War clouds appeared over East Africa. News services were beginning to relay spotty accounts of what was happening in the generally unknown, primitive kingdom of Ethiopia.
Benito Mussolini of Italy was a madman with a purpose.
He had massed 240,000 troops and laborers in Italy's East African colonies bordering Ethiopia.
The ineffective League of Nations posed only a token threat to Il Duce should he move into Haile Selassie's black empire.
The Italian dictator remained silent. The Associated Press ordered Jim Mills to Addis Ababa to report developments there and to be on hand should war come. He arrived in August of 1935.
Sir Percival Phillips of the London Daily Telegraph was also there-prepared to cover events which ultimately touched off World War II.
Both covered the now historic Francis W. Rickett Oil Concession whereby Ethiopian land and mineral rights were assigned to British and American interests. Emperor Haile Selassie had made the move in the belief and hope that Mussolini would not dare to infringe upon Anglo-Saxon rights.
The Mills-Phillips team covered their Ababa news breaks from the confines of the Imperial Hotel. They had their native leg men out as stringers to bring in the leads, and it was via this system that they managed to beat the world by 24 hours on the oil concession story. Despite Rickett's fluke deal to hold up the story, Mills and Phillips managed to file it in advance without any binding strings of censorship.
At five in the morning on October 3, the green-gray columns of Fascist Italy crossed the Ethiopian border from Eritrea, and the undeclared war was on.
With this invasion Mills and Sir Percival initiated coverage of World War II-and the news and fighting went on.
Broadcasting companies, newspapers, and wire services started to flood Ethiopia with newsmen. Josef Israels, Jr. of The New York Times and Pathe News, Ed Beattie of the United Press, Walter Collins of Reuters, Len Hammond of Fox Movietone News and Linton Wells and his wife Fay Gillis of the Associated Press all moved into Addis Ababa at the war's onset. They formed the core of a professional network which would provide formal war coverage for the world.
In the relatively few years of peace between the end of World War I hostilities and the Addis Ababa story, we called the Americans in foreign news work "foreign correspondents." After that day in Africa, their label changed and they were dubbed "war correspondents." Thereafter they brought the story home in words and pictures.
The days of the Civil War and World War I hard drinking, tough swashbuckling adventure correspondent had all but disappeared from the picture. The on-the-scene writers of World War II were not the types to chummy up to the royal families and temporary dictators. Men like Karl von Wiegand and H.R. Knickerbocker had disappeared, and the untimely death of Floyd Gibbons left the ranks of the melodrama correspondent depleted.
World appetite for fresh news increased in the thirties along with the improvement in wire and wireless transmission facilities. Newspapers had to compete with radio for the first time. Consequently, the caliber of men assigned by the print media to cover war activities markedly improved.
Foreign news bureaus became very formal in management, and systems were installed to gather the news, untainted. To do this in the troubled thirties, it became increasingly necessary to circumvent official censors in Madrid, Berlin, and Moscow. Correspondents found that passport restrictions, censorship, and border blockades of warring factions prevented even the best among them from delivering the news to America as they would have liked. Newspaper and radio men were not receiving the kind of protection that had been accorded them by official hosts in the past.
The wires, papers and radio powers moved quickly to line up their most experienced personnel to report news from the lightless capitals of the world. Some were too old for the rigors and privations of the total war to come. That was the opinion of the desk editors here in the states, but as the vastness of war encircled the world, the "aging" were among the "names" bylining the top stories of the day. Leland Stowe was one of them. He proved to be among the most widely published writers.
Besides Stowe, Bill Stoneman and Webb Miller became best seller names under the headlines of daily newspapers in the United States.
Webb Miller died in May 1940. A spot newsman for the United Press, he was the first correspondent to be killed in World War II. He died during a London blackout after leaving the House of Commons where he covered Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's historic statement on the British withdrawal from Norway. Miller boarded a train for the country, presumably stepped off short of the blacked-out station platform, and thereby suffered a blow on the head which caused his death.
This United Press correspondent who had risked his life in four major wars had the most varied career of all newsmen. He had been a headliner for years and was the natural choice of UP to cover the Italian-Ethiopian conflict. He was well prepped, having served his war apprenticeship in the Spanish Civil War. Russo-Finnish fighting provided another chapter in Webb Miller's training for war reporting. He also reported the Sinn riots in Ireland in 1917, the Riff riots in Morocco in 1925, and the Salt riots in India in 1930. He covered such peacetime events as the abdication of King Edward VIII, the marriage of the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, and the coronation of King George VI.
Prior to his death, Miller had obtained permission to be the first correspondent to accompany the British Army in Norway, and he had had his passport visaed so that he could make a tour of all European countries as well.
Webb Miller's death due to an untimely accident cut short the most illustrious career of a war correspondent to date. Exposure to war and civil strife would seem to destine him for a violent death, but fate ruled otherwise.
Although Miller's entire life was spent recording world news with on-the-spot reports of war, revolution, and disaster, he was a pacifist at heart. He wrote in I Found No Peace, his autobiography published in 1936, that his real inclination was to retire to an isolated country lane to study philosophy. He was a quiet man who reported events in a violent world.
Miller was born in a run-down tenant house near the tiny hamlet of Pokagon, Michigan. His father was a sawyer in a near-by saw mill whose wages often provided only the barest of necessities for Webb, his younger brother, and hard-working mother. Webb and his brother Milo trudged two miles over rutty dirt roads to school. They grew up in a community where all men were expected to work with the soil or wood products for a living.
Residents of the little towns of Summerville and Pokagon recall Webb Miller as the child who was affected by abnormal shyness and a hypersensitivity that made him one to be pushed aside. By his own admission, Webb was "temperamentally unfitted" for a newspaper career. Nevertheless, he had a strong ambition to be a writer. The scarcity of reading material forced him to follow Lincoln's system of borrowing books from neighbors. His father was able to subscribe to a weekly newspaper that served more as an almanac than as a paper full of current news. When Webb's family realized his serious intentions to become a newspaperman, his father subscribed to the Kalamazoo Gazette, an area daily. Webb had his first lessons in journalism in the columns of this daily. He studied the style in detail. So it was that at the age of 12, Webb had mentally launched his writing career.
As the story of his background and vocation are described, one sees that his personal desires and outlook on life itself were almost diametrically opposed to the ones which carried him through five wars, famines, revolutions, murders, and executions in a truly amazing newspaper career. Webb Miller hated violence, yet he forced himself to describe the things he saw. Of the half thousand war correspondents seeing action in World War II, Webb Miller was the best prepared to report complete and accurate battlefront accounts. The United Press had spread its staff over the world in order to relate the war picture to America, but Webb Miller was scheduled to be the real workhorse at the scene.
While Mills and Phillips scored a first on the Rickett oil story, Miller is credited with scooping the world on the first advance of the Italian armies into Ethiopia. His dispatch reached United Press headquarters in Rome before the news was officially received by the Italian government.
Webb Miller's byline on a story was considered a guarantee of accuracy, and his style won for him the reputation of being one of the most graphic of all correspondents. He had the knack of making far-away lands seem close and understandable to the stay-at-home reader. He once compared a ride along the dizzy precipices of African mountain roads to the whirl on a Coney Island coaster. The verbal comparison was vivid and in terms that all could relate to.
Webb Miller acquired his first newspaper experience while still in his teens. He covered high school sports events for the local paper in Dowagiac, Michigan. It was during these years that he became interested in the gentle philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, the hermit philosopher of Concord, Massachusetts. To the time of his death, Miller carried a copy of Walden with him the way many soldiers carried the Bible into battle. He referred to it with reverence. From his days in the "front page" room to the missions through 41 countries, he was never without the greatest literary influence of his life, Walden.
Miller contrasted the sordidness, brutality, horror, hypocrisy and intolerance of humanity which he saw with the comfort and serenity provided in Thoreau's philosophy. By his own interpretation, Miller's philosophy was as follows: you make yourself rich by making your wants few; you can be happy if you have the mental resources to feel pleasure and ecstasy in nature and natural things. His own simple life on that Michigan farm influenced his development so that his thinking was aligned with Thoreau's writings.
After graduation from school, Webb went to work on a passenger boat at Diamond Lake, Michigan. Later he became a rural school teacher. In 1912 when he was 19, he obtained his first full-fledged newspaper job as a police reporter on The Chicago American (now defunct). He covered 33 murders and six executions by hanging in the first year. His city editor advised him that the more he hated what he saw the better he would be able to verbally describe it. He wrote in I Found No Peace that he still kept this counsel in mind some 20 years later in Ethiopia. It was true in his case.
In 1916 he was sent to Mexico to cover the expedition led by General John J. Pershing against Pancho Villa. While there he started to work for United Press. After this first taste of modern warfare, he reported the activities of the Senate and State Department. His next move was to Ireland for the Sinn Fein uprising. In 1918 he was sent to the western front where he reported the battle of Vesle, Chateau-Thierry, and the Argonne.
After the war, Miller was assigned to the Versailles peace conference and then to the Cannes conference in 1922 where he first met Benito Mussolini. Ten years later Mussolini granted one of his rare private interviews to Miller in the Palazzo Venezia at Rome.
While covering the Riff rebellion in Morocco, Miller befriended another dictator-Primo de Rivera, then the power behind the Spanish throne.
Miller used airplane travel to spectacular effect. In World War I he flew over the western front less than 24 hours after the Armistice was declared. He obtained the only aerial eyewitness account of the last drama at the front as he watched German and American soldiers react to the end of hostilities. In 1930 he flew 12,000 miles from London to India to interview Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and to cover the Salt Riots. Altogether he flew over 400,000 miles covering the news.
Mahatma (meaning "Great Soul" or "man of God") Gandhi was one of the few persons Miller met in his travels who had also read Thoreau, and the Indian leader and he struck up a ready friendship. Gandhi inscribed his name in the correspondent's cigarette case on the condition that it never again be used to carry cigarettes. He respected that wish, and the case became a prized possession and a famous trophy in the newspaper world. Other signatures later added to the case were those of Mussolini, Hitler, President and Mrs. Roosevelt, David Lloyd George, General Hugh S. Johnson and Blasco Ibanez.
Miller saw and described the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo, Spain; of Adowa, the holy city of Ethiopia; and of Viipuri in Finland. He was on the first voyage of the dirigible Hindenburg from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1936. And he had received anonymous threats that the great transatlantic airship would be destroyed several weeks before its fiery end on May 3, 1937.
Among his other assignments in the thirties before the war were the "blood purges" in Germany in 1934 and in Russia in 1937; Prime Minister Chamberlain's conference with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich; the trip of King George and Queen Elizabeth to North America; and Britain's declaration of war on Germany.
With all these firsts to his credit, Webb Miller felt his life was intensely crowded, breathless, and fascinating. He once wrote, "I often wish I could find the peace of Walden . . . . " He died on May 8, 1940.