"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WWII journalism--"Letters to home"

A yellowed copy of an Ernie Pyle column, from my Dad's collection of clippings.
I lectured today on journalism in WWII, in my joint class "War Generations," with history prof and friend and fellow ex-chair Jim Baker. This is about the fourth class we've done together--half of history majors, half of journalism or mass comm majors. First was Vietnam, then WWI, then the 20th century wars.

This is the way college classes should be taught--upper level students having fun and paying attention to two gray-haired experts in their fields. Of course, Baker carries most of the load in the classes, first because there's so much about the wars that our students don't understand. Second, because I'm more clever than he (not smarter), and figured out how not to work so hard.

But today was pretty much my show. Last week we set the stage with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the coverage, and the causes. Today I talked about America depending on the radio and newspaper correspondents to know what was happening since there was no TV, videos, etc. Of course I had to explain journalistic style to the history majors because the entire class has to write once a week.

An envelope addressed to my grandmother in 1944 from my uncle Mike.
The letter
My comments also talked about how most correspondence was the equivalent to a "letter home." I showed some actual letters from my uncle Mike to my grandmother from 1944-45, plus a copy of an Ernie Pyle column, plus headlines from the Pearl Harbor attack. Pyle's writing serves as the guide to how to write well, and I spend quite a bit of time on that (15 minutes). It helps that there are some great web pages out there, thanks to the Internet, that we can flash up on the big screen. 

Baker's emphasis is on historical causes, and especially the soldiers, the common fighting men and women, and on the effects on the home front. Thursday we look at the mental trauma caused by the war. Our textbook is Studs Terkel's The Good War, where he interviews WWII survivors, men and women and military and civilians about their experiences. A bunch of snippets that show the effects on the common person. We bounce around a lot in the book, picking and choosing for our content.

The students have to bring a blue book (yes they still have those) to class and we take from 20 to 30 minutes a week at the close of a class period( 30 minutes today), and give them an assignment to write about, as though they were writing a letter or a press report back home. They can make up identities, but the people and events have to be historic, as though they were there. Yes, they can use their books and notes.

Today's assignment was to write about one of two subjects. One, they had just returned from a Nazi rally in the mid 1930s--either in America or Germany, and were responding to a newspaper editorial calling for American isolationism. Two, they were writing a first person account of the Pearl Harbor attack. (Great ideas, huh? Baker's brilliant).

My students have to "adopt" a war correspondent and give a visual and verbal report later in class. Off limits: Hemingway, just because. And Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. I get a whole class period on Pyle. Baker takes Mauldin.

First half of the semester is WWII. Second half is about Vietnam.

I've just finished grading my students first assignments. For the most part, these adults can write. I'll share a couple of excerpts soon. You'll be impressed.


  1. Sounds like a very interesting and challenging course.

  2. This class makes me feel the need to be in college.

  3. This is by far my favorite course.


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