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Review: 'Weller's War' brings to life a correspondent's dispatches from amid the action

As we honor on Memorial Day those who fought and died in the nation’s wars, the story of George Weller’s career makes clear that the reporters who covered those wars often displayed the same bravery and dedication.
Along with Ernie Pyle and A.J. Liebling, Weller (1907-2002) was one of the most eminent American correspondents of his time. 
Winner of a 1943 Pulitzer Prize and a 1954 George Polk Award, both for foreign reporting, Weller began his writing career in the 1930s as a freelancer publishing reportage and fiction in the Nation, Esquire, Collier’s, the Atlantic, the New Yorker and other magazines. He also published several novels.
But, while he was employed by the Chicago Daily News, it was his courageous and incisive eyewitness reports from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific that solidified his distinguished reputation.
George Weller’s son, Anthony Weller, a novelist and editor of a previous book on his father’s writings, First Into Nagasaki (2006), has compiled the best of his father’s World War II reporting in Weller’s War: A Legendary Foreign Correspondent’s Saga of World War II on Five Continents.
Anthony Weller begins his book with his father’s arrival in Lisbon, Portugal, in January 1941. As Hitler’s armies advance westward, intellectuals from across Europe — artists, writers, academics hounded by the Third Reich ­— are attempting to escape to the United States, George Weller reports. These refugees “are mostly drab little people with thin overcoats and papier-mache suitcases — not important enough to be known in America but just sufficiently interesting to rate inclusion upon secret police lists of the authoritarian states.â€â€©Moving on to Barcelona, Spain, where the British blockade is successfully starving the unfortunate population living under Francisco Franco’s pro-Axis regime, Weller describes the plight of poor Federico Vega, a dockworker. His “face and figure have changed in the last six months. His cheeks . . . have become sunken and pale. . . . Federico has never fainted yet . . . He refuses to weigh himself . . . His belt holes tell him all he needs to know.†
As these examples clearly indicate, Weller has a talent for closely focusing on the human costs of war. He also succeeds in spotlighting the lesser-known regions of World War II.
Weller is in Greece when the Nazis invade in April 1941 and is strafed by a German fighter plane: “I ran across the meadow, half slipped and fell against a stone wall. The Heinkel came down leisurely . . . and sprayed the barn tiles with bullets from 2000 feet.â€â€©In Belgrade, Yugoslavia, July 1941, Weller is detained by the Gestapo and is eventually excluded “by Germany from no fewer than eight countries†in Europe — a correspondent’s nightmare in this ever-eventful war. 
But he proves unstoppable in his reporting. We see Weller accompanying Emperor Haile Selassie and Belgium’s Congolese troops as they free Ethiopia from Italian forces in November and December 1941. And we’re with him in doomed Singapore in early 1942 when the Japanese attack from the air: “Faces went down against the mud. . . . You could hear the bomb singing as it came down, singing like a bomb that loved its work.â€â€©Barely escaping Singapore, Weller lands on the island of Java just in time for its collapse to the Japanese in March 1942. From there he reports the story of how brave young American pilots delayed the island’s fall. Pilot Jerry McCallum’s “plane faltered . . . smoked,â Weller writes. Parachuting out, “McCallum was machine-gunned,â his “chivalrous enemy followed him down. . . . There were 30 holes in his chute — he had been hit twice each in his head and heart.†
In June 1943 Weller was granted permission by Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself to train as a paratrooper — subsequently becoming the first correspondent to parachute out of a plane. And in October 1944 he became the only civilian correspondent to participate in an air raid, riding in the nose of a Flying Fortress bomber over Italy as “deadly black fists†of enemy flak exploded all around him. 
Weller was the first foreign correspondent to report from the nuclear-devastated city of Nagasaki in 1945, but the story for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 was one about a 23-year-old Navy pharmacist’s mate who was forced to perform an emergency appendectomy aboard a submarine in Japanese waters using only cooking utensils. 
At 633 pages, Weller’s War is a long, continuous string of breathtaking World War II snapshots. But, much more than that, it is also a perceptive, impassioned chronicle of human suffering as told by an intrepid American correspondent. 
Chris Patsilelis reviews military history and other books for several publications.

Weller’s War: A Legendary Foreign Correspondent’s Saga of World War II on Five Continents
By George Weller, edited by Anthony Weller
Crown Publishers,
633 pages, $29.95

Review: 'Weller's War' brings to life a correspondent's dispatches from amid the action 05/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 9:12am]
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