A ‘dangerous woman’ of the press

By Bob Stepno
Doris Johnston (later Doris Macauley), “a courageous woman correspondent who refused to give in to the Japs” is featured in this April 1945 episode of “Soldiers of the Press,” titled “Hideout.”

Despite compressing more than a year on the run and two years in prison camps into a 15-minute radio drama, the episode is full of details and dates: An actor playing a Japanese officer says Johnston escaped from Manila into the mountains on January 2, 1942. The actress playing Johnston says she hid out in the countryside, sometimes with guerrillas, until March 13, 1943, when she surrendered to avoid reprisals against the family of her friends. Perhaps the liberation of the prison camps at the end of February 1945 was so recent — two months before the broadcast — that there was no need to mention an exact date.

Of course Johnston’s full story is more complex than the radio drama suggests, and Johnston later filled in the details at book-length. The radio producers’ job was to promote both the war effort and the reputation of United Press, so “Soldiers of the Press” simply describes Johnston as a United Press correspondent on the run, leaving her other employers, her non-guerrilla Filipino contacts — and her husband — out of the story.

As Doris Rubens, Johnston had worked for U.P. in China briefly in 1938-39, but returned to America for a year or so — long enough to get married. She went to the Philippines early in 1941, and apparently only rejoined the U.P. payroll to file her 1945 stories, datelined “Behind American Lines, Luzon,” with the byline “Doris R. Johnston.”

When the Japanese took over Manila, she was teaching English at the University of the Philippines and also had a “World Scene” program on Radio Manila, neither of which is mentioned in the “Soldiers of the Press” script. Did the Japanese know of her because of anti-Japanese broadcasts or her U.P. work in China? In the radio drama, they most certainly see her as a threat, complete with this imagined dialogue:

“This woman is dangerous to Japan. We will find her! … As long as this woman remains at large, our policy in the Philippines is in jeopardy. The woman is a writer and her words may find their way out to the enemy.” — Japanese officer

In her arrest scene, the Japanese officer even addresses her as “Doris Johnston, war correspondent,” adding to the suggestion that she was in continuous employment by the United Press in Asia. Her actual adventures covered much more territory and included a marriage that is left out of the radio story altogether.

Doris Rubens had left U.P. and China in July 1939, traveling through Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin, arriving in Paris just as Germany invaded Poland, war was declared, and the borders were closed.

“I had run away from one war to run straight into another,” she wrote in her memoir, Bread and Rice.

She decided to turn down an offer to work for U.P. in Paris and returned to the still-neutral U.S. on a refugee ship with a group of stranded Americans assisted by their consulates to get home. The New York Times mentioned her in its story, “Only 437 Brought By Refugee Liner,” Oct 28, 1939, p. 4:

“One was Miss Doris Rubens, 26 years old, of 153 West Seventy-second Street, whose war experiences extend all the way to China, where she had worked for a while as a news service correspondent. She left China last July by the trans-Siberian express and traveled through Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia. She crossed the Polish and German borders and got over the French border the day before it was closed. She remained in Paris for a short time, then went to Bordeaux, where her funds gave out. She worked in the purser’s office on passage over for wages of one cent a month.”

Her 1947 book doesn’t say exactly when or where she met Ron Johnston, but says they married before he was sent to Manila as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, and that she joined him there early in 1941.

“I thought I had come home to peace, and for awhile it was indeed a semblance of peace. Marriage in Virginia, honeymoon in Washington, an apartment in New York. But I had married a writer and a newspaperman. That spring, Ron got an assignment to do a series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor on the Near East and Dutch East Indies… French Indochina and then Manila. He wired for me to join him and once again I was on my way back to the Far East, ten months before Pearl Harbor.” (p. 59, Bread and Rice)

Her memoir later refers to Johnston as a “civilian civil service employee for the Navy in Manila,” suggesting he had finished his assignment for the Monitor by the time they fled into the mountains. She calls him “Ron” throughout the book, although his byline for the Monitor was “Wallace.” (Example, “Letter From Manila” by Wallace Johnston; The Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 15, 1945, pg. WM6.)

The Johnstons were inseparable as fugitives and internees, according to her book, although the “Soldiers of the Press” episode about her experience made no mention of him.

Instead, the episode played up the drama of a woman correspondent, apparently alone, wanted by the Japanese, and protected only by gallant Filipino guerrillas.

Her book says that she returned to working for United Press with the dispatches she filed after the liberation of the prison camps. Editor’s notes on her reports for U.P. describe her as a “former United Press staff member in China” and the “only American newspaper woman to witness the fall of Hankow in 1938.” Her byline is “Doris R. Johnston” or “Doris Rubens Johnston,” depending on the paper’s column width. Her first-person story of the liberation of the Los Banos camp was datelined “Behind American Lines, Luzon, Feb. 24,” as it appeared in U.P. subscriber papers, including the Advocate of Baton Rouge, La.

Its style is personal and emotional:

Today is the most exciting, most wonderful day of my life.
Being bombed in China or being a mere passive observer to Japanese atrocities there or lying in a ditch for hours while the little devils strafed us was a mere nothing compared with the breathless excitement of the miraculous rescue by our boys.
For me it was a fitting climax–only a climax–to three years of hell for my husband, Wallace, and myself. These three years included a flight to the mountains and constant pursuit by the Japs, capture and imprisonment by the Japs for two months in five different jails, and finally two years of deadly, interminable waiting in two Jap internment camps.
But these horors seemed to melt and become nothing when I drank my first cup of American coffee today and bit into the first real hunk of bread and butter I had tasted in three years…”

Sometimes her description gets poetic:

For the whole past week a battle had been raging around us — planes overhead daily — while we were sealed up in our straw barracks. As we waited desperately, all of asked the same unspoken question: Would our boys come in time?
Our boys came with the dawn. In beautiful planes, they came. There was something different about that group of twin-engined monsters. In a moment we knew why — paratroops began floating down.
There was a spontaneous wave of laughter and tears. Screams of joy burst out of the throats of men, women and children. All the ingenuity of Hollywood couldn’t put this show on screen.
But the climax came when one of the C-47’s swooped down almost to barracks top height and we all could read the dramatic, wonderful word painted on the fuselage: ‘Rescue.'”

A week later, Johnston wrote a more journalistic account about one of her fellow prisoners, an advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, and how he managed to keep his identity secret from the Japanese: “Japs Unwittingly Held Chiang’s Advisor Prisoner for 3 Years” (Oxnard Press-Courier, Mar. 1, 1945, page 1).

Other United Press stories about the U.S. return to the Philippines included Frank Hewlett’s report of the liberation of the Santo Tomas camp, where his wife, Virginia, was among the prisoners. He makes no mention of the Johnstons, who had been among the thousands at Santo Tomas, but had been moved to the camp at Los Banos before the American paratroopers arrived.

Rubens-Johnston’s book-length account of her experience was first published in 1947 under her maiden name, Doris Rubens, as Bread and Rice: An American Woman’s Fight to Survive in the Jungles and Prison Camps of the WWII Philippines (New York: Thurston Macauley Assoc.), but her name is also listed as “Doris R. Johnston” in some library databases.

The book makes no mention of what happened to Ron Johnston after that Christian Science Monitor article in 1945. Did he stay in Asia? Were they divorced? That’s beyond the scope of this article. However, in the two years that followed the liberation of the Philippines, Mrs. Johnston completed her book — and married a different newspaperman, Thurston Macauley, who had become her publisher. A New York Times correspondent in London before the war, he also had worked for Newsweek and for Hearst’s International News Service. She dedicated her 1947 book to “T.M.”

In fact, when the book was reprinted in 2000, it identified the author as Doris Macauley. One history of United Press confuses matters further by ignoring references in Bread and Rice to a husband named “Ron.” It identifies Macauley as the reporter-husband Doris followed to the Philippines. (Unipress: United Press International Covering the 20th Century, Richard M. Harnett and Billy G. Ferguson; Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing; 2003; page 144) However, digital newspaper archives make it clear that Macauley was in Europe working for the International News Service in London and Paris while Doris Rubens Johnston was in the Philippines. See his May 28, 1997, obituary in the Times.

Wherever and whenever their relationship began, the Macauleys were married for 50 years, according to Doris Macauley’s 2007 obituary in The Washington Times, published 10 years after his death. That suggests the wedding was around the time that her book was published. Two 1947 New York Times reviews of her book identify the author as “Doris Rubens,” the name under which she published the book, and refer to “her husband, Ron,” as she does in the book, without saying what became of Wallace “Ron” Johnston after the war.

As for the book itself, the reviews were mixed. Frederic S. Marquardt’s New York Times Book Review piece (May 11, 1947, p. BR6) concluded, “There have been slicker accounts of how Americans lived in the Philippines under the Japanese, but this reviewer knows of none more honest or convincing than ‘Bread and Rice.'”

Orville Prescott’s “Books of the Times” column (May 14, 1947, p. 23) called it “a quite badly written book, which, in spite of its many shortcomings is still a moderately interesting account of a notable adventure.” He praises the author for her “complete candor” and “fine feeling for the Filipino people,” and concludes that the book is an “illuminating account of the fashion in which fallible mortals endured the war in the Philippines.”

Book editions, as listed by Worldcat.org:

Bread and rice; foreword by Carlos P. Romulo.
Johnston, Doris Rubens
New York, Thurston Macauley Associates, 1947.

Bread and rice : an American woman’s fight to survive in the jungles and prison camps of the WWII Philippines
Doris Macauley
Guilford, Conn. : Lyons Press, 2004.

Note: Johnston’s “Hideout” episode is included in many “Soldiers of the Press” audio collections, including the Old Time Radio Researchers collection at the Internet Archive. However, most spell her name “Johnstone.”

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, foreign correspondents, reporters, women, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A ‘dangerous woman’ of the press

  1. Ted Macauley says:

    Hi Bob,
    I just stumbled across your insightful article on my mother Doris Macauley.
    I would love to tell you more or learn more from you as the cast may be,
    Ted Macauley

    • Bob Stepno says:

      Wonderful to hear from you, Ted! I’ll be in touch by e-mail.

      • Dee Bender says:

        Hi Bob,
        I recently found your article after searching for information on the web about my Uncle Wallace and Aunt Doris (Rubin) Johnston and her book Bread and Rice. Wallace and Doris Rubin married on October 31, 1939 in Alexandria, VA. There were a total of 6 siblings in Wallace’s family. My mother was one of 3 sisters and he also had 2 brothers. One of his brother’s was named Ronald. My Uncle Ronald was a wonderful man that was so loved. Maybe this is the reason Doris and Wallace decided to call Wallace “Ron” so as not to let their captors know and would be a name they would not easily forget. One can only imagine.
        Thank you so much for all the knowledge and history you shared about my family as well.
        Dee Bender

      • Bob Stepno says:

        Thank you Dee! I love when my old radio explorations reach someone connected to the people involved.

  2. Dee Bender says:

    Bob, Thanks again! I recently told one of my friends about your excellent article about my Aunt Doris and Uncle Wallace. Then I received an email about a new article you posted. Your site is so easy to share and interesting! I would like to receive new comments and posts in the future.
    Wishing you and your family Happy Holidays!

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