Vital war stories, brought back to life
You have never heard of George Weller. Therein lies a story. No, hundreds of stories.
Journalism always has been disposable - this was an ancient truth long before the modern decline of the newspaper - but two generations ago the war correspondent, that indefatigable set of eyes and ears at the front line, was also indispensable. And so at this moment of journalism’s peril there arrives, perhaps just in time, a heavy volume that tells us what journalists did amid indescribable peril, and reminds us of what journalists can do amid the most trying circumstances.
“Weller’s War’’ is a collection of stories - great stories, written by a great correspondent whose work spanned five continents during World War II. These tales of heroism, fear, loss, national dreams, and an international nightmare are some of the finest ever told. And this collection, annotated by the correspondent’s son, Anthony Weller, secures the father’s place among the most gifted storytellers ever born.
These are stories that should never die.
First a word about George Weller himself. Suffice it to say that he was a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, one of the most elegant American newspapers ever. He had a Boston accent. But he had an all-American voice.
He was a witness to the war that shaped his time and ours. He fled the flames of Salonika by fishing boat. He was detained by Nazis for nine weeks. He huddled with De Gaulle in Brazzaville. He interviewed Haile Selassie. He witnessed the battle for the Malay Peninsula. He saw Nagasaki when the damage and the death still were raw. The fact that some readers have no idea of the significance of all this is reason enough for this book, and a tragedy all its own.
Plenty of war correspondents had grit and courage. But few had the light touch amid heavy bombardment that was Weller’s gift. Breathes there one of us who could, in our relative ease, comfort, and safety, write on our back-lit word processors a passage remotely like this, filed from Papua in late December 1942?:
“Not a bird chirps, not a leaf stirs. A cricket somewhere in the high, green kunai grass begins a faint song, then, oppressed by the sun, fades away. It is silent again. Suddenly the earth seems to rise and a soft blow of air, like a hand pat, strikes your face. Every tree trembles with the shock of shells.’’
Weller won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of one of the most remarkable wartime episodes ever, the story of how a 23-year-old pharmacist’s mate with no medical training, working in a submarine, performed an appendix operation on a 19-year-old sailor.
The operation took place on a table in the officers’ ward, so cramped that the “surgeons’’ had to kneel. They consulted a medical book and worked with fury and fervor. The cook took a tea strainer, covered it with gauze and fashioned an ether mask. The men saved their crewmate and as a result, as Weller wrote, “in one of the bottles vibrating on the submarine’s shelves swayed the first appendix ever known to have been removed below enemy waters.’’
The reader is tempted to think: Now let us remember famous men. But Weller and his compatriots no longer are famous. That is all the more reason to save what they wrote, while all about them a whole generation, now fading and dying, was saving the world.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.