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
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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.