War correspondents have been around as long as wars. Since the days of spears and arrows, someone’s been writing about it.
You know the modern type: once they were armed with notebooks, pencils and cameras the size of a dog; then came tape recorders and now Ipads, Skype and satellite phones. (It was glamorous, and dangerous work. Soviet war correspondents were active infantrymen and were expected pick up their rifles and get into the thick of it if need be. Some became national celebrities. But hundreds of Soviet war journalists were killed in combat.)
It’s an ancient tradition: Homer (if indeed there was such a real-life, historical figure) must have been the first, chronicling the Trojan War, centuries after it was actually fought, although his “Iliad” is so terrifying and graphic a portrait of ancient combat that Homer must have read ancient accounts of Troy or interviewed soldiers from his own time about what such combat was like.
Josephus, the Jewish-Roman writer, who described the tragic Masada epic in what is now Israel, must surely have witnessed events there.
Even Julius Caesar’s “War Commentaries,” are not only a strategist’s overview, but an on-the-spot account by the general in charge of one of the great armies of history. It’s quite a good read, even today. (As Queen Victoria would refer to herself as “We”, Caesar preferred the third person, “He.”)
And so it goes; on through the centuries. Some war correspondents were scamps (to be kind about it) and some were heroes.
William Russell of The Times of London, the first of the modern war correspondents, exposed the ineptitude of the bone-headed British brass in the Crimean War.
Newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer stands accused to fanning war fever to propel America into a war with Spain.
Walker Cronkite famously went to Saigon and is credited with turning American public opinion against the Vietnam war by arguing the conflict could not be won. (He also flew on bombing missions of over Europe in World War Two).
Many correspondents met the same sad fate as many of the fighting men they were covering. Ernie Pyle, probably the most famous of all American war reporters, was killed by a Japanese sniper in the South Pacific only a few months before war’s end.
Canada had its own distinguished cadre of correspondents in World War Two, including Matthew Halton and Peter Stursberg of the CBC, and Bill Boss of The Canadian Press. Boss later became this country’s most seasoned correspondent in Korea, but others who went on to great fame include Rene Levesque and Pierre Burton.
So, to think of war correspondents is to think words and photographs. But there’s another genre of war correspondent no one much reflects on: the war artist, armed with sketch pad and pencils or charcoal, or brushes and oils, a vivid memory and a keen eye.
The brash young American cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, created the iconic pair of World War Two sad sacks, Willie and Joe … everyman’s GI’s: sloppy, cranky, officer-hating, and utterly unimpressed by anyone or anything. General George Patton hated Mauldin so much he wanted to “throw his ass in jail” for “spreading dissent.” Fortunately for Mauldin, both the American troops and the public loved Willie and Joe. And so did General Eisenhower.
In World War One, Canada’s war artists included A.J. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, all later members of the Group of Seven. From World War Two the best known was (and is) Alex Colville.
But Canada sent no war artists to Korea. Which doesn’t mean we had no artists there. We had Ted Zuber.
Which brings me to Kapyong and one of Canada’s best-known war paintings.
Ted was a parachutist who went to Korea as a sniper in 1952 with the Royal Canadian Regiment. He carried with him a sketch book to record what he saw. Zuber eventually became a casualty, wounded in a grenade explosion.
From his battlefront sketches evolved his “Korean War Memoirs,” thirteen of which are now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Among the most popular works in the entire place is his “Holding at Kapyong” depicting the U.S. air drop to the surrounded men of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry about 10 in the morning, April 25th, 1951. This is the pivotal moment most crisply remembered by the men who fought there. The moment of their salvation.
If the airdrop had not been successful, the Patricia’s probably could not have hung on. After fighting all night, now almost out of ammunition, food and medical supplies, they would have been swept away in the next Chinese assault and Seoul may have fallen. It is a defining moment in Canada’s most famous Korean battle.
The Patricia’s stared up in silence as the planes swooped overhead, paradropping their their life-saving cargos. One soldier told me those planes looked like silver fish. Another swears those aircraft were flown by angels. They now knew they would not die at Kapyong after all, but would live. This is the moment captured by Zuber’s wonderful painting.
To grasp the essence of what went on at Kapyong, Zuber talked to veterans who’d fought there; studied aerial photographs, maps, and war diaries and also drew on his own combat experiences.
If it were not for Zuber’s painting, we would have no image of the scene at Kapyong. The battle was unanticipated and the Canadians were rushed into action to plug a developing hole in the front. The official battalion photographer was on leave in Tokyo. One soldier is said to have made a home movie at Kapyong, sent it home to Kodak to be developed … and it vanished, never to be seen again. Zuber’s work is all we’ve got and it stuns all who view it.
Zuber remains an active and imaginative artist. He was sent to the First Gulf War as an official combat artist. (Canada’s military has since sent a few artists to Afghanistan, including Gertrude Kearns.)
Several years ago, I met Ted while working on a CBC News television documentary.
Ted told me then, he”ll never be fnished with Korea.
“The bloody thing won’t leave me alone,” he says. “I’ll always do something every once in a while because because you’re never finished with it because it’s never finished with you.”
He is still painting from his home in rural Ontario. And remains as content and as good natured (and creative) as when we met. Another of his Korean works, “Freeze,” is the cover of my book on Kapyong. It shows a group of Canadian soldiers suddenly caught out in the open. It’s a haunting, brooding piece, conveying the menace and peril of what it must have been like in a desperate night battle in the dark.
General Patton didn’t like war correspondents much. He wouldn’t have liked Ted Zuber much either. Patton’s idea of media relations, he once pronounced, was to lock up the lot of them. And then when the fighting was over, set them free and simply announce who’d won. We’re lucky his brainstorm never caught on.
Here’s a brainstorm of my own.
This April 25th at about 10 in the morning, go to the War Museum in Ottawa and have a look at Ted Zuber’s “Holding At Kapyong.” And think: “60 years ago, at this very moment … “