The Magazine

George Polk's Real
World War II Record

The fictional career of a famous newsman.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By RICHARD B. FRANK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Off and on over the next several years, I looked into Polk's war record. I enlisted the help of several historians who specialized in World War II aviation as well as some able archivists including Gibson Smith, the preeminent expert on the records of the Bureau of Aeronautics. We found that the Navy gave Polk a direct commission as an ensign in the naval reserve in February 1942 at the age of 29. According to Polk's personnel records, he never took any Navy flight training. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy awarded its coveted "wings" only to men who successfully completed an arduous, nearly year-long process. Polk's specialty classification was "A-V(S)," Aviation Volunteer Specialist. The category, borrowed from the British, was created to fill the need for ground officers assigned to aviation units to provide administration and support functions--exactly Polk's role with his unit at Guadalcanal, known as "Cub-1."

I wrote to George Polk's surviving brother, William. He responded, insisting that George had indeed been a decorated fighter pilot. By way of proof, he transcribed two documents. One was a January 1945 letter from the Navy Department's Bureau of Aeronautics to George Polk. The letter officially credited Polk with shooting down a "Val" dive bomber on September 28, 1942, while flying with a "Marine fighter squadron," and the destruction of another "Val" on October 14 while "operating with a Marine dive bomber squadron." The letter further credited Polk with the probable destruction of a "Zero" on December 14, while operating with an "air rescue-night flying squadron." The other document is the citation for a Purple Heart awarded to Polk by a Marine general either on September 23, 1942, or for events occurring on that date; the text is not clear.

At the National Archives, an expert archivist examined the transcription of the purported letter from the Bureau of Aeronautics. He immediately demonstrated to me that the distinctive filing designator on the document (a form of bureaucratic DNA) was patently fictitious. Further, another renowned expert on Navy and Marine "victory claims" pointed out that in the many thousands of documents he had reviewed, he could not recall one that failed to identify the claimant's specific unit, not some generic "Marine fighter squadron." American records for September 28 and October 14, 1942, contain no mention of George Polk. The Japanese records of aerial combat on those dates show no "Vals" anywhere near Guadalcanal.

The Purple Heart Medal citation purports to relate to injuries received while Polk was attempting to take off in an aircraft during a Japanese bombing attack. But the date of the incident falls within a two-week interval when there was no Japanese bombing attack on Guadalcanal. Moreover, the Navy Department did not authorize awards of the Purple Heart Medal until December 1942. The purported citation reads like a valor award, whereas a valid Purple Heart citation simply lists the individual's name, rank, unit, and the date and place of injury. Whether you were performing mundane or heroic service at the time of the injury is irrelevant. Plus, the "citation" misspells the name of "Major General A.A. Vandergrift, USMC." (The correct spelling is Vandegrift, without the extra "r." Of course, it is possible that this common misspelling was introduced by William Polk in transcribing the document.)

For those who find these arcane details incomprehensible or unconvincing, there is a simple and utterly compelling pointer to the truth: George Polk. The 20-plus page transcript of a talk Polk delivered at the Bureau of Aeronautics in August 1943 about his experiences at Guadalcanal and Tulagi contains no reference to any combat flights as a fighter or bomber pilot. But what completely devastates Polk's later stories of aerial combat feats and the purported documentary support is a statement he gave to a naval oral history program on February 2, 1944. There he flatly declared of his duties on Guadalcanal: "I was not flying at this time because my job was aviation engineering officer of Henderson Field." If he was not flying from Guadalcanal, he could not possibly have flown combat missions in a fighter or a bomber--or been wounded while trying to take off in an aircraft.

But Polk's two statements do reveal an interesting twist to his story, which may be the key to understanding him. He reported a transfer from Guadalcanal to Tulagi, an island 25 miles north of Guadalcanal too small for an airstrip. There Polk supervised a refueling base for seaplanes. He also recounted that he flew Curtis SOCs while he was at Tulagi. The Curtis SOC was a light, small, biplane float aircraft, incapable of aerial combat.
Polk had a private pilot's license, and he used his basic flying skills to persuade the commander of a unit of SOCs to allow him to fly. The commander, Capt. Edward L. Pierce, USN (Ret.), described Polk's experiences in the April 1990 issue of Shipmate magazine. On December 15, 1942, Polk took off in an SOC in response to a call about a downed pilot. Polk failed to return. On December 21, a search plane found Polk, who claimed that he had had a run-in with two Japanese float planes. According to Polk, the Japanese planes shot holes in the float of his SOC and forced him to evade in clouds in a rain squall. He became lost and eventually made a forced landing that destroyed the SOC.

There are two gaping holes in Polk's story. A review of the records of the eight Japanese units equipped with float planes in the Solomon Islands in December 1942 shows no contact with U.S. aircraft on December 15 (and no lost Japanese aircraft). On top of this, a photograph in the Navy's public relations files retired to the National Archives shows Polk with the Solomon Islander who helped him after he was forced down. The caption for the photograph states that Polk was "forced down on a mission by lack of fuel," with no mention of an encounter with Japanese aircraft. Thus, it is far more likely that Polk simply got lost and eventually set down his aircraft beside a nearby island when he ran out of fuel. When Polk contemplated the potentially dire consequences of losing the SOC and the revelation that he was not really a Navy pilot (which Pierce soon discovered), Polk concocted the mitigating tale of enemy contact. As his February 1944 Navy interviewer noted, Polk was a gifted raconteur. One may surmise that when Polk lied his way out of this episode, he gleaned the insight that fanciful tales could sell as long as he was careful about his story and his audience. By the time he was discharged from the Navy in June 1944, he had become an impostor.

There is, in Polk's personal papers given to NYU, a November 30, 1943, U.S. Navy press release. It identifies Polk as one of 15 "naval aviators" decorated that day with the Presidential Unit Citation for their service on Guadalcanal. (Everyone who served with or under the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal earned this award.) An accompanying article on this ceremony clipped from the New York Herald Tribune for December 1, 1943, shows a photograph of Polk in a dress blue uniform. Resplendent above his left breast pocket are the golden wings authorized only for a qualified naval aviator. Just 16 days before, however, in a letter to the judge advocate general of the Navy, Polk had identified himself by his A-V(S) designator--not as an A-V(N) or A-V(G), the designators for qualified naval aviators. Polk clearly acquired some golden wings, attached them to his uniform, and had himself photographed. He then gulled the Herald Tribune, his former employer, into printing the story and the photograph.

This photograph and Polk's own letter are the single most damning pieces of evidence in this matter, for they demonstrate beyond dispute that Polk committed a deliberate fraud. In his letter to the judge advocate general that November, Polk stated that he probably would be retired from the service because of "physical disabilities incurred in combat duties." But in his February 1944 statement to the Navy oral history program, he makes no mention of any injury. In a March 1944 letter to his brother, he describes his principal problem as fatigue.

Polk apparently embellished his achievements over time, until he had become a twice-wounded "ace." It is perhaps surprising that he did not also award himself the Navy Cross, the minimal recognition for any fighter pilot who shot down 11 planes, which brings us to a further important point.

Polk's tales were not simply a slight enhancement of what he really contributed. If there were a ranking of the 15 million Americans who served in the armed forces in World War II by order of meritorious contribution, Polk would have earned a place well above the median by virtue of what he actually did. But his claim of flying fighters at Guadalcanal and shooting down numerous Japanese aircraft would have placed him in the 99.99th percentile, in the company of the most exceptional heroes, just a small step below the 400-plus men who earned the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for heroism. Those who served on Guadalcanal, as Polk did, sustained a fatality rate of about 1 in 30. About 1 in 3 of the men who flew as Navy fighter pilots in 1942 were killed, a rate 10 times greater than the hazard Polk faced. The difference between these fatality ratios indicates the gulf separating Polk's actual performance from what he fraudulently claimed.

Did Polk also make up stories as a newsman? Shortly before he died, Polk reported to a trusted friend and his wife that he had received an unsolicited letter from an anonymous American employee of the Chase Bank in New York. The letter allegedly alerted Polk that the Greek foreign minister, Constantine Tsaldaris, had just violated a Greek law against moving funds out of the country by depositing $25,000 in a Chase account. Polk reportedly further related a few days before his murder that he had confronted Tsaldaris and threatened to ruin the Greek with this explosive story. In her book, The Polk Conspiracy, Kati Marton presents this as the crystallizing event leading to Polk's assassination. After Polk was killed, however, no trace of the letter or confirmation of the account it supposedly contained was located. More tellingly, the anonymous whistleblower, safely in New York, was never heard from again. Knowing what we know now about Polk's made-up military record and forged documents, who could feel confident that this "anonymous source" ever existed?

It is not just Polk's fabrication of a false account of his naval service that undermines his credibility as a journalist; it is also the quality of the acts he committed to further this fraud. He did not merely spin a few verbal yarns about his exploits: He paraded around wearing the wings of a Navy pilot when he knew he was not one, and he forged documents to support his deceits. Those who think his inventions about his naval service do not and should not cast any shadow over his journalism should ask themselves this: Would an editor, knowing that an applicant for a job as a journalist had perpetrated the frauds Polk did, hire the individual in the belief that his past behavior raised no doubts about his future performance as a reporter?

In recent years, American journalism has been rocked by a series of scandals. Among the most significant were those relating to Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Jack Kelly of USA Today, and Dan Rather and Mary Mapes of CBS. The George Polk scandal deserves to be ranked with these others. Polk's actual misconduct may be comparable to that seen in these scandals. But at least in the first two recent cases, it was journalists themselves who exposed the frauds, and in all three the fraud tainted only one media outlet. Polk's contemporaries, by anointing him as the personification of what a journalist should be, have managed to stain the entire profession.

And there's more. Some three years ago I started trying to publish the real story of George Polk. I believed that if the evidence were placed before a fair sampling of prominent outlets of American journalism, one or more of them would be interested in publishing an article and thus would vindicate the oft-repeated claim that the mission of journalism is the fearless pursuit of truth. This story has now been offered to the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Harper's, Slate, the Wilson Quarterly, and the American Scholar. The first three declined to publish it; the others did not respond.

This indifference to getting at the truth in the Polk matter causes one to wonder: Would these publications have turned down the opportunity to expose a comparable historical scandal involving some other profession--business, say, or banking? Or was the decision to look the other way in this instance a self-protective choice, one that tarnishes the competence and integrity of journalism as a whole?

Journalism that exposes "myriad forms of scandal and deceit" deserves to be honored. So do reporters who take risks seeking the truth. But to honor them in the name of George Polk is a travesty.

Richard B. Frank, a historian of World War II, is the author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.

An extended version of this article appeared in The Daily Standard.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article is the product of extensive research in archives and secondary sources, as well as consultation with other historians who are specialists in naval air combat in the Pacific on both sides. Individuals like John Lundstrom, Barrett Tillman, and James Sawruk not only looked at the same official records I did but, in the case of Lundstrom and Tillman, also interviewed surviving pilots and read letters and diaries. For the sake of brevity and accessibility, this article does not attempt to discuss the sources in detail, but a much longer narrative, along with many of the key documents supporting the conclusions offered here, can be read at www.weeklystandard.com. There are, of course, hundreds of pages of documents that could be deemed relevant if one included all the records I and my colleagues looked at that do not mention Polk when they should have if he had done what he claimed.