Custer’s stand in the Pacific: An injured Soldier of the Press

This episode of the United Press World War II radio series Soldiers of the Press covers reporter Joe James Custer’s service from Pearl Harbor through the sinking of a U.S. Navy cruiser he was assigned to in the Solomon Islands — and leaves him in a hospital bed after being injured in the story’s climactic August 1942 sea battle.

Custer may have been back in the hospital at the time of the November broadcast. A newspaper clip shows him smiling with nurses between surgeries in September, but he apparently never regained the vision in that eye. He was eventually awarded the Purple Heart, according to a 1945 item in the Pittsburgh Press.
“With my good eye I saw a great deal of courage and grit,” the actor playing Custer in the radio play says, describing a captain wounded 11 times who continued to command the evacuation of his ship, the Astoria. It sank Aug. 9, 1942.

Dated Nov. 30, 1942, in the Internet Archive’s Old-Time Radio Researchers Soldiers of the Press collection, Custer’s dramatized biography is listed as the fourth broadcast in the United Press series. It went into details on the motivation, preparation and outfitting of a war correspondent, as well as making clear the courage it took to volunteer for dangerous assignments.

A veteran newspaperman in San Francisco and Hawaii, Custer joined the United Press wire service in Honolulu shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Well, I’d asked for action and action is what I got,” he says, describing being introduced to his first incendiary-resistant flame jacket, goggles,  gas-resistant outfit, gas mask, tin hat and life jacket.

Custer covered the U.S. bombing of Marcus and Wake Islands in February and March, 1942, before heading to the Solomon Islands, where his ship, the cruiser Astoria, was crippled and sank. In addition to Custer’s own reports, the radio drama quotes a Honolulu Star Bulletin story about the injured reporter, and the courage and commitment of war correspondents in general.

As is usual with Soldiers of the Press episodes, the cast, producers and writers are not identified, including the narrator and the actor voicing Custer’s descriptions of battle scenes.

Custer told the story of that Solomon Islands fight in his 1944 book, Through the Perilous Night: The Astoria’s Last Battle. He returned to United Press after his hospitalization, working both in the Pacific and in New York, where he did some sports writing as well as finishing his book, judging by his United Press bylined stories in the Google archive of scanned newspapers. He later wrote for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, then joined the staff of a USS Arizona memorial commission, according to his obituary, published in 1965.

Newspaper clips via Google archive:

Writer finds sailor’s slang has undergone streamlining, early UP story by Custer

Wake and Marcus islands story, by Custer

Solomon Islands story filed the day before his injury

Admiral Nimitz visits Custer at hospital

Operation may save eye, Sept. 23, 1942

Custer dispatch from his hospital bed

Custer’s injury and disappearance of INS reporter share AP story

Custer filler feature on aircraft carriers, October 1942, Victoria Advocate

Custer to receive purple heart, 1945

Death claims correspondent, 1965 obituary

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

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