Jack Thompson, our favorite war correspondent
It seems a bit ridiculous to have a “favorite” war correspondent, but the truth is, I do.
There was just something about Jack Thompson and his work that hooked me right away when I began researching coverage of D-Day a decade ago, and that was before I knew about the full scope of his exploits.
More than 75 years later, Thompson doesn’t have the name recognition of some of his contemporaries — Pyle, Murrow, Capa — but his coverage of the Mediterranean and European theaters for the Chicago Tribune holds up as well as anyone’s. If something important was happening in the fight against Germany, chances are Thompson was around, and it’s always a pleasure to read his work whenever I stumble upon it in my research. Here’s a little bit more about him on the 113th anniversary of his birth:
John Hall Thompson was born in Chicago on Aug. 17, 1908 and grew up in suburban Evanston. His father, Samuel, spent his entire life working in the coffee business as an importer, buyer and broker.
Though he grew up just down the street from Northwestern University, Thompson attended Williams College, where he earned a degree in English with a minor in political science. He also got his first real taste of adventure, working during the summer as a deck boy on the steamship Republic — a job that would take him to Germany for the first time.
He held a variety of other jobs to put himself through college, from working as a checker for a railroad to serving as assistant manager of a musical club. After graduating, he returned home to Chicago to work in the credit purchasing department at Montgomery Ward & Co.
Life as a businessman didn’t take, though, and in 1931 he joined the renowned City News Bureau “at half my former salary, to learn the newspaper business,” he would later say. He rose to assistant city editor before joining the Tribune in 1934 as a rewrite man and eventually a general assignment reporter.
Thompson began focusing on military coverage in 1940, touring U.S. military camps throughout the south and reporting on the state of American forces as it became increasingly inevitable that the U.S. would eventually get involved in the fighting then raging across the seas.
Thompson covered domestic maneuvers in 1941 and ‘42 before flying to England on the Pan Am Clipper at the end of August to officially begin his stint as a war correspondent.
One of the first stories he filed from London, on Sept. 20, described a ride-along he took on a C-47 with an aircrew learning to transport paratroopers. The concept was sufficiently unfamiliar at that point that Thompson spent much of the story explaining the basics of how the airborne troops were intended to operate.
That trip sparked something of a fascination with airborne operations that Thompson would indulge by going through parachute training himself and jumping with the troops. After accompanying Allied forces landing in North Africa in November 1942, he strapped on a chute and accompanied Lt. Col. Edson Raff of the 82nd Airborne’s 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion on a jump near Oran, Algeria.
Fellow correspondents Frank L. Kluckhohn and Lowell Bennett also were aboard the transport plane that day, but those two remained aboard while Thompson jumped out the door. Kluckhohn wrote about it in the Nov. 18 New York Times, an account reprinted in the same day’s Tribune.
“One of those to hop was Thompson, who was making his first jump in that combat area,” Kluckhohn wrote. “He had decided to accompany the expedition. The last I saw of him was his back and his parachute billowing out with the others strewn out beneath him.”
Thompson’s own dispatch would arrive in time to be printed in the Nov. 19 Tribune. The second sentence read: “As a war correspondent, I jumped with the troops, being the first reporter to jump with American paratroops, either in practice or in battle.”
The troopers jumped combat-ready, assigned to secure an airfield from the Germans, but found only friendly French troops on the scene when they arrived. As such, it was a soft landing for Thompson, but his feat earned him a reputation as a correspondent unafraid to put himself in the line of fire to get the story.
Thompson spent six months covering the fighting in North Africa, along the way earning nicknames that would stick with him throughout the war and beyond: Beaver and The Beard.
The 34-year-old began growing a beard during the voyage to Africa because he didn’t like shaving in cold water. That facial hair was sufficiently unique that Thompson’s beard is noted in virtually every story that mentions him throughout the war.
“Now I can’t get rid of it, because nobody would recognize me without it,” he would tell friend and colleague Hal Boyle of the Associated Press in 1945.
Thompson flew home for a brief respite in May 1943 after assuring Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick he wouldn’t miss any significant action in the meantime. Sure enough, he was back in plenty of time for the Allies’ jump across the Mediterranean to Sicily in July.
While his bosses were thrilled with the coverage Thompson provided, they became increasingly concerned about the risks being taken by one of their star correspondents. On July 19, the day the story of his jump into Sicily ran, Tribune managing editor J. Loy Maloney sent Thompson a telegram that read: “Your account credited five hundred dollar bonus great work Sicily jump no more.”
They let Thompson’s wife, Pauline, know about that edict, but she didn’t sound convinced he would follow it. In a handwritten note to McCormick on July 23, she wrote: “The order to ‘jump no more’ pleases me, but I don’t feel quite sure of what Jack will do, to delight his paper and horrify me.”
His wife presumably was pleased when Thompson made Algiers his base for the next several months, leaving coverage of the fighting in mainland Italy to his Tribune colleagues. In the meantime, he wrote a three-part profile of Gen. Mark Clark and covered the Cairo conference in December 1943 before returning to London in early February 1944 to cover preparations for the invasion of northwest Europe.
When the long-awaited day arrived four months later, Thompson was assigned to accompany the 1st Infantry Division. He and another veteran correspondent, Don Whitehead of the Associated Press, met with Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner, who shared the following reassuring words:
Regard yourselves as members of this unit. You have complete freedom of movement, and I want you to get all the information you can. The people at home won’t know what is happening unless you are given information and I want them to know.
You both know how to take care of yourselves and won’t forget to duck. But if an unlucky shell should get you we’ll do all we can. If you’re wounded we’ll take care of you. If you’re killed we’ll bury you. Meantime, we’ll feed you and see that you get what you want.
Thompson would have a front-row seat on D-Day, as his LCVP went ashore on Omaha Beach around 8 a.m. on June 6. He followed Col. George Taylor onto Easy Red beach and would write into history Taylor’s exhortation: “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beach. Let us go inland and be killed.”
The shame of it was, most of Thompson’s firsthand account of D-Day would not appear in print until months or even years later thanks to myriad communications difficulties in those opening days on the beachhead. His first piece with a Normandy dateline to be printed in the Tribune was filed June 9 and appeared in the next day’s editions.
But he would have the chance to share his story over time, returning to Normandy and writing D-Day retrospective pieces for the Tribune in 1946, 1949, 1954, 1964, 1969 and 1994. The last of those was especially poignant, as it included a series of photos of the 86-year-old Thompson, his famous beard now white, exploring bunkers and barbed wire along the invasion coast.
Down came our landing ramp. Machine-gun bullets flayed the water just ahead of Taylor, first to jump off into the chest-deep water. I followed, instinctively shielding my face with my prized lightweight portable typewriter, a Swiss-made Hermes.
Hermes must have been my good luck charm. I wasn’t nicked, nor were any of my comrades on the boat. We all escaped injury that day. (Fifty years later, I’ve still got the typewriter. I’m writing this story on it.)
As the offensive churned across France, Thompson was right there, from Cherbourg to Saint-Lo and on into Paris on Aug. 25. His first story filed from that long-awaited destination duly chronicled the action he observed on the way in before ending on a lighter note.
This correspondent encountered mass kissing. His beard, when not waving in the breeze, was pulled, tugged, stroked or kissed by swarms of women ranging from grandmothers to chic girls. Only once did any woman ask permission to embrace the beard. She hugged the correspondent and then started crying. Perhaps the whiskers tickled her.
After a few days in Paris, Thompson followed the fighting into Belgium and on Sept. 13 crossed the German border near Aachen.
He headed home at the end of the month for a bit of rest and a handful of speaking engagements, highlighted by a lengthy address to Chicago’s Union League Club on Oct. 17. A full transcript of his remarks to a crowd of about 650 at the luncheon meeting ran in the next day’s Tribune.
Thompson was back in Germany by the beginning of December, and wrote from there on the 3rd about the questions soldiers had asked him upon his return from home. Questions about rationing and labor issues and the just-concluded election.
And then they ask the inevitable question, the same one they have been asking on and off for months. It is the question soldiers overseas ask on any front. Do the people at home really know where’s a war on? And do they really know what the soldiers are going thru?
This is somewhat difficult to answer. Certainly, you tell them, the home fronters know there is a war on but it is rare when they are able to realize day after day what fighting and living is like in the mud of the western front.
There is this gap, you tell them, between the civilian and the soldier, a gap which correspondents and photographers try to bridge with words and pictures, but it is a gap which can only be completely bridged by actual experience, a condition which the civilian at home obviously cannot have.
When the Germans launched their last desperate offensive two weeks later, Thompson reported from Belgium. In a story filed from Stavelot on Dec. 21 he wrote about what would become one of the signature aspects of the Battle of the Bulge: Germans infiltrating Allied lines by wearing American uniforms and using U.S. vehicles and weapons.
He would spend New Year’s Day 1945 reporting on one of the massacres of Belgian civilians the Germans had committed near Stavelot after U.S. troops discovered the bodies of 63 men, women and children.
On Jan. 5, with the tide of battle having turned back in the Allies’ favor, Thompson wrote an analysis of the Bulge noting that 1st Army planners had been aware that Field Marshal von Rundstedt was capable of launching a counter-offensive, “but the weight with which he finally struck did come as a surprise to most staff officers.”
Thompson would enter Cologne with Allied troops in early March, writing of the “sea of devastation” surrounding the iconic cathedral, before rushing to cover the surprise Rhine crossing at Remagen.
At the end of April, he was present for the historic linkup of U.S. and Russian troops at Torgau on the Elbe and had his fill of vodka in the all-night party that ensued.
Throughout late April and into May he wrote several pieces about U.S. prisoners of war who had been liberated, at one point acquiring a list of 2,200 freed POWs. The Tribune would publish the names of the Midwesterners among that group over two days just before the German surrender.
On V-E Day itself, Thompson’s thoughts were with the troops, as he filed a brief item pondering how the powers that be might decide to allot veterans of Europe to the Pacific theater for the fight against Japan.
Less than a month later, on June 3, Thompson sailed into New York harbor aboard the USS Monticello along with nearly 1,500 soldiers from 1st Army.
Thompson returned to Europe in the fall of 1945, setting up shop in Paris and covering the post-war scene around the continent for two years before returning to Chicago in 1947.
Four days before Christmas in 1950, Thompson arrived in Seoul to cover the fighting in Korea. He returned to the U.S. in May 1951 but continued to write about the war, spending several weeks toward the end of the year touring domestic military facilities just as he had before Pearl Harbor.
On Jan. 3, 1959, days after rebels led by Fidel Castro finally toppled the Cuban government, Thompson flew into Havana to report for several days on the situation on the ground.
He would later make three reporting trips to Vietnam in the 1960s even though he worked mostly as an editorial writer by that point.
Thompson retired from the Tribune in 1973 after nearly 40 years with the paper, but continued to write occasional pieces.
In December 1995, about a year and a half after his final trip to Omaha Beach for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Thompson died in an Evanston hospital. He was 87 years old.