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The Unanswered Case
Against George Polk

Why are journalists turning a blind eye to fraud?

12:00 AM, Apr 13, 2007 • By RICHARD B. FRANK
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MY ARTICLE concerning George Polk was posted online on February 17, 2007 for the edition of THE WEEKLY STANDARD dated February 26. It contained links to a set of original documents setting out my case. The article further incorporated questions to American journalism. Subsequently, a shorter version of the piece appeared in the Manchester Guardian in Great Britain, a publication that stands at near the opposite end of the political spectrum from THE WEEKLY STANDARD. The fact that such diverse publications both found the substance of my article convincing should put to rest any reasoned doubt that the case I have assembled is ill founded.

To the best of my knowledge to date, there has been no actual attempt by an American journalist to challenge publicly the substance of my case or the factual evidence I have presented. Nor has there appeared any adequate response to my questions. The only responses of which I am currently aware have emanated from George Polk's surviving brother, William.

The intemperate tone of William Polk's remarks may be understandable as evidence of filial regard, but should serve as a cautionary warning about the soundness of his arguments. The most obvious point about his comments is that he can not even begin to mount a defense of George Polk without summoning--unwittingly I presume--spectacularly gross evidence of George Polk's frauds. William Polk points out that his brother was decorated "in a ceremony photographed by the Navy." I have seen the photography of that very ceremony. What they show unmistakably is that George Polk is wearing on his uniform the "wings" insignia of a naval aviator.

Photographs of George Polk wearing the "wings" insignia of a naval pilot constitute the most readily understandable portal through which to understand the real George Polk. As Polk's service records make clear, he had a private pilot's license pre-war, but he never received navy flight training and was never qualified by the navy as a naval aviator entitled to wear the coveted "wings" insignia. Not only do the service records demonstrate this, but George Polk in formal correspondence to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy just 15 days before this photographed ceremony expressly acknowledged he knew he was not a naval aviator.

Even if you lack any knowledge of naval matters, you will grasp that it takes a carefully premeditated act of gross fraud to pin on that pilot insignia and cooperate in having photographs published of yourself wearing it. It can not be some inadvertent accident or spontaneous light embellishment or embroidery upon truth; it can only be an act of deceit. You will note that William Polk provides no challenge to the fact that George was not a naval aviator and thus concedes the hoax by his brother evidenced by the very photographs he would have readers regard as evidence proving the character of this brother.

William Polk argues that the duties George Polk performed were honorable and admirable. As anyone who reads my account of the campaign will see, I agree. Indeed, I provided a handsome tribute to what George Polk and his detachment really did on Guadalcanal: the ground servicing of combat aircraft. But what William Polk does not engage is my real case: Instead of telling his family, friends and professional colleagues what he actually did (or even embellish upon it) George Polk chose to invent from whole cloth a totally fictitious version of his service that exceeded by orders of magnitude what he actually did in both hazard and honor.

Besides his silence on the photographic evidence of fraud, William Polk likewise mounts no credible defense to the fact that George Polk stowed in his personal papers at least two forged documents to support a fictitious tale of hyper heroism. Once again, you do not have to grasp all the arcane details of naval service to comprehend this. In his oral history statement given to the Navy in February 1944, George Polk denied that he flew while he was on the island of Guadalcanal. This is consistent with the very comprehensive contemporary service department records. It would be literally impossible for the acts depicted in these two documents to have occurred unless George Polk flew aircraft from an airfield on Guadalcanal. So the contemporary words out of the mouth of George Polk when he was confronting people in a position to know or check the veracity of his stories confirm the forgeries even before we get to the myriad indicators of forgery set out in my original article, backed by documentary evidence.

In this context, one of these forged documents purports to be the award for a Purple Heart Medal in connection with an alleged attempt by George Polk to take off in an aircraft from Guadalcanal during a Japanese bombing attack. William Polk provided a transcription of this document with a date of September 23, 1942, but the transcription left unclear whether this was the date of the event or the date of the award. William Polk has declined my request for a copy of the original and has not made it public. His recent letter of March 14 indicates he does not understand the facts about the award in general, or in the particular case of George Polk. He states that I am correct that at "that stage of the war, the Purple Heart was not given for wounds. It was, however, given for bravery."

The facts are as follows: The Department of the Army revived the Purple Heart Medal in the 1930s as an award for combat wounds and meritorious service. (Meritorious service covers commendable action not involving valor.) The Navy Department declined to follow the army in restoring the decoration. This situation led to the inconsistency early in World War II that while army personnel and even naval personnel serving under army commanders could receive the Purple Heart Medal for combat wounds (or meritorious service), naval personnel could not. President Roosevelt cured this inconsistency by an executive order in December 1942 authorizing the award of the Purple Heart Medal to naval personnel for combat wounds. Like the army award, the navy award never was for bravery, but the navy also never authorized the award for meritorious service. (The army later dropped meritorious service as a basis for the award to return parity between the services.)

Accordingly, William Polk's argument that the award was for "bravery" is contrary to the facts. More importantly, if September 23 was the purported date of the award, this would be months before any member of the naval service could authorize or receive the award. As I further detailed in my article, if September 23 was the purported date of the event, Japanese and American records agree that there was no air raid on Guadalcanal on this date. Even more devastating is the fact that George Polk's own oral history statement denying he ever flew from Guadalcanal would make the claimed event impossible, regardless of the date. Thus, yet again William Polk's defense trips over further gross evidence of fraud.

IT WAS ONLY WHEN THIS EVIDENCE of carefully calculated fraud unmistakably emerged that I realized that even an event I heretofore had presumed to be true had to be tested. As another naval officer ruefully described it, in December 1942 when they were on the small island of Tulagi about 25 miles north of Guadalcanal, George Polk used his limited flying skills as a private pilot to bamboozle this officer into permitting him to fly a light float biplane. On his first documented mission, Polk lost the plane but came back with the extenuating account of how he encountered and battled two similar Japanese float planes. (Polk also admitted at that point that he was not actually a qualified naval pilot.) When the records of all the Japanese float plane units in the region were examined, it became clear that none of them reported any such encounter. This episode again shows that George Polk crafted a fiction he calculated could not be detected at the time that served his personal interests.

It should be obvious by now that William Polk's argument that my article was long on innuendo and short on fact is risible. As to his further argument that this explains why the article was not published by the eight outlets I listed, the response I received from Scott Stossel, managing editor of the Atlantic was that the article was "fascinating, and seems credible," and he further said that "Polk's fraud is clearly a big deal." But he gave as his reason for not publishing the piece that the Atlantic "just didn't have the space" to publish it. After the article was published, I received an email from David Plotz of Slate stating that the article was "very impressive." Obviously, the Manchester Guardian not only found the piece convincing, but was astounded that none of the publications I approached would take it.

HAVING AVOIDED the actual case I presented, William Polk argues that this evidence in no way impeaches George Polk's work as a journalist. He does not address the question I posed in February: Knowing these facts about George Polk, who would have hired him as a journalist? If an editor really believed that the documented records of George Polk's calculated frauds and forgeries would cast no shadow whatsoever over Polk's subsequent work as a journalist, then the editor would have no principled reason to deny Polk employment on the basis of his past history. I am not aware of any American journalist who has gone on record in response to this question. I would infer that American journalists, like Americans in general, would immediately realize that answering my question in the affirmative would be indefensible for the profession and answering in the negative would expose the sophistry of William Polk's argument.

The evidence that CBS set a great store by George Polk's wartime service is patent. George Polk's papers reflect that his reporting was indeed challenged during his lifetime. The response to those challenges was provided by Larry Lesueur who extolled Polk as "a wartime Navy fighter pilot twice wounded over Guadalcanal" who has "no political bias." After Polk's death, Edward R. Morrow as well as other journalists, emphasized Polk's invented wartime heroics. I believe the fact that Lesueur seized upon Polk's invented exploits as evidence of his good character to rebut challenges to the accuracy of his reporting clearly reflects that CBS viewed Polk's accounts as important. William Polk argues that his brother's invented feats in the navy did not figure importantly in their opinion of him. Thus, William Polk effectively avers that when confronted with a challenge to the credibility of his brother, CBS summoned not the most persuasive argument it could muster, but instead chose to answer critics with facts its managers regarded as a minor or trivial part of Polk's background.

What the response from CBS does demonstrate, however, is that Polk's colleagues failed to detect during his lifetime, or after his death, that they did not know who George Polk really was. Without grasping what they were really dealing with, his colleagues failed to give Polk's reporting the scrutiny it should have received. To argue now that this failure of his colleagues somehow generates a presumption of credibility on behalf of an individual who performed such documented frauds is to stand logic on its head.

And there is obvious evidence that Polk's inventions extended to his reporting. Just before George Polk was murdered, he told his wife and another friend that an anonymous source working at the Chase Bank in Manhattan had informed him that the Greek foreign minister had just illegally transferred funds into an account at the Chase Bank. After Polk's death, no trace of such a communication or the bank account emerged and there was no further trace of the alleged anonymous source. William Polk says this does not reflect ill on George Polk's reporting since this was merely a "tip" his brother was "checking out" like a responsible journalist, not a story he published. According to the account provided by George Polk, however, he confronted the Greek foreign minister with this information and threatened to ruin him with exposure of the story. (This incidentally is no obscure episode in Polk's career. In her work on Polk's murder, Kati Marton presents this event as the immediate catalyst to George Polk's murder.) So in William Polk's view, his brother confronting the Greek foreign minister and threatening the minister with ruin with an unconfirmed story falls into the category of "checking out" a "tip." I would expect that few others would cast so benign an interpretation over this conduct.

While I expect that any journalist who actually looks with an open mind at my article and the documentary evidence will recognize the George Polk committed the acts I describe, I suspect that many may lack a sense of context to grasp just how far Polk's invented version of his duties diverged from what he really did. The small number of navy fighter pilots who served at Guadalcanal, like their Marine comrades, were regarded by other veterans of the campaign and Americans in general as superheroes. These pilots usually entered combat outnumbered and flying technically inferior aircraft. Their skill and courage were awesome, but what set them apart even more in the eyes of others was their death rate. Just about one out of three was killed. They died horrible deaths: consumed by flames; dismembered by cannon or machine gun fire; or the lingering agonies of death by exposure when lost at sea or in the jungle. The death rate where George Polk served on Guadalcanal was literally only one-tenth as great: roughly 1 in 30. Every participant and every historian recognizes that George Polk's actual service was commendable, but it in no way approximated that of a navy fighter pilot.

I would urge all American journalists to reflect on the documentary evidence about George Polk's actual conduct and ask themselves if this conduct is consistent with the image the profession wishes to project to the world? Surely the profession can find many other worthy names to place on the award and stop the inevitable hemorrhage of credibility guaranteed by the continued use of the name George Polk.

Richard B. Frank, a historian of World War II, is the author of MacArthur (forthcoming), Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, and Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle.