In the Thick of It: A War Correspondent’s Discovered Journals
Every child should have an attic, barn, or basement that he or she can explore and every attic, barn, and basement should hold treasures for the children of a later age to find. That is part of the magic of the dust filled spaces of our lives. For Kenneth Gorrell, the attic in his ancestral home in New Hampshire yielded treasure in the form of a 400-page manuscript written by Henry T. Gorrell (1911-1958), a United Press war correspondent who covered the Spanish Civil War and the early years of the conflict that we now know as World War II. Now, more than sixty years after it was first written, the University of Missouri Press has published Gorrell’s manuscript as Soldier of the Press: Covering the Front in Europe and North Africa 1936-1943. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted diary of one man’s experience in a world that was quickly succumbing to Fascism.
Gorrell’s story begins in 1936 when Mussolini ordered him expelled from Italy as a result of an article that he had written which suggested that Mussolini faced opposition by Italian Communists. Following his expulsion, Gorrell travelled to Paris for a short time and then on to Spain. In 1936, Spain was in the midst of its civil war and Franco’s Fascists, supported by the troops and technologies of Nazi Germany, were fast approaching victory. Reporting on the civil war for the United Press, Gorrell was captured by the Fascists, who threatened him with execution but eventually released him across the frontier back to France.
A good journalist records history as it happens and offers a first personal analysis to the facts of the day. Gorrell was such a journalist, and his assessment of world events would have been compelling if it had been written years after the conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in reflecting on the events of 1936-1939, Gorrell makes an astute observation about America:
We in America, as early as 1937, were unwittingly aiding and abetting Hitler’s schemes. If the man in the street in New York, Chicago or San Francisco did not realize it, Roosevelt did. He was well aware of the significance of the Spanish Civil War; he knew that Franco’s victory meant a triumph for the Axis powers and another step towards the dictators’ bid for world domination. Control of the western Mediterranean, even if only partly achieved through Italian and German intervention in Spain, was essential to the programs of Messrs. Mussolini and Hitler.
In addition to offering us keen insight, Gorrell also was witness to the early stages of the Second World War in Southern Europe and North Africa, especially in areas that are often overlooked by other analysts. Gorrell was assigned to cover the Balkans and arrived in Budapest in January 1940. As a journalist, he shared a common cause with both Allied and Axis reporters assigned to Budapest for the same reason that he was there. Not surprisingly, the reporters from the opposing perspectives in the ever-growing world conflict found a common cause that surpassed the national animosity that their respective countries demonstrated. As Gorrell notes, it was not uncommon for Axis reporters to send their news bulletins to the Allied journalists table at the Café Angly and for the Allied reporter to reciprocate, even though the two sides rarely engaged in conversation with each other.
After leaving Hungary, Gorrell watched in Romania as the combined Hungarian and German forces occupied the country. From there he traveled to Bulgaria, where he unwittingly became the paramour of a Gestapo spy, and then on to Greece and Albania where he watched the beginning of Mussolini’s fall from power as the poorly equipped and outnumbered Greeks destroyed twenty Italian divisions. Of course, Greece would eventually fall to the Germans but not before Gorrell had linked up with members of the British Expeditionary Force and joined them as they were evacuated.
It should be clear that Gorrell was constantly on the move during the war. Every page of his memoir offers the possibility that he would be running off to a new location. Following his evacuation from Greece, Gorrell would travel, among other places, throughout North Africa, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, England, and back to Italy. Along the way, he would marry and become a father, which is perhaps among the more remarkable aspects of his life, as his readers cannot help but wonder how he had the energy.
There have been many books written about the Second World War. What makes Henry Gorrell’s story special is that it is not a book about World War II as much as it is about Henry Gorrell and his personal experiences during the turbulent period from 1936 to 1942. Gorrell was present in combat and he records the experience of having bombs dropping near him and bullets spitting on the street beside him, but those aspects of his life are almost afterthoughts. For Gorrell, it was the quest for the story that drove him forward. It did not matter to him, it seems, where he was, as long as he was in the thick of it. He drank hard, worked hard, and made the battle-torn Mediterranean theater his playground. When one reads Soldier of the Press, one gets the sense that Gorrell hated war so much that he loved it.
Many war correspondents have shared their views on war with the reading public. Ernie Pyle walked with the infantry and told their stories to an eager public. Bill Mauldin told stories a different way, through the humor of his Willie and Joe cartoons, but they were still stories of the tired dogfaces of the infantry. Others have recorded the stories of the air corps and the navy and the marines. Gorrell, however, tells us a special story of his own quest to cover the war and to scoop the other journalists who were in the field with him. For Gorrell, and the men like him who fought with a pen, the war was more than horror. It was a horrible adventure that they needed to experience, and to live.
Soldier of the Press should have been published long ago. Thank goodness that a later generation Gorrell still had enough curiosity to dig through piles of papers packed away in a forgotten attic in New Hampshire. If that had not happened, we might never have been able to enjoy the excitement and the insight that Henry T. Gorrell left as his legacy. Indeed, the only piece of Gorrell’s adventure that is missing is a post-script to let his readers know what happened to him after he finished telling his story. There was still a lot of war left to be fought, and readers are left with the suspicion that wherever the fighting was most intense, Gorrell was probably there.
Books mentioned in this column:
Soldier of the Press: Covering the Front in Europe and North Africa 1936-1943 by Henry T. Gorrell, University of Missouri Press, 2009
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy.