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'The worst worries we had about the war was just death.  We just never knew when we’d lose someone that we loved.  Our best friend. The boy that was the brother of your best friend.  We lived in constant fear of the telegrams.  Each day we would read the lists in the newspaper to see if we could identify any of the names that were there. - Katharine Phillips

During World War II most Americans followed the news of the war through three sources: radio broadcasts, newspapers – there were more than 11,000 in the country then – and newsreels that preceded the movies at their local theatres. These sources played a vital role in connecting the home front with the war front and kept Americans informed about the progress of the fighting overseas as well as its impact on their communities.

War correspondents in the Second World War spent a good deal of time with the troops, close to and sometimes on the front lines – in planes, aboard ships and on the ground. Their vivid radio broadcasts brought the war into the nation’s living rooms as families regularly gathered around to hear about what was happening overseas. Motion picture newsreels included dramatic footage of combat, uplifting stories about the war effort, and segments featuring politicians and generals explaining the latest developments and strategies.

“Everybody had a radio during the war,” Emma Belle Petcher said. “No TVs. And three times a day, you got the national news and three times a day, you did not be far from that radio. And, of course, my mother had about a four-by-four map. I really don’t know where she got it. It was a map of all of Europe. And she had a big, long rule stick. When news time came, she followed all the battles with the rule stick on the map.”

Government control of the news was comprehensive. All news about the war had to pass through the Office of War Information (OWI). A “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” was issued on Jan 15, 1942 giving strict instructions on proper handling of news. The code was voluntarily adopted by all of the major news organizations and implemented by the more than 1,600 members of the press accredited by the armed forces during the war. The government also relied heavily on reporter’s patriotism, which ensured that in their dispatches from the front lines, they tended to accentuate the positive. John Steinbeck explained how he and other reporters went about their work:

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The rules for correspondents [were both] ... imposed and self-imposed ...

There were no cowards in the American Army, and of all the brave men the private in the infantry was the bravest and noblest. The reason for this in terms of the War Effort was obvious. The infantry private had the dirtiest, weariest, least rewarding job in the whole war. In addition to being dangerous, a great many of the things he had to do were stupid. He must therefore be reassured that these things he knew to be stupid were actually necessary and wise, and that he was a hero for doing them ... A second convention held that we had no cruel or ambitious or ignorant commanders ...

We were all a part of the War Effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don’t mean that the correspondents were liars ... [but] it is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.

We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also, we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles.

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For those with relatives or boyfriends overseas, keeping up with the news had a particular urgency as they tried to figure out where their loved ones were, and whether they were safe.

“In the morning we always went to this place and had coffee and compared what they did the night before,” Barbara Covington said. “And we would have a newspaper and we’d drink our coffee and read the paper. And we would discuss it because there was a time there things looked pretty rough for us and we were losing quite a few of our men. And we didn’t know really for a while there how it was going to come out. And by then you had met people that had left and gone overseas into combat. So it was a trying time. People that you really knew and you wondered if you read something, you tried to pinpoint, you wondered if their company was there, or that type of thing.”

Correspondent Ernie Pyle was enormously popular both at home and with the troops overseas. A columnist for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, he did his best to put a human face on the millions of young men in uniform. Unlike many other correspondents, he did not focus on the generals and their military strategies, but instead painted intimate portraits of the privates, the sergeants, and the junior officers who were doing the fighting, the killing, and the dying. One of his most famous columns was written from the front lines in Italy in the fall of 1943:

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In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.

He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him ...

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the back of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked ...

“This one is Captain Waskow,” one of [the men] said quietly ...

The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it!”

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Back home, writers like Luverne’s Al McIntosh, the owner and editor of the Rock County Star Herald, wrote frequently about the direct effects of the war on their cities and towns. McIntosh’s column “More or Less Personal Chaff” was by turns uplifting, humorous, and wrenching, and was always filled with quotidian details about the lives of his neighbors:

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Here is one of life’s tragedies. Mrs. Henry Smook went over to Sioux Falls with her youngest boy, Harold, 17. It wasn’t a shopping expedition or a long-planned day of fun. She had gone with her youngest son to give her consent to his joining the Navy.

She didn’t know that while she was there a telegram had come to her home in Luverne telling her of the death of her son in France, Private First Class Herman Smook.

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As the war dragged on, and casualties mounted, citizens scanned the front pages to see if anyone they knew had been wounded, or was missing in action, or killed.

“You started to realize that this isn’t just going over there and winning the peace and then coming back. They’re not coming back. Some of them aren’t,” Anne DeVico said. “You’d pick up the paper and somebody was killed in action. Well, your whole atmosphere, everything changes. Your whole being is feeling for that person and thinking, ‘Geez, they’re not going to get home; they’re not going to get married; they’re not going to see their children.’ ”

In the fall of 1943, after almost two years at war, concerns about public complacency led government officials to begin to allow the publication of images that showed the true cost of war. In the September 20, 1943 issue of LIFE magazine, the editors published a photograph taken on a New Guinea beach in the South Pacific, ten months earlier. It was the first image of dead American servicemen that American civilians were allowed to see in the 21 months since Pearl Harbor.

“And so here it is. This is the reality that lies behind the names that come to rest at last on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns,” the article stated. “ The camera doesn’t show America and yet here on the beach is America, three parts of a hundred and thirty million parts, three fragments of that life we call American life: three units of freedom. So that it is not just these boys who have fallen here, it is freedom that has fallen. It is our task to cause it to rise again.”

A few months later, the War Department also produced a film called “With the Marines at Tarawa” containing combat footage more brutal than anything ordinary Americans had yet seen. Some in Washington argued that its release would damage morale. But President Roosevelt himself ordered that it be shown. He wanted to give Americans a clearer sense of what their men were facing.

“When we saw those first pictures of Tarawa we were overcome, just overcome,” Katharine Phillips said. “It was just devastating to us. Those American boys’ bodies floating in the surf. We just sat around and cried and I know that’s why they had kept it from the American public for so long.”

Reaction to the film across the country was strong – enlistment went down and bond sales went up.

In the coming years more newsreels and photographs were released showing increasingly graphic images of death and destruction.

“I’d sneak in the back of the theater and see these newsreels,” Petcher remembered, “They were hand-to-hand battle, a lot of them. And, I mean, they weren’t fiction. They were the real things. It was overwhelming in a sense. You would go to bed and dream about these battles, piercing people with knives and bayonets, you know. And they were very horrifying.”

Still, in the end, Pyle and others like him despaired that those at home would never fully understand the tragedy of the war in all of its dimensions.

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These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousand. That’s the difference.

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NEXT: Letters were a source of comfort and inspiration to soldiers.
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Fifty million Americans watched newsreels every week in one of 14,000 theatres.

More than 30 government agencies were involved in censorship, but newspaper managing editors were often stricter than the censors.

President Roosevelt set up the Office of Censorship right after Pearl Harbor.

The Office of War Information suppressed visual material that it feared would threaten domestic unity.

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Al McIntosh of Luverne
Rock County Star Herald

Al McIntosh of Luverne

Al McIntosh purchased the Rock County Star Herald and moved to Luverne in 1940, fulfilling his dream of owning a small-town newspaper. He got to know everyone in town and chronicled the war’s impact on his neighbors’ lives in his biweekly column.

Audio Icon Learn more about Al McIntosh and his columns featured in THE WAR »

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Ernie Pyle
National Archives

Ernie Pyle

Describing the life of the common solider helped earn Ernie Pyle the Pulitzer Prize. His war accounts ranged from North Africa to the Pacific, where he was killed by enemy fire in 1945.

Read samples of Ernie Pyle’s war correspondence »

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A man shops at a newsstand on 42nd Street at Sixth Avenue in New York.
Library of Congress
A man shops at a newsstand on 42nd Street at Sixth Avenue in New York.

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Katharine Phillips
Video IconKatharine Phillips »
Using the radio and newsreels, President Roosevelt united the country.

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“Fireside Chats”

The first president to master the new electronic medium of radio, Roosevelt was able to take his ideas directly to the people. Starting the practice the second week of his presidency, his fireside chats grew so popular that nearly eight of 10 Americans listened.

President Roosevelt
National Archives
Audio IconPresident Roosevelt »
Listen to the radio broadcast of the president’s prayer for soldiers invading France on D-Day.

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What is a Newsreel?

Employing some of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers, the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information kept the public informed of the war’s progress through bi-weekly newsreels. The narrated short films were produced by one of five companies and offered as part of the regular shows at movie theatres. OWI carefully monitored what stories were featured.

Documentary: “With the Marines at Tarawa”
Video Icon Documentary: “With the Marines at Tarawa” »

This short documentary showed the harrowing battle between the U.S. Marines and the Japanese for control of the Pacific island of Tarawa. (18:00)

See all newsreels featured in the “Search and Explore” section »

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Newsreels about the war were often shown in movie theaters before the feature film.
Library of Congress
Newsreels about the war were often shown in movie theaters before the feature film.

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LIFE Magazine showed the first public photograph of three Americans lying dead at Buna Beach.

LIFE magazine showed the first public photograph of three Americans lying dead at Buna Beach. Copyright 1943 Life Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Life is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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See all “News & Media” photographs and media in “Search & Explore”»