Reporters and photographers rarely get discussed on this show. And that’s a pity because, in one way at least, reporters and photographers help provide a lot of the original material that historians use to study events and try to build up as full a picture as possible about the past. But one of the great dangers in relying too much on journalistic evidence in writing history is forgetting that those pieces of reportage were usually produced with a specific audience in mind — readers and consumers of news. In times of war, accurate news usually has to be cleared by military officials and government leaders before it’s presented to the public. And those higher ups are often worried that bad war news will hurt morale and support for the war back home. Often, therefore, gruesome details of bloody battles were suppressed.
This is what happened during the Pacific battles of World War II, at least in terms of perceptions of the war among the American public at home. Starting in 1939, the news from the European war had been fairly complete. Even before the United States entered that theatre, the European conflict was already known to be bloody and horrific. The detailed news was unavoidable. After Pearl Harbor, however, most Americans believed that the Pacific war wouldn’t be as costly in terms of lives, because it would be mainly a naval and air conflict. No real grinding land battles.
They were wrong, and they found out in late 1943/early 1944. The brutality of mechanized war became all too apparent to US Navy and Marines commanders when they were forced to island-hop across the Pacific in order to gain footholds that would lead to defeating the Japanese. For the most part, however, that knowledge was kept from the public back home in the United States. When the battle for the central Pacific island of Tarawa began in November 1943, Time and Life reporter Robert Sherrod was there to report on what was thought to be a relatively easy conquest. Accompanying him was Marine cinematographer, Norman Hatch, who carried a Bell & Howell Eyemo motion picture camera, and a .45 caliber pistol.
We don’t know if Hatch had to use that pistol, but he certainly made extensive use of the motion picture camera. The film he took of the three-day-long bloody conquest of the island depicted actual battle scenes in fairly stark detail. Most significantly for the history of war journalism, the footage depicted wounded Marines, as well as dead ones, some of them gruesomely so, including pictures of severely burnt Marine bodies, men who had been caught up in the flames of battle.
Eventually, this footage would become a Warner Brothers documentary entitled “With the Marines at Tarawa.” Unlike other war documentaries, the gruesome and graphic footage was left in. Warner Brothers and Hollywood deemed “With the Marines at Tarawa” too graphic and awful to be released to the public. Only President could overrule that decision. And the man perhaps most responsible for that was the reporter, Robert Sherrod.
Robert Sherrod also captured all this front-line action, but, of course, recorded with his pen, rather than a camera. But he wasn’t just another reporter. He had known President Roosevelt at least since 1942. Back in Washington DC in December 1943 following the Battle of Tarawa, Sherrod was asked to meet with FDR in the Oval Office. Based on Sherrod’s previous reporting and his earlier discussions with FDR, the President had his trusted his judgement. Going against the tide of opinion in the military hierarchy and , Sherrod told the President, “that’s the way the war is out there, and I think the people are going to have to get used to that idea….Our soldiers on the front want people back home to know that they don’t knock the hell out of them every day of every battle. They want people to understand that war is a horrible, nasty business, and to say otherwise is to do a disservice to those who died.”
FDR decided to overrule Hollywood’s strictures. The documentary came out in March 1944, to very positive reviews, and an eventual Academy Award. Perhaps most significantly, the sale of war bonds increased after the public saw the reality that With the Marines at Tarawa depicted.
And, eventually, a great number of Americans came to know and understand the reaction of some of the parents of servicemen killed in the Pacific. We’ve mentioned in an earlier show how some military commanders (and FDR) received hate mail from bereaved mothers written in the most direct and heartfelt manner. After the Tarawa documentary was shown, only truly heartless people would talk about noble sacrifice without thinking a little bit about the deep pain that the war caused families.
I learned about Robert Sherrod from a Smithsonian Magazine article written by the historian, Ray Boomhower, and this episode owes a great deal to his work. Mr. Boomhower’s book about Robert Sherrod’s reports from the Pacific theatre is on the Buzzkill Bookshelf, and we encourage you to go get it.
Ray E. Boomhower, Dispatches from the Pacific: The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod (2017).
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.