Phillip H. Ault · 1998
Two years out of DePauw University, 23-year-old Phil Ault learned a firsthand lesson from the seat of a secondhand bike.
As he pedaled 2,200 miles across Europe in 1937, he saw signs of a Germany preparing to go to war against the world. “Heil Hitler,” earnest young men in German youth hostels yelled as they pounded fists on tables. More quietly, but just as ominously, workers in the Rhine Valley laid concrete fortifications for the Siegfried Line along the border between Germany and France.
“When I read Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ as a DePauw student in the early1930s,” Ault recalls in a summary of his career that he submitted to the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, “his [Hitler’s] boasts and threats seemed far away…. [On the bike tour] what I saw made the Hitler menace seem real. It also set the direction of my life in journalism.”
Four years after that bike trip, Ault was back in Europe, in Iceland specifically, covering for United Press the Battle of the Atlantic – “that murky, deadly battle between German submarines and Allied convoys,” he calls it.
A few months later, he covered the British-American invasion of North Africa, entering the fray side-by-side with the troops. “I waded ashore with the advance landing party near Oran, carrying my portable typewriter above my head. That was the war correspondent’s only weapon.”
Ault covered the whole of the North African campaign for UP, including such stories as the assassination of an Allied commander.
From Algiers on Christmas Eve 1942, Ault wrote:
“Adm. Jean Darlan, Allied-sponsored high commissioner of French Africa, was assassinated today. The slaying created a thorny political problem for Allied authorities eager to complete their campaign to drive the Axis from all of Africa.
“… It was not known whether the assassin was acting for Germany or Italy or whether he was a Frenchman bitter at the Allies’ selection of a former Nazi collaborationist for the civilian leadership of French Africa.”
From North Africa, Ault moved to London, another hot spot of the war. Six years earlier, on the bike trip that changed his life, Ault could not have imagined “[that] Would be sitting in the United Press bureau in London during a German bombing, writing dispatches about Allied attacks on the [Siegfried Line] fortifications.”
With two other UP correspondents, Ault also wrote the wire service’s main story about the Normandy invasion from Gen. Eisenhower’s press office in England.
Throughout his four years of war coverage, every word he wrote went through a military censor. “No stamp of approval, no story,” he recalls more than four decades later.
“Irksome as it was, most correspondents recognized the need for secrecy about troop and ship movements and operational plans – information that could assist the enemy and result in needless casualties and possible battlefield defeats.
“When censorship restrictions covered political activity under the guise of national security, as happened sometimes, the right of free speech versus censorship raised deeper questions. Usually these questions were resolved in the censors’ favor, at least temporarily. After all, they controlled the circuits.
“… Censorship in World War II grew out of a unique combination of physical and military circumstances, a distasteful restriction on freedom of speech but probably responsible for saving many lives.”
“… Our [correspondents’] problem was not with the basic concept [of censorship], but with sometimes overzealous or unqualified censors who applied their blue pencils and scissors excessively. In retrospect, these abusers of power probably acted often out off ear that they would be blamed by their superiors for letting something dangerous slip through.”
Sometimes censorship had its humorous side.
Once, a Royal Navy commander told Ault that the British were tracking the movements of the German battleship Tirpitz in occupied Norway “lest it sail out to attack convoys.” The British censor cut any mention of the ship.
“But of course the Germans know they have the Tirpitz at Tromso,” Ault told the censor. “This doesn’t tell them anything.”
“Yes, we know that,” the censor answered.
“So why not keep it in?” the correspondent asked.
The censor took a graver tone. “You see, the Germans know where the Tirpitz is, and we know where it is. But we don’t want them to know that we know where it is.”
A brush with censorship in Algiers involved Ault with another great Hoosier war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, whom Ault now joins in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
The Allies were engrossed in touchy negotiations with pro-German French officers, and Gen. Eisenhower ordered the reporters to make no mention of the political soap opera that was playing out. “We hated it,” Ault relates, “but understood what was going on.”
Pyle didn’t get the message about the order, nor did a third-level censor whole pass a column in which American soldiers talked about their relationships with French Algerian civilians.
“The column, in Ernie’s low-key personalized style,” Ault says, “contained no high-powered political revelations, but in the political news vacuum, it made headlines in the United States.”
In a flash, Ault’s editors were demanding to know why he hadn’t sent the story. Because it had been censored, that’s why.
“When Ernie arrived in Algiers a couple of days later,” Ault recalls, “he was surprised to learn what had happened. Some correspondents would have gloated over scoring a newsbeat. Not Ernie. Nice guy that he was, he apologized for causing us so much trouble with our New York bosses.”
Ault’s experience covering World War II for UP came after two years as are porter on the LaGrange (Ill.) Citizen. Then, after his European bike trip, Ault began with UP in 1938, first in Chicago and then on the foreign desk in New York. Next: Iceland, London, North Africa and back to London as bureau manager, all for United Press.
After the war, Ault returned to New York and worked six days a week from midnight to 8 a.m. as UP’s early foreign editor.
In 1948, he left wire service work behind and began a 20-year segment in newspapers. He was founding editorial director of the Los Angeles Mirror-News, then moved on to be vice president of Associated Desert Newspapers in Southern California. There, he crossed paths with Franklin D. Schurz, another press figure whom Ault now joins in the Hall of Fame. Ault moved to South Bend in 1969 as associate editor of Schurz’s Tribune, from which Ault retired 10 years later.
After writing the news for nearly two decades, Ault began writing the book about the news – and other topics. Of the 18 books Ault has authored or co-authored, one is” Introduction to Mass Communications,” which more than a million communications students worldwide have used as a text in college classrooms. The first edition of that book carries a1960 copyright. Now, Ault is at work on the 13th edition of the book, a Fortieth Anniversary Edition that will carry a year 2000 copyright.
And that’s the Phil Ault story – some of it, at least – 61 years after he took a little bike ride across Europe and began recording history, one news story at a time.