The dedicated website of the George Polk Awards trumpets that the prize is "one of America's most coveted journalism honors-and probably its most respected." Bill Moyers and Russell Baker, among others, testify that the award means more to them than any other. The list of those cited since the award's inception in 1949 comprises a two-generation roll call of distinguished names in American journalism: Christiane Amanpour, Roger Angell, R.W. Apple, Homer Bigart, Jimmy Breslin, Walter Cronkite, Gloria Emerson, Frances FitzGerald, Thomas Friedman, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Marguerite Higgins, Chet Huntley, Peter Jennings, John Kifner, Ted Koppel, Charles Kuralt, Joseph Lelyveld, Tony Lukas, Mary McGrory, Edward R. Murrow, Jack Newfield, Roger Rosenblatt, Morley Safer, Oliver Sacks, Harrison Salisbury, Sidney Schanberg, Daniel Schorr, Eric Severeid, Howard K. Smith, Red Smith, I.F. Stone, Nina Totenberg, and many others.
It is improbable that a George Polk Award will come to Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter exposed for fraudulently concocting all or important parts of more than two score of stories. It is even less likely that Blair's name will crown a journalism honor. An internal investigation disclosed that his frauds began not on the pages of the New York Times, but in the lies he told his employers about his biography and work. If telling falsehoods to his employers about his background now stands as the unheard alarm bell for Blair, then there is something critical that Blair and Polk share. Yet there remains a vital difference between Blair and Polk. Blair inflicted severe damage to the most respected news organization in American journalism. That damage, however, only indirectly affected journalism as a profession. George Polk's story, because of the awards given annually in his name and proudly held by scores of well-known journalists, brings discredit to the entire profession.
In one of the opening encounters of the Cold War, a civil war raged in Greece in 1948 between Communist insurgents and a government backed by the United States under the Truman Doctrine. George Polk manned the front lines of this conflict as the CBS radio correspondent in Greece. His reporting outraged both the Greek government and some of its U.S. sponsors. He also leveled criticism at the Communists and probed into the dangerous world of black marketeers. On May 16, 1948, Polk's body was found in Salonika Bay. He had been drugged, tied up, and shot in the head at close range.
His outraged colleagues demanded action by the U.S. government to find who had murdered Polk-and why. With U.S. prodding and assistance the Greek government investigated, as did a committee formed by his peers in the press headed by the revered Walter Lippmann. The official investigation eventually tied the murder to Greek Communists, although the only man convicted was at most an accomplice. The Lippmann Committee accepted this verdict. But there remains to this day, for good reason, dispute over the conduct of the investigation and the evidence employed for the conviction. The controversy forms the subject of at least three books published in the United States in the last 18 years. All of these make the circumstances of Polk's death the key to his life. Edmund Keeley, a Princeton professor, produced The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair. Elias Vlanton with Zak Mettger offered Who Killed George Polk: The Press Covers Up a Death in the Family. Vlanton described himself as a student of Greek-U.S relations and Mettger as a writer-editor. The account that received by far the greatest publicity, however, is The Polk Conspiracy, by journalist and human rights activist Kati Marton. At the time her work appeared, she was the wife of Peter Jennings of ABC.
Both The Salonika Bay Murder and Who Killed George Polk reflect solid work with a difficult body of evidence. The Polk Conspiracy offers a page-turning read and purports to resolve definitely the identity of Polk's murderer. Marton fingers a Greek rightist and deploys a cast of stark heroes and villains. None of the heroes outshines Polk. He was a "good and brave man," she writes, who "paid with his life for the high standards he set for himself and for his profession." The moral she draws from George Polk's life and death is that "The role of a journalist is never to 'get on the team,' nor to advance any official's agenda. Quite the contrary: a reporter's task is to get at the truth even if in the process he reveals things neither his own government nor the public really wants to know."
This, of course, is precisely the theme of the George Polk Awards in journalism. The George Polk Awards strive to recognize reporters who expose "myriad forms of scandal and deceit" and "protect the public." Polk's status as the worthy namesake for an award recognizing excellence in journalism is based on the presumption of his rectitude.
There is another chapter of George Polk's life that forces us to reexamine his standards. It also bears upon his status as a symbol of journalistic integrity. We enter this chapter in late 1942 when newspaper and radio stories highlighted the triumph of American arms after months of a violent seesaw struggle on a previously obscure South Pacific Island called Guadalcanal. Among those who contributed to that victory was George Polk, then a very junior naval reserve officer. According to Marton, in his letters home and subsequent conversations, Polk described how he commanded a unit comprising 119 Marines on Guadalcanal. He confided that he flew a fighter plane in which he shot down 11 Japanese aircraft. He reported he won the Purple Heart medal for "shrapnel" wounds received in action.
Relying on similar sources, Keeley also presents Polk as a Navy fighter pilot in the South Pacific, the twice-wounded recipient of a "presidential unit citation." By Keeley's telling, Polk returned from his wartime service with chronic "stomach" problems that plagued him thereafter. Vlanton and Mettger excavate from Polk's letters home and other records an account that Polk reached Guadalcanal "three days" after the landing. There he performed duty as a "volunteer" dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, but they make no claim that Polk flew fighters or shot down Japanese aircraft. They report Polk suffered from malaria and sustained a "broken back" during his overseas service that would trouble him the rest of his life.
Polk shared accounts of his exploits with more than family members. He deployed them to help him secure employment with CBS, where his tales of heroism as a fighter pilot enthralled his colleagues, notably Edward R. Morrow and Larry LeSueur. When Polk's reporting from Greece came under challenge, LeSueur, acting as anchorman for CBS News, defended Polk as a "wartime Navy fighter pilot twice wounded over Guadalcanal." After Polk's death in May 1948, Murrow told listeners that Polk had "flown both fighters and bombers for the Navy during the war, was wounded in the Solomons and decorated for bravery." Paul Gallico eulogized Polk as "an American ex-Navy fighter pilot and War Hero." Gallico was outdone by George Walker, who told Americans that Polk was "a flyer who faced 60 Japanese Zeros in the bitter early days of Guadalcanal-and who suffered nightmares of being aflame as his permanent memories of being three times shot down." Drew Pearson advised his audience that Polk had sustained a broken back when he "crash landed at Guadalcanal."
Plainly stated: The documentary record shows that Polk's claim of being a naval aviator and his version of his service at Guadalcanal as a fighter and dive bomber pilot were gigantic lies.
Polk's official personal service records and other official documents reveal the real nature of his qualifications and duties. Between April 1938 and April 1941, Polk served as a private in the United States Army Reserve. A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed the complete records of his Army service, but in view of his rank at the conclusion of his Army service it is obvious that he did not graduate from flight training during this period (a pilot would have been an officer or, in rare circumstances, at least a sergeant). More telling is Polk's failure to report qualification as an Army pilot on his application for a commission in the Navy.
Polk sought a commission in the United States Navy after Pearl Harbor. He had a private pilot's license, and on a biographical form he stated that he had 250 hours of flying time. On February 23, 1942, he took the oath of office and accepted appointment as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. Five days later, he reported for duty at Naval Operations in Washington. From there he was detached on April 9 to the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia, where he reported on April 13. On April 21, he joined the Advanced Base Aviation Training Unit. On July 2, he was detached from the Advanced Base Aviation Training Unit and ordered to the Naval Air Station Alameda, California, "for duty in connection with the establishment of Cub One." He reported to Alameda on July 10.
Neither Polk's Norfolk assignments nor any of his later postings placed him in a flight training program that might have made him a qualified naval aviator. John B. Lundstrom, the preeminent authority on Navy fighter pilots in the first year of the Pacific War, points out that the Navy zealously guarded the title of naval aviator and required even well-qualified civilian pilots to attend naval flight training. Barrett Tillman, another top authority on World War II naval aviation, concurs and adds that while some individuals passed through flight training at varying rates, nine months would have been a bare minimum for 1942. The general average was about one year, with some cases extending to 13 to 14 months. Both agree that there is no way Polk could have completed the rigorous and lengthy training syllabus to qualify as a naval aviator before (or after) he served overseas and at the stations to which he was assigned. A naval aviator, they emphasize, was not simply an individual who had mastered basic stick and rudder work to get a plane up in the air and back down again. He also had to learn advanced skills he could never acquire as a typical private pilot like formation flying, instrument flying, gunnery, and combat tactics.
What Lundstrom and Tillman describe is what the Navy's official history of its aviation training program details. Down in the Navy Department Library in the Washington Navy Yard in the rare book collection is the soporifically titled United States Naval Administration in World War II, Bureau of Aeronautics, Vol. XII. Aviation Personnel and Training. This typescript oddity explains that in the months prior to Pearl Harbor, the Navy at one point considered reducing pilot training time to as low as seven and one-half months, but this never came to pass. By 1942, the official Navy flight program consumed eleven and one-half months to qualify a pilot-and an additional month to qualify to handle four-engine aircraft. This syllabus provided four phases: (1) Induction Center for three months; (2) primary training for three months at naval reserve aviation bases; (3) intermediate and advanced training for three and one-half months (only at Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas); and (4) operational training for two months (three months for four-engine pilots). Even if hypothetically one imagined Polk receiving a waiver of part of the training syllabus based on his civilian pilot's license (and there is no evidence of that), he never passed through Pensacola, Jacksonville, or Corpus Christi. Absent such an assignment, there is no way he could have qualified as a Navy pilot.
Further, and tellingly, Polk's personnel records contain no indication he ever qualified to wear the coveted golden wings of a naval aviator or received the distinctive sequential number the Navy assigned to every individual who qualified as a pilot. Lundstrom points out that the first roster of all naval reserve officers prepared after Polk entered the Navy is dated January 1, 1943. This document lists Polk and shows his specialty as "AV-(S)" (Aviation Volunteer Specialist). The Navy assigned this title to "aviation officers, commissioned and warrant, including gunners, radio electricians, machinists, aerographers, and photographers qualified for special duties." By contrast, the designators for those who were qualified naval aviators were A-V(N) and A-V(G). There was even a category (A-V(T)) for former civilian pilots who were qualified for special duties, but were not naval aviators. Polk was still using the A-V(S) designator in November 1943 in official correspondence he prepared, thus acknowledging that he knew he was not a qualified naval aviator.
So what was this "Advanced Base Aviation Training Unit" Polk reached in April 1942? The Navy's long-studied war plans envisioned overseas campaigns requiring the Navy to seize or create a whole series of forward facilities for its air and sea forces. The Navy argot for such a facility was "advanced base." Thus, the Advanced Base Aviation Training Unit aimed to turn out ground personnel qualified to establish "advanced" air bases. By July, Polk joined just such an outfit: Cub-1. His particular sub unit of Cub-1 was intended to overhaul and repair aircraft at a naval air base. Later in July, Polk's unit sailed for the South Pacific.
Three other points about this evidence are important. First, Polk was already 29 years old when he entered the Navy. This made him overage by two or three years for any of the Navy's pilot training programs. Second, Polk received a direct commission at the time of entry. Civilians initially entering service to attend an aviation cadet training program were not provided immediate commissions. Civilians entering the Navy for the A-V(S) program on the other hand were given direct commissions. Further, if Polk had actually miraculously qualified as a Navy pilot in only about 70 days between April and July 1942, his very next assignment was not as an aviator, but as the commander of a ground servicing unit. The whole purpose of the A-V(S) program (which the Navy modeled after British practice) was precisely to prevent wasting the investment the Navy had placed in pilot training by draining off pilots to run ground organizations.
Polk's Cub-1 detachment arrived at Espiritu Santo in what was then called the New Hebrides Islands about the same time that the 1st Marine Division launched the initial American offensive in World War II by landing on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Although the Marines easily seized an incomplete airfield under construction by the Japanese, the Imperial Navy struck back savagely, thrusting the Americans onto the defensive. On August 15, 1942, eight days after the initial landing, George Polk and 110 men of Cub-1-all of them members of the United States Navy, not the United States Marine Corps-completed a hazardous passage through contested waters to land on the island. The American grip on Guadalcanal was limited to a small enclave on the northwest coast around an airstrip named Henderson Field, after a Marine flyer lost at the Battle of Midway. Japanese attempts to crush this American foray included daylight bombing raids by formations of Imperial Navy bombers escorted by the fabled Mitsubishi A6M Type Zero fighter planes.
The American garrison got no rest at night, for the Japanese conducted a steady program of night harassment bombing with float planes or bombers. But while the Japanese ruled the night skies and sea, the Americans dominated in daylight-thanks to the planes on Henderson Field. These circumstances created the extremely curious tactical situation of a mutual siege with sea control shifting every 12 hours. Guarded by U.S. planes, but with a wary eye cocked for Japanese raiders, American ships appeared sporadically off Guadalcanal bearing supplies and rarer reinforcements. But every vessel wearing the Stars and Stripes exited hastily at sundown, "like frightened children running home from a graveyard," in the words of historian Samuel Eliot Morison. Shortly after sunset, Japanese men-of-war heaved into the patch of water off northern Guadalcanal soon to be called Iron Bottom Sound-for the over 40 warships and auxiliaries sunk there during the campaign. The Japanese tars would favor their countrymen ashore with rice, bullets, and reinforcements and the Americans with a bombardment. These nocturnal runs of warships, usually destroyers, achieved the regularity of a crack railroad line, and the frustrated Americans christened it "the Tokyo Express." On some especially terrifying occasions, Japanese cruisers pummeled the American territory with heavier caliber naval guns. And on one memorable night in October (after Polk left Guadalcanal, as we will see), two Japanese battleships laced the American perimeter with nearly a thousand monster shells.
Polk's station was the airfield that was the bull's eye for all this Japanese bombing and bombardment. Contemporaneous accounts contain a number of well-earned salutes to Polk's detachment for its outstanding work. Instead of the overhaul and repair work it had trained for, the Cub-1 detachment took over the servicing of Wildcat fighters and Dauntless dive bombers with fuel, oil, and munitions when they first arrived on August 20. Thereafter, the Cub-1 detachment took over the extremely hazardous task of handling aviation gasoline.
There is no official contemporaneous record whatsoever that George Polk ever flew any fighter plane on Guadalcanal and, of course, no trace that he ever shot down any enemy aircraft. It is inconceivable that anyone could have destroyed 11 enemy aircraft in aerial combat-thereby becoming one of the top aces of the campaign-or even 2 aircraft and passed unnoted in any squadron, group, or wing record, individual combat report, daily situation report, or final report issuing from Guadalcanal and the fighter units that served there. The fighter squadron and group war diaries typically list the name of every pilot who flew each combat mission, not just those making claims, shot down, injured, or otherwise involved in a notable event. These official contemporaneous records total hundreds of pages and are redundant at many points. The memoirs of the band of defenders of Henderson Field contain no reference to Polk as a pilot. Historians like Lundstrom and Tillman, who extensively interviewed surviving pilots, examined their letters and diaries, and were well aware of who Polk was and what he actually did, never encountered any indication that Polk flew combat missions at Guadalcanal. Polk's name does not appear in any of the excellent postwar histories of American fighter pilots by meticulous historians like Morison, Robert Sherrod, Thomas Miller, Barrett Tillman, and John Lundstrom.
It is difficult to capture the full degree of improbability that Polk would have been permitted to fly a combat fighter mission. From August to at least November, the most critical shortage at Guadalcanal was not trained and healthy pilots, but serviceable aircraft. This was the very first American offensive of World War II, and one of its most grievous problems was that the offensive was launched before the logistical pipeline to the South Pacific was functioning effectively. While thousands of planes were being manufactured in the United States, getting just dozens to the South Pacific proved a huge challenge in the opening months of the campaign. At one low point, there were only four serviceable Wildcats. With so few available cockpits, no one would have permitted a man who was not even a qualified naval aviator, and who lacked any training or experience in fighter tactics, to make a sortie when qualified, trained, and often experienced fighter pilots were available. With lives hanging on men's training and skill, the notion that any commander would permit, or that other pilots would tolerate, a neophyte to participate in an interception is ludicrous. The National Personnel Records Center reported in 1993 they had no record of Polk having been a fighter pilot and ace. Likewise, the same assortment of official and nonofficial sources, as well as postwar histories, contains no record that Polk ever flew a dive bomber on a combat mission.
The Dimensions of the Hoax
Beyond the silence of official records and the absurdity of the claims that Polk flew combat missions in fighters or dive bombers, there is one other probative and devastating piece of evidence about Polk's actual flying activities we will come to shortly, but first the magnitude of the allegations must be understood. For thousands of years, warriors have returned home with accounts of exploits in combat that improve with the retelling. Often this simply reflects the imperfect ability of men locked in deadly combat to observe and recall the tumultuous events swirling about them. Air combat is particularly difficult in this regard because it typically happens at very high speed, and aviators must maintain a constant vigil in all directions, thus severely limiting their ability to observe carefully any single event. Historians familiar with these circumstances find no question of honesty or integrity raised when postwar documentation fails to confirm claims for aerial victories in combat made in good faith. But it must be emphasized that Polk's tales went far, far beyond any boundary of mistaken observation or even simple embellishment.
To the Americans clinging to the perimeter at Guadalcanal, all the fighter pilots defending the enclave constituted a special breed of hero. They flew Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter planes that were inferior in most performance repects to the Japanese Zero. Moreover, the primitive state of the airstrips on Guadalcanal as well as notoriously fickle tropical weather exacted lethal penalties in ordinary operations. About one out of every three Navy and one out of every five Marine Wildcat pilots in combat during 1942 was killed.
The Wildcat pilots who achieved great success at Guadalcanal reached the status of super hero. All of these men were Marines. Captain Joseph Foss shot down 23 Japanese planes during 1942 (and 3 more during a tour extension in early 1943). Major John Smith, Captain Marion Carl, and Major Robert E. Galer were credited with downing 19, 16.5, and 14 Japanese planes, respectively (a half credit was for a victory shared with another pilot). Foss, Smith, and Galer each received the Medal of Honor for his individual victories and leadership contributions. The Navy Cross, the decoration just below the Medal of Honor, went to Carl and to every pilot who achieved between 10 and 12 victories. By this standard, a pilot who downed 11 planes might have been expected to be awarded at least the Navy Cross. Polk received no such individual award. Eleven victories, in fact, would have made Polk the most successful U.S. Navy fighter pilot in 1942 (the closest rival had 8 credited victories). Thus, Polk's tale of being a fighter pilot with 11 victories vaulted him into the ranks of the superheroes of American arms in 1942. It arrogated to him a place above such actual legendary figures of the time as Edward "Butch" O'Hare, John "Jimmy" Thach, and James "Jimmy" Flatley. Later in the war, pilots flying much better planes, like the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Chance Vought F4U Corsair that enjoyed performance superior to most of their Japanese adversaries, would achieve more victories, but no one then or later failed to recognize that tremendous success with a Wildcat in 1942 represented an extraordinary feat of courage and skill.
Polk's Actual Story
Official records do not merely refute Polk's claim of being a fighter pilot and ace (or dive bomber pilot) by silence, they also contain an unequivocal denial from the most significant source of all: George Polk. In a seven-page statement given in conjunction with a small Navy oral history program on February 2, 1944, Polk described his duties on Guadalcanal and said: "I was not flying at this time because my job was aviation engineering officer of Henderson Field." In this statement Polk reported that about "October 15" he apparently developed a fever. He recalled that he was transferred from Guadalcanal to the small adjacent islands of Tulagi and Tanambogo where he and one enlisted man set up a very crude "air station" along the shore for seaplanes and flying boats. Neither Tulagi nor Tanambogo was large enough for an airfield, and thus no one could have flown a fighter plane or dive bomber from it.
Polk's description of his detail to Tulagi follows an official record in all but one important respect: the date of the transfer. The subject of a report dated September 27, 1942, by J.P. Compton, the naval officer in charge of the Advanced Naval Base on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, is "Aviation Unit Cub One, Employment of." Compton described how Polk's detachment of Cub-1 performed "invaluable and essential services" servicing the first planes to reach Guadalcanal. After additional members of Cub-1 and Marine ground crews arrived, Polk and one petty officer were transferred to "install a seaplane base at 'Acidity'." Acidity was the code name for Gavutu, a tiny island linked by a causeway to Tanambogo. Gavutu and Tanambogo snuggle close up to Tulagi. Thus, Compton's report indicates that by September 27, 1942, Polk was no longer performing duty on Guadalcanal.
From this point, official records are sporadic as to Polk's exact activities. In his February 1944 narrative, Polk claimed to have flown occasionally as a "relief pilot" on Catalina PBY flying boats which stopped on the waters adjacent to Tulagi to top up with fuel en route to make reconnaissance flights and occasional nocturnal attacks on Japanese positions in the Solomons. It is possible that Polk managed to tag along on such flights. No official confirmation could be located, and it is doubtful that any report of such an event would have been created. But James Sawruk, who is by far the leading authority on PBY activities at Guadalcanal, points out that while refueling stops were common, the pause was only on one leg of the mission. Thus, if Polk had boarded a PBY to tag along, he could not have returned in the same plane the same day. He would have thus abandoned his duty station for more than a day-which is improbable.
Starting in November 1942, Polk reported in his oral history, a number of Curtis SOCs came to be stationed at Tulagi. The SOC was a light, ungainly biplane float aircraft used for gunfire spotting and reconnaissance by cruisers of that era. With a comparatively puny engine, it wheezed along at a top speed of only about 165 miles per hour (the famous Japanese Zero fighter flew literally twice as fast); it was totally incapable of air combat either as a fighter or dive bomber. Polk asserted in his oral history statement that he had one of these assigned to him and that he used it to rescue downed pilots.
There are some very credible nonofficial sources and some official documents that partly verify his account of flying SOCs. In a letter sent to a veteran's newsletter, Guadalcanal Echoes, in October 1980, a Charles W. Travis Jr., who was assigned to one of the SOC-equipped units, described an episode in December 1942 when Polk took off alone in an SOC to recover a ditched fighter pilot. Polk failed to return, but several days later he was rescued from a nearby island and returned to report that he had been forced down after his plane was shot up by a Japanese aircraft.
In a March 1992 letter to the same publication, a member of Cub-1, Arvil L. Jones, wrote admiringly about Polk as a leader who "worked with us day and night and lay on his back in the mud" to help rearm aircraft on Guadalcanal. Jones also related that he understood Polk "apparently" was "checked out" to fly SOCs in the Tulagi and Tanambogo area. But Jones, who remained on Guadalcanal, stated that he had read Marton's book and was "surprised" at the description of Polk as a fighter pilot and ace. Jones repeated much of this in his book Forgotten Warriors: Challenge at Guadalcanal, published by Turner Books, Paducah, Kentucky, in 1994. Jones again emphasized that while Polk possessed a private pilot's license, he "was not a naval pilot."
More detailed elaboration of Polk's activities on Tulagi appears in an article by Captain Edward L. Pierce, USN (Ret.) in the April 1990 issue of Shipmate. It was Pierce's lot to command the ad hoc unit of SOCs at Tanambogo and later Halavo Beach on nearby Florida Island initially titled Scouting Squadron Detachment, Ringbolt (Ringbolt was the code name of Tulagi), and later commissioned as Scouting Squadron Sixty-Four (VS-64). In that capacity, Pierce (then a lieutenant) encountered Polk, who, consistent with his qualifications, ran an aircraft fueling operation on Tanambogo. Polk "asked for and received permission to fly with us," wrote Pierce, based upon Polk's claim that he had flown PBYs "out of Norfolk." (Polk's 1944 oral history does not refer to his experiences prior to Guadalcanal. It is possible though unconfirmed that he snagged one or more hops in a PBY while he was stationed at Norfolk.)
Pierce's flight log for December 13, 1942, shows he gave Polk a check ride in an SOC, verifying Polk's ability to handle the light plane. This fact, and Pierce's comment that Polk reported previous flights in PBYs but not SOCs, casts severe doubt on Polk's claims in a talk he gave in August 1943 about his experiences on Guadalcanal and Tulagi to have flown SOCs prior to this date. If Polk already had established himself as a capable pilot of the SOC, Pierce would not have had reason to give him a check ride.
Pierce reports that Polk, with commendable zeal, took off alone in an SOC late one afternoon to respond to a call about a downed pilot. The war diary of Scouting Squadron Sixty-Four confirms the date of this event as December 15, 1942. Polk did not return. Six days passed, but on December 21, a search plane found him, and he was recovered the next day from Quai Island. Upon his return, Polk reported that he had made contact with two Japanese float planes, which had shot holes in the float of his SOC and had forced him to evade in clouds in a rain squall. He had gotten lost and eventually made a forced landing in which the SOC was destroyed.
With some trepidation, Pierce filed a formal report of this misadventure, wondering if he would be held accountable for permitting a non-qualified aviator to fly off and lose a valuable government airplane. But Pierce's superiors, who were 25 miles away and had many more weighty matters to worry about, never registered any response. Polk was less fortunate. After this episode, Pierce recalled that Polk was plagued with repeated "bad dreams punctured by loud screams." Because of the reputation the Japanese had acquired as expert jungle fighters in Malaya, and the fact that the scout plane detachment bivouacked on the edge of the jungle, Pierce as the senior officer had to investigate the cause of Polk's nightmares. "Each time it happened I would question George," noted Pierce, "and he would answer by saying that he was dreaming about joining up with the two Japanese planes." While Polk's daring elicited the admiration of Pierce, the young officer decided that Polk would have to be medically evacuated.
There is a fundamental problem with a key element of Polk's version of this mission. Float planes equipped multiple Japanese units in the Solomons at that time. These units included the 958th Kokutai, Kunikawa Maru, Kamikawa Maru, Sanuki Maru, Sanyo Maru, the Rekata Bay forward base, the 802nd Kokutai, the 851st Kukutai, and the Chitose. A review of the records covering December 15, 1942, of all these relevant Japanese units by an expert Japanese researcher revealed no report of any contact with a U.S. aircraft. Nor did any Japanese float plane (much less two) go missing on this date and thus leave open the possibility that Polk's adversaries perished before they could report their encounter. Thus, the overwhelming likelihood is that Polk fabricated the account of a battle with Japanese aircraft. What is far more probable is that Polk, like a lamentably high number of other American aviators in the Solomons, simply got lost and disoriented in the dark and eventually set his aircraft down when his fuel was exhausted. A fair inference from the known facts is that, like his commander Pierce, Polk realized his lack of qualification as a naval aviator made the loss of the SOC not only an embarrassment but also a crime, a misappropriation of government property. Thus, the story that enemy action had caused the loss of the aircraft would provide important extenuation and mitigation if Polk were held to account. This evidence also shows that if George Polk was having nightmares, they did not involve a recollection of an actual encounter with Japanese float planes.
Further support for this reconstruction of what actually happened appears in the retired records of the Navy's public relations section from World War II at the National Archives. These contain a photograph of Polk standing next to a Solomon Island native who assisted Polk after he lost his SOC. The caption for this photograph contains information that must have come from Polk (no other American knew any details) and relates that Polk met the native, named Shemuel, after he ran out of fuel, with no reference to an encounter with Japanese aircraft. (Curiously, the caption also states that Polk "was guided back to his own base after an eighty-day trek in the Solomons." I have come across no corroboration for an extended trek through the islands, which could not have happened if, as other sources confirm, Polk was returned to his base after six days.)
According to his official records, George Polk was detached from Cub-1 on March 12, 1943, and assigned to the Twelfth Naval District in the United States "for temporary duty pending further assignment." More orders detached him from the Twelfth Naval District on April 7 to temporary duty with the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C. Thirteen days later, he was transferred to the Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, Road Island, "for duty in connection with the Air Combat Information School." He reported to Quonset Point on May 20, but he was transferred back to the Bureau of Aeronautics on August 1, and arrived in Washington on August 24. On January 29, 1944, he was detached from the Bureau of Aeronautics and sent to the Naval Retiring Board in Washington "for examination." Upon completion of this examination, he "was ordered home" [to] await action from the retiring board." On June 1, 1944, he was placed on the retired list of the Naval Reserve and released from active duty. None of these assignments reflects pilot training.
A high point in this period came on November 30, 1943. An official Navy press release announced that Polk was among "15 Naval Aviators" awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for service with "Airplane Cruiser Scouting Detachment Tulagi" as part of the 1st Marine Division. The then new and very prestigious Presidential Unit Citation recognized entire units for valorous performance at the level of an individual award of the Navy Cross. One of these was presented to-and amply earned by-every individual who served in or with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal. (For those unfamiliar with military and naval awards, the Presidential Unit Citation was awarded not in lieu of but in addition to any authorized individual citation for a Navy Cross.) The press release contains a lengthy account by Polk of his adventures and the role of the SOC unit. Polk implies he flew combat sorties, and he mentions his December 15 rescue mission. In this account of the loss of the SOC, he states he encountered Zero fighter planes, not float planes. This is in contradiction to his story that he ran into float planes recorded in the VS-64 war diary and the transcript of an extended briefing Polk gave in August 1943.
As Polk's official personnel records make absolutely clear, he never was a qualified "naval aviator." In fact, in official correspondence Polk drafted on November 15, 1943, to the judge advocate general of the Navy, Polk identified himself by the specialty of "A-V(S)"-which, again, indicates he was not a qualified Navy pilot. The individual who prepared the press release apparently made the mistake of assuming Polk was a qualified naval pilot, an easy slip to make since Polk was the only one of the 15 men recognized who was not a naval aviator.
But there may have been another reason for the error. On December 1, 1943, the day after the press release, the New York Herald Tribune ran an article about the award ceremony-not surprising, since one of the honorees was a former employee of the newspaper, George Polk. Accompanying the article is a photograph of Polk in his uniform. On the left breast pocket of that uniform are the golden wings of a naval aviator. This photograph-which Polk himself must have had made and must have provided to his old newspaper-along with Polk's letter of November 15, 1943, to the judge advocate general, establishes beyond dispute that he was making false representations about his service while he was still in the Navy. The photograph is the single most damning piece of evidence in this matter. Either Polk was a qualified Navy pilot entitled to wear those wings, or he consciously perpetrated a fraud.
Polk's retirement for disability is unusual. With the war roaring at full blast and the armed services facing a manpower crunch, it was very uncommon for an experienced officer to be discharged at this time. Polk's discharge thus clearly implies that the Navy recognized some compelling medical or other reason warranting his release rather than reassignment to duties that would free another officer for combat. In the letter Polk wrote in November 1943 to the judge advocate general of the Navy, he stated that he understood he probably would be retired from service because of "physical disabilities incurred in combat duties." This statement is ambiguous as to whether the disabilities were caused by combat, or simply occurred while he was in the combat zone. In a March 1944 letter to his brother, he described his principal problem as fatigue.
Besides the Presidential Unit Citation, during his period of active duty Polk also received the customary "I was there" awards: the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. These denote presence in a theater and carry no implication of valor or especially meritorious service. His personnel records do not show he was awarded the Purple Heart medal, and the official Navy casualty list for the Guadalcanal campaign does not list Polk. The official card file maintained by the Navy Department for awards of the Purple Heart medal (and still in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.) contains no entry for George Polk. His lengthy statement of February 1944 does not refer to any physical wounds received in action. (The Purple Heart medal is not given for diseases or purely psychological injuries.) The lack of a Purple Heart is not absolutely conclusive proof that Polk never received a combat injury. But the absence of evidence of the award of a Purple Heart medal in any of these three authoritative documentary sources carries enormous weight against a claim of combat-incurred physical injury, a point consistent with Polk's vagueness in his November 1943 letter to the judge advocate general. The December 1, 1943, photograph of Polk is in black and white, so the color of the awards and decorations he is wearing cannot be discerned. One of the ribbons, however, appears to be in a pattern consistent with a Purple Heart medal. Any pilot who downed multiple Japanese aircraft or one who flew many hours of combat certainly would have received at least one award of the Air Medal and probably a Distinguished Flying Cross. There is no record that Polk received these minimum awards either. The absence of these awards for flying activities is extremely telling in light of Polk's claims.
After combing through Navy records and Polk's personnel records, I sent a letter to Kati Marton requesting her documentation supporting Polk's alleged status as an "ace." She did not reply. Subsequently, I sent a second letter informing her that I had secured a prospective publisher of my work on George Polk. She responded with a telephone call. She told me that her records from her book were packed away. She believed the source of her report that Polk had shot down 11 Japanese planes was his family and colleagues, and she had no recollection of any official documentation. In my view, Polk's activities in the Navy were peripheral to the subject of her book, Polk's murder in Greece. Her reliance on secondhand sources for the war record was unfortunate but understandable.
I also wrote to George Polk's surviving brother, William. He attended Harvard and taught history at the university level. He now lives in France. He irately insisted that George Polk had been a qualified naval aviator. William Polk acknowledged that he did not know the basis for Marton's assertion about 11 "victories," but he emphatically maintained that his brother had flown combat missions in fighters and bombers from Guadalcanal. To support his assertions, William Polk stated he had two of his brother's documents. He did not provide copies of these, but he quoted them at great length and apparently verbatim.
One of the documents William Polk transcribed is a January 1945 letter from the Navy Department's Bureau of Aeronautics to George Polk. Here it is in its entirety, with William Polk's introduction:
One document, from the Navy Department Bureau of Aeronautics dated January 2, 1945 (Reference P/1418/27-8, 127885), credits him with shooting down Japanese aircraft. The document reads as follow:
"Completed battle reports on the Guadalcanal campaign, August-January, 1942-43, reveal that you are credited with the following:
a. Confirmed destruction of enemy dive bomber (type Val) over Sand fly Passage, September 28, 1942, while operating with a Marine fighter squadron.
b. Confirmed destruction of enemy dive bomber (type Val) near Vangunu Island, October 14, 1942, while operating with a Marine dive bomber squadron.
c. Probable destruction of enemy fighter (type Zeke) December 14, 1942, while operating with an air rescue-night flying squadron. (This enemy plane is listed officially as a 'smoker,' but was not seen to crash.)
d. Seventy-six single-engine missions from Guadalcanal-Tulagi air bases.
e. Two-weeks temporary duty as pilot with South Pacific Combat Air Transport.
The above information has been made part of your official record."
Prior to and during World War II, the Bureau of Aeronautics was part of the Department of the Navy. The records of the Bureau of Aeronautics now reside at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Among the skilled staff of the National Archives is Gibson Smith, who is the preeminent expert on the records of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Smith explained that every piece of official Navy correspondence from that era contains an alpha-numeric designator in accordance with a published Navy-wide filing manual. All the records of the Bureau of Aeronautics are arranged under this system. They can only be searched under this system, not by date or subject.
The document provided by William Polk purportedly dated January 1945 reads "(Reference P/1418/27-8, 127885)" where the filing designator should appear. But Smith stated that this "reference" is not an authentic designator. He extracted a copy of the filing manual code system and reviewed it with me. It was immediately obvious that the arrangement of letters and numbers did not match the system dictated by the correspondence manual. We attempted to determine if the "reference" provided by William Polk was a garble, but this failed to produce anything close. We even explored the theory that since the contents referred to Marine units, the letter might have somehow been following the Marine Corps filing system. This also failed to produce any recognizable approximation of the "reference." Archivist Barry Zerby further confirmed that the identification designator was not authentic. Obviously, no file copy of this reported document could be located. William Polk was advised of this and asked to again examine the document to determine if there was any other alpha numeric indicator. He did not respond.
The lack of an authentic designator alone is enough to destroy the bona fides of this document, but it is only the first of many indications that it is fraudulent. As those unfamiliar with Navy fighter pilots and their victory claims in World War II might be surprised to learn, there was no central gatekeeper or arbiter within the Navy Department tallying claims and officially anointing "aces." The Navy Department only grudgingly tolerated acknowledgment of the individual achievements of its fighter pilots on the grounds that it undermined teamwork. Victory claims and the status of "ace" remained the province of lower commands. Documentation of such credits is confined to the action reports of units, specific Air Combat Action reports completed by pilots or air crew members, and award citations. In plain language, the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington had nothing to do with "victory credits."
Historian Frank Olynyk turned literally thousands of pages of documents concerning Navy and Marine Corps victory claims in World War II in the course of preparing the most respected publications on this subject. He pointed out that in all of his experience, no document officially recognizing a victory credit would fail to identify specifically the aviator's assigned unit at the time of the action. The purported January 1945 document merely notes that Polk was flying with a generic "Marine fighter squadron" on September 28, 1942, and a generic "Marine dive bomber squadron" on October 14, 1942.
John Lundstrom's The First Team at Guadalcanal stands as the best and most comprehensive description of the combat of American fighters and their Japanese adversaries over Guadalcanal on September 28, 1942. Three fighter squadrons participated: Fighting Five (VF-5) of the U.S. Navy and Marine Fighter Squadrons 223 (VMF-223) and 224 (VMF-224). The records for these squadrons document the combat organization of the squadrons and list every pilot by name who participated. The list specifically includes pilots on temporary duty from Marine Fighter Squadrons 121 and 212 to reinforce the two Marine squadrons stationed on Guadalcanal. Individual combat reports and contemporary letters and diaries contain further back-up information on the names and exploits of the American pilots. None of these mentions George Polk.
There is a further fundamental problem with the purported claim on September 28, 1942. The Japanese aircraft involved was a "Val." The United States adopted a system of code naming Japanese aircraft after the Guadalcanal campaign but before 1945. This system christened the Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier (dive) bomber the "Val." There were no "Vals" operating anywhere near Guadalcanal on September 28, 1942, and no contemporary record of any American pilot claiming a victory over a "Val."
The same problems enfold the claim for October 14, 1942. The document does not identify Polk's purported squadron, there is no contemporary record of his flight, and no "Val" was anywhere near Guadalcanal on this date. The further problem with this claim is that Compton's September 1942 letter indicates that by this date Polk was not on Guadalcanal, but over on Gavutu or in that vicinity.
The other fundamental and devastating piece of evidence demonstrating the two claims for destruction of "Vals" are frauds is Polk's own oral history statement given in February 1944. His flat denial that he flew anything on Guadalcanal makes it impossible for him to have secured the alleged "victories" on September 28 and October 14, 1942.
The third claim for the probable destruction of a Zero on December 14, 1942, also fails on the counts that it does not identify Polk's specific unit and it lacks any contemporary support. It is not clear what type of American aircraft Polk allegedly flew or rode on this occasion since an "air rescue-night flying squadron" conceivably could have been an SOC or a PBY equipped unit. Polk made no allegation about having fought with a Zero in his February 1944 statement. He did claim to have encountered Japanese float planes in his report immediately after his ill-fated December 15, 1942, flight in the SOC. He repeated the tale of encountering Japanese float planes in an August 1943 interview. By the November 1943 press release, Polk's account had changed and it was Zeros he had reportedly run into when he lost his SOC. Encountering a Zero instead of a float plane dramatically raised the hazard involved. It is extremely unlikely that if Polk had really encountered a Zero or Zeros instead of float planes, he would have misstated that matter in December 1942 or August 1943. On the other hand, if the episode had been made up to begin with-and Polk well knew that no American could possibly verify it during the war-the path was wide open to further embellishment in November 1943.
The formidable list of defects in the purported letter supplied by William Polk further includes the allegation that Polk flew 76 "single-engine missions from Guadalcanal-Tulagi air bases." What is documented is the one combat mission to rescue the downed pilot on December 15, 1942. If the January 1945 statement was true, then the conclusion it dictates is that not just an odd sortie or two slipped by without official documentation, but somehow 75 missions evaded documentation. And yet, again, Polk's February 1944 denial that he made any flights from Guadalcanal stands in contradiction to this claim.
This brings us to the second document. William Polk described it as follows:
[T]he following is from the citation at the award of the Purple Heart by Major General A.A. Vandergrift, USMC, on September 23, 1942:
You are to be highly commended for your brave actions during which you sustained head injuries and cuts. The manner in which you endeavored to take off from Guadalcanal after the enemy had started its bombing of the field calls for the highest commendation. The destruction of your airplane a moment before it was airborne was an unfortunate act of war.
For almost exactly the first year of the war in the Pacific, the Navy Department, which includes the Marine Corps, had not adopted and authorized the award of the Purple Heart medal for combat wounds. The Department of the Army had reinstituted the Purple Heart medal before World War II, and it had included in the criteria for the award of this decoration combat wounds. Army regulations further authorized commanding generals to award the decoration not only to Army personnel, but also to Navy and Marine Corps personnel serving under their command.
These bureaucratic differences led to the anomaly that Navy and Marine Corps officers and enlisted men serving under army generals (most notably Douglas MacArthur) could receive from the Army a decoration for their combat wounds while their peers serving under command of naval officers could not. By mid-1942 this situation drew congressional attention and prompted guarantees from the executive branch that the anomaly would be corrected. It was not until December 3, 1942, however, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the Navy Department to award the Purple Heart medal for combat wounds. The executive order authorized the retroactive award of the Purple Heart Medal for wounds to Navy Department personnel from before World War II.
Even after the executive order, the Navy Department chose to restrict the authority to award the Purple Heart to very senior command levels: fleet and task force commanders. It was only much later in the war that the authority to award the Purple Heart was delegated to levels that may have included a divisional commander like Major General Vandegrift. Even then, the Marine Corps did not issue citations with the award of the Purple Heart Medal for nonfatal wounds until 1951.
I requested that William Polk clarify whether the date September 23, 1942, indicated the date the award was purportedly conferred or the date of the alleged incident in which George Polk was wounded. He did not respond. If September 23, 1942, was the purported date the award was conferred, it was before the Navy Department sanctioned the medal and long before an officer like Vandegrift was authorized to award it. If September 23, 1942, was the date of the event, there is no record of any incident approximating the events described in the quoted citation. Indeed, this date fell in a two-week interval in which there were no Japanese bombing attacks on Guadalcanal. And again, the alleged event would have involved Polk in combat flying on Guadalcanal, which in February 1944 he denied ever occurred.
For those familiar with citations for Purple Heart medals, the text of the purported document is obviously bogus. The criteria for a Purple Heart Medal are purely passive: You sustain wounds as a result of enemy action, and what you were doing at the time makes no difference. The award carries no connotation of valor, and thus authentic citations merely recite the name, rank, and serial number of the recipient and the date and place of the injury. But William Polk's document reads like a citation for valor. Finally, General Vandegrift's name is misspelled ("Vandergrift"), although this common error could have been introduced inadvertently by William Polk.
The inescapable conclusion is that George Polk did not simply verbally recount false tales of his wartime exploits to his family and to his journalist colleagues, he actually forged documents to buttress his stories.
Nor does a sympathetic view of Polk's anguish over his adventure in December 1942, or perhaps his experiences with bombing and bombardment on Guadalcanal, explain or excuse his behavior. By any reasonable standard, the character of George Polk's actual service was more than merely satisfactory. All the participants in the Guadalcanal campaign carried a certain luster about them during the war, and nothing since has diminished it. Why this left George Polk unsatisfied is not knowable. It would be one thing for Polk to be reticent about the breakdown-if such it was-that caused his evacuation from the South Pacific. But Polk did not merely remain silent or create a modestly distorted account of his experiences to camouflage the facts. He instead invented from whole cloth a tale of supreme heroism-just a step below what this nation reserves for men who earn its highest award for valor-and he falsely wore the wings of a naval aviator. He knowingly deployed these fabrications to secure and further his career in journalism. With unintentional irony, the Navy interviewer who debriefed Polk in February 1944 commented that Polk had a "considerable ability to tell stories." But what Polk told that interviewer-who was in a position to verify Polk's tales against official records-was a lean and largely accurate account of his service in the South Pacific. Likewise, when Polk communicated in November 1943 with the judge advocate general of the Navy, he was careful to identify himself as a ground officer with aviation units, not as a pilot.
There is a pattern here. When Polk communicated with Navy officials who might examine his records or verify his stories, he denied being a naval aviator or flying combat missions from Guadalcanal. When he regaled parties who were unlikely to have access to official records, like a Navy publicist or other journalists, he sang a different tune. Thus the key contradiction in the evidence is not between official records and Polk's statements, but between some of Polk's statements and others. There is no genuine emotional or psychological disability that would excuse his fraudulently wearing the wings of a Navy pilot or forging at least two documents in furtherance of active deceits.
It is fair to wonder about the implications of this deceit for Polk's journalism. The fact that he fabricated a tale of heroism and falsely presented himself in public as a naval aviator cannot cast doubt on any specific part of his subsequent reporting for CBS. Yet few, if any, readers-much less editors-would grant credibility to a reporter who they knew had invented false tales about his background, worn military awards he had not earned, and forged documents.
No one can know whether Polk's reporting from Greece for CBS contained an admixture of fiction. For example, he asserted that an anonymous U.S. bank employee had given him information that the Greek foreign minister, Constantine Tsaldaris, was depositing funds allegedly acquired from graft or possibly siphoned from U.S. aid funds into an account in a New York bank. After Polk's death, some of his papers were missing and nothing was found from this purported source. But the record also shows that no trace of the alleged bank account emerged. More tellingly, the anonymous source, though safe in New York City, never contacted any other reporter or stepped forward, thus leaving a question mark as to whether such a source existed.
But for all its remaining uncertainties, Polk's story offers some lessons. Many professions are afflicted with the conceit that all of its members are honorable and trustworthy. While rare, it is by no means entirely unknown for military officers to have worn decorations to which they were not entitled. Their peers habitually assume that no officer would do such a thing, and it may be a long time before anyone stumbles across the truth. What the Polk story indicates is that it is important for gatekeepers in all professions to verify background information before hiring an individual.
Polk and Jayson Blair both incurred shame for practicing deceit on their employers. That deceit cost the New York Times dearly before Blair was exposed. But the damage Blair inflicted was limited. The profession never made him a symbol of the best in American journalism. Jayson Blair's name does not adorn the resumes of dozens of American journalists. There is every reason to have an award recognizing excellence in journalism. A tragically long list of journalists have given their lives in pursuit of the highest ideals of the profession-Daniel Pearl and Michael Kelly are two recent outstanding examples. But it is clear now that no award honoring excellence in journalism should bear the name of 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.
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. A shorter version of this article appears in the February 26 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.