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


Chapter VI
The Red Cross Contributes American Red Cross correspondents served with and as field representatives. Therefore, much of their time was consumed with duties not directly related to reporting combat action of American troops. While Robert Lewis filed many stories from combat zones, letters to his family in Columbus, Ohio provided material that was even more book-worthy. His dispatches to The Red Cross Courier, the official American Red Cross publication, described activities of the organization's personnel in battle zones. Harry Poague contributed the greater part of his work to the record files of the Red Cross photo lab. Both did some free-lance field work for other publications while correspondents for the American Red Cross.

Henri Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was the first Red Cross correspondent. He was participating in relief work in Solferino, Italy when he began sending informative accounts of battle for public consumption. In 1959 he wrote about his experiences in a booklet entitled Un Souvenir de Solferino. He wrote about his efforts in organizing the local women into a corps of nurses; about the enlisting of children to carry water; and about buying and distributing bandage material, food, drink, medicine, and tobacco. His booklet described hasty battlefield burials, the evacuation of wounded to nearby towns, and the suffering which was compounded by lack of both supplies and planned medical care.

Dunant organized the Red Cross agency under the flag of neutral Switzerland. Article 79 of the 1929 Geneva Convention decreed that "A central agency of information regarding prisoners of war shall be established in neutral county. The International Committee of the Red Cross shall, if they consider it necessary, propose to the powers concerned the organization of such an agency." The Red Cross is now the most universally accepted relief agency in the world.

International law charges the Red Cross ". . . with the duty of collecting all information regarding prisoners which they may be able to obtain through official or private channels, and the agency shall transmit the information as rapidly as possible to the prisoners' own country or the power in whose service they have been." That is, the primary service of the Red Cross is to disseminate information. The giving of material aid to victims of emergencies is a secondary function.

Some of the outstanding journalists whose personalities have brightened Red Cross dispatches since its inception have been Joel Chandler Harris, Clara Barton, and Robert E. Lewis. The American Red Cross sent trained newsmen into the field to report activities of combat soldiers. In the early days of World War II three writers, a photographer, and a radio man were sent to Australia. A small staff was also assigned to England, North Africa, Cairo, and the China-Burma-India Theater of Operation.

General Douglas MacArthur cabled the following message to the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.: 26 November 1943

It is my painful duty to inform you of the death in New Guinea of Robert E. Lewis and Harry H. Poague in an airplane accident. Both served with courage and devotion and fulfilled the important duties of war correspondents with value to their country.

Harry H. Poague

Harry Poague was born on June 24, 1898 in Newport, Kentucky. Since his father travelled extensively, Poague more or less obtained his education while on the go. He was interested in photography at an early age. R. A. Cullum of The
harry s poague
Harry S. Poague
Minneapolis Star described Poague as an energetic, bold, and gifted photographer who worked on the old Minneapolis Journal for some 15 years. Prior to this he had operated a commercial studio in Fargo, North Dakota. Poague's wife, Hone, was a native of Finland. She died during her husband's absence in 1941. She was a talented vocalist and dancer. Their daughter, Virginia, followed in her mother's footsteps and became a member of the Shipstad and Johnson Ice Follies. Poague is buried in New Guinea near Robert Lewis.

Robert Ellis Lewis

Robert E. Lewis joined the public relations staff of the American Red Cross in 1941. He wrote and edited most of the Red Cross News Service, a weekly clipsheet circulated to editors and to Red Cross chapters all over the country. It was essentially a collection of articles prepared for newspaper or magazine use. He also wrote for The Red Cross Courier and covered a number of special assignments for the relief agency.

robert l lewis
Robert E. Lewis
The spirit of journalism overcame Bob, and he voluntarily transferred up front to where the news was being made. He was named Director of Public Information for the Middle East and sent his first dispatches from North Africa. His headquarters was Cairo, Egypt. In total Bob Lewis travelled 34,743 miles (22,500 of those miles by air), through 18 countries, over three oceans and three seas. He wrote thousands of words glorifying the determination of the American soldier and the commendable work of relief agencies.

Letters to his family, written with regularity and frequency, presented the picture of an intelligent, talented man who had a good sense of values and a bouyant lust for full living. His letters were not a chronological account of his experiences. Such is not the nature of true history, and he was an historian. Bob's letters combined a new timetable accounts, much good humor, a little pathos poignantly expressed, and almost prophetically true evaluations of the world situation.

He wrote from Tripoli on February 1, 1943: (13) "Dear Dad and Mother and family, . . . the reason we are here is to distribute milk to the civilian population in Tripoli . . ."

The typical letter continued with a depiction of what he considered to be the typical British professional soldier: . . . he had the bearing of a soldier, a square head, clipped mustache, deep-set eyes, and he took a cold bath every morning at 5 a.m. He had been in the army most of his life, it seems having served all over Africa in the last war. The British Empire stuck out all over him, right is might, and be damned with everything but the British Empire. And I feel that he is probably very stupid in addition to being all of these other things, but at any rate, he is honestly what he is, and you rather admire him as you admire any thoroughbred, be it a rat, or a show horse.

About another man with whom he was thrown during an impending move he wrote, ". . . he never had a definite idea in his life, his mind was always moving about in circles to reach a point, but actually I think he was more sensible than the striding Colonel . . . "

Lewis described men in connection with the service to which they were attached. For instance, he summed up the men of OETA (Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, the British equivalent of American Military Government) in the following way: ". . . All of the officers in the convoy were members of OETA, which means they are on the diplomatic side of the war, converging on the dead carcass of an occupied territory as soon as the fighting is over. From the looks of things, several of them are more capable of stripping the carcass in short order . . ." Of of his own experiences he wrote:

The ships outside the harbor, sitting there placidly within a quarter of a mile from our hotel window, finally got the better of the Germans. This morning at exactly 7 a.m. they sent a bomber to have a try at it. All dropped, and we got up off the floor, lit a cigarette and started to laugh like hell . . . so we have been initiated, or whatever it is you get for having gone through a raid, even though it was a puny. . . .

Lewis' experiences in the Middle East left vivid impressions with him. He was the observant and contemplative type. In off-the-record letters to his family he described some of those experiences and scenes so clearly that the biographer is at a loss to paraphrase. It is the stuff that separates a journalist from a mere newspaper employee; it embodies an involuntary expression of sensations that overcame him:

. . . Palestine was a very vivid experience for me . . . once you have placed yourself in the atmosphere of a culture and a history, it seems futile to me to run to all the places just to say you have been there . . . I spent a good many of my sightseeing minutes just sitting on a wall somewhere in Jerusalem watching the sun and the trees and trying to visualize life as it was thousands of years ago.

And of the Pyramids he wrote:

. . . Dad would have concentrated on the Pyramids from the "how do you suppose they built them" point of view, and frankly, I did too.

That is as good as approach as any, because after you have stared at them from that peak, you suddenly see the thousands of slaves laboriously hoisting the stones, and you see the entire works, and by God, you are no longer looking at the Pyramids, you are right there while they are building them.

Then you come out of your trance and the Arab who is asking you whether you'll like another drink or cup of tea is none other than the gentleman you were standing beside some thousands of years before while the damn things were being built . . .

Bob Lewis had the lust for life that characterizes true news seekers. He wanted to see everything. Living was learning to him. Learning was not a perusal of old "forgotten volumes," but a dynamic experiencing of the things of value that were happening at the moment. And he enjoyed a party:

. . . On the fourth of July we had quite a day. The War Correspondents played the Army Public Relations Officers in soft ball. The game had been built up in the press and there must have been several thousand curious Britishers on the Gezira Sporting Club grounds to see the game. The game, of course, started out early in the day at Shepheard's where everyone proceeded to get in "shape" for the game by drinking Pims. The drink, incidentally, is complete with everything, including a floating cucumber. Star of the game was Quentin Reynolds. He had to be wheeled out to his left field position after each inning. I had enough sense to cheer from the bench . . .

Of the nightlife he wrote, "For the record, the night spots in Cairo were Badia's Cabaret and Doll's Cabaret where Egyptian Belly Dancers hold sway and the gypos gyp everyone in sight . . . Of course, there was the Royal Sporting Club, where King Farouk could be found incognito."

Bob had an innate sense of justice. He was not an Anglophobe, but he could see that America was not getting its fair share of credit for the fighting being done:

. . . and so one little Robert E. Lewis is getting damned sick of seeing the American war effort played down in every press of the world which is controlled by the English. You listen to a B.B.C. broadcast, and for days you never could have gotten an idea that about half of the troops in the Salerno show were Americans. They never mentioned the word American. . . . I don't know whether American newspapers and radio are being that unfair, but they weren't the last time I saw and heard them. If so, it is indeed a sad thing.

His defense of the British was equally as intense when he felt their efforts were being played down:

. . . The passenger crowded in next to me was a Jew now employed by the British government. At the drop of the hat, the professional Jew of Palestine will start haranguing the American about the inequalities of Palestine . . . This gentleman proceeded to spend 20 minutes explaining how lousey the British are, how much better the country would be under some other control, etc., etc., etc. . . . finally I said I had had enough.

Look, I said, less than eight months ago a guy by the name of Rommel stood at Alamein. All that stood between you and a concentration camp, most likely death by starvation, was an army. It had a lot of British troops in it. In fact, it was the British Eighth Army, and you can argue from here on through that that army was concerned with saving the Suez Canal and British interests. Perhaps it was, but it also saved you, and you are free to sit here today and spout off about the lousy British. Personally, I think you ought to keep your goddamned mouth shut, at least, until this show is over.

Lewis was generally popular and well-liked. He was outspoken, but the men with whom he worked accepted that. It was not just another excuse for a blow-out when a farewell party was given him before his departure: ". . . it was supposed to be a surprise party, but of course, it wasn't . . . at the proper time they presented me with a traveling bag, a very nice one, and a 'battle' ribbon, which says I have won the battles of Miami (Florida en route), Natal, Accra, Cairo, Mena, Zamalek, and Shepheard's. . . . "

The scene of the battle was shifting. Lewis was transferred to Australia in July 1943. There he met Harry H. Poague, a Red Cross photographer. Poague rounded out the American Red Cross team of correspondents. Lewis had felt a sense of frustration that he had thus far seen so little of the fight. That explains his exultation at the prospect of a forthcoming trip to the battle area. He wrote home:

. . . The only danger here is that I may get run over, slip on a banana peel or break my neck in the bath tub . . . I have still done nothing more than to survey the field. I believe that Harry Poague and I are going to make a field trip in the near future. . .

It was on that trip that Bob Lewis and Harry Poague lost their lives.

Two days before his death Bob wrote his last letter home. That letter is a memorial to Robert Lewis. It contained history and prophecy, accurate in minute detail. It warned of the dangers facing America in the best traditions of journalistic writing. And it spurned complacency as to the war's future course, if not to its outcome. That letter in all important parts is here included to complete the portrait of a young man prematured by the demands of a turbulent world whose challenge he met with signal success.

. . . Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I know you'll want to know what we are doing here in the jungle. The Australian War Correspondents are having a dinner-party for all American correspondents, and it promises to be the best party this censored place has ever seen. They have got turkeys, beer, gin and anything else a guy would want. . .

. . . Harry and I have finished up the work of this trip so far as it relates to collecting the stuff in the field. Now I have to try and get it written. That will occupy my time at headquarters for the next ten days. Then I plan to move up to news headquarters and spend a good deal of time where things might happen.

(About the war) . . . Consider the obvious facts: for us, the war has not started . . . our biggest front is Italy, and it must be obvious to you that this front is chicken feed compared to Russia (Russia's front) . . .

. . . (We) have not seen (much) action, hence most of our families have not received those little notices which send sadness over the nation . . . missing, wounded, dead, prisoner of war. The families that have received those notices know that this war isn't just a foregone conclusion. They know that for them it is over, and part of their heart and life has gone with it . . . But there are so few of those families that the rest of the nation may be assuming that it just can't happen . . . forget all this stuff about an early peace, tuck in your belt and get ready for a hell of a fight, which we will win, but not with complacency.

. . . so the European theatre is cleaned up, and so we turn to the little matter of taking Japan . . . Japan has been fighting a hell of a while and it will be no cinch to put her under . . . Get it out of your head that the Japanese war will be a cinch compared to the European theatre. It won't, and I base this opinion on the obvious facts. Japan is a stubborn enemy, and the guy in the planes, on the ships and in the fox holes, know this, because they are face to face with that "little side show."

. . . and don't take Italy as a symbol of what is going to happen to Germany. The Italians and Germans are different breeds of cats.

It is a tough fight, and we have not started. You can't win a war that way (with cocktail in hand) . . . In the early morning of November 26, 1943, Robert E. Lewis and Harry H. Poague left for the "brush," the scene of action. They left Port Moresby, New Guinea by plane in route to Brisbane. Approximately seven minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed, and all aboard were lost.

Bob's mother once asked him why he did not leave the Red Cross to accept one of the more lucrative jobs he had been offered. (She always wanted to see her son's byline on the front page of a newspaper.) Lewis replied, I'm afraid I'll never be able to take advantage of opportunities which are definitely opposed to the job I'm supposed to do. I apologize for this attitude. It is silly, but I can't play the game any other way. I had numerous opportunities to quit the Red Cross in the Middle East to go with other outfits with more money, and when it got right down to the final spring, I just couldn't do it. Now I know this is weak, but I've got to live with myself . . . so, while your son Robert is not going to come home a famous correspondent, and name writer, he will be in the drab Lewis tradition keeping intact a certain self respect. It costs a lot of money and prestige to do so . . . you cannot expect the plaudits of anyone, but somehow it makes you feel as "right" with the world as you can, and that is sufficient compensation.

. . . life is a pretty long race and the future generally takes care of itself if you play the rules the way you think they should be played . . . money and fame really aren't the things I'm after . . . the only thing I regret really, is that had I made the jumps . . . I might now be an established person in this field and you would have been very proud of me . . . She was.

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