Getting the Story Out

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

In 1941, Clark Lee was a reporter for the AP based in Shanghai, where “for more than four years,” he wrote, the city “had been living practically in state of siege, with bombs, bullets, and barbed wire for its daily diet, with its streets stinking of death, starvation, misery, and corruption of war.” But in mid-November of that year, the situation was about to get a whole lot worse for foreign journalists and just about everyone else. A Japanese official tipped Lee off on the coming invasion, and Lee boarded a steamer the next day bound for Manila. From there, Lee intended to continue on to Hawaii, where his wife lived and which he called home.


The AP had different ideas. The news bureau knew the action would be following Lee south across the China Sea. They ordered him to remain in the Philippines.

And that’s where he was in the early morning hours of December 8 when his AP colleague Ray Cronin woke him with the news: “The Japs have blasted hell out of Pearl Harbor.” [32] The air raid sirens were sounding in Manila by daybreak, though bombs did not actually fall on the capital for several more days. Instead, the Japanese air force was busy taking out an airfield in the north and protecting an invasion force two days after that.

News was spotty. Rumors ran rampant. No one was sure what exactly was happening.

Newspapermen like Clark Lee needed facts to pass on to their news organizations in the States. Military officials, from Commander Douglas MacArthur on down, needed intelligence to plan their defenses and their attacks. Civilians, both American and Filipino (as well as a sizable population of Japanese expatriates) needed information with which to protect themselves. Getting the truth was no easy matter, but that was exactly what Clark Lee saw as his job–even at the risk of injury or loss of life.

Lee and his cronies would hunker down as the bombs began blasting but when calm resumed, like storm chasers, they would ride out in search of the story buried in the wreckage. The night Nichols Field was hit, he and Cronin got their story from a handful of anti-aircraft men of the 200th New Mexico National Guard. The men had been stationed at Clark Field until the day before and gave an account of the Japanese attack there, too. The journalists learned that, just as at Pearl Harbor, American planes had been caught on the ground lined up in neat rows. The guardsmen reported three hundred and fifty casualties and the destruction of all but a dozen bombers and perhaps half a dozen fighters. [48-50]

Lee wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to see for himself whether an air force still existed to defend the island nation.[80] He “hired” a Filipino university student, Carlos, to drive him (Carlos, wanting to see the action, refused payment), and brought along a Filipino reporter, Juan, to accompany him to Baguio  in the north. Along the way, they passed hundreds of fleeing refugees in rusted trucks, “loaded with beds and chairs and all the people who could crowd aboard.” [83] Still, Lee pressed Carlos on, against Juan’s protests, past the front lines and up the steep climb to Baguio. Lee saw with his own eyes the skeleton force holding the mountain stronghold, heard from their mouths the lack of air protection they had witnessed. The return trip required the utmost resourcefulness to return alive. But Lee had his story, even if it was a dismal one.

Clark Lee made forays to the front lines when he could, but more often he was confined to the capital and relied on official communiques for information. The spokesman for USAFFE, the United States Army Forces in the Far East, generally fed reporters air-brushed versions of events, and the reporters knew it. One morning, told “Lines holding firm on all fronts,” Lee turned to photographer Mel Jacoby and voiced his doubts. “Somehow these communiques don’t sound right to me. Let’s go see for ourselves.” [133]

Thus it was, by driving a car northwest along the coast and turning south into the peninsula, that Lee and Jacoby learned that Bataan would be where MacArthur and his forces would make their stand. At least as Lee writes it in his book of 1943, he did not even know the name of the peninsula that guarded Manila Bay and would become infamous in so short a time. Lee, Cronin, Jacoby and his wife, Annalee, plus two others escaped to Bataan before hiding out on the rock island fortress known as Corregidor. As long as they were able, they would sneak across the strait to Bataan to interview units engaged with the enemy on the front lines.

Even when they did their own fact-finding, Lee and his colleagues would run up against the censors. It was the censors’ job to keep the full story from getting into the wrong hands: the enemy who could use it against American forces, the civilian population who would be induced to panic, the home front who might suffer a drop in morale. The journalists supported the censors’ overall project but fought against specific applications. As they say saw it, Americans back home needed to understand both the desperation of the situation and, in their view, the simplicity of the fix. In short, “without planes the Philippines would be lost.” [39] Getting the story out was their mission to save the Philippines.

They did not succeed. Dispatch after dispatch was killed. Americans were largely ignorant of the fate of their Far East Forces.

Later, on Corregidor, USAFFE spokesman Colonel Harries came clean to Lee about the charade of daily press briefings. He had nothing more to hide, apparently, for he was on his death bed from gangrene. “You know, I felt like hell reading you those lies in a pontifical way every day. But it had to be done. We were trying to deceive the enemy and to conceal the fact that we were withdrawing into Bataan. And we were trying to keep the people of Manila from becoming panic-stricken. …we decided it would be better if the people didn’t have time to worry about it.” [146] Lee probably already had guessed as much, but it must have been satisfying to have the fact confirmed.
Lack of information had its costs, even if it was unavoidable. Those refugees escaping from the north that Lee encountered had first gone to Baguio: “thinking we would be safe,” they said. [83] With a little more information they might have gone straight to Manila. Such is the fog of war.

In Manila itself, citizens had their own difficulties keeping up with a shifting situation. Blackout conditions were introduced by word of mouth and enforced at the point of a gun. “Blackout watchmen” patrolled the streets and fired bullets into any windows showing light. (Lee describes it memorable: “The blackout guards at the hotel discharged their duties–and their guns–conscientiously.” [70]) Then, when Manila was declared an open city (undefended and thus not subject to attack) authorities had to convince (threaten) residents to turn on their lights again. Such is the strange irony of war.

Lee and Cronin and the Jacobys and the others became caught up in the events they were reporting. The day after Christmas they learned that General MacArthur had declared Manila an “open city.” It would not be defended and so should no longer be bombed. The journalists began making plans for the near future if (when?) the Japanese occupied the city. Flight or sit tight? To get the news past the censors to their bureaus back home, they resorted to subterfuge. “Please include Manila staff in any negotiations involving Hill Harris stop we will shortly be same category,” read Lee’s dispatch on the last day of 1941. [158] The meaning would have been clear to the AP office in New York: Manila was about to fall and American journalists faced internment, just as Max Hill, Tokyo bureau chief, and Morris Harris, Shanghai bureau chief had been taken into custody on December 8.

On New Year’s Eve, under cover of a darkness diminished by the dynamiting of nearby gasoline tanks, Lee and the Jacobys slipped across Manila Bay to the tip of the Bataan Peninsula and from there across the narrow strait to Corregidor. A rock island–armed to the teeth with artillery, carved full of subterranean shelters–just the name–Corregidor–denoted the ultimate defensive fortress. “Doubtless, it would have been impregnable,” Lee averred, “if the airplane had never been invented.” [166]

Impregnable or not, it was pummeled daily by explosives dropped from uncontested Japanese bombers. There was no air force of fighters to chase them off. There were no anti-aircraft guns that could reach the bombers when they flew at their highest. There was nothing MacArthur’s forces could do but hunker down and take it. The stress could become unbearable (though the General himself strolled around as if he were taking a walk in the park). Lee’s prose rises to new heights in his description of the aerial assaults:

Then would come the noise of the bombs falling. The bombs didn’t screech or whistle or whine. They sounded like a pile of planks being whirled around in the air by a terrific wind and driven straight to the ground. The bombs took thirty years  to hit. While they were falling they changed the dimension of the world. The noise stripped the eagles from the colonel’s shoulders and left him a little boy, naked and afraid. It drove all intelligence from the nurse’s eyes and left them vacant and staring. It wrapped a steel tourniquet of fear around your head, until your skull felt like bursting….

The kicker comes at the top of the next paragraph: “The roar of the explosions was a relief from  the noise of the falling bombs.” [168]


If Corregidor was the island fortress under siege, Bataan was the peninsula where ground forces slugged it out. Lee wanted the story from the front lines and was granted permission to cross the strait and embed himself with different units. On one occasion, when he was attached to a Lieutenant Gonzalez of the Filipino Scouts, Lee spied a convoy of trailers hauling artillery pieces away from the front. He asked for an explanation. “They move every night, Gonzalez explained. “That is to trick the Japs who have spotted their position the previous day.” But then he added, more revealingly, “I have never seen them back this far before. Maybe our line is moving back, or the Japanese are breaking through.” [211] Soldiers pieced together their own understanding of events the best they could, even as they remained Lee’s primary source for information.

Most soldiers could see well enough the gravity of their situation: Japanese bombers uncontested in the skies, the dwindling gasoline supplies and reduced rations for themselves. Did they ever consider that their cause was lost? Not according to Lee. He describes them, to a man, steadfast in their faith in their cause, unshakable in their belief that help was on the way. Said Lee, “They did not know, and would not have believed, that no help was going to be sent.” [240]

And on the home front? Did they understand the desperation their forces faced? Lee believed that the more time passed the more Americans would question the news they had read in the papers. On the other hand, without a real understanding of the facts on the ground they could not clamor for reinforcements to be sent. Cut off by the censors, Lee and his cronies “believed that if we could escape from the Philippines and get to Australia and then fly to the United States, we might be able to persuade authorities the battle was not yet lost. We might convince them that MacArthur’s Army had become a veteran, tough outfit, full of fight and confidence” and, as such, was indispensable. [246-247] If the chiefs of staff would only release a strong air force over Bataan, the tide would shift in their favor.

Lee and Mel and Annalee Jacoby escaped the noose surrounding Bataan with the help of two different ships and no small amount of luck. But by the time they reached Australia, MacArthur was already there, plucked from Corregidor by order of his commander-in-chief. The sacrifice of his men was complete. Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, and Corregidor just shy of a month later. It would take months and years for Americans to understand the the full extent of the tragedy.

Lee was able to get out his story in 1943. They Call It Pacific must have been an eye-opening read for those who chose to pick it up, just a year after the events it related. It might have strengthened the resolve of those home bound Americans on whose support the armed forces ultimately relied–the same Americans Eddie Rickenbacker chided (at the very same time) to make sacrifices in the war effort. “For none of us are doing so much that we cannot do more,” he said over and over. But where Rickenbacker’s words leaned toward jeremiad, Lee’s exhibited true journalism–with just a little advocacy mixed in. His zeal to get the story out was motivated in no small part by his partisanship in what turned out to be, at least initially, a losing cause.


Lee, Clark. They Call It Pacific: An Eye-witness Story of our War Against Japan from Bataan to the Solomons. NY: Viking Press, 1943.

“Rickenbacker Sets Detroit Goals in Blunt Talk to War Workers,” New York Times, January 23, 1943, 8.

Images from Wikimedia Commons and Amazon

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