In the fall of 1943, armed with only his notebooks and pencils, Time and Life correspondent Robert L. Sherrod leapt from the safety of a landing craft and waded through neck-deep water and a hail of bullets to reach the shores of the Tarawa Atoll with the US Marine Corps. Living shoulder to shoulder with the marines, Sherrod chronicled combat and the marines’ day-to-day struggles as they leapfrogged across the Central Pacific, battling the Japanese on Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. While the marines courageously and doggedly confronted an enemy that at times seemed invincible, those left behind on the American home front desperately scanned Sherrod’s columns for news of their loved ones. Following his death in 1994, the Washington Post heralded Sherrod’s reporting as "some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist." Now, for the first time, author Ray E. Boomhower tells the story of the journalist in Dispatches from the Pacific: The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod, an intimate account of the war efforts on the Pacific front.
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About the Author
Ray E. Boomhower has written books on the lives of Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, May Wright Sewall, and John Bartlow Martin. He is Senior Editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press and 2010 winner of the Regional Award in the annual Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards.
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THE WAR CORRESPONDENT
The men aboard the US Navy's Harris-class attack transport USS Zeilin (named for Jacob Zeilin, the seventh commandant of the US Marine Corps), on its way to an operation in the Central Pacific in the fall of 1943, had few options for relaxation on their voyage. They played cards, read dog-eared magazines, watched movies, and slept, which one observer noted they could do "at any time in any position on almost any given surface," including in their bunks, under landing boats, and on the ship's deck. As they neared their combat assignment, the 1,692 enlisted men and 96 officers of the Second Battalion of the Second Marine Division who had called the haze-gray ship their home for nearly a week busied themselves with the necessary chores for battle. They meticulously cleaned their Garand M-1 semiautomatic rifles, M-1 carbines, shotguns, and Browning automatic rifles and sharpened their bayonets. They also pared down their loads to the essential equipment they needed to carry — ammunition, canteens, entrenching tool, KA-BAR knife, field rations, medical kit, and poncho — for the planned November 20 assault against the bird-shaped, reef-fringed island of Betio (given the codename Helen) in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, located approximately eight miles north of the equator. With their equipment squared away, the marines wrote what might be their final letters to their loved ones in the United States, studied aerial photographs of the island, wandered down to the Zeilin's wardroom to conduct last-minute studies of a table-mounted relief map of Betio, and morbidly joked with one another about their chances against the approximately 4,800 enemy troops defending the island under the command of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki of the Imperial Japanese Navy. "Hey Bill," one marine called to a friend, "I just remembered I owe you a pack of cigarettes. I want to pay you before we get killed. Say, you want to buy a good watch?" Offhandedly, Bill replied, "We'll get that watch off you on the way back."
The night before the marines of the Second Battalion were scheduled to hit their designated target — Red Beach 2 — as part of what had been designated Operation Galvanic by navy officials, the enlisted men started eating their "breakfast" of steak and eggs (a traditional British meal the marines had come to enjoy while stationed in New Zealand) with fried potatoes at 10:00 p.m., while their officers ate at midnight. Thinking of the battle ahead and the inevitable resulting casualties, a navy surgeon griped, "Jesus, that will make a nice lot of guts to have to sew up — full of steak." In spite of the oppressive heat of the close quarters on the ship that left the men "swimming in sweat," they washed down their meal with steaming cups of coffee. While a large group of about 500 marines knelt in the wardroom for a Catholic mass given by Father F. W. Kelly, another member of the ship's company made his way to his junior staff officers' bunkroom to make his own preparations for hitting the beach.
Robert Lee Sherrod, a reporter covering the fighting in the Pacific for both Time and Life magazines, the flagship publications of Henry Luce's media empire, had seen fighting before this operation. Sherrod covered the ultimately successful attempt by US Army soldiers to wrest control of the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands chain in the Alaska Territory from the Japanese — a campaign that during its early stages "was not well handled," he noted. Now, however, for the first time, he was with the marines, many of whom were veterans of the recently completed Guadalcanal battle. A former political reporter based out of Washington, DC, and a veteran journalist, Sherrod had turned his attention to military affairs as the United States inched closer and closer to involvement in World War II in the early 1940s. He had been "horrified" when Congress, in the summer of 1941, had come within one vote of rejecting President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call to extend the term of duty for draftees beyond twelve months. Sherrod had lobbied his editors in New York to be allowed to join the Tarawa task force because he was convinced that the Central Pacific would be the main news story of the Pacific War, and, as all reporters desired, he wanted to be there to cover the action. (He was also glad to be away from the miserable Aleutian weather, consoling himself that there would not be any snow or fog near the equator.) Because the toughest battles always made the best stories, he noted, and his job involved producing those kinds of stories, he, naturally, "followed the Leathernecks."
During his voyage on the transport, the thirty-four-year-old Sherrod, the father of two young boys, spent the bulk of his time studying the marines. To him, they looked just like any other "ordinary, healthy young Americans." The Second Battalion men — most of whom were more than a decade younger than the correspondent — represented a cross section of America. In civilian life they had been farmers, truck drivers, lawyers, and college students, and among them were both rich men's sons and runaways from troubled homes. Although the marines came from the same places and used much of the same equipment as their GI counterparts, they had earned for themselves a reputation for excellence when it came to fighting ability and a tendency toward bravado. When a reporter had asked a Second Marine Division rifleman if he felt afraid before the invasion of Betio, he had a simple answer: "Hell no, I'm a Marine."
Sherrod had been impressed by what he had seen of the marines during their time together on the Zeilin. Earlier in the war he had questioned whether or not young Americans had the heart to fight, but on the transport he came to understand that the marines fought almost exclusively on esprit de corps. "It was inconceivable to most Marines that they should let another Marine down," he said, "or that they could be responsible for dimming the bright reputation of their corps." He believed that it came down to a simple fact: the marines "didn't know what to believe in ... except the Marine Corps." He added that the marines always assumed they were "the world's best fighting men." This confidence in their own abilities was often resented by those in other branches of the service, who viewed the men in the corps as arrogant. However, the marines' brashness "paid off in battle," said Sherrod.
A few hours before "breakfast," Sherrod had gone to the cramped room ("a hell hole," as he later described the accommodations) he shared with six junior officers and fellow correspondent William Hipple of the Associated Press. One of eighty Time Inc. reporters to file dispatches during the war, Sherrod found his helmet and placed inside it folded sheets of toilet paper and a jungle-green mosquito head-net. He also stuffed rations in the pockets of his green Marine Corps dungarees, filled two canteens with water, and stowed away two morphine syrettes and a two-ounce bottle of medicinal brandy supplied to him by one of the transport's surgeons. Worried that if he were killed the Japanese might learn something valuable from the notes he had already jotted down during the voyage, he made sure to pack two fresh notebooks for his observations about the fighting on Betio. "My barracks bag, which contained all my clothing except what I wore, and my typewriter, I left to be brought ashore at some indefinite date — when the island was ours," he recalled. At about 8:30 p.m., Sherrod and his roommates turned out the light in their cabin and tried to get a little sleep. But the correspondent could not drift off and spent his time smoking cigarette after cigarette, hoping that lighting them did not awaken the others. He need not have worried. "When we were called at ten minutes before midnight, we all observed that we had been as wide-awake as a two-months-old baby yelling for his six-o'clock bottle," Sherrod remembered. The excitement about the landing had been too much for most of them. They all half-believed (Sherrod nine-tenths believed) that the Japanese had evacuated Betio, as enemy forces had done on Kiska in the Aleutians after Attu had fallen to the Americans. "But there was the possibility ...," he added. Sherrod confessed in his notes at the time that if there were a large number of enemy on the island, he would be "utterly unprepared psychologically."
Sherrod knew what might face the marines as they churned ashore. During the early days of the war in the Pacific, when the Japanese had looked to be invincible, he had reported from Australia at a time when the enemy "could have walked in and taken the place," he noted. "It would have been a pushover." From Australia, he had traveled to the vital Allied air base at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea just in time to endure its seventy-third bombing by Japanese planes. He had miraculously escaped death during action on Attu in the Aleutians, a place so cold and miserable that soldiers who served there had lost the will to live, according to Sherrod. A navy surgeon, Captain Harold Rosenthal from Poughkeepsie, New York, had coaxed the reporter out of the tent he shared with officers and men of the US Army's Seventeenth Infantry Regiment of the Seventh Infantry Division with the promise of a hot meal, a shower, and a drink of whiskey aboard an offshore transport. According to Jerry Hanifin, another Time war correspondent, Sherrod accepted the surgeon's offer with the understanding that he would return to rocky Attu the next day after he had finished writing a story for Life about a costly American attack in the mountains. Early the next morning, however, the remaining Japanese forces on the island unleashed a suicidal banzai charge on the Americans, many of whom were still asleep. In the resulting melee that saw normally noncombatant troops fighting hand-to-hand for their lives, every man in the squad to which Sherrod had been attached was killed; the correspondent noted that he had been "living on velvet" ever since. On another occasion, a voyage from Pearl Harbor to Efate Island in the New Hebrides, where he had joined the marines, Sherrod had traveled on the battleship USS Tennessee. Although no enemy ships had menaced the Tennessee during its travels, two of its crew, a seaman and a senior aviator, had been killed in separate accidents.
Nothing that had come before, however, could have prepared Sherrod for the carnage he witnessed on November 20 on Betio, which ultimately became for him "the acme of all my personal horror." On the morning of the invasion, the reporter stood on the Zeilin's deck to observe the awesome bombardment coming from the sixteen-inch guns of the armada's battleships, along with fire from the cruisers and destroyers of Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill's Task Force 53. A Japanese soldier cowering for cover on the island marveled at the bombardment, describing it as "a frightening and horrifying experience! It went on and on, without ceasing; the shriek and rumble of heavy shells and the terrific explosions." A score of US Navy aircraft from carriers also bombed and strafed enemy positions. "The sky at times was brighter than noontime on the equator," Sherrod observed. "The arching, glowing cinders that were high-explosive shells sailed through the air as though buckshot were being fired out of many shotguns from all sides of the island." Surely, Sherrod thought to himself as he viewed the spectacle unfolding before him, nothing could have survived after such an onslaught. After all, had not an American navy officer promised, "We do not intend to neutralize the island, we do not intend to destroy it, we will obliterate it"? (A more realistic assessment, however, had come from Major General Julian Smith, commander of the Second Marine Division, who noted, "Even though you navy officers do come in to about a thousand yards, I remind you that you have a little armor. I want you to know that Marines are crossing that beach with bayonets, and the only armor they will have is a khaki shirt.") Sherrod's hopes of an easy battle were dashed a half hour after dawn when a shell splashed into the water near a ship only thirty feet away from his transport. The correspondent believed that American warships were firing wide, but a marine major shook him back to reality when he said, "You don't think that's our own guns doing that shooting, do you?" For the first time, Sherrod realized there were Japanese still alive on Betio waiting for the enemy to come ashore and to fulfill their commander's pledge that "a million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years."
As the marines began to carefully climb down the embarkation nets along the side of the Zeilin to the landing craft waiting below, the ship's captain played "The Marines' Hymn" over the transport's public-address system, and the crew cheered. Scheduled to be part of the fifth wave to land at 6:35 that morning aboard the battalion executive officer's Higgins landing craft, Sherrod had a wet ride to the beachhead, as about half a barrel of water splashed over the boat's high bow every minute. The marines crammed aboard the landing craft were thoroughly soaked before they had made it a half-mile away from the Zeilin. To help ward off the sudden chill, Sherrod drank from the small bottle of brandy he had stowed away, sharing its contents with the grateful marine standing next to him. "If there was ever an occasion for taking a drink at seven o'clock in the morning this was it," said Sherrod. The shivering reporter added that his only memory of the first hour and a half of the ride toward the beach was of "sheer discomfort, alternating with exaltation." His excitement quickly turned to fear as his landing craft came under a barrage of Japanese mortar and automatic-weapons fire. "I gritted my teeth and tried to smile at the scared Marine next to me," Sherrod said. The coral reef surrounding the island was exposed, preventing his landing craft from disgorging its load directly onto the beach. The correspondent and the fifteen men with him had to wade ashore for about 700 yards in neck-deep water with about five to six machine guns firing at them, averaging several hundred bullets per man. "It was painfully slow, wading in such deep water," he said. Strangely, Sherrod realized as he struggled to find shelter on the beach that he was no longer afraid. "Perhaps it was when I noticed the bullets were hitting six inches to the right or six inches to the left," he recalled. "I remember laughing inside and saying, 'You Japs are certainly lousy shots.'" After the battle, he described this feeling to a marine officer he knew as his "hysteria period."
Although he made it onto the beach without a scratch, Sherrod remained in peril throughout the first day of the battle — the only one in his long experience of covering the war in the Pacific that he believed US forces might lose to the Japanese. Finding a semblance of safety alongside a coconut-log seawall constructed by the enemy, Sherrod watched as a Japanese artillery shell made a direct hit on a landing craft bringing many marines ashore. He could already faintly detect "the smell of death under the equator's sun" and watched, stunned, as a young marine about fifteen feet away from his position flinched as a bullet tore through his helmet. The marine survived; the bullet had missed his head. The first dead American the correspondent saw was a twenty-year-old crewman on a boat that had stalled on the beach during the first wave. "He had been shot through the head, had murmured, 'I think I'm hit, will you look?' and died," Sherrod reported. The first enemy soldier he spied ran out of a coconut-log, tank-turret blockhouse into which marines had tossed in dynamite charges. "As he came out a Marine with a flame thrower was waiting for him," Sherrod recalled. "As soon as the flame touched him the Jap flared up like a piece of celluloid. He died long before the bullets in his cartridge belt had finished exploding sixty seconds later."
Between those two incidents, thirty minutes apart, Sherrod witnessed what he called "the most gruesome sight" he had yet seen during the war. A young marine walked briskly down the beach and turned to grin at one of his friends sitting next to Sherrod. "Again there was a shot. The Marine spun all the way around and fell to the ground, dead. From where he lay, a few feet away, he looked up at us," the correspondent said. "Because he had been shot squarely through the temple his eyes bulged out wide, as in horrific surprise at what had happened to him, though it was impossible that he could ever have known what hit him."
Excerpted from "Dispatches from the Pacific"
Copyright © 2017 Ray E. Boomhower.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The War Correspondent
2. Learning the Trade
3. Somewhere in Australia
4. War in the Fog and Atolls: The Aleutians and Beyond
5. Betio: Red Beach 2
6. Saipan: Smith versus Smith
7. Uncommon Valor: Iwo Jima and the Flag Raising
8. Okinawa: The Final Battle
What People are Saying About This
Robert Sherrod landed with the Marines on the beaches of Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Armed with a notebook and pen, he risked his life to report the Pacific War. Sherrod’s dispatches to Time and Life magazines brought America’s bloodiest war to a sometimes unknowing and complacent home front. Ray Boomhower’s deeply researched and superbly written book makes clear why Sherrod was one of American’s greatest reporters and why his work rings true today.
In Dispatches from the Pacific, Ray E. Boomhower explores World War II through the light of an extraordinary individual with fresh, sobering insights. Boomhower succeeds again with the saga of Time correspondent Robert Sherrod, who felt called to go where “history is being written when men are dying”and came near joining the dying in landing boats, dive bombers and foxholes across a bloody Pacific he covered with harrowing integrity.
World War II combat correspondent Robert Sherrod is as substantial a hero as the U.S. Marines he so faithfully followed and so convincingly covered during the war in the Pacific. And Ray Boomhower’s Dispatches from the Pacific is as fine a way to make sense of this immense battle tapestry as any book I’ve encountered. A spirited workand fine reading!
In Dispatches from the Pacific, veteran biographer Ray E. Boomhower writes the compelling story of Time and Life reporter Robert L. Sherrod. Like Ernie Pyle in World War II Europe and North Africa, Sherrod eloquently told the story of American troops in the Pacific.And Boomhower tells Sherrod’s story just as well in this beautifully written book.