For three decades, enormous interest in "The Good War" and "The Greatest Generation" has generated countless oral histories about World War II, in print and on video. Joseph R. L. Sterne's "Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II" offers a bracingly fresh perspective - the intensely written perspective of Sun correspondents filing copy from the front as if the life they shared with their subjects and their readers depended on it.
Observation, analysis and the tingle of personal experience come together in their dispatches with a hot-off-the-typewriter quality that hasn't cooled since they first hit newsstands between 60 and 70 years ago. (The Sun's Second World War coverage began on Nov. 15, 1939, with a cautionary account of America's lack of preparation.) Providing context as well as insights gleaned from his 44-year career as a Sun correspondent, foreign bureau chief and editorial page editor, Sterne compiles and shapes their stories into a chronicle of combat, politics, social upheaval - and a newspaper's recognition that a major metropolitan daily in the 20th century needed to be a major cosmopolitan daily to serve its readership and fulfill its journalistic responsibility.
Decades after the war, a daughter of one Sun correspondent, Lee McCardell, mentioned to Sterne that McCardell had burned all the wartime dispatches that his wife and her mother had saved. The one surviving correspondent, Holbrook Bradley, got the impetus to write a memoir only after he stumbled upon his mother's collection of his battleground work.
The sense that the writing of these reporters had fallen from sight and that their roving brand of reportage had become a fading tradition spurred Sterne to "read The Sun ... from September 1939 to September 1945," in the special collections room of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County library, each session ending "in a landscape of orange-colored edges of deteriorating newspaper pages." The result is a volume that Russell Baker hailed as giving younger readers "the thrill of being alive when the whole world was on fire" and older ones the chance to "look back in wonder."
"Baker sent me a funny letter," Sterne said. "He said he usually did blurbs only for books he didn't have to read, but he made a mistake and read this one - and loved looking at the stuff of all these reporters he knew again after all these years."
Sterne celebrates them, but without nostalgia. In conversation, right off the bat, he cites one hole in their coverage. "They mention all these Marylanders, but what they don't do, in my opinion, which is done in modern journalism, is develop them into a life story. That is something present-day reports would do: take an individual and go from the individual into broader issues."
Yet, operating without the roadblocks of "the newsroom bureaucracies that really started in the 1960s," McCardell, Bradley and the others managed to overcome military censorship and brutal circumstances.
"Think of McCardell going from the command post maybe 25-50 miles to the trenches to the front lines, then watching and observing a firefight, and coming back, and - can you imagine? - sitting down and filing a 2,000- or 3,000-word piece. Just astounding. Think of Bradley, with the 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, bobbing up and down on a troop ship, coming ashore on D-Day Plus One, wading through the water and observing all the snafus and the dead on Omaha Beach, and somehow sitting down and writing this incredible copy. Nothing is more ephemeral than newspaper copy. I wanted to put something into a book that might preserve it from total obscurity."
The vitality of their prose derives partly from their individual characters. "I found the personalities came through, and they were very different personalities. Mark Watson had a kind of scholarly style most of the time; he often did strictly military-analysis stuff, which made him a really respected guy in the Pentagon. Then you had McCardell, who could wear his heart on his sleeve. Or Price Day elegantly talking about which churches were destroyed in which Norman village - he even goes to see Gertrude Stein in the middle of the war, because he's always interested in cultural issues. And Bradley, the classic hotshot, taking risks for glory."
But Sterne wasn't satisfied with anthologizing their best articles. "Plenty of books just run journalistic stories one after the other without putting them in context. I don't know of any other book that tries to tie them in with the culture and tradition of a newspaper. It took three or four years, but it was fun."
He has won the approval of the most inside reader imaginable: Holbrook Bradley. On the phone from San Diego, Bradley calls the collection "fascinating and unique," and, most important, accurate in its depiction of reporters operating as soloists yet producing remarkable team coverage. "Most of the time, I made up my mind about what to cover when I got up in the morning. Around 4 or 5 in the morning, I'd go down to the war room, wherever it was set up, find out where the action was, get a jeep and a driver ... - and take off. From the time I joined the 29th Infantry Division, I was on my own."
Bradley received cables from executive editor Neil H. Swanson urging him "not to stick my neck out. But when you're reporting in a battlefield, you can't put yourself in any other position." Swanson also indicated a couple of times "that he felt I was talking too much about myself. I answered [that] I was talking more about what I was seeing than anything else. And then he backed down."
The correspondents' total immersion in their world imbues their reports with emotional dimensions. Bradley says he and his colleagues felt the need "to create pictures with words."
Their skill at bringing the reader into the action is nowhere more evident than in the chapter Sterne calls "Black Christmas in the Bulge." On the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the account of the GIs caught in it comes to contemporary readers as a sobering but also inspiring gift - a salute to the servicemen's powers of endurance and willingness to sacrifice.