Pilot, Foreign Correspondent, Filmmaker
Book Review by Stan Walsh
They were in the air at exactly the same time – the same hour.
Young Hal McClure was on a five dollar airplane joyride looking down on neat rows of dark green orange trees in groves that then blanketed the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California.
Five time zones to the west Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Imperial Japanese Navy, broke through the clouds and looked down on the neat line of warships anchored peacefully on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.
It was December 7, 1941.
Most Americans vividly remember where they were when the iPearl attack occurred. Hal was flying.
With this memory etched in his mind Hal McClure raises the curtain on his life of Adventuring. Hal’s book is in three parts—like a script for a Three-Reel Movie— a cliffhanger filled with humor, suspense, drama and candid commentary.
REEL ONE – Flight
Hal draws upon memories of his youth. While attending Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley, California, his passion was writing. He worked on the school paper and published his own mimeographed monthly called the Pioneer Press. He even sold ads.
The school journalism class was his favorite. Jane Russell, later the actress, was also a member of the class and her tight sweaters making it difficult to concentrate on journalism. On graduation in 1939 he was awarded the English prize, a plaque and $20.
Enterprising Hal held various newspaper oriented jobs to pay for history and journalism classes at Los Angeles City College. Hal and a buddy trained for an after-college bicycle trip to Central Americabut Pearl Harbor changed the plan. Only Hal would make the trip.
On the road there were anxious moments. The war was on everybody’s mind. In a small Texas oil town; who was this stranger with a camera? They though he was a spy and threw him in jail. His “jailbird” story is a true-life situation comedy. On his release, the cops gave him a bus ticket—bought with his money—and told him to get out of town “and stay out.”
Arriving in Washington, DC, he found two jobs. In the early morning he worked at the Capital News Service and was thrilled when he first assembled all the newspapers destined for the White House. He imagined FDR poring over the newspapers.
His night job was in the circulation department of the Washington Post. He met, with awe, high profile writers and talked about cartooning with renowned editorial cartoonist, LeBaron Coakley.
Hal, a would-be cartoonist himself, was inspired to doodle scenes depicting life in the circulation department. The circulation manager saw the cartoons and said, “Not bad. But Coakley doesn’t have to worry.”And instead of firing him appointed him the Post’s first circulation-promotion manager.
He didn’t wait to be drafted, but returned to California and joined the Air Force reserve, spending most of the war as an instructor and later a flight captain on the USAF’s airline, the European Air Transport Service—EATS.
REEL TWO – Foreign Correspondent
The war is over. Hal’s priorities were: leave the flying to others, find a newspaper job and get married; in that order.
No fancy Ivy League Journalism School tainted Hal’s natural talent. Born in Indiana with curiosity and wanderlust our “Indie” Jones is a real-live “mustang” journalist. He rose through the ranks. With large gung-ho but limited experience he landed a job on the weekly Rustler-Herald in King City, Monterey County, California – John Steinbeck country.
Hal promptly phoned Dottie Millar in Illinois. She came west. The marriage lasted forty-five years. Dottie was the ideal reporter’s wife, gracious, loving, low-key and supportive. She was the light in Hal’s eye as he advanced in the supercharged world of journalism.
Small town newspaper realities are painfully apparent, long hours, low pay and multiple tasks. Hal wore many hats. During a Rodeo he carried the Rustler-Herald Speed Graphic press camera into the Rodeo ring to get an action photo. Suddenly, on a miss-cue a second bull charged in and catapulted Hal and the camera high in the air. The stadium went dead silent. Fortunately, he missed only one edition. On its front page the bull was pictured with the caption,The Bull that Lured and Cured McClure. Hal was not amused.
Moving on up, Hal’s stories from Sonora, a mining town in the Sierra’s Mother Lode, are nuggets of local lore woven with the news of the day. Hollywood came to the area to shoot High Noon. Gary Cooper’s costar, Grace Kelly, was there. She was fairly new to pictures. Hal was fairly new to daily journalism.
Hal progressed to one of the larger metropolitan dailies, San Bernardino Sun, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles in the sunshine country. You must read Hal’s coverage of the uncovered American Sunbathing Association—read nudists—convention.
He also wrote the story of the accident in which Sammy Davis Jr. lost his left eye. Time-Life occasionally called Hal to cover a story.
One day the Sun’s Managing Editor told Hal the Associated Press LA Bureau Chief called about offering Hal a job. Hal was speechless. The editor said, “I will hate to lose you but it’s a big chance.”
Hal was the new boy at the AP LA Bureau. Not long on the job a missing airliner report came in. Soon a second airliner was reported missing. Both had originated from LAX. With his flying background Hal wondered if the planes had collided. The staff jumped to the phones. The tragic midair collision over the Grand Canyon was confirmed. Hal was told to write his first Bulletin. Experienced staffers helped him all along the way. AP Beat all competitors in breaking the news. Hal got a kudo from New York.
He won a coveted $5,000 Ogden Reid Fellowship that sent him and Dottie across North Africa studying the Arab struggle for independence. It was followed by an assignment as a newsman in the New York AP bureau.
Hal’s first overseas assignment—a long-held dream—was to Southeast Asia, reporting from Singapore. One of his big stories was about the unsuccessful search to find Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, lost on an expedition to collect native art. He also accompanied Dutch soldiers in their hunt for Indonesian paratroopers and was in Vietnam before the war started. He was in the Middle East when it did.
The AP promotes and moves its troops from one hotspot to the next. It happened to Hal. Without hesitation he was winging his way to Istanbul while Dottie remained behind arranging the household move from the Far East to the exotic Bosporus.
Hal’s stories from mysterious Istanbul read like an Ian Fleming, James Bond thriller. He met Fleming while From Russia with Love was being filmed in Istanbul.
After five years of reporting Middle East tensions from Istanbul Hal recommended to New York, that his successor should move to Israel. What successor? Hal was ordered to transfer to Tel Aviv to establish the first American-staffed wire agency in Israel. Dottie smiled and said, “We’ll get a wider variety of food.” Hal added. “And decent toilet paper.”
Hal has the knack of finding the human side of big news happenings. His story of events leading up to the Six-Day War shows his understanding of religious and political complexities. He can make the absurd understandable.
His down-to-earth, man in the street, storytelling ability reminds us of another wartime correspondent of a generation ago – Ernie Pyle. We share intimate vignettes of towering figures, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.
How AP covered Pope Paul VI visit to Israel—code named “Dixie” — while in the Holy Land reads like a military campaign with Bureau Chief McClure as Generalissimo. A swarm of reporters descended on Hal with orders from New York for a running story; all of this before cellphones. They relied on ex-military walkie-talkies for minute-by-minute reporting. Hal even had an “Air Force.” He hired a small plane to fly near the border to report when the Pope’s motorcade entered Dixie. Hal’s meticulous planning resembled “Overlord” planning for Normandy two decades earlier.
After nine years of living always under the gun with the official Israeli “Disaster phone” at his bedside—plus two Israeli wars and two Cyprus conflicts—Hal was ready to move on. Today we’d call it burn-out.
It was time to say Shalom to Israel.
What does New York do with an ex-Foreign Correspondent? They give him another “Foreign” assignment across the Hudson River in New Jersey. It’s mainly a public relations job calling on AP members throughout the state.
Hal was also honored when Seton Hall University in South Orange asked him to teach Journalism 101. The students learned if they asked the right questions Hal would end up telling them one of his overseas adventures. Hal also learned teaching was hard work. One hour in the classroom required two hours at home grading papers.
REEL THREE – Travel Filmmaking
“As the ship slowly sinks in the west” was our unanimous groan when an MGM Fitzpatrick Traveltalk filled the screen at the kid’s Saturday Matinee, They were boring.
Not so the modern feature-length travel adventure programs with live narration.
Hal had met John Strong a prominent travel filmmaker in Istanbul when he was making a film about Turkey. John patiently answered Hal’s questions about the business. Now, in New Jersey, Hal attended armchair adventure film shows and met the producer-narrators. He became a fan. Still yearning to travel and to tell stories Hal resolved to join their ranks.
Here begins the saga of a one-man movie crew shooting, editing, script writing, polishing a narration and finally going on the road doing one-night stands in auditoriums across America and Canada. Hal gives a brief history of Travelogues and Burton Holmes, the man who coined the word, and tells us, since 1897, the typical scenario has included landscapes, crafts, animals and colorful sunsets. And audiences loved them.
But Hal with a literary background sensed that something else was needed.
Why not produce a travel documentary with a theme – a storyline linked to the region in which we are traveling? Being new to the field and to become known on the circuit he followed the formula: flowers, food and folk dancing. Once established he broke the mold and premiered his brand of travel film storytelling.
An early subject was Dracula – Travels in Transylvania another was Storybook England and my favorite Echo of Hoofbeats the story of present-day horsemen and ladies following the historic Pony Express route St. Joe, Missouri to Sacramento, California. It was and still is a hard ride. Hal filmed it all and we ride along without suffering saddle sores.
Hal pioneered the digital filmmaking in the travel film world—shooting with digital camcorders and projecting the resulting “film” via a digital projector. Hal’s book covers familiar ground. Perhaps for some it’s a Walter Mitty fantasy, but for others we’ll recognize similar situations and think to ourselves, “Been there, done that.” Hal’s story comes alive.
War correspondents during World War One often named soldiers in their stories from the trenches. “Mentioned in Dispatches” became a grass-roots sincere accolade more meaningful than medals. Hal uses this technique to recognize and thank folks who, along the way, helped him hone his skills in journalism and later in his second niche career in the performing arts.
Audiences and colleagues also express our appreciation.
Recently a senior editor at AP New York, Marcus Eliason, said, “When I asked Hal for a job in Tel Aviv he offered an entry-level office job. It was not my desire but he was so nice I thought it would be rude to refuse.” Marcus continued, “It was the best career decision of my life.”
We thank Hal for his decision to share with us his career of…Adventuring.