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Book Report: War saga rescued from history files


Tale recounts wedded WWII journalists' escape from danger

COURTESY PHOTO - Bill Lascher's unbelievable-but-true book is a great summer read. Portland-based journalist Bill Lascher’s remarkable book, “Eve of a Hundred Midnights,” recounts the unbelievable-but-true story of two young journalists: newlyweds Melville Jacoby and Annalee Whitmore.

Lascher, whose work has appeared in the Guardian and Portland Monthly, stumbled upon their amazing story the day his grandmother, Peggy Cole, gave him a 1930s portable Corona typewriter that had belonged to her cousin.

“I was dumbstruck. How had I never heard of this cousin and all the adventure and romance surrounding him,” Lascher asks in the book’s prologue. “His name was Melville Jacoby, but everyone knew him as Mel. Fantasies I’d long had about becoming a foreign correspondent were realities he’d lived. I had to know more.”

Lascher’s need to know fueled this book, years in the making. The result is a gripping story set in the Pacific during World War II that culminates in the U.S. military departure from Manila Bay as the Japanese close in.

Jacoby, along with fellow correspondent Annalee Whitmore, his wife of one month, make a breathtaking escape on the last boat out of Manila Bay in 1941 on New Year’s Eve.

The correspondents were just 25 years old when they jumped from a burning dock to reach that boat.

COURTESY IMAGE - Bill Lascher's latest release can be purchased at Powell's and Amazon. The book tells the story well and helps readers understand a complicated moment in history, as it rescues and pays tribute to people who might otherwise be lost to it.

“People who pay attention would have known of Mel, but he is somewhat lost to history because he was so young when he died,” Lascher says.

“But during WWII everyone read Time and Life, which brought this war to life in a new way. Some of the earliest photographs came from Mel, who was able to show Corregidor and Bataan.”

Whitmore later would became famous for “Thunder Out of China,” a book she co-wrote with legendary reporter Theodore White.

Lascher traces the steps leading to the couples’ dramatic escape, taking it all in with a documentarian’s eye and an investigative reporter’s love for digging in deep.

(Lascher was a Knight Digital Media and Convergence Journalism fellow at UC Berkeley in 2011. Two years earlier, he graduated from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Journalism Masters in Specialized Journalism program, and in 2002 he graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor's degree in history. He also graduated from a semester-long nonfiction writing program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies that year.)

He drew upon huge volumes of film, letters, notes and clippings produced by Jacoby during his years in Asia that were saved by his mother.

“The research had to be bulletproof,” said Lascher by phone. “I had to reach a point and say, ‘enough.’”

The author visited the U.S. National Archives, Stanford’s Hoover Institute, and traveled to Hong Kong, China and the Philippines to retrace the couple’s steps. “I love the hunt,” Lascher says. “It’s a treasure hunt; it’s like reporting on a bigger scale.”

Jacoby first traveled to China on a student exchange program, eventually taking work as a press correspondent in its wartime capital, Chungking, today Chongqing.

He later joined the United Press in Hanoi. Jacoby’s writings and letters describe the maneuverings of the Japanese among the weak French colonies of Indochina; he even meets and becomes friends with Madame Chiang, wife of President Chiang-Kai-shek.

Jacoby eventually would become a correspondent for Time and Life magazines, and the first reporter to go behind Japanese lines offering Americans’ their first glimpse of the grisly conditions in Bataan.

The war between Japan and China had been going on for about five years before the United States entered the war after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

The suspense builds as readers wait for Whitmore to join Jacoby in China, where she also would work to tell the war’s story.

The couple’s desire to be at the center of the major events of their time, Lascher says, was testament to their “tenacity and chutzpa.

They were adventurous, but they were also just really dedicated. They didn’t want this significant part of the world ignored.”