Editor's note: The George Polk Awards will be presented April 12 in New York City.
George W. Polk was honored as a truth-teller. A correspondent for CBS News, he was murdered in Greece in 1948. A coveted, respected award named after him, the George Polk Award, was established in 1949 and is given every year to journalists in numerous specialties. According to a statement on the official website, the winners have exemplified the unearthing of "myriad forms of scandal and deceit." They comprise a two-generation roll call of distinguished names in journalism: Christiane Amanpour, Homer Bigart, Walter Cronkite, Thomas Friedman, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, Edward R. Murrow, Daniel Schorr, I.F. Stone, and many others.
Polk cut a dashing figure as a newsman, but he also cut out the real story of his World War II service as a naval officer and replaced it with a huge fraud. He deserves to join the growing roster of American journalists whose dishonesty has gravely injured their profession.
Who killed Polk remains a mystery. His body, drugged, bound, and shot in the head at close range, washed up in Salonika Bay during the Greek civil war of the late 1940s. Journalists widely believed that he died in fearless pursuit of a story. Polk was brave, and he wasn't reticent about his exploits. As a newsman, he often regaled his family and fellow journalists with tales of his exploits as a World War II fighter pilot and ace.
The mystery of Polk's death inspired at least three books in the United States, as well as some in Greece. In The Polk Conspiracy, journalist and human rights activist Kati Marton recounts how Polk told his family that he had been a fighter pilot who shot down 11 Japanese planes and earned a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds. In The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair, Princeton University professor Edmund Keeley presents Polk as a Navy fighter pilot in the South Pacific, a twice-wounded recipient of a "presidential unit citation." Interestingly, Elias Vlanton and Zak Mettger's Who Killed George Polk? mentions only Polk's claims of flying bomber and reconnaissance missions, not the wounds or the planes shot down. Judging from the correspondence and tributes included in his personal papers, deposited at New York University Library, Polk's glorious war record helped him get--and keep--his reporter's job at CBS. When Polk's reporting in Greece was challenged, Larry LeSueur, a CBS anchorman, defended Polk as a "wartime Navy fighter pilot twice wounded over Guadalcanal." After Polk's death in May 1948, CBS's legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow eulogized him as a hero who had "flown both fighters and bombers for the Navy during the war, was wounded in the Solomons and decorated for bravery."
None of this was true. Official documents reflect no evidence that Polk flew fighters in combat, much less that he shot down any Japanese planes. In fact, they demonstrate he was not even a qualified Navy pilot. Likewise, these records contain no evidence he was wounded, or that his decorations support his combat flying claims. Polk's actual service was admirable, but his later stories burgeoned into a fantastic deception.
I first became curious about Polk's stories reading a review of Kati Marton's book, in a September 1991 New York Review of Books, which described Polk as a "fighter pilot." I had recently published a history of the Guadalcanal campaign, and I had run across Polk in my researches--not as a fighter pilot, but as a junior officer supervising aircraft servicing. The work was hazardous--Polk's unit was set up at Guadalcanal's Henderson Field, which was routinely bombed and shelled by the Japanese. But it involved fueling and fixing combat aircraft, not flying them. The assertion in Marton's book that he had shot down 11 planes was patently false. That would have made him the highest-scoring ace in the U.S. Navy in 1942--a fact that would not have gone undocumented.