Richard Tregaskis: Capturing War’s Grit and Humanity Through Journalism

For the American public at home in 1942, the war raging thousands of miles across oceans could seem remote and opaque. Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary brought the stories of the American forces engaged in brutal fighting to the homefront in a popular and vivid format.

Richard Tregaskis (November 28, 1916 – August 15, 1973) was an American journalist, war correspondent, and author. As a war correspondent, he covered the Pacific and European theaters of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War from the front lines. Tregaskis was embedded with combat troops, even being severely wounded himself in Italy during the Second World War. The American Heritage Center houses the Richard Tregaskis papers, which is a collection of his publications, manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and more.

Tregaskis is most well-known for his WWII reporting and specifically for his book Guadalcanal Diary (1943). The book covers the first several weeks of the Guadalcanal Campaign – the first allied ground offensive of the Pacific during the war. Tregaskis was attached to the Marine troops for the first several weeks of the battle, from the landing on the beach to the Battle of Alligator Creek[1], through to the Battle of Edson’s Ridge.

“Marines on the March.” This photograph is from file unit World War II – Guadalcanal and Guam at the National Archives. Photo identifier is 74250435.

Tregaskis’ on-the-ground, matter-of-fact style which drew heavily upon conversations with Marine troops—from the generals in charge of the operations down to the “grunts”—made it a bestseller at a time when the American public was hungry for news of the war and of the soldiers overseas. Published before the war (and even before the Guadalcanal Campaign) was over, the book was so popular it was even made into a movie the year it was released.

First edition of Guadalcanal Diary and a Swedish edition. Box 2, Richard Tregaskis papers, Collection No. 6346, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Tregaskis took copious and careful notes during his reporting trips, which allowed him to reconstruct his experiences into news wires and books later on, for example, “But the general remained calm. He sat on the ground beside the operations tent ‘Well,’ he said cheerfully, ‘it’s only a few more hours till dawn. Then we’ll see where we stand.’ Occasionally, he passed along a short, cogent suggestion to Col. Thomas. He was amused at my efforts to take notes in the dark.”[2]

Box of Richard Tregaskis’ notebooks, including some of his World War II notes. Box 64, Richard Tregaskis papers, Collection No. 6346, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In these notes, he recorded the names and hometowns of every soldier that he talked to during his reporting. This may be one reason why the book was so popular, as readers could more readily identify with the names and hometowns of the service members as opposed to the more sterile and censored newspaper reports typical of the early war period. An example from an after-action interview typifies this approach:

“I found Lieut. Fink (Chris Fink of Gray Bull [sic], Wyo.), the naval dive-bomber who had hit the enemy cruiser, a new vessel of the Jintsu class. He was a slow-speaking Westerner, and said, as the other pilots had said, that he had not had a chance to watch his bomb hit. But his radioman, Milo L. Kimerblin (of Spokane, Wash.), told the story: ‘The bomb hit right on the bridge and a sheet of flame and smoke went right up to the clouds. I could see the stack and bridge lift out of the ship and go kerplunk in the ocean. She was still burning when we left. You could see the smoke and flames for about forty miles.’”

Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary, 163.
One of Tregaskis’ WWII notebooks from Italy, with names and hometowns of soldiers. Box 64, Richard Tregaskis papers, Collection No. 6346, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 2023, 80 years after the battle, with the detailed ranks, names, and hometowns that Tregaskis supplied, and with modern resources readily available such as WWII casualty rolls, genealogical websites, and military citations databases, it is often possible to find out what happened to many of the men that Tregaskis interviewed after the publication of the book. Chris Fink survived the war and later served in the Korean War, retired from the Navy and died in 1999. Radioman Milo L. Kimberlin also survived the war, dying in 1985.[3]

Richard Tregaskis’ papers at the AHC contain such things as his notebooks from his war reporting, manuscripts for articles and books, his published books, personal and professional correspondence, and more. Of course, some of these relate to Guadalcanal Diary:

“Back at my tent, I found Don Dickson and Lieut. McLeod (William J. McLeod of St. Petersburg, Fla.) sitting on a bunk, deep in conversation. They seemed to be working over some sort of document. Dickson, who usually has a wonderfully good temper, said rather curtly: ‘We have a little private matter here.’

I felt a little cut, but later found out what the conspiracy was. P.F.C. Tardiff informed me that I was under arrest, and two marines with fixed bayonets took me in tow. Dickson came by and said with mock gravity, ‘You’re a prisoner of war.’

Capt. Hodgess, the Australian, was also brought along under military guard. We stood side by side – ‘Stand at attention, Pvt. Tregaskis,’ snapped Lieut. Wilson – while Col. Hunt marched out and gravely read a long ‘citation’ for each of us. This document honored us for our speed in getting to a dugout amidst a bombardment and drafted us for membership in the ‘Lunga Point Shell-Dodging Marines.’

Don Dickson, who had been an artist and cartoonist in civilian life, had embellished our citations with comic drawings. Making them had been his ‘private matter’ in the tent. The documents were embellished with official-looking seals made from J– beer-bottle labels.

Col. Hunt solemnly pinned captured Japanese medals on Viv Hodgess’ chest and mine. It was the Eighth Order of Palenowa. ‘We found a case of those in the J– tent camp,’ said Col. Hunt. (Later he told me: ‘We had to put on some kind of show for the boys. They were getting a little but glum.)”

Mock citation awarded to Richard Tregaskis, Box 97, Richard Tregaskis papers, Collection No. 6346, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary, 169-169.

To learn more about Richard Tregaskis’ life and career and to view his papers, visit the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.

Post contributed by Marcus Holscher, Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center.

[1] Also covered by Robert Leckie in Helmet for My Pillow (1957) and subsequently HBO’s The Pacific (2010).

[2] Richard Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (New York: Random House, 1943), 228.

[3]Capt. Christ Fink,” Coronado Eagle and Journal, October 20, 1999. Fold3, US Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010, database and images. Accessed November 17, 2023.

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