Nieman Fellows visiting Harvard’s Memorial Church often wonder about the last name engraved on the church’s south wall, listing those who died in World War II: "John Brigham Terry, Lucius W. Nieman Fellow."
It had been a bit of a mystery to us at the foundation as well, until the fall of 2001 when Garrett M. Graff, a Harvard College senior, stopped by Lippmann House to talk about his plan to write his senior paper about John Terry. Garrett found information in the Nieman Foundation files and papers of the curator, Louis M. Lyons, in the Harvard archives.
The war years presented an interesting challenge to the young foundation. In the fall of 1942, Lyons considered whether to suspend the fellowships for the duration and sent letters to the editors of 40 major newspapers asking for their thoughts. The editors were divided, but Lyons and the university thought the arguments from those who favored continuing the program to be more compelling. One Midwestern editor wrote, "There is a vast need now for clear thinking on the problems that will come like an avalanche when the Axis powers go down."
Lyons’ recommendation to President Conant included modifications for the 1943-44 selection cycle. Candidates had to be "outside the draft in age or military availability." And their study plans should equip them "to deal with postwar problems." Lyons considered allowing women to apply, acknowledging that "women are flowing into the news offices in unprecedented numbers."
The applicant pool for the class of 1944 dropped to 70 from prewar levels of between 200 and 300. No woman was among the 11 fellows chosen. It was the first class in the six years of the Nieman program to accept reporters older than 40; the oldest was 52, and only three were younger than 38. By midyear, four fellows had left to join the war effort: one was drafted, one succumbed to pressure from his editors to return to UPI, and two joined the Office of War Information.
John Terry was born in the Philippines and graduated with honors from the University of California at Los Angeles. He worked as a reporter for the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula Herald and the Honolulu Star Bulletin before a big salary lured him into public relations work. He returned to the Star Bulletin shortly before he received a Nieman Fellowship.
Terry met the new criteria Lyons had established. He had been turned down three times for service in the Navy because of a chronic ulcer. He was 41 and had an ambitious study program that included Japanese and colonial policies, Chinese history, and the postwar administration of the 20,000-odd islands in the Pacific. His goal was to be a war correspondent.
Garrett discovered that the war complicated Terry’s study plan. Harvard’s resources on the Far East had been commanded by the Harvard School of Overseas Administration, which was being run jointly with the U.S. Army. When the Army refused to allow Terry to attend classes, Lyons found a way around that by getting an appointment for him to the teaching staff. The combination of teaching and going to class created a demanding workload for Terry and a worry for the Curator that this load might "kill him." Lyons tried to address the problem by persuading the Harvard Corporation to extend Terry’s fellowship for three months to enable him to complete his assignments.
As he left Harvard, Terry took a job with the Chicago Daily News. His first major assignment was to cover the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. On October 25, 1944, the eve of his 42nd birthday, Terry was in a press cottage with other correspondents when a Japanese plane dropped a bomb 100 feet from the building. An Associated Press reporter, Asahel "Ace" Bush, was killed. Terry and Stanley Gunn, a Fort Worth Telegram reporter, were gravely wounded.
An account of the explosion in the Chicago Sun said that "Terry kept insisting that Gunn be treated first." Newsweek quoted Terry as saying, "Take care of Ace and Gunn, I’m not so bad." Terry was transferred to a hospital ship bound for Honolulu. Early news reports said that Terry had a shattered elbow; in fact, he had suffered severe injuries to his left shoulder and arm, right arm and legs. Terry died a week later. Gunn also died from his wounds.
Word did not reach the Nieman Foundation until November 13th, when Carroll Binder, Chicago Daily News foreign editor, wired Lyons, "Deeply regret to inform you john terry died October 31 result bombing October 26th during initial assignment leyte."
Terry was the first to die among the 88 Nieman Fellows selected in the first six classes.