Covering a war, start to finish, with a Soldier of the Press

The Old Time Radio Researchers Group collection of the United Press radio drama “Soldiers of the Press” at the Internet Archive contains fewer than half the episodes of this World War II series, but so far the reporter best represented in the set is not Walter Cronkite or some other household name — he’s a correspondent named Robert V. Vermillion.
VermillionThis “Atlantic Convoy” radio program about two U.P. men on their way to London echoes their published story at the right, from the April 16, 1943, Pittsburgh Press, as preserved in Google’s newspaper archive under the headline “Passengers Stand Watch for Lurking Sub Packs.” It wasn’t the biggest war news of the day — buried all the way on page 22, next to another U.P. story by Harrison Salisbury with a map and a larger headline. There was even bigger U.P. news from the Pacific and North Africa on page one of that day’s 56-page paper. But the first-person story of war correspondents Vermillion and Robert Richards crossing the Atlantic made for good radio drama.

As the announcer says, it’s a “an eyewitness account… of one convoy’s battle with the U-boats, a vivid picture from their U.P. dispatches of the sort of thing that happens, unchronicled, almost any day or night, somewhere in the Atlantic.” The last few phrases of that sentence are almost verbatim from the newspaper story.

The radio play weaves-in other passengers playing cards and singing to keep their spirits up, adding dialogue to expand small points in the story. A reference to a “dawn watch” becomes a conversation between a crewman and Vermillion about getting up early. A radio sound effects crew takes inspiration from the reporters’ more descriptive writing, such as this passage in the Pittsburgh paper:

“… the passengers organized 24-hour watches to relieve the weary crew. We stood two of them, watching brilliant bursts of star shells lighting the convoy whenever a sub’s presence was suspected. On a dawn watch we saw the spectacular battle of the torpedoes.
“The action began in the gray before dawn. A ship to our starboard started streaming machine-gun bullets into the water a few feet off our stern. The tracers bounced like brilliant orange balls, ricocheting across the water, clanging into the ship’s side and ripping past our heads.”

“Soldiers of the Press” was a “stories behind the stories” series recorded by actors in a stateside studio while the real reporters were overseas, so any voices you hear saying “This is Robert Vermillion” in the various episodes probably aren’t him — but they still outline the tale of a reporter’s career, which took him from New York to Africa, Greece, Italy, France and Germany during the war. (Update: In an email, Vermillion’s son Bob tells me his dad recalled recording a few stories, and that it’s possible his actual voice could be part of some broadcasts.)

Vermillion continued with U.P. in Miami during peacetime, then became a war correspondent again in Korea, and remained in Okinawa to run a newspaper there with his wife for several years. Later he returned to the U.S. and worked for Newsweek for 20 years. He died in 1987, at 72, according to his U.P.I. obituary, which is also my source for some of these biographical details.

The radio series documents his entry into being a war correspondent — sailing to Europe with U.P. colleague Robert Richards in that episode titled “Atlantic Convoy.” His other dramatized stories include “Anzio Diary,” a compilation of features about life among U.S. troops after the Allies established their beachhead in Italy, followed by “The Road to Rome.”

U.P.’s approach to dramatizing its courageous reporters “stories behind the stories” is best represented by its account of Vermillion’s first parachute jump, when he volunteered to accompany paratroopers on a 2 a.m. mission into Southern France — with 45 minutes of training.

“What’s on your mind, another scoop for the United Press?” a colonel asks him.

“Excuse me for saying this, Mr. Vermillion, but you’re nuts,” a serviceman adds when he hears of the plan.

Later, two officers discuss the newsman’s motivation…

“Thirsting for a little excitement,” says one.
>> “After what he went through in Italy?”
“Yes, he wants more. This time he’ll really get it.”

The “what he went through in Italy” reference is well represented in two other “Soldiers of the Press” episodes (downloadable below), and perhaps more that are not in the Internet archives. Vermillion also appears in one of the last European Front episodes of the series, “Prisoner of War,” in which he is sent to bring back U.P. reporter Edward Beattie from the German prison camp where he was held in 1945. It’s a scene Beattie also recounted in his autobiographical Diary of a Kriegie.

While a search for Vermillion’s byline in several news archives didn’t produce any stories about Beattie’s release, it did turn up his chilling 1945 accounts of the liberation of another prison camp, and of American troops bringing German civilians to see the mass graves of prisoners murdered as the Allies approached — then enlisting the Germans to help identify and re-bury bodies.

And while the online archive search did not uncovered Vermillion’s “Soldiers of the Press” story about a wedding being interrupted at the Anzio beachhead, it did find a four-column photo of his own 29th birthday party at the base of operations in Italy. The caption read, “Celebrators Pick Up Where They Left Off: Robert Vermillion, correspondent, left, had a real “bang-up” twenty-ninth birthday celebration in Naples, when a Nazi bomb interrupted the proceedings…”

Vermillion on Soldiers of the Press
The following are downloadable episodes at the Internet Archive:

43-05-16 (028) Robert Vermillion – Atlantic Convoy
(also features UP’s Robert W. Richards)
11.6 MB
44-05-07 (079) Robert Vermillion – Anzio Diary 10.4 MB
44-07-02 (087) Robert Vermillion – The Road To Rome 11.2 MB
44-09-24 (099) Robert Vermillion – The Paratroopers 10.9 MB
45-06-17 (137) Robert Vermillion in closing scene of “Eddie Beattie – Prisoner Of War” 10.7 MB

Editor’s note:
Tracing connections between U.P.’s published stories and the “Soldiers of the Press” broadcasts can be tricky, since the radio episodes did not mention the original articles or the dates on which they were filed. They may have been aired weeks, even months, after the news was reported in print; individual radio stations may have fit the programs into their schedule at different times. The “behind the scenes” feature-style treatment suited this arrangement. In the case of “Atlantic Convoy,” based on a news story published in April 1943, the Old Time Radio Researchers collection dates the program was broadcast in May. J. David Goldin and Digital Deli found indications it was broadcast by some stations in July. (Collectors’ dating could be based on estimates, transcription disk labels, newspaper broadcast logs, or the names of MP3 files of uncertain provenance circulated on the Internet.)

For more about the series, see the JHeroes.com “Soldiers of the Press” page and links on that page.

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, Soldiers of the Press, true stories, United Press, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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