Wilson Fielder’s Last Assignment

by Robert Darden | November 19, 2018

“Do not speak to me of martyrdom/of men who die to be remembered/on some parish day. I don’t believe in dying/though I too shall die/and violets like castanets/will echo me.” – Sonia Sanchez

In the dark summer of 1950, the Russian-equipped North Korean army swept down from above the 38th parallel, pummeling its way south. The South Korean army, little more than a police force, held briefly, pulled back, held again, then began a full-scale retreat, its troops enveloped by millions of civilians in a headlong rush to the sea.

A rag-tag American army was hastily assembled to stem the southward flow, to preserve Korea’s southernmost airstrips so that reinforcements could arrive. Lt. Col. Harold Ayres, a hero of Sicily and France, was given command of the newly configured 1st Battalion of the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division. Out-manned, out-gunned and too-often out of ammunition, the 1st Battalion’s job was to buy time with blood.

A handful of war correspondents arrived in those first few bleak days, including the legendary Life photographer Carl Mydens. On July 5, just ten days into the undeclared war, Mydens joined Ayres as the 1st ferociously fought to hold the small town of Taejon. When Mydens left the battle to mail his film, he passed war correspondent Wilson Fielder Jr., newly arrived from Hong Kong, in a cramped jeep filled with desperate, ragged soldiers. 

The muddy roads were clogged with exhausted, frightened refugees streaming south, fleeing the phalanx of tanks and artillery. 

But Fielder, as he had done his entire life, fought his way toward the action. He was a writer, after all, and that was where the story was. North.

In his too-short lifetime, Wilson Fielder Jr. lived a life as unique and challenging and rich as anyone alive in those perilous times. Perhaps it was an inheritance of his parents, whose lives were equally full of peril and praise. John Wilson Fielder Sr. and Maudie Ethel Albritton met while she was in high school in 1910; he was 12 years her senior. He was a Baylor grad, an interim pastor and a high school teacher. While serving as pastor of First Baptist Church of Comanche, he was called to the mission field in China. He proposed to Maudie by letter from China and they were married in Shanghai in October 1914. In Brett Towery’s book on their life together, he writes that Wilson Sr. learned Mandarin Chinese from an elderly tutor via the “signs and wonders method.” The tutor made hand signs and the student wondered what they meant.

Wilson Fielder Jr. was born July 28, 1917 in a mission hospital in Kaifeng, the first of five children. But the young couple had arrived in a turbulent time in Chinese history. The Republican revolution, led by Sun Yat-Sen, had begun the overthrow on the Qing Dynasty in 1911. During the 1920s and ‘30s, much of China was in the grip of competing warlords and Wilson Sr. was once briefly captured by bandits. 

Other children followed – Golda Jean (1919, during a furlough back in Texas), Richard Byron (1921 in Henan), Lennox Gerald (1926 in Zhengzhou). During the Great Depression, the Fielders returned to the United States, where he served as pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Dallas from 1927-1929. Florence Ann, the fifth and final Fielder child, was born in 1932. Japan and China were at war and great famines ravaged the countryside. Florence Ann, called Flo, remembered stacks of dead bodies in the streets.

The Fielders returned for a third furlough in 1936. In the year of the XI Olympiad in Berlin, the family took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia to Moscow, then to Berlin, traveling third class, Maudie recalled, to save money. All save Wilson Jr., who joined a classmate and instead journeyed across Europe by themselves. All eventually made it to Brownwood. In 1937, the Fielders returned to China, leaving Golda Jean, Wilson Jr. and Byron, with relatives in Abilene. (The senior Fielder’s adventures in China were only beginning. After leaving his wife and little Flo in Dallas, Wilson Sr. returned again to China. Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, he and hundreds of other missionaries spent two brutal years in Japanese internment in Shanghai.)

Wilson Jr. meanwhile had enrolled at Baylor. Flo, who now lives at the Baptist Retirement Community in San Angelo, said that Wilson was 18 years her senior (“I was the surprise of the family”) and was already enrolled in college by the time she made her unexpected debut. “Still,” she recalled, “he was a great big brother – I would recommend him! What I do remember in the years that followed is his personality; he was all in to anything he was interested in. He was on the honor roll at Baylor. He had a great personality – he loved people. He was very good at what he did. Despite our age difference, he was very attentive to my needs as his kid sister.”

In one of life’s many Baylor coincidences, Jo Beth Fielder, the wife of Wilson’s younger brother, Gerald, is another resident of the Baptist Retirement Community in San Angelo – just two blocks from Flo. She said she only met Wilson a few times but, even then, he made an impression. “He was very much a very up and at ‘em kind of person – much like Gerald,” she said. “He always was committed to telling the story.”

At Baylor, Wilson quickly attained the rank of Lariat Editor in the Fall of 1939, with a staff that included people who would become well-known in the Baylor and Waco communities, including Roger Edens (Advertising Manager), and Joe Kendrick and Virginia Beall (reporters). His daily column “Along the Way with Wilson” mostly chronicled the comings and goings of a small college campus. But on a couple of occasions, Wilson disputed columnists in major newspapers who believed that Adolf Hitler was simply “crazy” and would eventually be assimilated into the German political system, or who opined that Hitler’s hatred and assaults on the German news media were somehow justified, and that he was a “moral man” because he was against smoking and drinking and was the darling of many religious conservatives. During his time in Germany, Wilson had seen the truth of Hitler’s regime.

Wilson also worked a night shift at the Waco News-Tribune before graduating in 1940. He spent 1941 with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and, in 1942. enlisted in the Marines’ Officer’s Candidate School. Wilson spent 18 months as an instructor at Quantico before joining the Fifth Marine Division in the Pacific, where he became an amphibious warfare specialist, training the Marines for the invasion of Iwo Jima. But, as Flo remembered it, he was then re-assigned to Chinese language school at UCLA. “He was born in China and spoke Chinese – not fluently, I don’t know that anyone ever becomes fluent,” she recalled. “He had a good foundation in Chinese and studied hard.” 

After the war, Wilson, who had met and married Virginia Lee Berg while in the language school at UCLA, then joined the staff of the Associated Press in San Francisco. He became a writer for Time magazine in 1949 and was assigned to the magazine’s bureau in China. According to an article in the Caller-Times, Wilson’s goal, all along, had been to return to China. In time, he became Time’s Hong Kong bureau chief. 

Amid a treasure-trove of articles, diaries, letters and cables chronicling Wilson’s life is a typed letter to his parents from October 23, 1949, detailing his adventures in China, chronicling the inexorable defeat of the Nationalist Chinese, flying to Macao for a “color story on how the Portuguese are taking the Communist advances,” and sharing his hopes of traveling on to Manila to pick up Virginia and their one-month-old son, Craig. It is followed a month later by a letter from Shameen Island, off Canton, predicting – correctly – that within days, Chiang Ki-Shek’s remaining forces would leave the mainland for Taiwan.

When the North Korean army stormed over the 38th parallel, Wilson volunteered to cover it for Time, commandeering a spot on the U.S.S. Juneau, a light cruiser, steaming north. From the Juneau, he filed one of his last – and finest – dispatches, “Last Train from Vladivostok,” about a commando raid from the Juneau that destroyed a railway tunnel supplying the North Koreans. In his typically wry style, Wilson described the Juneau as the “galloping ghost of the Korean coast.” It was the first cabled account of the war at sea off Korea.

As Mydens recalled his brief meeting with Wilson on July 20, Wilson had asked him where the fighting was taking place. “Taejon,” Mydens replied, where the Americans had vowed to hold. “When you get there, look for Col. Ayres and the 1st Battalion of the 24th.” Wilson nodded and the two agreed to meet again in Taejon when Mydens returned.

But Mydens was delayed a day in Tokyo and when he returned to the small American redoubt in far southern South Korea, he met another correspondent, fresh from the battle for Taejon. “It’s a slaughter over there,” the reporter had told him. “I think your new man Fielder got it yesterday.”

Mydens pressed towards the front and found what was left the 1st Battalion. Days later, Mydens found Ayres and a few survivors of the Battle for Taejon. They had tried to free a small knot of Americans and been overrun themselves. When the attack came, Wilson Fielder, Jr. was there. But the survivors, some of whom had spent long nights evading North Korean patrols, hadn’t seen what had happened to the reporter from Time magazine.

Thus began two anguished years for the Fielder family, which by now had re-located again to Waco. Virginia and baby Craig lived with Maudie and Wilson Sr. The family’s files are thick with cables and news reports, sometimes contradictory, of Wilson’s fate. He was listed, officially, as “missing in action.” “I was in Waco at Baylor with my parents when he was reported missing in action in Korea.,” Florence recalled. “It was a difficult time. We tried to find out everything we could about Wilson, but it was hard. 

“Wilson was doing exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to be where the action was – and there was a lot of action in those days. He loved to be in the middle of the action, talking to different people in different places.”

The family’s documents do not detail how the Fielders were eventually told of Wilson’s fate. Perhaps the original telegram or letter is in Virginia’s possession. Perhaps the sad news came in the form of a telephone call. In its place is a thick file of sympathy cards from as far away as China, Korea and Japan, and as close as Sunday School classes in Dallas, Comanche, Waco and Abilene. One card is signed by Cleta Ortlif, a member of Maudie’s Sunday School class at 7th & James Baptist Church. Cleta, now Cleta Bennett, did not know Wilson, but vividly remembered Fielder’s anguish and grief upon hearing the sad news. “How do people ever go through things like this without prayers and God?” Cleta asked in the small note, postmarked March 9, 1952.

The file also includes cables from Wilson’s friends among the correspondents, who tried, grief-stricken, to reconstruct for his parents the young reporter’s final hours, even as they extended their heartfelt sympathy to another fallen comrade. Wilson Fielder Jr. was 33.

“He died the spring Gerald and I got married,” Jo Beth said, “so I only met him a few times. It was, of course, a sad time for the family. They knew the risks of being a war correspondent, they were missionaries, after all, and had been in a number of risky situations themselves. I thought they handled it very well. Still, it was a shock. It always is. But it went with the territory. They were so proud of him.”

“He loved the challenge,” Florence recalled. “He lived life to the limit. He enjoyed being with people. He loved telling their stories.”

As he had wished, Wilson’s remains were buried on March 11, 1952, in an azalea-ringed cemetery set aside for foreigners, outside of Yokohama, Japan. A simultaneous memorial service was held at 7th & James Baptist.

In 1955, a memorial scholarship in Wilson’s name was established by gift of $1,200 from Virginia and $6,000 from Time, Inc. The scholarship – which the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media still awards today – has been given to dozens of young writers, including the 1957 recipients, Hal Wingo (the former Senior Editor of Life Magazine who became the co-founder of People Magazine), and Sherry Boyd (Castello), who would later become Editor of the Baylor Line. Tom Belden, later an award-winning journalist, was the 1969 recipient.

Virginia later remarried and worked for Radio Free Asia. Florence and Jo Beth continued to correspond with her until they lost contact a few years ago. Virginia and Wilson’s son, Craig Wilson Fielder, moved to Alaska, where he died a young man.

And in Seoul, Korea, under the eaves of the Ducksee Palace, the Korean and American governments consecrated a memorial in 1963 honoring the war correspondents who died covering that conflict. In the Pentagon in Washington D.C., the Department of Defense maintains an honor gallery for war correspondents. Wilson Fielder’s picture is among those of the 17 reporters who died covering the undeclared Korean War. Further down the wall are the photographs of 44 correspondents who were killed during World War II.

At Baylor, as noted in Moody Library preservation specialist Frank Jasek’s book, Soldiers of the Wooden Cross: Military Memorials of Baylor University, a marker honoring Wilson Fielder’s sacrifice, hangs on a lamp post on Albritton Street, next to the Hankamer School of Business.

Jasek bequeathed two box-sized files of letters, articles, photographs and telegrams to longtime journalism chair Doug Ferdon. The boxes also contain a letter from the President of the Republic of Korea, awarding Wilson the Order of Cultural Merit National Medal and a small box containing the medal itself, a copy of Fielder’s Marine yearbook annual from 1942, his ID card and, perhaps the most precious item to his survivors, faded ribbons from Wilson’s funeral in Japan.

Of the several dozen photographs, one is particularly poignant. It is a profile shot of Wilson, apparently on the Juneau, staring off in the horizon. Towards Korea? Towards China? It was taken just days before his death in the far country.

And so, those boxes have come to me. In them is the fragmentary printed record of the life of Wilson Fielder Jr.

No box can possibly contain all of the stories of this too-short life or measure the lives he touched or the futures he inspired. In a day where journalists are reviled by some, dismissed by others, Wilson Fielder’s joy and passion for his sacred craft is best epitomized in the generations of journalists who followed him, forever running towards the sounds of battle, the fires in the tallest towers, and the often equally dangerous whispers in the back rooms of the halls of power.

 

Scholarships:

https://www.wacofoundation.org/becomeadonor/makeadonation.aspx

(Type “Soldiers of the Wooden Cross Scholarship Fund”)

https://www.baylor.edu/journalism/index.php?id=859640

Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media: Wilson Fielder Scholarship Fund

For further reading:

Towery, Britt. Strangers in a Strange Land: Maudie and Wilson Fielder in China, 1912-1950, The Tao Foundation, 2011.

Mydens, Carl. More Than Meets the Eye, Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Jasek, Frank, Soldiers of the Wooden Cross: Military Memorials of Baylor University, C&C Offset, 2013.

See also:

Appleman, Roy E., South to Naktong, North to the Yalou, Center of Military History, Unites States Army, 1992.

Foreign Correspondents in Japan: Reporting a Half Century of Upheavals: From 1945 to the Present, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998.

Gibney, Frank. The Pacific Century: Asia and America in the Modern World, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Topping, Seymour. On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

See also The Baylor Lariat, Fall 1939.

Maudieie Ethel Albritton Fielder Papers and oral history, the Baylor University Texas Collection and the Baylor Institute for Oral History.

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