History doesn’t record it, but we can imagine Colonel Robert L. Denig Sr.’s surprise on 30 June 1941, when he was brought out of retirement, tombstone promoted to brigadier general and told to form the first Marine Corps public relations division.
Marines of the day had their own questions about public relations. “What the hell is that?” many asked. More importantly: “Why in the world do we need it? We’re Marines!”
BGen Denig himself was a bit puzzled and queried his old World War I comrade, now Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, about the job, saying he knew nothing about public relations. “Well,” replied MajGen Holcomb, “you had better learn it because that’s what you are going to be doing.”
MajGen Holcomb must have known what he was doing. After all, Denig had finished a 36-year career distinguished by his personal awards, including the Navy Cross, the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and two awards of the Purple Heart.
Given a room little bigger than a closet with one light bulb for illumination, the general quickly met his staff. First Sergeant Walter Shipman introduced him to his two clerks, Lorene Lomax and Helen Draper. Little did this tiny group realize that by 1945 the division at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps and overseas would have grown to 268 officers and men.
While no mission statement is known, a framed piece over the general’s desk told everyone, “If the public becomes apathetic about the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps will cease to exist.”
BGen Denig and the small staff immediately turned to. The most urgent job was to create a Marine Corps-wide public relations and publicity program to help recruiters fill the ranks of the expanding Corps. History soon would prove they didn’t have much time to do it, either.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, it was apparent that public-relations Marines, while adequate for the recruiting effort, really weren’t trained to tell the Marine Corps story from the Pacific. The magnificent defense of Wake Island and the lack of news stories about it sealed the deal. On-the-scene, media-trained correspondents with Marine units in the field were needed.
BGen Denig and his staff submitted a request to the Commandant, asking for permission to recruit civilian newsmen. The resultant staff study recommended 10 experienced newsmen be recruited and, if successful, 10 more could be recruited. The results are our history.
First Sgt Shipman donned blues, decorations and, according to him, probably a couple of “belts” and headed to District of Columbia newsrooms where he was warmly welcomed. His promise of immediate combat duty and sergeants’ stripes if the reporters could finish “boot camp” promptly filled the first commitment of 10.
The second group was just as easy. His efforts in “raiding” the local newsrooms were so successful that Cissie Patterson, the Washington, D.C., Times-Herald owner, called President Franklin Roosevelt and complained about the loss of her reporters. BGen Denig promptly was told to spread the wealth and go outside the District of Columbia to other papers to meet the Corps’ needs.
Boot camp stories involving those fledgling Marines dutifully were recorded in Combat Correspondent (CC) Gary Cameron’s unofficial history “Last to Know, First to Go.” We only can imagine how a grizzled two-hashmarked corporal drill instructor would react, knowing that his recruit probably would make sergeant much quicker than he would.
Their titles after recruit training also caused questions. Initially, writers were promoted to the rank of public-relations sergeant. Photographers were a horse of a different breed. While they were brought in under the same program and with the same promotion promise, the Corps traditionally assigned them to unit Operations staff, for example, the D-3 at division level, and they were designated engineers.
In BGen Denig’s original plan, the writers and photographers were to work as a team, but this just did not happen. Only after Guadalcanal and its scarcity of photos did the Corps ease the situation. Fortunately, the photographer-engineers would come through later with some very good combat photos of their own.
Many of those finishing recruit training complained of their designation as PR sergeants. Most asked, “If we’re heading to combat, why not call us combat correspondents?” While no official recognition was made at the time, the name stuck.
BGen Denig’s first instruction to all CCs issued early in 1942 remains the mantra of today’s Marine combat correspondent reporting: “Give most of your time and attention to the enlisted man—what he says, thinks and does. Tell the human interest side of the Marine Corps. If Private Bill Jones of Cumberland Gap wins the boxing championship of his unit, tell the people of Cumberland Gap about it.”
The American public quickly came to know of battles on obscure islands called Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Betio, Peleliu, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and others as Marine correspondents, photographers, artists, broadcasters and newsreel cameramen began telling the folks at home what was happening with their Marines.
The early CCs called themselves “Denig’s Demons,” and they made an immediate impact with their reporting. While there might have been a degree of deviltry in their methods, they worked like demons to justify the faith that the general had placed in their professionalism.
By war’s end, that professionalism had paid off many times over. Also at war’s end BGen Denig was permitted to retire, and on 1 Dec. 1945, he did it.
His legacy? A combat correspondents program that was and still is unique in American military history. The program proved itself in WW II, accomplishing a goal of professional achievement that many said might never again be reached. They would be wrong, however.
Marine CCs have distinguished themselves many times throughout the years, reporting from the bitter cold of a Korean reservoir; through the jungle hellholes of Vietnam; from Grenada; the disaster of Beirut, the precursor of today’s terrorism attacks; the desert operations of 1990-91; Iraq; and today in Afghanistan.
Many gave their lives as they plied their trade. Videographer Sergeant Bill Perkins was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in Vietnam. Countless others have given their lives, including the first female Marine CC, Major Megan McClung, killed in Iraq.
Fittingly in November 2012, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association—the offspring of the group BGen Denig founded in February 1942—unveiled a beautiful granite monument honoring this Marine general, his Demons and all who ever have earned or ever will earn the title of Marine Corps combat correspondent.