“More than anything else about war, I have always hated the corpses — the pitiful, smashed, helpless, yellow, black, swollen and stinking things that once were men, and always I have dreaded the chance that I might look like that.”
These were the first words written by Keith Wheeler, a popular American war correspondent, after he had been critically wounded while storming the beach with the soldiers at Iwo Jima in 1945. Prior to Iwo Jima, Wheeler, from Foster County in eastern North Dakota, had been involved in some of the fiercest U. S. battles in the Pacific during World War II.
He had waded ashore under heavy enemy gunfire on the beaches at Saipan, Guam, Tarawa and the Solomon and Marshall Islands, and during those encounters, more than 15,000 Americans were killed and over 20,000 were wounded. The carnage and suffering that the very sensitive Wheeler witnessed clearly came through in the articles he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. Because of these articles, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, and he later became an award-winning author, with one of his novels becoming a best-seller.
Herbert Keith Wheeler was born April 17, 1911, to Edwin and Mary (Kopan) Wheeler, in Birtsal Township, near the town of Lemert, where Edwin operated the Osborne-McMillan elevator. Keith attended elementary school in Lemert and went to high school in Carrington.
After working in Carrington, he went to Huron, S.D., in 1935 to attend Huron College. To help pay for his education, Keith Wheeler began doing odd jobs for the Evening Huronite newspaper. It quickly became evident that he was an excellent writer, and he was promoted to sports editor.
In 1937, Wheeler went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times as a “rewrite newspaperman.” On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and “within hours of the bombing, he was dispatched to the Southwest Pacific.” Wheeler was embedded with the U.S. Navy, and from December 1941 to May 1943, he spent much of his time aboard cruisers, carriers and destroyers involved in naval engagements.
On June 6, 1942, the Japanese launched an unopposed attack on the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, located off the coast of Alaska. Japan built up its forces to 2,900 soldiers on the islands, and on May 11, 1943, the Americans sent soldiers, along with Wheeler, to Attu in an attempt to retake the islands. A battle ensued on May 30, and 549 Americans were killed and 1,148 were wounded.
The Japanese fought to the end, leaving only 29 survivors. Wheeler “was the first accredited correspondent to reach Alaska during the war,” and in his stories about the battle, he described how disturbed he became “climbing over dead bodies. “
On Nov. 1, 1943, American forces, with Wheeler embedded, took the beaches of Bougainville in the Northern Solomon Islands and held the perimeter until Australian soldiers arrived to mop up the Japanese pockets of resistance in the interior of the island. After the Americans left, Wheeler experienced the U.S. strategy of “leapfrogging,” also called “island hopping.” By leapfrogging, the Navy skipped several nearby Japanese held islands and, instead, moved to the island of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. This kept the enemy guessing and off guard as to where the Americans would hit next.
The Battle of Tarawa was the most critical and bloodiest that Wheeler had experienced thus far. This was due to the U. S. shifting much of their action to the Central Pacific by focusing on this heavily Japanese-fortified island. This was “the first time in the Pacific War that the U.S. faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.”
The Americans launched their attack on Tarawa on November 20, and the well-entrenched positions of the Japanese made it difficult and dangerous for U.S. troops to reach the beaches. Over 1,000 American troops were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.
Wheeler’s graphic reports of the battle were widely read in America, and his “eyewitness delayed dispatches on the battle for Tarawa” earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1944. However, the prize went to Ernie Pyle for his “newspaper accounts of dogface infantry soldiers from a first-person perspective.” It was at this time that Wheeler’s first book, "The Pacific is My Beat," was published.
In January and February 1944, Wheeler was involved in the naval battle of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In the summer of 1944, he accompanied American troops in the invasions of Saipan and Guam in the Mariana Islands. Both invasions and subsequent inland battles were very intense and costly, with American casualties in excess of 10,000 in each battle.
Wheeler’s next assignment involved the American invasion and occupation of Iwo Jima, considered to be the most important objective prior to an invasion of Japan’s mainland. It was believed that if Iwo Jima was captured, it would provide a close enough staging area from which to invade Japan.
America launched their attack on Feb. 19, 1945, and the next day, Wheeler was seriously wounded when a bullet smashed through his throat and jaw. Wheeler wrote, “When I was first hit I thought I was killed, and I accepted my death without much inner protest.” The bullet had severed an artery, and without quick medical attention, he certainly would have died. Fortunately, there was a medic nearby who took immediate action.
Since the artery severed was in his neck, great care was required so that Wheeler did not choke or that the blood was not cut off from reaching his brain. After all of Wheeler’s vitals were stabilized, he was transported to a medical facility on a nearby island and later spent four months in a Honolulu hospital.
Wheeler received a Purple Heart, which was rarely given to a war reporter. During World War II, 32 war correspondents were killed and 112 were wounded, but only nine correspondents received a Purple Heart.
We will conclude the Keith Wheeler story next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.