Los Angeles Review of Books

ON THE NIGHT of March 9, 1945, American B-29 bombers burned 15 square miles of Tokyo, killing 100,000 civilians and leaving more than one million homeless. It was the greatest of the incendiary air raids, but it was far from the last. On March 11, American B-29s bombed Nagoya; March 13, Osaka; March 16, Kobe; March 18, Nagoya again. Five raids in nine days, 32 square miles destroyed in Japan’s four most populous cities — 41 percent of the area the Army Air Forces destroyed in all of Germany during the entire war, and at a total cost of only 22 B-29s and their crews.[i] General Curtis LeMay, who was in charge, quit, at least for a time. He had run out of napalm. Two months later, his stocks replenished, he systematically burned 62 smaller Japanese cities.

That same year, A. J. Liebling began writing his New Yorker “Wayward Press” column, which to this day is considered the gold standard in media criticism. Lieblings’s first “Wayward Press” appeared on May 19 and criticized the attempted military embargo on immediate reporting of the German surrender. Two weeks after that, The New Yorker began its coverage of the firebombing of Japan. Had Liebling been aware of the bombing’s backstory, it might have prompted a second “Wayward Press.”

St. Clair McKelway, a veteran reporter for the magazine, had taken a leave of absence from the magazine to serve as a public relations officer in the Army Air Forces (AAF). He was stationed with the Bomber Command in Guam at the time, taking his orders directly from General LeMay, and he fully supported LeMay’s belief that the bombing would bring about a swift end to the war. The New Yorker’s managing editor, Harold Ross, accepted McKelway’s reporting. He should have been cautious for two reasons: first, McKelway was no longer his reporter, but was a lieutenant colonel under military orders. And second, Ross knew that McKelway had a history of playing fast and loose with facts. McKelway twisted the bombing story to match the AAF line, changed dates and facts to put himself at the story’s center and flatter his military superiors. Most importantly, he whitewashed what many now view as a war crime: the US’s concerted strategy of incinerating civilians wholesale in their homes.

McKelway’s deception is a cautionary lesson worthy of coverage in the “Wayward Press” series, but it is also a recurring tale in the media. The New Yorker editors were delighted to find they had a reporter working, living, and relaxing with the commanders and the bomber crews destroying Japan. No other publication had that sort of access. Fifty-eight years later, The New York Times would publish accounts of its own reporter, Judith Miller, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. She based her stories on exclusive access to Ahmad Chalabi and to high-level Pentagon officials, an exclusivity she protected fiercely. Like McKelway, much of Miller’s story proved to be false — a mixture of lies, unverified claims, and vanity. Both McKelway’s and Miller’s editors knew their reporters were personally erratic, but the stories were just too good. They had to be published.

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Robert Guillain, an eyewitness, wrote of the Tokyo bombing in his book I Saw Tokyo Burning (1981) that the bombers “circled and criss-crossed the area, leaving great rings of fire behind them,” that a house could be hit by 10 or even more small bombs, which scattered “a kind of flaming dew [napalm] that skittered along the roofs, setting fire to everything it splashed.” The houses, made of wood and paper, were “lighted from the inside like paper laterns.”

The hurricane-force winds puffed up great clots of flame and sent burning planks planing through the air to fell people and set fire to what they touched … In the dense smoke, where the wind was so hot it seared the lungs, people struggled, then burst into flames where they stood … [I]t was often the refugees’ feet that began burning first: the men’s puttees and the women’s trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing. Proper air-raid clothing as recommended by the government consisted of a heavily padded hood … to protect people’s ears from bomb blasts … The hoods flamed under the rain of sparks; people who did not burn from the feet up burned from the head down. Mothers who carried their babies on their backs, Japanese style, would discover too late that the padding that enveloped the infant had caught fire … Wherever there was a canal, people hurled themselves into the water; in shallow places, people waited, mouths just above the surface of the water. Hundreds of them were later found dead; not drowned, but asphyxiated by the burning air and smoke … In other places, the water got so hot that the luckless bathers were simply boiled alive.

And here’s what General LeMay, who had masterminded the raid, wrote in his memoirs (Mission with LeMay: My Story, 1965):

Drafts from the Tokyo fires bounced our airplanes into the sky like ping-pong balls. According to the Tokyo fire chief, the situation was out of control within minutes. It was like an explosive forest fire in dry pine woods. The racing flames engulfed ninety-five fire engines and killed one hundred and twenty-five firemen … About one-fourth of the city went up in smoke that night anyway. More than two hundred and sixty-seven thousand buildings.

He quoted the Air Force history of the war, and he italicized the quote out of pride for what he and his men had done: “No other air attack of the war, either in Japan or Europe, was so destructive of life and property.”

The napalm-bombing campaign worked so smoothly that it had its own momentum, yet it did not receive the press coverage it merited. The bombers’ very efficiency made its operation less newsworthy: there was little to photograph from 30,000 feet, and American military casualties were light. AAF press releases minimized Japanese civilian casualties, and even President Truman seems not to have fully realized what LeMay’s bombers had done. He wrote in his memoirs that the bombing began to do real damage to Japan only in midsummer 1945. Victory in Europe, not the incineration of Japan, was the big story.

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In 1936, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founder and managing editor, appointed St. Clair McKelway to be the magazine’s first “fact” (nonfiction) editor. Three years later, in 1939, McKelway chose to return to full-time writing, and his assistant, William Shawn, took over as fact editor. McKelway was best known for his New Yorker profiles of the columnist Walter Winchell and of the Harlem preacher Father Divine, and for his amusing stories of arsonists, process servers, and cops. But in 1942, McKelway enlisted in the Army Air Forces as a press officer and was posted to Burma, India, China, and then to Guam as the press officer for the Twenty-First Bomber Command of the Twentieth Air Force, then commanded by LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood “Possum” Hansell.

The New Yorker covered LeMay’s bombing campaign three times — in 1945, in 1958, and in 2010. The original June 1945 version was McKelway’s four-part eyewitness account of the bombings of Japan. In 1958, McKelway retold the same story, revealing that while serving on Guam in 1945, he had made a deranged accusation of high treason against Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, was arrested and transferred to the United States, where he holed up in New York’s Ritz Hotel to write his series in a manic state — that may not sound funny, but McKelway wrote it as comedy, and William Shawn, then The New Yorker’s managing editor, accepted it as such. In 2010, Roger Angell, a long-time New Yorker writer, told the story a third time as a benign, straightforward reminiscence about McKelway, the magazine, and the war. All three versions suffer from McKelway’s deceptions: the first two directly, and Angell’s account indirectly, because he relied on McKelway’s narrative.

I examined all three versions while I was writing a book that described the napalm bombing of Japan, American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War.[ii] I was skeptical of The New Yorker stories, so I examined the manuscripts and correspondence available in The New Yorker archives at The New York Public Library. I found that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers had either missed or ignored several glaring discrepancies and outright lies in all three versions, even though the evidence was in the magazine’s files.

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More than 30 years after the war’s end, historian Michael Sherry wrote an account of the AAF’s air campaign against Japan, upon which I have relied.[iii] Through 1944, the AAF for the most part adhered to its strategic bombing principles. This meant that, unlike the British who area-bombed city centers in night raids, the Americans made precision daylight strikes on military targets — a strategy that was, according to AAF doctrine, more effective than bombing civilians, and also more ethical. On November 24, 1944, General Hansell’s bombers began their campaign by attacking Tokyo’s Nakajima aircraft engine factory, but precision bombing failed. The B-29s hit a problem over Japan that no one had anticipated: they were flying at 30,000 feet, and the bombsight could not handle the speed of the jet-stream winds.

General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the AAF commander in Washington, was dissatisfied, and unlike Hansell, he was not wedded to the precision bombing doctrine. If the bombers couldn’t hit factories, production could be disrupted by bombing factory workers. On December 18, 1944, General Lauris Norstad, Arnold’s chief of staff, ordered Hansell to use 100 B-29s to hit the main residential district of Nagoya. Hansell protested directly to Arnold, writing that, “our mission is the destruction of primary targets by sustained attacks using precision bombing methods.” Arnold chose to reply only through Norstad, who explained to Hansell that Nagoya was a “special mission resulting from the necessity of future planning.” Hansell complied with Norstad’s order, but he used only 49 planes and bombed the Nagoya aircraft factory rather than the residential neighborhoods.

Arnold and Norstad had decided on a switch to area bombing — to firebomb Japan’s paper and wood housing. They had not informed Hansell because they did not want their names on such orders or policy statements; Arnold wanted a commander who would take hints and act on his own, which Hansell was unwilling to do. On January 20, 1945, Arnold sent Norstad to fire Hansell and put Curtis LeMay, the most successful bombing commander in Europe, in charge.

When LeMay attempted to use standard precision bombing tactics, he ran into the same problems that Hansell had: B-29 failures, overcast weather, and high-speed jet stream winds. High-altitude daylight bombing was not working, and if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to do something else. He turned the AAF’s strategic doctrine on its head and ordered a low-altitude, incendiary night attack on Tokyo’s neighborhoods. He wrote in his memoirs that he considered clearing his plans with Arnold and Norstad, but decided they would not want their fingerprints on the raid if it failed. After LeMay’s March 9 Tokyo attack, the B-29 crews could see that their whole approach to bombing had changed. The AAF denied it. At a press conference in Washington, Norstad bragged about the damage to Japan’s economy but refused to estimate civilian casualties, and he denied any general switch from explosives to incendiaries.

The AAF’s senior press officer in Washington cabled McKelway that “commentators [were] having [a] field day searching implications … which imply that this is area bombing and speculating whether this means departure from policy of precision bombing.” He ordered McKelway to counteract “editorial comment … about blanket incendiary attacks against cities … Guard against anyone saying this is area bombing.”

McKelway’s manipulations worked. Time celebrated the Tokyo attack by announcing that a “dream came true last week for U.S. Army aviators: […] they proved that, properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves” and repeated the AAF line, saying, “B-29 commanders insisted that this was not ‘area bombing’ of the sort practiced by the British in Europe, but rather ‘precision area bombing.’” The Atlantic Monthly said that the “burning out of the small household factories is one of the quickest and cheapest methods of dislocating the Japanese war machine; its high cost in life for the Japanese may make it a potent argument for surrender.” The left-wing American publications, which might have been expected to protest the killing of 100,000 civilians, ignored the story: The Nation gave the air attacks on Japan almost no coverage, and The New Republic was particularly obtuse, writing more than two months after the Tokyo raid that “it is likely to be some time yet before even the preliminary air campaign against Japan can get under way, and meanwhile the war out there will doubtless wear an irritating appearance of quiescence.” Protests were confined to small-circulation religious or pacifistic publications. The Commonweal, a Catholic weekly, for example, published an essay entitled “Our War with Japan: No Lasting Peace by Annihilation” by Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party. Few read it.

Daily newspapers did a better job covering the bombing, but they often buried B-29 raids in interior pages. The bombings in Japan had to share column inches and headlines with the European war, and The New York Times’ March 11 issue gave the destruction of Tokyo second billing to the Allied crossing of the Rhine — Tokyo was on the front page, but below the fold. As the bombing progressed, other stories from the European theater demanded coverage — the advance into Germany, the liberation of the concentration camps, the fall of Berlin, the meeting of the American and Russian soldiers on the Elbe, and the German surrender. Correspondents who were based on Guam found that the bloody invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the kamikaze attacks on the Navy’s ships, offered better action photos, newsreels, and combat interviews than did the B-29s. The bombing campaign involved no direct contact with the enemy, no great face offs, no land battles. Instead, planes took off each afternoon, flew 1,500 miles, dropped their bombs, flew back, and landed. A reporter might have filed the same B-29 story each day, changing only the names of the cities burned. What should have been the most important story in the Pacific Theater — the destruction of 66 Japanese cities — just wasn’t exciting copy. 

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The New Yorker’s editors saw a way to make the bombing interesting. McKelway was the Twenty-First’s press officer on Guam from October 12, 1944, under General Hansell until March 26, 1945, just after the conclusion of General LeMay’s first incendiary attacks.[iv] The magazine, in a stroke of luck, had one of its top human-interest reporters at the very center of the action. Roger Angell would later write that “Ross must have been ecstatic about the breadth of McKelway’s knowledge of the ongoing headline event in the war and his intimate association with its leaders.” On January 29, 1945, Ross applied pressure. He wrote to McKelway, “I haven’t forgotten that we would damned well like to have a piece or two from you. Several people […] have told me that you have unexcelled opportunities to see life out there and if you’d put your mind to it you could find time to write.” He may have imagined that McKelway would write about the bombing in the same way that he had written earlier about New York characters. However, the war had changed much more than the reporter’s location. McKelway was no longer writing urbane profiles of the colorful characters of New York. Now an officer in the US Army, McKelway had orders from his military superiors. Ross knew this but chose to ignore it.

Just five months later, from June 9 to June 30, 1945, The New Yorker ran his four-part series under the title “A Reporter with the B-29s.” McKelway told the story of Hansell’s early attempts at high-altitude precision bombing (Part I); Norstad’s trip to Guam to replace Hansell with LeMay (Part II); LeMay’s destruction of Tokyo and his incendiary bombing of Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka (Part III); and a tribute to “the people” — the officers and enlisted men of the Twenty-First Bomber Command (Part IV). In his signature fashion, McKelway told his stories from an intimate, first-person perspective. He described waiting anxiously with Hansell and General Rosy O’Donnell for the weather to clear so that returning B-29s could land safely; sitting up alone with LeMay and drinking Coca-Cola while they waited for the bombardiers’ radio reports of the attack on Tokyo; and watching the air and ground crews work and relax.

McKelway began his Part I with a detailed rendition of himself embedded in the Twentieth Air Force:

I have been with the Twentieth Air Force in the Marianas since some weeks before the first B-29 strike against Tokyo, on November 24, 1944, Guam time, which was Thanksgiving Day, November 23rd, here at home on the Eastern seaboard. I was physically and mentally and spiritually all present, duly accounted for, at my Bomber Command Headquarters on Guam last Monday afternoon, Guam time, which was last Sunday night here. Now, as I begin to put down these words with a yellow pencil on a pad, the calendar on my desk in my hotel room in Washington shows incontrovertibly that this is the Saturday morning after the Sunday morning on which I flew out of Guam. The morning newspaper on the bed bears this out […] I am in a Washington hotel room at 5:35 a.m. Eastern war time (3:35 p.m. of the following day, by Guam time), putting these words down on this pad.

His claim of being “physically and mentally and spiritually all present, duly accounted for” has the ring of protesting too much. Further, McKelway congests the opening with extraneous times and dates, listing each temporal measurement twice to account for the time difference between Guam and the East Coast. This unnecessary moment of specificity contrasts with his refusal to clearly state his return date. Though he mentions both the calendar and newspaper on which this date would have appeared, he does not give it. If he had revealed the actual date he had left Guam, his eyewitness story would have been stale news, more than two months old by the time it appeared in the June 9 magazine. He wanted his story to be immediate; he wanted to be a war correspondent, reporting from the front lines like Ernie Pyle or his New Yorker rival, A. J. Liebling.

McKelway’s dishonesty went beyond obscuring or changing dates. During World War II, reports from war zones were subject to censorship for facts (supposedly not for opinions), but the United States did not impose censorship on American media. After the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, for example, Howard Cowan, an Associated Press reporter, wrote in the Washington Star, “The Allied Air Commanders have made the long awaited decision to adopt the deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers,” which was met with nothing more than a denial by the AAF. Criticizing military policy was permissible — Eric Sevareid, writing in The New York Times, said of the management of the Italian campaign, “Have we, in fact, had a victory in Italy? […] I for one — and many of my colleagues from the front are of like mind — am impressed by the major miscalculations made in high places.” Other New Yorker correspondents — including Janet Flanner, Mollie Panter-Downes, and especially A. J. Liebling and John Hersey — provided some of the war’s most accurate and insightful reporting. Any civilian at The New Yorker who wished to do so could have written the truth about American bombing policy in Japan. The only New Yorker writer who could not do so was St. Clair McKelway, a commissioned AAF press officer with explicit orders as to how he was supposed to shape the news.

Rather than admit that the AAF had changed its bombing strategy, McKelway portrayed the replacement of General Hansell with General LeMay as the substitution of the “brilliant planner” with the “big-time operator” — implying that Arnold simply matched different peoples’ skills to different stages of the operation. He also wrote that in bombing Tokyo,

[LeMay] had originated a new technique of strategic bombardment which was unlike the incendiary area bombing employed by the R.A.F. in its night raids over Europe and unlike the pin-point, high level-bombing of the kind generally employed by the [American] Eighth Air Force [in Europe]. It was pin-point incendiary bombing.

“Pin-point incendiary bombing” is an oxymoron — there was nothing “pinpoint” about saturating a third of Tokyo with napalm — and the AAF never admitted that it had abandoned precision bombing. (After dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Enola Gay’s bombardier posed for a photograph next to his Norden bombsight.) McKelway reported watching LeMay examine the post-raid aerial photographs of Tokyo but said nothing of the destruction of enormous areas of civilian housing; he wrote only of “industrial and commercial districts.”

McKelway was, however, by his own later account, mentally unstable when he left Guam, something he would not have wanted Ross to know — especially since he was anxious to leave the military and return to The New Yorker. Today, he would likely be diagnosed as bipolar, a condition characterized by delusion, mania, deception, and distortions of reality, all of which are evident in both his 1945 and 1958 New Yorker accounts.

In his New Yorker series, McKelway changed a key event, placing it while he was still on Guam. He ended Part IV (and thus his series) with the sort of portrait at which he excelled: a story of Sergeant Henry Erwin, “a strong, stocky red-headed young man, who worked in the steel mills until shortly after Pearl Harbor.” A phosphorus smoke bomb accidentally ignited during a mission and filled the plane with smoke. Erwin grabbed it and managed to toss it from the cockpit window of his plane. He was badly burned, but he saved the plane and its crew. This occurred on April 12, 1945, during a daylight raid over Koriyama, when LeMay had returned to high explosive, precision bombing while he waited for his stocks of incendiary napalm bombs to be replenished. (High-explosive bombs blow things up, while incendiary bombs start fires.)

McKelway didn’t report Erwin’s heroism as occurring on April 12. He wrote, “Erwin’s B-29 was leading a formation to Japan on one of the first great incendiary raids.” In fact, the last of those first great incendiary attacks had been against Nagoya on March 18, when McKelway was still on Guam. Why change the date? McKelway wanted to write as an eyewitness, and both Ross and Shawn knew that he had not been on Guam on April 12. Setting the event at some vague date in mid-March put McKelway there when the badly burned Erwin was pulled from the plane. The New Yorker fact-checkers apparently missed or ignored the discrepancy, even though the April 19 New York Times reported the date correctly in a story covering Erwin’s receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.

McKelway wrote Erwin’s story as drama — the airman stumbling sightless through the plane, blundering into the navigator’s desk, clutching the sputtering phosphorus bomb while it seared his skin, the plane filled with smoke and out of control — but his writing was only an embellished version of the published Medal of Honor citation. It is unlikely that McKelway ever met the man he described as “strong, stocky, red-headed” Sergeant Henry Erwin.

By April 26, McKelway was correcting proofs of all four parts of “A Reporter with the B-29s.”[v] He cabled Shawn from Washington, “Can’t get proofs to you until my return from Florida a week from Monday. Will have everything in order by then.” Despite McKelway’s dramatization of Erwin’s heroism, Ross was still unhappy with McKelway’s final article. He wrote to him in Washington on May 28:

Shawn told me today that he had talked to you about that last piece. It’s shorter than a broken shoestring and […] read like a postscript. It simply doesn’t stand up after the other pieces. It has the quality of them, but not the substance. You stir up emotions in those other pieces and it isn’t fair not to sustain it for a reasonable length. Several people in the office have read the pieces (I suppose as a result of word of mouth advertising) and the comments are extravagant. They are among the best pieces we have ever had and all adjectives such as “superb” and “magnificent,” and so on, are justified. Do not let that last piece down.

In the version that Ross had criticized, McKelway began that episode with, “The other day, after I got back from Guam, I came across […] a report from our Bomber Command on Guam. It told of an incident.” He dropped that preface in the published version and told the story in the same way that he wrote of Erwin’s heroism — presumably as a witness, still with the Twentieth Bomber Command. McKelway added enough human interest to satisfy Ross, and he changed one episode, the story of a single fighter pilot who had become detached from his formation and sheltered under the wing of a B-29. Shawn, whose handwriting appears in the penciled edits of the earlier draft, let that change pass.

McKelway was separated from the AAF shortly before the end of the war. He continued to write for The New Yorker, and in 1958, the magazine published a second version of his time as the Twenty-First Bomber Command’s press officer, entitled “That Was a Reporter at Wit’s End: The Blowing of the Top of Peter Roger Oboe.” The piece is very long — it ran from pages 38 to 95 of the June 14 issue — and McKelway intended it as a humorous account, an imagined interrogation of himself by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Roger Angell wrote that it is the only New Yorker follow-up by the same writer that “explains much of the first one by revealing that he was insane at the time of its writing.”

In “A Reporter at Wit’s End,” McKelway writes that he was delusional when he left Guam. By his account, he was upset over inter-service rivalry with the Navy, and that one night at 2:00 a.m. he sent a 3,000-word radiogram from Guam to Washington accusing Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz of high treason; that he was awakened the next morning, arrested, and put in a locked room in the mental ward of the hospital (the March 24 hospitalization listed in the March 26 morning report); that he assumed he would be court-martialed; that his AAF supervisors decided he was suffering from overwork, “withdrew” his message, and shipped him to Washington to be attached to Norstad’s staff (on March 26 according to the morning report); that he was given a medical furlough; and that he checked into “a small suite” at New York’s Ritz Hotel, where, in a manic state, he wrote in the space of a few days the 20,000-word “A Reporter with the B-29s.”

Although his AAF medical records and personnel file were lost in a 1973 fire, the Twenty-First Bomber Command’s morning reports, which are available at the Military Records Center in St. Louis, show that McKelway was hospitalized on March 4 and returned to duty on March 10. The reason for the hospitalization is unclear; McKelway was often hospitalized in civilian life for exhaustion or manic behavior. He may have been pulled from the hospital to handle the press coverage of the March 9 Tokyo bombing raid. The morning reports show that he was hospitalized for two days beginning on March 24, which was presumably the date of his deranged accusation of Admiral Nimitz (more on this later). They also show that as of March 26 he was posted to Twentieth Air Force Headquarters in Washington for temporary duty. He did not return to Guam, according to those reports.

The morning reports show the date of McKelway’s accusation to be March 24, but admitting that would reveal he had not been an eyewitness to events he had reported in the 1945 series. McKelway’s solution, once again, was to change the date. In his imaginary Senate hearing in his 1958 story, McKelway’s interrogator asks him, “And where were you on the night of May 18, 1945?” McKelway answers, “In the Marianas, on the island of Guam,” and he describes sending the radiogram accusing Nimitz that night.

It is hard to understand why Shawn published McKelway’s multiple accounts of delusion — once in 1958 and again in 1962 when he revealed his conviction that he had been involved in foiling a 1959 Soviet plot to kidnap Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower. By modern standards, even autobiographical accounts of mental illness are not seen as funny. It may be that Shawn was trying to provide his old boss, whose assistant he had been from 1936–39, financial support. McKelway’s personal life had gone badly after the war. In 1950, The New Yorker paid off all his creditors — among them his jeweler, grocer, dry cleaner, the Mocambo Club, and the Algonquin Hotel — and Ross warned him that he would not be able to do so again and began asking around for references for psychiatrists who could treat McKelway. Ross died unexpectedly in 1951, and Shawn took over as editor of The New Yorker and as manager of McKelway, who continued to spend recklessly. Shawn supported McKelway until his death, assigning an employee to monitor him, sending him money in his nursing home, and buying him a tape recorder. When McKelway died at the age of 74, Shawn wrote a January 28, 1980 New Yorker obituary, saying that he “lived his life in a dream, but it was, on the whole, a benevolent dream,” and that “a shade of fantasy seemed to run through everything he did.”

When Roger Angell wrote his 2010 article about McKelway’s coverage of the War, he was also taken in by McKelway’s deception. Angell accepted the May 18 date that McKelway gave in 1958, looked at McKelway’s introduction to Part I of his 1945 series (quoted above), and worked backward: he concluded that McKelway must have begun writing “A Reporter with the B-29s” in his Washington hotel room on Saturday, May 26, 1945. Angell marveled that this meant Part I of the series “was finished, edited, set into type, checked, proofread, and sent off to the printer in a week’s time.” The New Yorker’s supposed breakneck rush to publish made McKelway’s mania an even better story. As we have seen, however, it did not happen. Shawn’s handwriting on the draft manuscripts shows that he edited both the 1945 and 1958 pieces. All four parts of “A Reporter with the B-29s” were already in proof by April 26, 1945, when McKelway had been back in the United States almost a month. There could not have been much fact checking in any case. It had all happened on the other side of the world, there was a war on, and the obvious person to go to for clarifications would have been the press officer who had been on Guam at the time: St. Clair McKelway.

Even in 1945, Ross and Shawn knew that McKelway had a history of taking liberties with fact. Adam Gopnik, who wrote an introduction to a collection of McKelway’s New Yorker pieces (Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from The New Yorker, Bloomsbury, 2010), writes that “McKelway […] admits that his first published newspaper article was more or less made up […] and there are often in McKelway’s writing bits of shapely storytelling and sprightly dialogue that belie their factual surface.”

McKelway’s language might also have raised flags. McKelway had left Guam worried about being court-martialed (something Angell says that he believed Ross knew at the time), and McKelway may have been trying to ingratiate himself with the AAF commanders. In his prewar New Yorker pieces, McKelway had written with an urbane, aloof tone. As Gopnik describes, McKelway kept his voice hovering “a few light and happy inches above the page.” In “A Reporter with the B-29s,” McKelway was gushy and sycophantic when describing the AAF brass — Roger Angell said:

At times, his prose reads like something out of [the movie-magazine] Photoplay: “As a matter of fact, Possum [Hansell] looks like a wide-awake, smart, kind, somewhat preoccupied, and very efficient possum.” Emmett [Rosy] O’Donnell, in turn, is “all vividly articulate Irish-American Brooklyn-born lightheartedness, humor, and spiritual gaiety, except for an inner toughness and thoughtfulness which the pale face subdy intimates.”

Ross and Shawn seem to have eventually realized what they had missed. The New Yorker Book of War Pieces, a 562-page collection of six years of The New Yorker’s war reporting, appeared in 1947. The book was Shawn’s project. Though he considered including a section “A Reporter with the B-29s,” in the end, he used none of the series that Ross had called “superb” and “magnificent.” The New Yorker had meanwhile redeemed itself by dedicating its entire August 31, 1946 issue to John Hersey’s now-famous account of the Hiroshima bombing as seen through the eyes of six survivors — a viewpoint not considered, even as speculation, by McKelway.

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[i] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917–1945 (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 221-222.

[ii] Patrick Coffey, American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[iii] Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 257–306.

[iv] Twenty-First Bomber Command Morning Reports, National Archives Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis.

[v] The New York Public Library holds the New Yorker archives from that time, including editorial correspondence about the series, undated typed drafts of Parts I and II, and a May 16 galley proof of Part IV that is stamped with a military censor’s approval on May 19. (The censor’s approval was required because McKelway was reporting events he had observed in a war zone, and possibly because he was a serving member of the AAF.)

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Patrick Coffey is a historian and chemist, the author of American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Cathedrals of Science: the Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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