Friday, November 26, 2021

Ray E. Boomhower's "Richard Tregaskis"

Ray E. Boomhower is a senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press. He is also the author of more than a dozen books, including Dispatches from the Pacific: The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod; John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog; and Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary.

Boomhower applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The American Legion’s deck was black with slime and grit because, as he later discovered, the ship had no modern equipment for pumping water. “The marines cramming the deck were just as dirty,” he noted. Tregaskis met with the Fifth Marine Regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Leroy P. Hunt, a World War I veteran, in the officer’s cabin, which at least had a clean floor. Hunt said his men might be unkempt and looked like gypsies because there was no water available to clean up, but he believed they would fight when called upon to do so. “They got it here,” Hunt told Tregaskis, tapping his chest in the region of his heart. Returning to his cabin, which he shared with Capt. William Hawkins, a former schoolteacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Tregaskis went to the bathroom he shared with the adjoining stateroom and tried to wash off the sweat and grime he had collected during the day. When he pressed the tap, no water came out. A neighbor informed him, “The water’s only on for about ten minutes at a time, about three times a day. And the times it’s on are a mystery that only the Navy and God know about.”

As the American Legion sailed south on the big sweep that would take it into Guadalcanal, Tregaskis got to know more about the marines and their commander. Hunt and his officers tried to be realistic about their chances, believing from intelligence reports that there were anywhere from five to ten thousand enemy troops on the island, most of them labor troops, numbers that proved to be greatly inflated. The Japanese would probably be able to bring some large guns to bear upon the American landing craft on their way into the landing beaches five miles east of Lunga Point, as well as machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. Zealous map interpreters, Tregaskis recalled, straining their eyes over aerial photo-mosaic maps, believed they had identified evidence of intense enemy defensive preparations on the beach chosen for the landing. “The interpreters said they saw worn truck tracks, indicating movement in the vicinity of the beach,” he recalled, “and conjured machine gun positions out of minute combinations of shadows in the beach area.” One of Hunt’s aides confided to Tregaskis that he and the other officers expected about a third of the assault boats to be destroyed and a quarter of the combat troops would be casualties during the landing. The officers were also sure that Japanese reconnaissance planes would spot the U.S. armada long before it reached its destination and would send planes to bomb and strafe the ships, and the Japanese fleet would not be far behind. “This estimate did not improve the pleasantness of the prospect of accompanying the assault troops in their attack,” the correspondent noted.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the page 99 test proved to represent well what I attempted to capture in writing about Richard Tregaskis’s war correspondent career. Tregaskis made his name through his experiences with the U.S. Marines who stormed the beaches on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, sharing the dangers with them for the first seven weeks of the campaign to capture and hold the island from the Japanese. Here, on page 99, a reader can gain a good sense of Tregaskis’s reporting method. Instead of describing the grand strategy of the war in the Pacific, he concentrates on the day-to-day struggles of the men facing combat. Tregaskis serves as a surrogate eyewitness for those on the American home front, offering, through his dispatches to newspapers via the International News Service, intriguing details about service overseas (in this example, the grime and dirt encountered by the marines while sailing on an old transport).

Tregaskis’s interaction with the marines on the dirty ship typified his time as one of the approximately 1,800 men and women who worked as combat reporters (a job Tregaskis once described as “an outsider with special privileges”) during World War II. As Robert Considine, one of his INS colleagues noted: “He never in his career as a correspondent sent home a rewrite of a head- quarters communiqué. He didn’t believe in communiqués. He had to see for himself.”

Tregaskis often pondered why he and others risked their lives to report on the war. Good correspondents, like other people of action, were generally unwilling to make themselves heroes, he said, but most “will admit that they take chances in war zones for the same reason the mountain climber gave when asked why he wanted to scale [Mount] Everest: ‘Because it is there.’” Although Associated Press reporter Hal Boyle joked that all one needed to be a war correspondent was “a strong stomach, a weak mind, and plenty of endurance,” he and his colleagues were aware of the dangers they faced.
Follow Ray E. Boomhower on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue