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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Death of a War Correspondent: His Typewriter and his Last Story

Along with Margaret Bourke White's grotesque image of a Triumph standard typewriter in the rubble of a bombed out Leipzig in May 1945, this is probably one of the most dramatic typewriter photographs ever taken.
Roydon Keith Parker (1906-1943)
It shows what remains of the Remington portable typewriter which belonged to New Zealand-born Australian war correspondent Roydon Keith Palmer, who was killed during a Japanese air raid on a Bougainville beachhead in the Solomon Islands. Palmer was outside the US Marine Corps Press hut when a 500lb bomb fell within 10 yards of it. It blew a hole 12 feet deep by 30 feet wide. A piece of shell struck Palmer in the forehead and he died instantly.
AP's Rembert James at his own Remington portable typewriter
Parker's shattered Remington was found beside his body - along with a seven-page draft of his last story - by Associated Press war correspondent Rembert Faulkner James, who took the typed copy to United Press's George Edward Jones (1916-1994) to get it ready for filing.
Palmer, who was covering the Pacific Theatre of World War II for the US magazine Newsweek and the Australian newspaper the Melbourne Herald, died at 2.30 on the morning of Sunday, November 7, 1943. He had just turned 37.
Here is the last story Palmer wrote on his Remington:

Palmer's death was widely covered in US newspapers at the time, largely because he was just 10 feet away from AP's Rembert Faulkner James (born October 14, 1905, Waxahachie, Texas; died January 10, 1985, La Jolla, California), who was seriously wounded in the same air raid and who wrote about the bombing in great detail.
James wrote that it was Palmer's "own amazing curiosity" which led to his death, hence this US newspaper headline:
Ted C.Link
James wrote that the last man to see Palmer alive was the great St Louis Post-Dispatch crime reporter Theodore Carl Link (1904-1974), who was in Bougainville as a technical sergeant, the Marine Corps' combat correspondent and editor of Chevron. TIME magazine once said Link had "probably written more about crime than any other US newsman". Link was a grandson of the famous German-born architect of the same name. Link told James:
According to James, the first man to reach Palmer was Marine Corps Third Division press relations officer Captain Patrick Francis O'Sheel, who, like James and Link, had also been injured in the heavy shelling.
Patrick O'Sheel in 1961
O'Sheel, born in Washington DC on October 31, 1914, was a graduate of Dartmouth College and served as a Marine Corps press officer and combat correspondent during World War II.  Immediately after the war he was in the US Diplomatic Corps in Africa and the Middle East, then wrote for The New Yorker and worked in London for LIFE magazine as associate editor and bureau chief. He was later a CIA agent in Europe. He died on July 23, 1994, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
It was O'Sheel who saw to Palmer's burial. James ended his story with these touching lines:
Less than three months after his death, the US Navy named a Liberty ship in Palmer's honour. The SS Keith Palmer was launched at the Todd Shipyard in Houston, Texas, in late February 1944. A message from Palmer's widow was read at the launching. The ship was sponsored by the wife of Newsweek's foreign editor Harry Kern.
Roydon Keith Palmer was born in October 1906 in Foxhill, in the Waimea South district of the Nelson province in New Zealand. His story is close to my heart, since my paternal grandmother was also born there, at Belgrove, along with one of my aunts and three uncles, and my grandparents married in Wakefield. Also born close by was Ernest Rutherford, the man who split the atom.
Like some of my great-uncles, Palmer attended Nelson College. He then went on to Canterbury University in Christchurch, but elected to pursue a career in journalism. He joined the Christchurch Sun in 1927 and later moved to The Press. In 1933 he married Mary Edith McKee (born Shankill, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, December 1908) and three years later the couple settled in Australia. Palmer became an aviation writer with the Melbourne Herald, having developed a passion for flying after befriending Australian aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford Smith in New Zealand, before Kingsford Smith's untimely death in November 1935. Palmer was the first journalist to fly around Australia.
In 1937 Palmer (seen here talking the fellow journalists on the ground) flew back to New Zealand in a de Havilland DH86 Express passenger transport biplane. This photo was taken in Wellington.
In August 1940 Palmer covered for a range of Herald group newspapers across the country the inaugural flight of the Pan-American-TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) Boeing 314 Clipper NC18602, the California Clipper. He was one of the first two Australians to fly the Pacific route from Sydney to Auckland and on to San Francisco.
Pan-Am's California Clipper and beside it TEAL's Aotearoa at Auckland International Airport at Mechanics Bay in 1940. I kid you not. That was what it was called.
At the outbreak of the Pacific War, Palmer, who was general vice-president of the Australian Journalists' Association, was embedded with the Royal Australian Navy, representing the Australian Press Association. After a spell back on dry land, as magazine editor of the Melbourne Herald, he was asked to replace AAP's special correspondent, Winston Turner, a veteran of the Boer War and First World War, as South Pacific war correspondent. Turner was in Java when the Japanese advanced south, but was able to escape back to Australia on a small ship.
Days before his death, Palmer filed this story:
Palmer's wife and two young sons returned to New Zealand from Melbourne soon after his death. Mary Palmer lived out the rest of her life in Christchurch. I believe she may have died in 2009, having reached the age of 100. One of her sons, David Maxwell Palmer, became a Christchurch solicitor.


Richard P said...

This is a superficial comment on this impressive story, but I really love those Tasman and Pan Am posters.

Julie Membrey said...

My husband has just returned from walking the Kokoda Track and took a photograph of Keith Palmers grave at Port Moresby. Discovering your blog article was a goldmine, putting a story, albeit tragic, to a carved name. Thank you.