Memorial Day tasks us with remembering. The age of the imposter demands that we forget.
Four years ago, this writer, along with R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., chronicled in a 5,000-word American Spectator piece titled “Stolen Valor: The Fake History From a Real Historian That Fooled Presidents and Publishers” the many and massive self-aggrandizing lies told by historian William Manchester. The listen-to-the-crickets reaction to the exposé indicates why people, even those in fields dedicated to the pursuit of truth, lie.
Manchester, the author of the bestselling book (The Death of a President) of 1967 as well as tremendously popular biographies of Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur, morphed from storyteller to story character over the course of his more than half-century in public life. Although he served honorably during World War II, suffering a shrapnel wound to his back, he dishonorably fabricated various war wounds, medals, and acts of heroism.
The fabrication comes in a literal sense at Wesleyan University, which stores his papers. There, one stumbles across a forged Navy Cross citation:
For extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy while serving with a Marine infantry battalion on OKINAWA SHIMA, RYUKYU ISLANDS, on 18-19 May, 1945, Sergeant MANCHESTER was leading a squad on outpost duty when confronted by an enemy counter-attack. On his own initiative, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Sergeant MANCHESTER crawled forward of his own post and single-handedly picked up an unattended machine gun. Carrying the gun in his arms, Sergeant MANCHESTER advanced, firing the weapon, breaking up the attack, destroying many of the enemy, and thereby saving a position which had been previously lost to the enemy ten (10) times.
This never happened. The manufactured document, ironically included in the archives to throw off other historians to Manchester’s deceit, includes several signs of inauthenticity. The dates listed, for instance, occurred after Sugar Loaf Hill fell to the Americans.
While Manchester called the event “the central experience of my youth” to the New York Times Magazine four decades after it happened, he never mentioned it in his largely fictitious wartime memoir, Goodbye, Darkness, in the many letters home to his mother examined by The American Spectator at the University of Massachusetts, in an application to journalism school that listed his various wartime commendations, or in listing the medals he felt he rated in a request to the military.
“I am writing in request for medals,” Manchester wrote on February 20, 1957. “I enlisted at Springfield[,] Massachusetts, on July 2, 1942 and was discharged honorably in San Diego, Calif., on October 24, 1945, with the rank of Sergeant. I served with Headquarters Company, 29th Marines, 6th Mar Div, and was wounded in action on Okinawa June 5, 1945. I have received the Purple Heart. I believe I am also entitled to the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with one star for Okinawa), and the Victory Medal World War II.”
Manchester’s papers at Wesleyan also contain a similarly suspicious commendation of “gallantry in action and extraordinary achievements” on Okinawa. “Your courage was a constant source of inspiration to your men,” the document says of the corporal combat cartographer. The commendation on new paper and including a fake Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd signature serve as comical tells of forgery.
Like a second Purple Heart and a Silver Star he boasted receiving, the military shows no record of Manchester rating these honors.
Manchester wrote that “my medical discharge papers note that, among other things, I had sustained ‘traumatic lesions of the brain.’ ” His military medical records, obtained by The American Spectator, show no such thing. He elsewhere claimed shrapnel too close to the heart to allow for removal. That shrapnel eluded the x-rays and examination administered by military doctors so thorough as to identify all of his cavity fillings. He said a Japanese soldier shot him the head but that he escaped death because of his helmet. This, too, went unnoticed in military records, in Manchester’s detailed correspondence, and in his accounts of his wartime experience previous to the claim. So, too, did enduring a bullet wound to the knee.
Late in life, Manchester told a fantastic story about surviving a bullet wound to the heart.
“As his doctors are studying X-rays of his heart, they discover a foreign object some two centimeters long in the right ventricle,” Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times in 1996. “It is a bullet. William Manchester apparently had been shot as he lay on the ground, unconscious, after being blown up on Okinawa. Memories may fade and interest may wane, but history doesn’t get more real than a bullet in the heart.”
History doesn’t get more fake than that. No such bullet existed. Like the lesions on the brain, shrapnel surrounding his heart, bullet wound to the knee, heroism on Sugar Loaf Hill, Silver Star, Navy Cross, second Purple Heart, and much else overcrowding the space constraints here, Manchester made this up.
Pointing out lies, rather than lying itself, proves the primary discomfort. For this reason, liars succeed. For this reason, media outlets largely ignored the original article this writer wrote with Bob Tyrrell, readers of Manchester complained about his posthumous negative reassessment, and Wikipedia contributors erased corrections to Manchester’s page inspired by our article. Going along with the fiction, rather than reorienting our opinion of a deluder, serves as the more comfortable option. And if the men’s Olympic decathlon champion can identify as a woman, a primetime star can portray himself as a victim, and a white Jewish professor from Kansas can impersonate a Puerto Rican from the East Harlem “barrio,” then why can’t a Marine who served in wartime identify as Chesty Puller? Upset the Land of Make Believe at your own risk.
Identity, a watchword of our times, demands we be true to ourselves even when this calls for deception toward others. William Manchester, who served honorably and wrote well, identified as a war hero. He also wrote history. An unbridgeable gap exists between the two.
One can write fables. One can write history. One cannot do both at the same time.
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