Helen Kirkpatrick Milbank was a foreign war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News during World War II, from 1939 to 1947. At the time of our meeting for her oral history Helen had recently turned eighty years old and was living in a retirement community in Williamsburg, Virginia. Helen met me at the train station in Williamsburg, a tall, striking, and handsome woman whose carriage belied her years.
Helen and I held our three days of interviewing at her home at the end of a cul-de-sac, set into beautiful woods where we could see the beginnings of spring and where Helen ably identified birds feeding in the tall trees. We worked in a cozy room filled with books and where large windows opened onto a deck extending out towards the thick woods.
Before going to Williamsburg I spoke with journalists Iris Carpenter Akers, Leland Stowe, and Julia Edwards. I also spoke with Helen's good friend and fellow journalist Lael Tucker Wertenbaker and attempted to reach Ruth Cowan Nash, John Elliott, and Carroll Binder. Iris Carpenter was a war correspondent in London with Helen and remembers her as "one of the best." Lael Wertenbaker recalls that Helen was "one of the most distinguished of the women correspondents" and that it was a "marvelous time" to be a woman and to be working in Europe. Lael told me that the difficulties in being a woman correspondent were offset by the freedom and adventure of being a journalist covering the war.
During the oral history it became apparent that Lael Wertenbaker's assessment of the adventurous life of the foreign war correspondent was correct. Helen Kirkpatrick Milbank's oral history is the stuff of a grand romantic novel or a sweeping, epic movie about the war. Helen knew almost everyone in the European theatre, including Generals Eisenhower and De Gaulle, Chamberlain and Churchill, and the British royals. She traveled everywhere, sometimes under extremely dangerous conditions. While she was invited to grand balls and country estate week ends, she also often worked near the front lines where conditions were muddy, cold, and primitive. Helen was trusted as a political correspondent who had excellent sources she carefully guarded. She was much respected for her acumen in understanding political and military strategies, her ability to write extremely well, and the integrity with which she translated what she learned into superb reporting for the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service. Helen was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the French Médaille de la Reconaissance, and the U.S. Medal of Freedom.
The reader will see that Helen has a superb memory for details, dates, and names. She also remains very much interested in the history of the times in which she served as a journalist and continues to read avidly about World War II and its many facets. Helen is very much an historian in praxis, an interest she developed early on while in college. In addition, her delightful wry sense of humor enlivens an already vivid and exciting account.
Anne S. Kasper
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