A Gripping Account of 54 War Correspondents K.I.A. in WWII 1940-1945 by Doral Chenoweth


Chapter XV
Mop-Up Operations As the war drew to a close, news coverage became more extensive and with the vastness of war came death reports in greater numbers. Newspapermen now thoroughly indoctrinated in the methods of war were experiencing the horrors of the hectic final days. Civilian correspondents were working hand in hand with the Office of War Information, uniformed correspondents and the Marine's Combat Correspondents.

The war in Europe was drawing to a close and mortality lists were small compared to the big push in the Pacific and C. B. I. The Time-Life toll rose to three on January 6, 1945 when William Chickering died during a Japanese kamikaze attack (18) in Lingayen Gulf.

He was already, at 28, a veteran of Pacific war.

(Time-Life correspondents lose much of their identity because their stories are handled by a copy desk for condensation. Mel Jacoby's articles were used in total (Chapter III) due to their brevity and to the minute importance of the occasion of the Battle for Bataan. Chickering's letters to his family were published by his father and provide a greater insight into his character.) Bill Chickering went to Yale from a family with one of the richest Harvard backgrounds imaginable. His great, great, great, great grandfather was graduated from Harvard in 1733. Only one of his direct paternal ancestors missed his four years on "the yard."

william h, chickering
 William H. Chickering
It was characteristic of Chickering that he varied from ancestral tradition. He was not a rebel, but he was independent, especially where his own good sense of propriety and well-being were concerned. His home was at Liu, Honolulu when the emblem of the rising sun came winging over Pearl Harbor to shock America into mortal conflict.

The island held beauty for him that permeated his writings. No one was more capable of carrying the story of destruction on the remote Polynesian Islands, for his heart felt the impact of the slightest scratch on this adopted homeland by a callous foe. His immense store of knowledge of the lore of this vast expanse is eloquently exposed in his work, Within The Sound of These Waves.

"Catalina" on the beach of Delap, Majuro Atoll Date: 1944

Chickering was more of a novelist than a journalist. His work displayed an immaculate educational background that was education, not mere schooling. He was widely traveled and more than most of his kind, felt the need for perspective in his writings. His entire background gave him that perspective more true than most, at the outset of every campaign he was scheduled to cover.

"This army," he wrote his parents, "emerges in my mind as one of the finest collections of men I ever hope to know. I have made some great and lasting friendships, and I have seen plain, plain Americans at their finest, and believe me, they are truly fine . . . I haven't met a man in this army that I couldn't sit down and talk with, and feel comfortable as with my best friends. . . I have found a real faith in the people with whom we live."

He liked people, and people liked him. His family was his most absorbing passion, and in all his letters he conveyed the feeling of frustration at having to be away from Audrey, his wife, and his small son, Sherman. "There are times when I want to give this whole thing up and hurry home as fast as planes will fly me. These times are most of the time. . . I dreamed last night that I was playing with Sher, and I thought what other condition could be more satisfying than to have a boy of your own. . . I am still restless and full of longing. I would give anything for one sight of little Sher. . . Everything you write about him means so much to me."

"I have been having what I suppose I will look back on as a good time," he continued to his wife, "but it's been lonely. I have missed all the things that I realize marriage means, the talking things out and the companionship, the shared life, and I haven't been able to share this at all with you. It makes me very sad."

In spite of all his loneliness and near despair he had an almost unnatural love for what he was doing. He could never explain why he had such a fascination for the Army in general, physical combat in particular. He could never explain the feeling of nostalgia that he always had when taken from his "fighting" character.

He wrote of it in his letters to his family: "Taken all in all, I consider myself one of the luckiest people I know. I am fascinated by my work and fortunately the life appeals to me. . . I have never explained to you really why I follow this dim star. I don't know myself. . . There has been nothing yet to lessen its appeal. The fascination only grows upon me. "This Guadalcanal is the most beautiful place I have ever been -- the heat, the bugs, the food, the dust, the boredom, all roll off me."

Wildcat on Guadalcanal

"I am glad to be . . . in this sort of life, strangely enough -- but I find others feeling the same way. We all want to be with our families, but there is a weird sort of will-o-the-wisp that lures you back and makes you restless when you are not in its pursuit. It's very unlike me to have such feelings, and I can't tell you what it is I am pursuing. The nearest I can come to it is the look on men's faces, the emergence of individuality from the drabness of routine . . . "

"I haven't had even a cable from the office, and hence was feeling really at the ends of the earth. Still the ends seem very familiar, and I have been enjoying myself in this saturating heat, mud, dust, and smell of dirty khaki. Why do I like such things? I'll never know."

Bill's love of the beauty of the islands is one of the most striking things in all his written work.

". . . All the vitality and all the intricate beauty of the world is concentrated for me in the Pacific islands . . . they always renew themselves, so swiftly and so magically that all men's problems seem less important than a rock dropped into a pool." They are living philosophy in their very essence. . .

"Guadalcanal is a fascinating place . . . The islands on both sides are long and blue and brooding, and the glassy sea between, looks too innocently blue. (It) is spacious, and the clouds build up into huge towers in the blue, and the light has that over-intensity of a kodachrome picture. It is hot, but I never mind that . . ."

The Chickering Odyssey followed about the same pattern as that of General Douglas MacArthur. Life and Time received his stories from New Guinea and Australia during late 1942 and early 1943. He covered the invasion of the Gilbert Islands, Treasury Island and Bougainville, the taking of Kwajalein, and the historic return to the Philippines, this at MacArthur's bidding.

Bill and "the general" were friends. MacArthur had known relatives of Bill's, and though this brought no unusual overtures from the distant soldier-statesman, it created an aura of warmth between them. The usually eloquent MacArthur felt the loss of this young correspondent far too greatly to deal in remote eulogies. He resorted to an even more profoundly eloquent silence which punctuated the emptiness that Bill's absence meant. He could only bring himself to say in routine fashion, to avoid a show of feeling where human inadequacy is most noted, ". . . his loss is deeply regretted in this theater."

Bill's writing was outstanding for its photographic quality. It put the reader on the scene. His "Mop-up on Kwajalein" was a classic, printed verbatim in Time. It is well worth inclusion, in part, in this work: "Baby Satan already had its motors running and was veiled in blue exhaust smoke . . . Baby Satan lurched and grumbled on the way up to the fight . . . We left the hatches open to get our last breaths of hot fresh air. Passing the end of the air strip, we entered an area which looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. The sound of rifle and machine gun fire was loud and close by. Casualties were lying in the dust with medics bending over them. We began seeing dead Japs along the roadside, many of them with their clothes blown off. Over the radio: "Hello, Louis, this is Jack--better button up."

"We pulled down the hatches. Now our vision was limited by the slits of our periscopes. The noise of battle was fainter in our ears, but it was still perfectly audible. Sweat began to etch rivulets down dusty faces and clot in the stubble of three-day beards. With brows pressed against the rubber cushion above the periscope we watched the battle panorama unroll. The smell of cordite and the smell of dead bodies filtered through the vents and seemed to enter our pores . . . "

"On our right was a group of infantrymen maneuvering around an area of threshed foliage. We passed so close we could look into their eyes as though it were in a movie close-up . . . They seemed unaware of the tank. There were Japs in that tangle. One infantryman calmly fired his tommy gun into the brush. Two others stood by with bayoneted rifles poised. A grenade went off in a puff of smoke. Other soldiers around seemed inattentive, looking off across an area of broken palms where heavy firing was going on . . . "

"Baby Satan rumbled on. The radio was never still. It was like listening to a football game and a prize fight at the same time. Get that guy--get him! Over there, dammit, over there! What the hell is the matter with you, Number 43? To your right, to your right! That's got him!"

"Forty yards ahead loomed what appeared to be a two-story concrete building covered with coconut-frond camouflage. There were grassy mounds buttressing it. In the foreground was a shattered truck. Its tires were burning briskly. On the right was an oblong structure, a bomb shelter; on the left, a round house of concrete shot full of jagged holes; near it a low-slung square pillbox. The ground was covered with blackened corrugated iron from the roof of a demolished house. Bits of lumber lay about, an iron bedstead, broken boxes of ammunition, two or three bodies torn apart and oozing black blood. . . ."

"Hey, there's a live one over there by the pillbox right next to the dead one. See him? There -- See him move?" In the rubble the man was invisible to me, but the machine-gun tracers found him. The head and shoulders of the Jap rose up and collapsed. Then all we could see was one leg kicking in the air, kicking as bullets poured relentlessly into his body. Finally it stiffened, dropped. The gun was silent.

"The cleanup went on to its inexorable end."

There is a description of a church sent back by Chickering. It is one of the homiest and most honest reports of the war. It might have been a simple narration of a very observant executive to a stenographer-friend. The writing is the same as in the battle scene above, but in a vein more easily reconciled with the style used in describing beloved island scenes. It was entitled simply, The Church.

"There is a church were the people came when the battle was surging through their town (at Leyte). They brought their babies, their cooking pots and meager portions of food wrapped in leaves, and sometimes they brought family pictures or a treasured mahogany chair or other piece of furniture. They were followed by frightened dogs and little black pigs who were left outside to scuffle disconsolately for scraps.

"The Americans drove the Japs out. Then the Americans dug foxholes in the town square in front of the church. At night when they lay down in the cold earth, a white figure of Christ spread out his arms in the quarter moonlight as though to bless them. When Americans were killed they were buried in a narrow row alongside the church and muddy white crosses marked their graves.

"The Japs infiltrated on night. They came across the bridge that spans the brown river. They pretended to be guerrillas but the Americans were not fooled. There was a lot of shooting and the people in the church drew closer together and murmured to each other in fear. When dawn outlined the weathered bell towers of the church against the gray sky, the Americans were moving around outside and there were dead Japs everywhere and a good deal of blood.

". . . This was the church. It hadn't been a very beautiful church. Built by the Spaniards in the 18th century, it had been remodeled in 1898. Its transepts had been walled up. Now it had simply a long nave and a circular raised chancel at the end. Fissures along the wall held chalices but because they were falling apart, primitive paintings of religious symbolism had been hung over them. The walls were brick covered with grey stucco and the roof was corrugated iron. The formal facade of the entrance was pink and was rococo as the icing of a cake made by a small-town confectioner. The belltowers were of simple design and ferns sprouted from the cracks in the stucco. But if the church had never been beautiful it was beautiful now, rising like a rock from the trampled soil, sanctuary for the homeless, the wounded, the frightened, soldiers and children, white and brown." He cabled to Time, December 14, 1944 -- his last Christmas season:

"I hope to spend Christmas in the Ormoc (19) Valley where carabao pull sleighs, instead of caribou, where Christmas leaves have leaves and are lighted up at night by swarms of fireflies, where a suckling pig has a can of C-rations instead of an apple in its mouth.

"It will not be the merriest Christmas, and Holy Night will not be a silent night, but like a Christmas spent in New Guinea two years ago, it will be a Christmas to carry in the heart through all Christmases to come."

The tall, handsome Californian never lost his sense of humor. Not even when he was irritated beyond description did he fail to note a humorous twist to a situation: "Since I have been here," he wrote his wife from Brisbane, Australia, "I have developed a loathing for many things Australian, but the main one is elevators. They have a number of 'lifts' that are automatic and these are the greatest danger. Some have automatic doors, and I have been very nearly cut in half on numerous occasions when my interception of the magic eye has been poor and the doors have snapped closed on me. Further, once you get in an automatic elevator, you are at the mercy of the whims of everyone on every floor. You just gain the ground floor and are just about to open the doors, when suddenly you are shot up again to the tenth. I have been in these elevators for hours at a time. Even those that are run by men are sad affairs. They take all the time in the world. You get in the 'lift' in a great hurry, glad you have finally caught one, and the 'lift' man steps out for a cup of tea. People are always stepping out for a cup of tea in this country, regardless of the situation and all others concerned with it. This was a case of a train: the engineer and the brakeman had an argument at a small station. The argument lasted for half an hour while the ten- or twelve-car passenger train waited. Finally the engineer said, 'Well, I am going to have a cup of tea; I don't care what you're going to do.' The passengers were left to stew in their own juice."

One of his final pieces, written in a highly humorous note, instructed others in the art of How to be Unafraid in Warfare, though Panic-Stricken: ". . . I have developed a formula which I apply like a pultice to my fevered imagination, and which prevents me from being afraid, even though slightly panic-stricken.

"On Shipboard. . . . find a place toward the center of the ship, up high though not on top (you don't want to be too exposed). If torpedoes come in, the ship will blow up at the bottom and you have several decks to act as a buffer. If bombs are dropped . . . well, in that case, it is better to be down a few decks. If a plane comes in strafing, you should be on the other side of the ship.

"Now . . .

"If for some reason you have to be up on the bow of the ship, or the back of the stern, assure yourself that the target is the center of the ship. If you are in an engine room or hold, persuade yourself that you are in the unimportant engine room or hold, the one that no Jap would be silly enough to want to hit. Tell yourself that the Jap wants to knock the admiral off the bridge, get the ammunition or gun turrets: if you put your mind to it, you can think of a lot more important targets than a little old engine room . . .

"Bombing Ashore. The first principle is to persuade yourself that you are well hidden and that everything else is right out in the open. . .

"If you are right beneath the bomb as it falls, console yourself with the argument that a Jap's aim is invariably bad and that this bomb is a dud; nine out of ten always are."

The life of a war correspondent is not an easy one. Frequently it was a more rugged life than that of combat soldiers. Correspondents were required many times to stay on a front long after the regiment or division with which they landed was sent back for rest. The correspondent merely stayed on with the relief division until that front was cleared. He was then sent to a convalescent hospital or home, to recuperate for the next operation.

Chickering never complained about the life. Candidly admitting his natural liking for the life, he proceeded to describe it frankly, evidently to justify his own feeling that his love for such a life was a perversion of some sort:

"Dear Mother and Dad: You should see your lazy and comfort loving son. I wear a tin helmet, a dirty green jungle suit, high army shoes and leggings. I carry a canteen, a long knife, and an army pistol. I haven't slept on a bed or between sheets in weeks. My hair is nearly shaved off, my beard is prickly most of the time, and my friends, the chiggers, have rediscovered me. Food is army rations, often Australian bully beef, and is simple, monotonous, but hearty; I also take vitamin pills and 2 quinine tables per day as well as salt tablets occasionally. The rainy season has set in, and what was swampy jungle before is now bottomless mire. Still the jungle is beautiful . . ."

In 1943, Chickering was recalled to the United States, but he returned to his islands in September of that year to describe the bombardment of the Gilbert Islands, the furious battle for Bougainville, the invasion of Treasury Island and mop-up operations on Kwajalein.

A few months after, he was recalled again to New York to edit the Army and Navy section of Time. In August 1944, he returned to high adventure -- the greatest adventure of them all.

The last visit to war was especially critical for Chickering. Ten days after his death, a son, William Henry Chickering III was born.

The story of Bill Chickering lives on in a volume of letters privately published in 1946 by his father. Following publication, the War Department returned two of his letters and an article that was in production when he died. They were published as a supplement and describe well the sequence of events leading up to this finish of another heroic chapter of American journalism. He wrote in a letter during his last tour of overseas duty that ". . . as I promised you, I took no unnecessary chances . . . " Yet he crawled up the beach of Leyte with the first wave under the hottest fire of all the Leyte landings. He wanted to get the story. 3 January, 1945 he wrote: "I had asked . . . to . . . get . . . on an LCI rocket ship or a battleship . . . I drew the BB (battleship).

"We got underway late last night and at dawn we had general quarters just as we were going through Surigao straits. It was a beautiful sunrise and an impressive sight to see this sizeable task force streaming down through these once perilous waters. The land on either side was mountainous, wreathed in clouds, and some of the cliffs were very reminiscent of windward Oahu. Native sailboats drifted around in the middle of our force, some with large squid drying in the sun. . .

"I have a battle station up on the navigation bridge, equivalent to the 15th story on an office building. I sat up there this morning in the hot sun and had an unparalleled view of the whole force, and the calm beautiful passage. As we came through the straits and into the Mindanao Sea, we could see the high mountains of Mindanao to the south of us.

"The afternoon was blazing hot, the sea a glittering mirror of heat. Later it grew misty over the horizon to the rear of us, a red mist. . .

"The sunset was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen . . . One or two planes got in, but were shot down. I didn't even see them. We shall probably have a night of many alarms, and tomorrow in the Sulu Sea should be really lively. . . "

In the last few hours of his life, Bill Chickering saw what was probably the most beautiful sight in the world to him. Only one who has stood in a tropical setting and watched the sunset or moonrise can appreciate the attraction that it held for Bill. He was an observant person, and he missed none of the beauty of that scene.

His last letter, written the day before he died, expressed his feeling that "tomorrow" would be hot:

"Dear Audry,

This letter would be a good idea if only I could withdraw to some nearby planet and write without interruption. Since that evening two nights ago I have been able only to squeeze in occasional short periods of sleep. Apparently the Japs don't want us to invade Luzon . . .

"This morning we entered the South China Sea. There was a brisk wind and spray flew over the ship. Off to our right we could see Bataan. I think everyone in the task force must have felt the same tug of emotion. We were the first American ships in the China Sea in three years. . . In the afternoon we sighted four Jap destroyers ahead and our carrier planes went out and got them. Then about four-thirty the Japs began to react.

"The action was so fast and so continuous that it is hard to sort out the images of what happened. They came in from all sides. The sky was overcast, a sort of ugly mustard color, with the sun burning through it. The planes came in swiftly, low, over the water, and we shot them, our bursts seeming to spray our own ships they were so low. Some of our ships were hit, but none seriously. They all look serious however in the first frightful burst of flame and smoke. We didn't secure from general quarters until after eight o'clock, and I am afraid now that we shall be up most of the night.

"Then tomorrow -- we not only have to worry about air attack, but about mines and shore batteries. We go into Lingayen tomorrow morning to start bombarding. Whew!"

That was his last letter.

General Douglas MacArthur, aboard his flagship, told Life photographer Carl Mydans of Chickering's death. "Our losses have been small in this operation," he said, "but you feel them heavily when close friends die." At the time of his death, Chickering was writing a book which he had tentatively called, Return to Bataan. John W. Vandercook, in his forward to the privately published letters of the correspondent said: "The short chapter of so much fulfillment, but of so much greater promise, ended."

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PROTECTION: Filed with Writers Guild of America, 2003.
Renewed Copyright Pending