By the time the war in Europe wound to a close in 1945, Don Whitehead had acquired a nickname from his fellow correspondents.
“Beachhead Don” was in part a play on his last name but mostly a gesture of respect for the Associated Press stalwart, who spent the better part of three years in the thick of the action around in the Mediterranean and across Europe.
Born April 8, 1908 in Inman, Virginia, Whitehead grew up in Harlan, Kentucky, and followed his older brother Kyle into journalism. Don attended the University of Kentucky and wrote for the student newspaper but didn’t complete his studies, leaving school to go work for Kyle at a weekly newspaper for a few months before returning to Harlan to report for a weekly there.
He joined the staff of the Knoxville Journal in 1934 after serving as an occasional stringer for the paper while in Harlan, then joined the AP in 1935 as an editor in the Memphis bureau. Whitehead would later say he got into journalism “to see the world,” and he would do exactly that once war broke out.
Whitehead arrived in Cairo to cover the war in mid-October 1942. It was supposed to be a stopover on the way to India, but the AP decided to keep him in Egypt, assigning him to Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army in its desert fight against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The 34-year-old soon became a star among the AP’s correspondents in North Africa and would establish himself as a trusted front-line correspondent as the fighting shifted to Europe. He went ashore with assault troops in Sicily and at Anzio, and was assigned to accompany the 1st Infantry Division for the Normandy landings.
The Big Red One’s commander, Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner, famously welcomed Whitehead to that assignment with the following words:
“Well, Don, we’re glad to have you with us to tell the story of what this division will do. If you get hungry, we’ll feed you. If you get wounded, we’ll put you in a hospital. If you get killed, we’ll bury you. You haven’t got a thing to worry about.”
It took Whitehead about four hours to get off Omaha Beach on D-Day, which he later said was the biggest story he ever covered. But Whitehead would remain with the troops for much of the ensuing 11 months it took to liberate Europe.
During a brief return home that winter before heading back for the final push into Germany, he wrote a story for his employer’s internal newsletter, The AP World, in which he described the duty he and his colleagues felt to the men they were chronicling.
By choice, we were part of that game and because we were participants — carrying typewriters instead of guns — we had accepted the responsibilities that go with the job of being a frontline correspondent.
None of us who have seen men die, who have watched the wounded being carried from the battlefield, who in a small way have shared at times their dangers and hardships, can forget that responsibility.
And that responsibility is to give an honest, accurate, unvarnished report of war as we see it — within the limits of military security.
Though censorship invariably made that task difficult at times, Whitehead and other correspondents who spent significant time at the front generally shared the soldiers’ interest in ensuring the folks back home didn’t get an unrealistically rosy picture of the situation.
To do so, Whitehead believed he had to be right in the middle of whatever was happening.
There is only one way to write an eyewitness story and that is to eyewitness the action. There is only one way to get the feel, the smell, the taste and the terror of war and that is to experience war with the troops.
You cannot describe the desert unless you have had the hot winds blowing sand in your eyes and mouth and ears. You cannot picture an amphibious assault unless you have waded ashore with the troops under fire and seen them fall around you. You cannot write an honest account of a Ranger attack unless you have marched into battle with them in the bright moonlight, scaled a mountainside and seen them in action. You cannot write of fear unless you have felt it gripping your very soul, and making you ashamed. And heroism only takes on real meaning when you have watched men risk their lives for an ideal or more often for their friends, with no one to applaud.
And when you have experienced those things, then you feel a duty to the men who are doing the dying — to tell an honest, unadorned story of their lives in the stinking, brutal — and sometimes beautiful — game of war. Then war isn’t a mass movement of armor and guns and legions of anonymous little men with rifles and bazookas. War becomes real and personal — you wonder if your friends still will be there when you return to their company or battalion. And often you feel guilty when you return to the comparative safety of the rear areas when they must stay under the enemy’s guns.
Whitehead would witness any number of horrors before the end of the war, most notably the remnants of Buchenwald after the concentration camp was liberated in April 1945. He continued reporting from Germany and France until his return home that August.
He would return to war correspondent duties when fighting broke out in Korea, winning a 1951 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his coverage. He would win another Pulitzer, this time for National Reporting, in 1953.
The following year, Whitehead would write a series of articles for the AP on J. Edgar Hoover’s 30-year tenure as head of the FBI — a project that would spawn his first book, 1956’s The FBI Story. That same year he would leave the AP to join the New York Herald Tribune’s Washington bureau, where he remained for about 18 months.
In October 1959, Whitehead joined the Knoxville News-Sentinel as a contributing columnist, a role he would maintain for nearly 20 years.
Whitehead died at his Knoxville home in January 1981 after a bout with lung cancer. He was 72 years old.