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Monday, 16 November 2015

The Legendary, Intrepid Californian War Correspondent Tom Treanor and his Typewriter

When it came to getting accredited to cover battles in World War II, he was seeded by US Army authorities 140th out of 140. But of those 140, and the many hundreds of other war correspondents who covered the war, young Californian Thomas Stanly Coghill Treanor was unquestionably the smartest. None other than Damon Runyon rated him "one of the four best reporters developed in this war." So how come we know so little about him?
[Coghill was his mother's maiden name and Stanly, not Stanley, was her mother's maiden name.] 
Tom Treanor was smart not so much because he was the first Allied correspondent to land at Anzio in January 1944, the only one to step foot on Monte Cassino the next month, or the first to file a detailed account from Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day on June 6 that year, or because:
(Treanor typed his story of the bombing raid on Rome while seated on a stool in the radio compartment of a B-25. No worries about using a typewriter on an aeroplane back then.)
But because he:
1. For the best part of four years in all, from June 1940 and again two years later, he travelled more than 20,000 miles across the world - by airplane, steamship, automobile and railroad - reaching, as so few others did, to the outer fringes of the two major theatres of war, Europe and the Pacific. He was in Egypt, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Malta, Italy and France. He even got to Burma, China (he hitchhiked from Chongqing [then Chungking] back to Gibraltar!) and to India, notably to what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh.
2. He travelled light, carrying just a portable typewriter, a bed roll and a zipper bag. He often slept rough.
3. He travelled quick, jumping at any given opportunity into Army jeeps, LSTs, supply trucks, borrowed cars and air force planes, sometimes not knowing quite where they were taking him, just knowing he was headed to his next big story.
4. He scorned protocol, never stopping to worry about authorisation, to be accredited or to be escorted to landings or the battlefront. He just kept telling people, "I'm the only correspondent from west of the Mississippi."
Travelling light: Tom Treanor on the Normandy Front, July, 1944.
5. But perhaps most importantly, he had the blessing of the Los Angeles Times to not bother wiring back heavily censored copy. Instead, Treanor used his typewriter everywhere he went - sometimes typing under fire - then mailed every one of the 1000 words a day he had typed (almost 600,000 in all). Nevertheless, United Press syndicated his reports once they had reached LA, and his articles turned up in such publications as the Washington Post and Vogue. One historian wrote, "Many times [he] actually wrote his stories on a portable right under the light of battle. This method of production was not common to field correspondents, since most of them waited until they returned to the safety and comfort of a theatre headquarters or neutral city."
6. And Treanor wrote bright, enlightened stories, not just about the battles but also about the men and women who fought and the ordinary, innocent people caught up in conflict. Some of Treanor's stories are considered among the finest examples of reporting during the war. ("That old dash has gone from the battle. No longer are there those mad, gallant, exciting races back and forth across the desert with no one getting killed but soldiers. No women, no babies, no old men. These fought-over towns in Sicily and Italy are depressing.")
And this guy isn't even mentioned on Wikipedia, not even among the war correspondents who were killed in action!
Sadly, by a stroke of grave misfortune, Treanor didn't live to read the published version of his best-seller. He died in France, exactly 10 days after it was first reviewed stateside - a review which rated it way above all other war books to that time. One reason: "The author isn't so damn sure about everything!" Please read One Damn Thing after Another here. It's brilliant.
Treanor had returned to the US to write One Damn Thing After Another on March 20, 1944, but then went back to the front in Europe in mid-May, this time working for the National Broadcasting Company as well as the LA Times. Below is a 28-minute November 1944 NBC radio dramatisation by actor William Janney, adapted by writer Gerald Holland from sections of Treanor's book, Words at War: One Damn Thing After Another.
It's well worth the listen to hear Treanor's descriptions of typewriter use and the value of mailing his copy.
Ironically, just a fortnight before his death, at age 35, Treanor was the only one of 21 correspondents polled who predicted the war would drag on into 1945 - the meagre $210 proceeds of his "pool" win were sent back to his widow, Eleanor Stimson Treanor, and their children Tom, 10, John, 9, and Cordelia, 6, in California.
At 6.30 on the evening of August 18, 1944, Treanor was rushing ahead of the US Third Army to get to a Paris radio station to break the news of Patton's push through Brittany to the Seine, when the jeep he was sitting in tried to overtake a column of Sherman tanks east of Chartres. One veered left at the crossroads and collided with the jeep, overturning it. Treanor suffered scalp and internal injuries and a crushed foot. Ten pints of blood were pumped into him at roadside, and more plasma through the night in a frontline hospital. But he died on the operating table, 10 hours after the crash, at 4.30am on the 19th. He was the 19th of 54 US correspondents to be killed in World War II. Treanor was buried later that day at an Army cemetery south-west at Le Mans, and later re-interned at the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial at Saint-James, near St-Malo. Associated Press obituaries which appeared in newspapers across the US opened with the words that Treanor was "an almost legendary journalistic figure of this war".
Even as he lay dying in the ditch outside Chartres, Treanor was instructing fellow correspondent, the CBS's Charles Shaw (who was sitting in the back of the jeep, having swapped seats with Treanor so he could stretch his legs) to let the LA Times know it needed to send a "temporary" replacement. The third passenger in the jeep was International News Pictures photographer Sonnee Gottlieb, who was asked by the bloodied Treanor, "Did you get a picture of me under that tank? This is a hell of a thing to happen to me just before we get to Paris." Medical Captain William Werner was the first to offer assistance, telling Treanor he was also from Los Angeles. "Did you hear that?" asked Treanor. "Get his name for my newspaper." But both Shaw and Gottlieb were beyond taking notes - they too were seriously injured, though they both survived the crash.
As the morphine started to take effect, Treanor murmured, "Well I guess I'm lucky to be alive." These were to be the last words he ever spoke.
Two weeks after his death, Dick Mack had written the tribute song Headlines From the Frontlines, sung on his radio show by Kenny Baker.
The AP's Hal Boyle paid tribute to Treanor for his "clean and well-earned news break" at Cassino, "one of many similar exploits", recalled how he slept on a couch in the AP villa in Algiers, and said he had never meet a more daring, nor an "abler, harder working reporter and writer". "He had a knack of catching the emotional flavour of the fighting ... He was always pretty much of a lone wolf." Peter Whitney wrote on the San  Francisco Chronicle : "He was universally respected as one of the finest newspapermen covering this war.” 
Above, Hal Boyle, left, with Ernie Pyle; below Boyle carries his typewriter, and below that Boyle using his typewriter.
Treanor's LA Times editor Loyal Durant "L.D." Hotchkiss said Treanor was "an editor's dream come true - and also a nightmare. You could always depend on him to cover his battle from Row A, Centre - the front lines - but you never are sure he won't grab Montgomery's beret or Patton's pearl-handled revolvers and start leading the fireworks himself." Virgil Pinkley of United Press wrote, "Treanor ... everlastingly was thinking about the [LA] Times and its readers. He was a real soldier of the press, willing to go anywhere, anytime, regardless of danger or hardships." Treanor's NBC colleague John MacVane said:
Tom Treanor was born in Los Angeles on November 8, 1908. He studied at Stanford for two years before graduating in 1927, and then went to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was a member of Zeta Psi fraternity. In 1944, he was elected to Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism society (a journalism scholarship was established in his name at UCLA). He married Eleanor Stimson on May 11, 1932. They had three children, Thomas Gordon (b1934), John Marshall (b1935) and Cordelia (b1938). 
Treanor started his journalism career on the Los Angeles Evening Express and Herald-Express in 1930, then moved to report for the Oakland Post-Enquirer in 1932 and the Wisconsin News in Milwaukee, before returning to California to join the Los Angeles Examiner and finally the Los Angeles Times from November 26, 1934, as a reporter, society editor and associate editor on the Times Sunday Magazine. He started his daily column for the Times in 1940. Treanor ended One Damn Thing After Another by saying the book might have been titled, "You, too, can become a war correspondent ... I used to be a society editor for the Los Angeles Times. What did you used to be?"
Under the headline "Self-Made Correspondent", TIME published this article on June 21, 1943:
"Most of the 50,000 US newsmen drudge along in their 40-hour-a-week (usually) jobs, pushing pencils, punching typewriters, interviewing small fry, reporting the drab doings of civic characters. Tom Treanor was one such unglamourous unfortunate. But last week Tom Treanor was in Chungking. Tom Treanor is a columnist-correspondent, of the same general school as Ernie Pyle. His cosy, comfortable, popular column, paradoxically called 'The Home Front', appears daily in the Los Angeles Times. His airmailed articles (to save cable tolls) are angled for publication six weeks after writing. They are bright vignettes - a picture of the five Italian bootleggers who supply the US Army in Ethiopia; American soldiers borrowing the instruments of a Calcutta dance band and giving Calcuttans a taste of boogie-woogie. Tall, handsome Thomas Stanly Treanor is 35-years-old, with a mop of jet-black hair and a shy face. He started out in routine fashion, reporting for Hearst papers in Los Angeles (his home). Later he joined the Los Angeles Times as woman's-page editor, in 1940 got his 'Home Front' column to write. In April 1942, he was on a tour of defence plants when he decided to be a war correspondent. He wired the Times [and] asked if it would pay his daily living expenses if he could get a free bomber ride to the Middle East. The Times wired him $1500 and its blessing. Treanor invested $1250 in a Pan American Airways ticket, arrived in Cairo as Nazi Marshal Rommel approached Alexandria. No insignia. The British refused to accredit him. His claim that he was the only correspondent from a paper west of the Mississippi failed to impress them. Why, they said, we've got plenty of correspondents from west of the Mississippi - five from Chicago, for instance. Tom Treanor was not permitted to go near the front. He went anyway. For 70¢ he bought a pair of correspondents' shoulder insignia. He borrowed a British military truck, got to the lines, got back to Cairo before the British public relations officers knew he was gone. He sent letters to the Times telling all. The British stripped him of his illegal insignia. Then he nosed around a rear RAF base, finally wangled a free bomber ride to Malta, then to Gibraltar. On the way back to Egypt, he saw the bombing of Navarino Bay. The British PROs were furious, forbade him to ride in combat planes. No trouble. Undaunted, correspondent Treanor sidled up to some New Zealanders [and] was taken along into the Battle of El Alamein. Treanor went with them into enemy gunfire [and] saw five days of the battle before the British discovered him. This time they complained to the US Army. Treanor was ordered by his paper to leave the Near East, fast. The first plane out was one bound for India. Treanor hopped [on] it. In India, he was finally accredited. He saw jungle fighting, in his spare time interviewed maharajas. He went along when US bombers plastered Rangoon, finally went across the Himalayas into China. As far as the Times is concerned, he can go on being a foreign correspondent forever. Probably no paper ever got war coverage as cheaply. Paid an estimated $125 a week, Treanor gets along on $10 a day expense money, even in expensive Cairo, where it costs most correspondents three times as much."
You can hear Treanor's own voice describing his Normandy landing here. Note how assiduously he follows the cardinal rule about names and home towns.
February 1944

5 comments:

Richard P said...

Very impressive. These war correspondents were heroes, adventurers, inquirers, thinkers, good guys, and embodiments of courage.

Joe V said...

Great story, Robert. My father was in the North African and Italian campaigns, an aircraft mechanic in an American fighter squadron assigned to Gen. Montgomery's 8th Army. Always love to read about others who served. This piece is first-rate journalism, well done.

~Joe Van Cleave

Bill M said...

Great report Robert. I love the details you manage to find and post. I only knew of Mr. Treanor as the news reporter killed in a Jeep crash in France. War reporters from all wars need more recognition for what they did.

Gary Yerkey said...

Check out this biography of Tom Treanor, published last year -- "Dying for the News: Honoring Tom Treanor and the Other Reporters Killed Covering World War II." By Gary G. Yerkey.

Gary Yerkey said...

Check out this biography of Tom Treanor, published last year -- "Dying for the News: Honoring Tom Treanor and the Other Reporters Killed Covering World War II" By Gary G. Yerkey.