John Richard Hersey was born in Tianjin, China, on June 17, 1914, to Roscoe and Grace Baird Hersey. His father, a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) secretary, and his mother, a missionary, took him on a trip around the world when he was three years old, but most of the first decade of his life was spent in the missionary compound, where, although isolated to an extent from the community, he learned to speak Chinese before he spoke English. From the time he learned to read and write, he amused himself by playing reporter and writing his family news and daily events at the British grammar school and the American school in Tianjin. Despite his early life abroad, Hersey considered his life there “no more exciting than the average child’s.”
In 1924, Hersey, who knew of the United States only from secondhand accounts and what could be gleaned from books and magazines, was enrolled in the Briarcliff Manor public schools in New York. Three years later, he entered the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, and graduated in 1932. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree from Yale in 1936, he went on to study eighteenth century English literature on a Mellon Scholarship at Clare College, Cambridge. During this time, he became determined to be a reporter for Time, because it seemed “the liveliest enterprise of its type.” While waiting for an opening, he became the secretary and driver of Sinclair Lewis in the summer of 1937, the same summer that the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Born in China, Hersey was a natural choice for covering the Sino-Japanese War, and he served as a staff member for Time from the fall of 1937 until he was assigned to the Chungking bureau under Theodore White in 1939, where he began the itinerant life he would lead throughout the war.
An enthusiastic, courageous reporter, Hersey often found himself in mortal danger as he covered the war in the South Pacific in 1942, the Sicilian invasion and Mediterranean theater in 1943, and Moscow between 1944 and 1945. Twice, he went down in planes; once he crashed into the Pacific, nearly losing the notes he had taken on Guadalcanal. He was treading water when his notebooks from the sunken plane surfaced only a few feet in front of him. Among other stories that he covered was the first account of PT 109 and its young lieutenant, John F. Kennedy, an account that Kennedy would later use in his campaign for the U.S. Congress. During one trip to the United States from Asia, Hersey married Frances Ann Cannon on April 27, 1940. They had four children (Martin, John, Ann, and Baird) before being divorced in 1958, when he married Barbara Day Addams Kaufman, with whom he had a daughter, Brook.
In 1942, Hersey published his first book, Men on Bataan, basically a morale-builder for a United States that had suffered serious setbacks at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines. Hersey wrote the book only a month after the fall of Corregidor, when most of the men who had actually been on Bataan were imprisoned or assigned to new posts in the Pacific. In New York, he combined Time-Life files, letters to the servicemen’s families, and a few interviews with reporters and other witnesses to write the book, which had a generally favorable if not overenthusiastic reception. In 1943, he published Into the Valley, based on his own experiences with U.S. Marines at the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal. With his experience in actual combat, Into the Valley had a substantially different tone from that of Men on Bataan, which often tended to jingoism. The extent of Hersey’s closeness to combat can be measured by his receiving a letter of commendation from the secretary of the Navy for his work removing wounded...
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