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Robert St. John, Peaceful Warrior

by Randolph T. Holhut

It Always Begins With A Single Act Of Courageous Disobedience
(AR) -- With the various scandals and misdeeds of late, journalism has fallen into a general state of disrepute. We who still believe in the power of journalism to affect social change are starving for inspiration.

And then, the story of Robert St. John came into my life.

A self-described "merchant of words," St. John lived a jam-packed life as a print and broadcast journalist, as a war correspondent, as an author of 23 books, and as a lecturer and raconteur. By his estimation, he had traveled more than four million miles and reported from more than 85 countries. He died on Feb. 6 at age 100.

Back in March, days before Gulf War II began, I wrote about my predictions on how the war would be reported and quoted some of St. John's work. Recently, I got an email from Christopher Carson, co-producer of "The Living Century," a documentary series consisting of interviews with extraordinary centenarians. A few months before St. John's death, Carson and his production partner Steven Latham got a chance to interview him for the series. The finished product, "A Peaceful Warrior," will be shown this summer on PBS stations around the country.

Having seen my column, Carson wanted to send me an advance copy of the film. I have seen "A Peaceful Warrior," and I can tell you that it is powerful and moving. For anyone who has lost faith in journalism, this film will help restore it.

I was familiar with some of St. John's life through two of his books -- his 1942 bestseller "From the Land of Silent People," and his 1953 autobiography "This Was My World." Latham and Carson's film filled in the rest of the gaps.

The film's title comes from St. John's lifelong pacifism, which might seem odd for a person who as a 16-year-old lied about his age to join the Navy in World War I, who was bombed and strafed by the Nazis in Yugoslavia and Greece in World War II and who covered five Mideast wars including the 1948, 1956 and 1967 Israeli-Arab conflicts.

"It may seem inconsistent, but I have spent much of my past 50 years being a war correspondent," St. John says in the film. "Why a war correspondent if I'm a pacifist? Because I hate war so much and I was very eager to show war as it really is. ... Everything about war is horrible and what happens to human beings is the most horrible of all."

But St. John almost never got the chance to be a war correspondent. How he got back into the game is told in "This Was My World," and is an interesting story in itself.

St. John had been out of journalism for several years before being coaxed back into the business by a friend, International News Service reporter Frank Gervasi. In the summer of 1938, with war looming on the horizon in Europe, St. John was living on a farm in New Hampshire with his wife Eda after a tumultuous decade as a newspaper reporter and editor. His attempt at being a gentleman farmer while trying to write The Great American Novel was unsuccessful. Gervasi visited St. John on his farm and was shocked at how little his friend knew about what was happening in Europe because of St. John's self-imposed isolation.

"You can't do this," Gervasi kept telling St. John. "You can't stay buried up here any longer. You can't retire until you've covered one more story."

"What story?" St. John asked.

"The war!" Gervasi replied.

Gervasi was convinced that war would soon break out in Europe. He even told St. John the date he thought the war would begin: Sept. 1, 1939. Gervasi urged St. John to give up his farm life and come to Europe to work with him as a partner on what Gervasi envisioned as a daily syndicated column on European affairs.

The St. Johns made plans to go to Europe in August 1939, but Gervasi's scheme fell through. Undeterred, St. John made the rounds of the news services in New York -- including one of his former employers, The Associated Press -- but he was told that at 37, he was too old for the rigors of foreign correspondence. Even though Robert had no job, the St. Johns sailed to Europe in the hope that something would turn up. On the trip over, Robert read the two books that Gervasi suggested he read to prepare for covering a war in Europe -- Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and Machiavelli's "The Prince."

At noontime on Sept. 1, 1939, the St. Johns were having lunch at a restaurant in Budapest, Hungary. Neither could read the menu, so Robert decided to go to the AP's Budapest bureau to find a fellow American who knew enough Hungarian so they could order a meal.

He entered the office and saw it in a state of pandemonium. When St. John asked what was going on, he was told the German army had invaded Poland. When St. John told the staff that he was a journalist, he was hired on the spot and spent the next two years in Central Europe and the Balkans covering the war for the AP.

The spring of 1941 was the turning point of Robert St. John's life. He was in Belgrade when the Luftwaffe destroyed the city in a massive air raid. With three other reporters, St. John fled the city barely a step ahead of the advancing German army. Bombed and strafed by the advancing German and Italian forces, St. John and his companions reached the Adriatic coast. They then embarked on a rough and seemingly impossible 400-mile voyage on a leaky 20-foot sardine boat and somehow made it to safety in Greece.

But safety was elusive there too. The Germans were on the march in Greece and St. John was caught in the midst of the British forces' retreat. After being wounded in an Nazi air attack on a Greek troop train, St. John was finally evacuated by the British navy to Egypt. He had plenty to write about when he reached Cairo, but British censors prevented him from telling the full story of what he had seen on his 28-day journey.

The details had to wait for "From the Land of Silent People," a book that I believe is among the greatest pieces of reporting to come out World War II.

Two experiences from the war shaped the next six decades of St. John's life. He tells about both in "A Peaceful Warrior."

Right after the air attack on the Greek troop train, St. John spent the night recovering from his wounds in an overcrowded hospital. Lying on the floor in the darkness, he heard the whimpering of a child.

"That little voice will always be the symbol of war to me," St. John wrote in "From the Land of Silent People." "I think all the misery of war was wrapped up on that child's whimpering. When a nurse came by flashing a torch around the room I got up on one elbow and saw where the voice came from. She was about five years old. A pretty child, with jet black hair. But there wasn't anything pretty about her right arm. It hung in black, tattered shreds."

St. John asked the nurse what the girl was saying. The nurse replied that the girl was sobbing for her mother. When St. John naively asked why hadn't anyone sent for the mother, the nurse coldly replied that her whole family had been killed in that day's air raid.

"That happened a great many years ago," St. John says in the film, "yet frequently I hear the whimpering of that child in my sleep."

The other experience happened a short time earlier in Bucharest, Rumania. One night, St. John got a tip from a friend, a Jewish newspaper editor, that there was going to be a pogrom and that he was on the list of people to be rounded up. St. John hid the editor's family as a Christian fascist group called "The Brotherhood of the Archangel, Michael" rounded up several hundred Jews in the city.

The next morning, St. John learned what had happened. The Jews were taken to a stockyard at the edge of the city. They were stripped naked and led up the ramp where cattle were slaughtered. One by one they were clubbed and their throats were slit. Their bleeding corpses were then hung on the meat hooks.

"We sat around the table and I did more thinking than I had ever done before," St. John says in the film. "I realized that I had to bear responsibility for what had happened the previous night in Bucharest because I was Christian. They were Christians. They sang Christian hymns as they committed these atrocities. And so I promised myself that if I lived out what was happening in Rumania, if I lived out World War II, I would live out my life trying to atone for the sins of my group."

Before I saw the film, I was curious about how and why St. John became a specialist in Mideast affairs and why he wrote so many of his books about Israel -- including biographies of David Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban and Eliezer Ben Yedhuda. The story of that horrific incident in Bucharest explained everything, and it was most powerful passage in the film.

St. John had a long, varied and successful professional life. But what inspired me most about his 100 years was how devoted he was to the craft of journalism and how devoted he was to telling the truth about things that most of us would rather not hear about. It's a story worth hearing in a time when lies masquerade as fact and journalism seems more than anything an exercise in absurdity.

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Albion Monitor June 12, 2003 (

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