Within a decade of graduating from the University of Alaska in 1938, George Polk was a prominent international journalist working in Greece. Then someone murdered him.
The crime appeared to many as retribution for Polk’s tough reporting on Greece’s government leaders.
Today, Polk’s name stands among the greats of 20th-century journalism and graces one of the profession’s most prestigious awards.
Polk grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended the Virginia Military Institute but dropped out in his junior year, according to his younger brother, William. He returned to Texas, then moved on to California. He soon grew restless again.
“My hunch is that he thought Alaska would be so very different and such a challenge that it would throw into relief what he wanted to find out about the kind of life he might lead,” his brother said via email in January 2017. “I think it was in Alaska that he decided to become a journalist.”
After earning his English degree, Polk worked as a newspaper reporter in China and France. He joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot in early 1942.
About a year later, Polk was searching for a fellow pilot downed near the Solomon Islands, when two Japanese fighters shot up his seaplane. After escaping, Polk ditched the aircraft in the ocean. Friendly villagers fed him for a week before he flagged down a U.S. plane.
After the war, Polk became a CBS News correspondent. In 1948, he found evidence that Greece’s government leaders had stolen U.S. aid. A few days later, he was found with a bullet in his head. Two communist rebels were convicted of his murder. A third man, a fellow journalist, confessed under torture.
The case generated international publicity, multiple investigations and several books. Many authors concluded the prosecutions were shams.
Long Island University created the George Polk Awards in 1949. Winners have included not only the nation’s most prominent journalists but also local reporters, including, in 1985, Stan Jones of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
More online about George Polk:
- A 2013 National Public Radio report from contributor Joanna Kakissis in Greece
- Website of William Polk, George Polk’s brother, who became a prominent government official and scholar in Middle East studies