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Monday, February 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Noted journalist Robert St. John, 100, dies

Los Angeles Times

Robert St. John, a globe-trotting journalist who seemed to be on the scene or on the air for most of the 20th century's major news events — mobster Al Capone's grip on Chicago, the Nazi onslaught through the Balkans, the London Blitz, D-Day, the end of World War II — has died. He was 100.

Mr. St. John, who wrote more than a score of books after he was booted off the radio in the McCarthy era, died Thursday of natural causes at his home in suburban Waldorf, Md.

Among his books were three autobiographies — one aptly titled "Foreign Correspondent" — which cannot begin to cover Mr. St. John's century of living or 4 million miles of travel, observing and reporting from 88 nations.

Mr. St. John's longevity paralleled his endurance in front of a microphone. Reporting for NBC Radio in New York on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and again at war's end in August 1945, he was on the air 117 hours for one event and 72 for the other.

Fourteen months after D-Day, a war-weary U.S. clung to radios, awaiting word of Japan's surrender. Any announcement from Asia would reach St. John's New York newsroom on a wire-service Teletype machine, which had prescribed signals for major news.

The Associated Press, for example, would ring five bells before spewing out typed copy of an important story, and 10 bells for news "of transcendental importance."

On Aug. 14, stalling while talking steadily into the NBC network's open microphone, Mr. St. John heard five bells and waited only to hear a sixth bell, before announcing confidently: "Ladies and gentlemen, World War II is over. The Japanese have agreed to our surrender terms."

He had scored a 20-second scoop on other broadcasters.

Born March 9, 1902, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., Mr. St. John attended high school with Ernest Hemingway and delightedly claimed that both had been told by their English teacher: "Neither one of you will ever learn to write."

At age 16, Mr. St. John lied about his age to enlist in the Navy during World War I. On his return from France, he became the campus correspondent for The Hartford Courant while attending Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. But he was soon expelled for trying to expose the college president's censorship of an outspoken English professor.

Abandoning formal education, Mr. St. John pursued journalism as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago American. In 1923, with his brother, he co-founded the Cicero Tribune in suburban Cicero, Ill.

Mr. St. John published a series of exposés about Cicero brothels and other operations of gangster Al Capone.

One morning on his way to the office, Mr. St. John was accosted by four Capone goons and beaten. He brashly complained to the police and was invited the next day to meet Capone in person.

The gang leader offered Mr. St. John money — which he rejected — and apologized, saying he liked newsmen and considered the exposés a form of advertising.

In 1939, a friend suggested he ought to go to Europe to report on the imminent war. So Mr. St. John flew to Paris and took a train to Budapest. He went to the Associated Press bureau there, he once said, to get help translating the menu in a nearby restaurant.

He was asked if he could type, and when he said yes, he was hired on the spot, as his new boss yelled: "The Luftwaffe is bombing Warsaw!"

For two years, Mr. St. John reported from the Balkans. He fled Belgrade with other reporters when Hitler's troops overran Yugoslavia.

In the harrowing 28 days it took him to get to Cairo, Mr. St. John dodged German and Italian bullets, was wounded in the leg by shrapnel while riding in a Greek troop train and survived a perilous 400-mile journey down the Albanian coast in what he described as "a 20-foot sardine boat" with an outboard motor.

After filing dispatches from Egypt, he made his way to Cape Town, South Africa, and by ship home to New York. There he holed up in the Roosevelt Hotel and, using his two-finger typing technique and a $7 Yugoslavian typewriter he had carried all the way, wrote "what I saw and smelled and heard." The resulting book, "From the Land of Silent People" published in 1942, was his first, and a best seller.

After writing the book, Mr. St. John switched to broadcast reporting for NBC Radio, moving in 1942 to London, where he reported on the Nazi bombing of the city, and on to Washington, D.C., and then New York.

When he wrote a second book on Yugoslavia, "The Silent People Speak" in 1948, The New York Times Book Review suggested that his use of communist sources made him "a subconscious follower of the 'party line.' "

Although intimates said Mr. St. John never liked communism, he became one of 151 writers, performers, directors and others listed in the 1950 Red Channels, an American Business Consultants' report of communist influence in radio and television. NBC fired him.

Mr. St. John is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1965; and his half-brother, Richard.

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