First Purple Heart for Working Reporter

For Memorial Day, part 2:

United Press advertisement in Broadcasting magazine, 1942

United Press advertisement in Broadcasting magazine, 1942

United Press correspondent Leo S. Disher Jr. became the first combat reporter awarded the Purple Heart — citing “extraordinary heroism and meritorious performance of duty” for action on a day in November 1942 that started with his ankle already in a plaster cast.

Disher was aboard one of two U.S. Coast Guard cutters that came under heavy fire while crashing a harbor boom to open Algeria’s Oran harbor. His survival account became the fifth episode of United Press’s “Soldiers of the Press” radio series.

The audio account of Disher’s experience at Oran harbor starts slowly, a “journalism procedural,” with the war correspondent being called from London by a courier to an assignment to “destination unspecified,” a destination which turns out to be North Africa.

On the way to Gibraltar via transport, he broke an ankle in a fall, but carried on to his assignment aboard a Coast Guard cutter. Disher’s narration of the 3 a.m. battle — the last five minutes of the 15 minute broadcast — is intense, full of bursting shells and machine gun bullets, shouted commands, and lines like, “as I groped over the piles of bodies…”

The unnamed actors and uncredited script writers pulled no punches and might be accused of overdoing it, but Google’s newspaper archive includes the original November 1942 story for comparison. I prefer Disher’s own turns of phrase, dictated to his U.P. colleague Phil Ault at the hospital:

“Then a shot hit me in the heel of my crippled foot. I crawled away on my elbows, with shrapnel and bullets splattering about like somebody throwing corn at a duck…” — (p. 19, Youngstown Vindicator, Nov. 18, 1942)

Saturday Review writer Percival R. Knauth, discussing a book-length account of the North Africa campaign, said, “for sheer courage Leo Disher’s story… can take its place alongside anything I know. Probably the reason he didn’t write more was because he had 26 bullet holes in him when he finally reached shore.” (Springboard to Berlin, by John A. Parris Jr. and Ned Russell, in collaboration with Leo Disher and Phil Ault, 1943, reviewed Oct. 2, 1943.)

In print or on the radio, the details of the exploding ship and Disher’s injuries are harrowing, even if the exact number of wounds varies between accounts.

For me, the French-accented nurse informing Disher that the battle is over is the weakest part of the radio episode, too much “Hollywood drama.” In reality, the battle of Oran — a rare episode when Americans and French were shooting at each other — continued for more than a day and was resolved after tanks arrived to secure the city and the French ceased resisting.

For more background, see this article on the Oran harbor assault, by Michael G. Walling. For general information on those few days when Vichy French forces resisted the British and Americans, see the North Africa campaign pages at WorldWar2History.info and Naval-History.net.

Human Interest: Letter to a Hero’s Widow

Disher’s eyewitness account of the Oran battle became the basis of a second “Soldiers of the Press” episode two months later, titled “A Letter to Mrs. Marshall.”
Another “behind the scenes” story from the United Press, it opens with an Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle newspaper editor contacting the wire service on behalf of the widow of one of the officers killed at Oran. In the broadcast, unidentified actors play the editors, Disher as he dictates a reply and, in flashback, Disher, the young colonel, and others, transforming details of the letter into a dramatic scene, complete with battle sound effects of machine guns, cannons and the ship’s ammunition exploding.

The letter itself was published as a United Press story under an Atlanta dateline after Mrs. Marshall released the correspondence. Lt. Col. George F. Marshall’s role in the battle would bring his widow a posthumously awarded Distinguished Service Cross, but she wanted more to tell her boys when they were old enough to understand.

In response, Disher’s letter was full of dialogue and detail about their father’s bravery, describing him as “a slim, straight silhouette against the red flashes of the guns…. stabbing back until the last, while the flames of our burning ship broke around him and shells tore away pieces of the bridge where he stood…”

No extra invention was needed for the radio script writers to make the story dramatic or make Col. Marshall any more heroic. The New York radio actors added Southern accents to their portrayals of the Augusta Chronicle editor, Col. and Mrs. Marshall.

Like the published United Press story, the dramatization includes an account of Mrs. Marshall contacting her local paper, the Augusta Chronicle, whose editor forwarded her request to the United Press, which got it to Disher in England, where (the announcer informs us) he was recovering from 15 bullet and shrapnel wounds suffered at Oran.

I haven’t found an Augusta Chronicle online, but in The Pittsburgh Press, the story of Disher’s letter ran under a six-column headline with a one-column second deck (click-through to read the full story):

Young Boys Now Can Be Told Details of Their Dad’s Heroic Death
Young Colonel Killed,
Leading Men In
Oran Action

From the text of Disher’s letter:

“You need never fear the boys’ questions, Mrs. Marshall. You can tell them their father tackled a job of greatest importance to the success of our armies, that he never quit fighting against impossible odds and that he never struck the ship’s colors.”

The “Soldiers of the Press” announcer added a closing comment, a variation of the series’ usual tag line:

“Leo Disher is one of a corps of United Press correspondents whose privilege it is to record the heroic deeds of our fighting men on the warfront. In fulfillment of this assignment, these soldiers of the press share the dangers of soldiers in arms. And because in our democratic way of life war correspondents do see at first hand the actions they report, the free peoples of the world are today the best informed.”

The message is concise and similar to that of United Press’s “Soldiers of the Press” advertising campaign, as noted in my previous Soldiers of the Press item.


Additional audio episodes are available from the Old Time Radio Researchers Group: Soldiers of the Press collection at the Internet Archive, which I use for playback on this site.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, foreign correspondents, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to First Purple Heart for Working Reporter

  1. William L Thompson says:

    The actor Dick Kolmer played Leo S Disher jr.

    • Bob Stepno says:

      Thanks! Is that Richard (Dick) Kollmar, who played Boston Blackie and co-hosted the morning talk show “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick” with his wife, newspaperwoman Dorothy Kilgallen? How do we know?

      Added later: I’ve tracked down some Boston Blackie and “Dorothy and Dick” episodes, and it definitely sounds like him.

  2. Jay A. Steelman says:

    Bill Disher was my uncle. He received the Purple Heart the year before i was born. Sadly, he is no longer with us, losing his life to cancer when i was 16.. I have lost touch with his family. the last time i was in correspondence with them, they lived in California. I have photos of him in England before the trip across the Channel to Algeria. He bore a striking resemblance to Errol Flynn.

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