On Feb. 20, 1945, Keith Wheeler, a World War II battlefield reporter, was critically wounded on the beach of Iwo Jima when a bullet pierced his neck and shattered his jaw. Without the quick and professional action of a nearby medic, he would have died.
Wheeler, from Carrington, N.D., had previously been involved in a number of the fiercest battles in the Pacific during World War II. He spent four months in a Honolulu hospital recovering from his physical injuries. However, recovery from his mental battlefield trauma would take much longer.
People who knew him said he suffered from “combat stress reaction,” diagnosed as “shell shock” during World War I or “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) in later years. By the time Wheeler was released from the hospital, Germany had surrendered and Japan would surrender four months later.
He continued to write for the Chicago Times and, in 1945, authored his second book, "We Are the Wounded," which told stories about the soldiers he met while he was hospitalized. Wheeler’s literary agent was George T. Bye, who was also the agent for Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Rebecca West and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Roosevelt wrote a glowing review of Wheeler’s book in her “My Day” column on Dec. 15, 1945.
In 1946, the Chicago Times sent Wheeler as a correspondent to cover events in the Middle East. After the war, a number of these tribal kingdoms had gained their independence from France and Great Britain, but the geopolitical entity of Palestine remained under the British administration. Following the Holocaust during World War II, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which recommended the region of Palestine be partitioned into an Arab state and a Jewish state (Israel) and that the city of Jerusalem be shared by both.
In May 1948, the state of Israel was established. The Arab Higher Commission rejected this action, and the Arab-Israeli War began. Israel was well-prepared, and on April 11, 1948, military forces under Lt. Col. Moshe Dayan launched attacks on the cities of Lydda and Ramla.
Wheeler, who witnessed the assault, penned the article “Blitz Tactics Won Lydda,” in which he wrote, “practically everything in their way died. Riddled corpses lay by the roadside.” During the war, over 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and not allowed to return.
In 1950, Wheeler’s first novel, "The Reef," was published, and reviewers favorably compared it to the war novels written by Ernest Hemingway. It was about an officer involved in the Battle of Tarawa who developed PTSD from crawling on the beach under heavy Japanese fire, and he continued to relive that nightmare while at home in Chicago.
In 1951, Wheeler was hired by Life magazine to become a staff writer. The managing editor of Life was Edward Thompson, who was born and raised in St. Thomas, N.D., and he expressed much of the same political philosophy as Wheeler.
In 1954, Wheeler was appointed chief Time Life correspondent in the Middle East, with the assignment to “analyze the history and forces that had shaped the Arab world and motivated the Arabs in their relationship with the rest of the world.” To conduct this analysis, Wheeler spent time in eight major Arab countries, conferring with over 400 Arab leaders and other authorities.
He found that most Arabs were very displeased with the U.S. because of its support of the Zionist movement over the plight of displaced Palestinians. They were also unhappy because of the close ties the U.S. maintained with France and Great Britain, the two countries that had held much of the Arab land as part of their colonial empire. Because of these hard feelings toward the U.S., some Arab leaders were establishing close ties with the Soviet Union, and this was of great concern to American political leaders.
In the spring of 1956, Wheeler returned to the U.S. and was promoted to assistant editor of Life. In 1958, his second novel, "Small World," was published, about two newspaper correspondents who fall in love while covering World War II on the island of Saipan. They are frequently separated because of different location assignments, but eventually get back together.
Wheeler’s next novel, "Peaceable Lane," was his most popular and most controversial book. It was about the challenges that arose when an African American family decided to move into an upscale neighborhood of New York City in the late 1950s. Kathie Ryckman Anderson, a writer from North Dakota, wrote a synopsis of the book and stated, “The physical fact of a man’s skin color, which should have been meaningless, carried shockingly powerful connotations of meaning: suspicion, fear, superstition, hate, and money.”
The book was published in 1960, becoming a best-seller. Anderson wrote that Wheeler’s book won the Brotherhood Award in 1961 from the National Council of Christians and Jews. Race relations were major issues during the early 1960s, and Wheeler frequently covered different racial issues in his articles for Life.
In 1968, Wheeler’s novel "The Last Mayday" was published about a Russian party official who encountered many obstacles when he tried to defect to the U.S. In 1972, he wrote the mystery novel "Epitaph for Mister Wynn" about racial homicides in the deep South.
In 1972, Time Life began the major project of chronicling the history of the time with its "The Old West" series, and Wheeler became the primary author of this series of 27 books. He wrote the books "The Railroaders," "The Townsmen," "The Chroniclers," "The Alaskans" and "The Scouts."
In 1979, Time Life followed up that project by publishing a series of books about World War II, and Wheeler authored "The Road to Tokyo," "War Under the Pacific" and "The Fall of Japan."
On June 19, 1980, the residents of Huron, S.D., held a city centennial celebration to honor “Centennial Huronians” who made the city proud. Wheeler was one of the honorees along with actress Cheryl Ladd, U.S. Sen. Muriel Humphrey and college football star Garney Henley, who was born in Elgin, N.D.
Keith Wheeler died Dec. 6, 1994.
“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.