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Robert St. John, 100; Gave News as History Was Made

February 09, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Robert St. John, a globetrotting journalist who seemed to be on the scene or on the air for most of the 20th century's major news events -- mobster Al Capone's grip on Chicago, the Nazi onslaught through the Balkans, the London Blitz, D-day, the end of World War II and Israeli independence -- has died. He was 100.

St. John, who wrote more than a score of books after he was booted off the radio in the McCarthy Era, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in suburban Waldorf, Md.

Among his books were three autobiographies -- one aptly titled "Foreign Correspondent" -- which cannot begin to cover St. John's century of living or 4 million miles of travel, observing and reporting from 88 different nations.

St. John's longevity paralleled his endurance in front of a microphone. Reporting for NBC Radio in New York on June 6, 1944, which would become known in history as D-day, and again at war's end in August 1945, he was on the air 117 hours for one event and 72 for the other.

'A Fateful Hour'

"Ladies and gentlemen," he daringly announced at 1 a.m. that June 6, "we may be approaching a fateful hour. All night long bulletins have been pouring in from Berlin claiming that D-day is here. One -- unconfirmed by Allied sources, of course -- says that heavy fighting is taking place between the Germans and invasion forces on the Normandy Peninsula, about 31 miles southwest of Le Havre."

Fourteen months later, a war-weary U.S. clung to radios, awaiting word of Japan's surrender. Any announcement from Asia would reach St. John's New York newsroom on a wire service teletype machine, which had prescribed signals for major news. Associated Press, for example, would ring five bells before spewing out typed copy of an important story, and 10 bells for news "of transcendental importance."

On Aug. 14, stalling while talking steadily into the NBC network's open microphone, St. John heard five bells and waited only to hear a sixth bell, before announcing confidently: "Ladies and gentlemen, World War II is over. The Japanese have agreed to our surrender terms."

He had scored a 20-second scoop on other broadcasters.

When the story streamed out of the teletype machine after all 10 bells had sounded, a copy girl ripped off the paper and took it to St. John in the broadcast booth, confirming what he had just announced.

"After I got off the air," St. John told National Public Radio in an interview in 2001, "somebody said to me, 'St. John, what would you have done if that piece of paper had said, 'The president has been assassinated'?"

"I said," the self-effacing journalist candidly admitted, " 'I would have put on my hat and coat, walked out of that broadcasting booth, out of the NBC newsroom. I wouldn't have even stopped to collect my pay.' "

Born March 9, 1902, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., St. John attended high school with Ernest Hemingway and delightedly claimed that both had been told by their English teacher, "Neither one of you will ever learn to write."

At age 16, St. John lied about his age to enlist in the Navy during World War I. On his return from France, he became the campus correspondent for the Hartford Courant while attending Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. But he was soon expelled for trying to expose the college president's censorship of an outspoken English professor.

Abandoning formal education, St. John pursued journalism as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago American. In 1923, with his brother, he co-founded the Cicero Tribune in suburban Cicero, Ill., and at 21, became the youngest editor-publisher in the country.

Scoop on Capone

Either courageous or foolhardy, St. John published a series of exposes about Cicero brothels and other operations of gangster Al Capone.

One morning on his way to the office, St. John was accosted by four Capone goons and beaten to a pulp.

He brashly complained to the police, and was invited back the next day to meet Capone in person. The gang leader offered St. John money -- which the reporter rejected -- and apologized, saying he liked newsmen and considered the exposes a form of advertising.

St. John worked for newspapers in Rutland, Vt.; Camden, N.J.; and Philadelphia before signing on as New York night city editor for Associated Press in 1931-33.

Then he moved to New Hampshire to farm for six years and write the great American novel. The novel didn't materialize.

In 1939, a friend suggested he ought to go to Europe to report on the imminent war. So St. John flew to Paris and took a train to Budapest. He went to the Associated Press bureau there, he once said, to get help translating the menu in a nearby restaurant.

He was asked if he could type, and when he said yes, he was hired on the spot, as his new boss yelled, "The Luftwaffe is bombing Warsaw!"

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