print and radio journalists, photographers, cinematographers, and even cartoonists captured every aspect of the war in every theater — very often at the risk of their own lives. And after the war, novelists such as Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller used their military experiences as fodder for some of the postwar era's best fiction.
A handful of television shows have used the war as a backdrop. The best known is Hogan's Heroes, which began in 1965. The show, featuring Allied troops in a POW camp guarded by bumbling Germans, played the war for laughs. More recently, the HBO series Band of Brothers examined the lives of soldiers in Easy Company, members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, U.S. 101st Airborne Division.
An estimated 700 American correspondents (including twenty-four women) covered World War II for newspapers, magazines, and radio. The war was front page news almost every day, and journalists scrambled to cover stories both large and small. The Normandy invasion alone was chronicled by an estimated 500 American reporters and photographers.
Most war correspondents covered the war from the command posts, getting their information from commanding officers and military liaisons. But a great many realized that the best stories involved the soldiers fighting on the front lines, so that's where they went, pen and camera in hand, eager to capture the sights and sounds of combat. Most of these correspondents remained relatively anonymous, but some became famous for their coverage of the war. One of the best known was Ernie Pyle, a writer for United Features Syndicate. Pyle was a friend of the common soldier and was well liked and respected by the servicemen he met and covered. So was Raymond Clapper of Scripps-Howard, whose articles were syndicated to nearly 180 newspapers throughout the United States. Sadly, both men were killed during the war: Pyle by an enemy sniper and Clapper when the plane he was riding in collided with another.
The job of war correspondent was extremely hazardous because the enemy made no distinction between journalist and soldier. A total of thirty-eight accredited war correspondents were killed by enemy fire over the course of the war, and thirty-six were wounded.
Print journalists chronicled the war, but it was radio that really brought the full horror of it into the living room of the average American. Few who heard it can forget CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow's solemn reporting of the Battle of Britain, conducted from the London rooftops as German bombers delivered their deadly loads. Murrow described not only the military aspect of the war in Europe but also its toll on the individual.
World War II was also the first war to be thoroughly documented in motion pictures. The U.S. military used numerous cinematographers to film battles, troop movements, and other events for later review, but Hollywood also got into the act. Indeed, some of its best known directors took camera in hand to film the action as it occurred. From this sprang an entire movie subgenre known as the war documentary. John Ford, for example, served with Major General William Donovan as head of the Field Photographic Branch and directed the documentary The Battle of Midway (1942), which combined actual battle footage with staged scenes. Ford also filmed footage from a PT boat during the Normandy invasion.
Of the many correspondents who covered World War II, none were better known than Ernie Pyle. His specialty was profiling average soldiers just trying to survive from one day to the next. Through his writing, Pyle showed America both the simple joys and the numbing horrors of World War II. Pyle's columns were published in nearly 300 American newspapers and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943.
John Huston was another famous director who lent his talents to covering the war, producing Report from the Aleutians in 1943 and The Battle of San Pietro in 1944. These documentary shorts brought the graphic reality of combat home to many Americans for the first time.
War reporting was as much propaganda as it was journalism. Reports from the front were subject to military censorship, though in general there was little need to edit because most journalists believed that their job was to maintain morale as well as to report the facts. As a result, bad news, such as reports of atrocities committed by Allied forces, was so rare as to be nonexistent.
Unfortunately, racism was rampant in most news reports — as it was in almost all forms of wartime media. Japanese forces, for example, were routinely referred to as “Japs” and described as being less than human. In the years after the war, many correspondents said they had come to regret those descriptions.