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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published July 07 2012

Eriksmoen: Reporter born in Fargo broke news of Korean War

A reporter, born in Fargo, broke the news to the U.S. about the invasion of North Korean soldiers into South Korea in 1950, beginning the Korean War.

Walter A. Simmons was a veteran World War II reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and the only newsman in South Korea at the time of the invasion. For the first couple of weeks of the war, he was the sole source of information.

Simmons later became the Sunday editor of the Chicago Tribune and president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors.

Simmons was born July 7, 1908, in Fargo to Beatrice (McPherson Jones) Simmons and W.A. Simmons Sr., who was a “patent medicine” salesman. In 1910, the family moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., where Walter grew up and attended school.

In 1932, after two years of college, Simmons was hired as a reporter for the Daily Argus-Leader by longtime editor Charles M. Day. During the 1930s, he wrote several stories about conflicts between the John Morrell meat-packing plant Amalgamated Meat Cutter’s Union workers. In time, Simmons became city editor.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Simmons was hired by Col. Robert McCormick to become a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. While covering the war, Simmons became aware of the exploits of Joe Foss, a naval aviator from Sioux Falls. In January and early February 1943, Foss and his crew shot down 72 Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Foss was personally credited with downing 26 enemy planes. Simmons wrote a series of articles about Foss that ran in papers across the U.S. Foss was later elected governor of South Dakota and became the first commissioner of the American Football League.

On July 26, 1943, Simmons “was sent (with the 1st Cavalry Division) to New Guinea.” He then followed the Pacific War into the Philippines, sending back many eyewitness accounts. Maj. Gen. Verne J. Mudge, commander of the 1st Division gave Simmons the highest commendations because of “his work under fire”. “After V-J Day, (victory over Japan on Sept. 2, 1945) Simmons returned to Chicago for a brief furlough and then went to his Tokyo assignment.”

In the post-war Pacific, Simmons became the first reporter to warn of a possible Soviet invasion of the Kuril Islands on April 15, 1946. Four months later, Russia invaded and expelled the 17,000 Japanese civilians who lived there. Simmons returned to the Philippines for the July 4, 1946, ceremony in which the U.S. granted the country its independence.

After World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries along the 38th parallel. Russia occupied the northern half and the U.S. controlled South Korea. On Aug. 15, 1948, Simmons went to Seoul, South Korea, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur “for a ceremony marking the inauguration of the government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).”

In mid-June 1950, Simmons went to Seoul, South Korea, to cover talks between the U.S. and South Korea. Hearing that North Korea was massing troops along its southern border, Simmons decided on June 25 to accompany U.S. military advisers to investigate the situation. After traveling about 25 miles north of Seoul, they saw fleeing South Korean soldiers pursued by enemy tanks and troops. One the tanks pursued the military jeep in which Simmons was traveling, and they barely escaped.

When he got back to Seoul, Simmons called his wife, Edith, in Tokyo with a report, which she cabled to the Chicago Tribune. This gave the Tribune When Seoul was overrun by soldiers from the north on June 28, Simmons moved his base of operation to Pusan, on the southeastern tip of the peninsula. There, he was joined by other reporters.

Because of his reporting during the Korean War, Simmons was awarded the Edward Scott Beck Journalism Prize in 1950. However, he was likely denied the most coveted journalism award because “under Colonel McCormick, the Tribune refused to participate in the Pulitzer Prize competition.”

McCormick died on April 1, 1955, and W. Donald Maxwell was named editor of the daily edition. Simmons became editor of the Sunday edition, a position he held until retiring in 1973.

During the anti-Vietnam War protests of the later 1960s, many editors believed that newspaper articles needed to be tailored to fit the interests of young readers. At a symposium in December 1966, Simmons opposed this notion as he summed up his journalistic philosophy. He said “There must be a ‘wisdom beat’ to pull society back together with articles everybody can understand. You must find people with their own expertise and get them to write for you. You must give the reader quality in order to get time from him.” Walter A. Simmons Jr. died on Nov. 25, 2006.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.