UPI Pulitzer Prizes: The stories behind the pictures and words

By Scott T. Smith   |   Updated Nov. 7, 2016 at 8:37 AM

"Unipressers" have long been known as a tenacious bunch of tireless journalists who often made do with limited resources, keeping pace and regularly scooping their rival wire service competitors and winning top awards in journalism.

As the Pulitzer Prize marks its 100th anniversary, we honor the men and women who built UPI and made it possible for their colleagues to win journalism's highest award.

Here are the Pulitzers won by UPI staffers and several distributed by UPI to a global audience:

Russell Jones
1957 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting "For his excellent and sustained coverage of the Hungarian revolt against Communist domination, during which he worked at great personal risk within Russian-held Budapest and gave front-line eyewitness reports of the ruthless Soviet repression of the Hungarian people."
Damaged buildings, tanks and rubble on Budapest's Grand Boulevard in late 1956 are testament to the violent clashes between Soviet forces and Hungarian revolutionaries. Image courtesy FOTO:FORTEPAN / Nagy Gyula

Jones won for his dispatches from Hungary as the Soviet Union brutally crushed a student-led revolt that began in Budapest on Oct. 23, 1956. Soviet tanks entered the city the next day, battling armed protesters and elements of the Hungarian Army that had sided with the revolution for several days. Fighting largely ended Oct. 28 and a new government was formed, declaring its intent to become neutral, leave the Warsaw Pact and remove Soviet forces from the country. That fledgling democracy's days were numbered when Soviet Army invaded with a force of 17 divisions Nov. 1. By Nov. 11, the entire country was back under Soviet control, with more than 20,000 Hungarians killed or wounded, most of them civilians.

More than 120,000 refugees fled the country, hounded by Soviet troops along the way. Jones was the only American reporter remaining in Budapest during this terrifying time as the Soviets rooted out revolutionaries and insurgent holdouts. Here are some of his dispatches carried worldwide on the United Press wire service:

Reporter weeps at "murder of a people" in Hungary

Hungarians ask reporter – How do I get out?

Hungarians defy Soviet tanks in kidnap protest

Russian tanks block defiant Hungarian women

Hungarian proletarians fought the hardest


Andrew Lopez
1960 Pulitzer Prize for News Photography "For his series of four photographs of a corporal, formerly of Dictator Batista's army, who was executed by a Castro firing squad, the principal picture showing the condemned man receiving last rites."
Father Domingo Lorenzo performs last rites for Cuban Army Cpl. Jose Cipriano Rodriguez on Jan. 17, 1959. Rodriguez, who had served in Fulgencio Batista's army, was executed by firing squad after being found guilty for the deaths of two brothers. His tribunal lasted just one minute. UPI photographer Andrew Lopez won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for a series of four photos from the scene, including this one.

Lopez began working for Acme Newspix in 1942, covering the war in Europe and the Pacific, right through to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri and the U.S. occupation of Japan. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1947 for his actions to rescue 10 American war photographers wounded by German mortar fire during the siege at Saint Lo. He became a Unipresser when United Press (UP) purchased Acme and became UPI.

Andrew Lopez

His assignment in Cuba was unique in that he and other journalists were given free rein by Fidel Castro to cover what they wished. He chose to cover the retribution against members of Batista's army in tribunals held outside Havana.

One of Lopez's winning images, with original caption attached.

A naturalized American citizen born in Spain, Lopez retired from UPI in 1983.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba based in Washington, D.C., wrote this piece for UPI reflecting on the Cuban Revolution, the Castros and the ongoing hope for democracy there.


(Albert) Merriman Smith
1964 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting "For his outstanding coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy."
President Kennedy walks with UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith in the White House on May 10, 1962. UPI file

Today's news is often reported live via video, narrated as it happens. But technology used to be more of an obstacle to informing the world of major news. This is where Unipressers frequently crushed their competitors, using innovation and – sometimes – aggressive tactics to be the first to get the story out.

Longtime UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith was in a press pool vehicle (an AT&T car outfitted with a mobile radio-telephone) with two other reporters, riding through Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. They were several cars behind President John F. Kennedy's limousine when three shots rang out as the drove through in Dealey Plaza.

Inside the open-top presidential limo, Kennedy had been shot in the throat and the head, while Texas Gov. John Connally was seriously but not mortally wounded. The limousine sped to Parkland Hospital, with Smith and his two colleagues screaming at their driver to maneuver around the motorcade and follow.

(Smith recounted his experience for UPI, republished on the assassination's 50th anniversary. (Smith also recounted it for a radio report in 1964 – listen to a portion of it here).)

En route, Smith commandeered the radio phone, calling UPI's Dallas bureau with an "URGENT" report of three shots fired on the motorcade but "no casualties were reported." When they arrived at the hospital, Smith rushed to the limo and found a grisly scene with Connally, his wife and the president and Jackie Kennedy still in the limo. The first lady appeared to be whispering something into her husband's ear.

While staff sought medical help inside the hospital, Smith asked Secret Service Agent Clint Hill how badly JFK had been injured. Hill replied "He's dead, Smitty."

Merriman Smith's original UPI "FLASH," which informed the world of JFK's assassination.

Smith raced inside and found a landline phone, but he didn't get through to the Dallas bureau until his third attempt. He relayed a "FLASH" – the wire service's most urgent bulletin – reporting "Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps seriously perhaps fatally by assassins bullet." Nine minutes after Kennedy was shot, the news went out with 15 bell rings on teletype machines in newsrooms around the world. Smith's staccato dispatches were read live on television by America's preeminent television news anchor, Walter Cronkite, a former United Press reporter himself.

The president's own Secret Service said he was dead, but on such a major announcement, Smith hedged and waited for confirmation, arguing later that it was better to be correct than first. (On initial examination, a physician would report finding a heartbeat but no pulse or blood pressure. Kennedy was declared dead within 17 minutes of arriving.)

Smith raced around the hospital to find a free phone to report that the president had been pronounced dead, and then pleaded with a police officer to drive him and two other reporters to the airport, where he would fly back with Vice President Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One. He found a bank of pay phones on the runway, but all the phone circuits to the Dallas and Washington bureaus were busy. He was able to reach the New York bureau, informing the world that Johnson would take the presidential oath aboard Air Force One.

In those days, UPI and the Associated Press were bitter rivals. Smith all but destroyed his AP competitor, Jack Bell, beating him at getting the story out at every step that day, according to Unipresser Patrick J. Sloyan, who wrote about it in a 1997 issue of American Journalism Review. Something of a gun expert, Smith recognized the sounds in Dealey Plaza as gunfire, while Bell thought they were backfire from a motorcade vehicle. He also hogged the radio-telephone en route to the hospital, taking a pounding to his back from Bell, who was demanding the phone. "Smitty," who repeatedly told Bell that he was having trouble getting through, later proudly showed off the bruises to his UPI colleagues.

Smith covered the White House with distinction for United Press and UPI from FDR to Nixon, establishing the tradition of ending presidential press conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President." In addition to his Pulitzer, Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967.

Born in Savannah, Ga., in 1913, he died April 13, 1970, at his home in Washington shortly after learning his son was killed in Vietnam. By special permission because Smith never served in the military, they are buried next to each other in Section 32 of Arlington National Cemetery.


Kyoichi Sawada
1966 Pulitzer Prize for News Photography "For his combat photography of the war in Vietnam during 1965."

Kyoichi Sawada joined UPI's Tokyo bureau in 1961 and was repeatedly denied a request to transfer to Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War grew because it was an "American conflict," according to his World Press Photo bio. He used vacation time to go to Vietnam on his own in February 1965, convincing UPI to assign him to the Saigon bureau. It didn't take him long to make his mark.

UPI photographer Kyoichi Sawada poses with his Vietnam War photo "Flee to Safety" on Dec. 10, 1965, at the World Press Photo awards ceremony. Sawada won a Pulitzer Prize for News Photography for this and other war images in Vietnam. Photo courtesy Eric Koch / Anefo / Netherlands National Archives

In September 1965, Sawada captured the terror of a Vietnamese mother and her children escaping in panic across a river while U.S. planes bombed their village, suspected of harboring Viet Cong snipers targeting a U.S. Navy base in Quy Nhon. He won World Press Photo of the Year with this image, and a Pulitzer for the body of his Vietnam War combat photography in 1965. He also won an Overseas Press Club award and the US Camera Achievement Award for this image.

Sawada went on to win World Press Photo of the Year plus second place for UPI images in 1966.

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An injured North Vietnamese soldier is led from his bunker by US 1st Cavalry Division soldiers. He held up a US advance for one hour with machine gun fire from his position during the Battle of Bong Son in central Vietnam from Jan. 28-Feb. 12, 1966. This image won second place for news in the World Press Photo awards in 1966. Kyoichi Sawada/UPI | Permalink

Sawada was reassigned to UPI's Hong Kong bureau in 1968, but frequently returned as the war expanded into Laos and Cambodia. In late October 1970 as the Cambodian civil war tore the country apart, he volunteered to take UPI's new Phnom Penh bureau chief Frank Frosch to a remote Cambodian army outpost. Time magazine reported their vehicle was found by Cambodian soldiers two weeks later, riddled with bullets and crashed into a tree. They had been dragged from the car, tortured and executed nearby.

Sawada was posthumously awarded the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal.


Toshio Sakai
1968 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography "For his Vietnam War combat photograph, 'Dreams of Better Times.'"
An American soldier with the First Army Division sleeps atop a sandbag bunker during a monsoon downpour following heavy Vietcong sniper and mortar fire near Phuc Vihn, South Vietnam, on June 17, 1967. Photo by Toshio Sakai/UPI

Toshio Sakai stood in the rain to photograph an exhausted soldier asleep amid a monsoon downpour on June 17, 1967. Sakai was the first photographer to win a Pulitzer in the newly created feature category, created to highlight powerful images outside the realm of "spot news" and day-to-day developments.

Pulitzer Prize-winning UPI photographer Toshio Sakai takes a break in Vietnam with the help of a makeshift cardboard sun shade. Image courtesy Pulitzer Prizes

Sakai recounts that day in Gary Haynes' book Picture This: The Inside Story and Classic Photos of UPI Newspictures. (Haynes was a longtime photographer and photo editor for UPI.)

"There was a commotion in the forest ... then all became silent. Birds stopped chirping and insects quieted. My heart was beating fast. A tense atmosphere filled the air."

Such moments were typical in Vietnam, as U.S. soldiers battled a mostly invisible enemy hidden in the dense jungle until chaos erupted with mortar and AK-47 fire. In this case, the intense fighting was literally drowned out by the heavy rain. It offered exhausted soldiers the chance to rest, if even in the most awkward positions.

"... The sleeping soldier must have dreamt of better times in his homeland. I quietly released the shutter."

UPI features this image in the photo collection "UPI's most iconic pictures of the 20th century."


John H. Blair
1978 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Spot News Photography "For a photograph of an Indianapolis broker being held hostage at gunpoint."
Anthony Kiritsis holds a sawed-off shotgun to the head of Meridien Mortgage President Richard Hall in 1977, while ranting about why it was Hall's fault that Kiritsis was behind on his loan payments. Kiritsis had wired the shotgun's barrel to Hall's neck and the trigger to his own hand to deter police from killing him. This photo, taken after a 63-hour standoff, won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize. Photo by John H. Blair/UPI

Indianapolis resident Anthony Kiritsis had taken out a $130,000 business loan, which he had used to purchase property that had dramatically increased in value. Hoping to develop the property or sell it, he fell behind in his payments and asked his mortgage broker, Richard Hall, for time to catch up, but was denied. Believing Hall was trying to foreclose on the property so he could sell it at a large profit for himself, on Feb. 8, 1977, Kiritsis went to Hall's office with a sawed-off shotgun and took him hostage. He linked a wire between Hall's neck and the shotgun's barrel, and linked the trigger to a ring on his finger to prevent being killed by police. Kiritsis then paraded Hall through Indianapolis streets en route to his apartment, at one point taking a police car, all of it broadcast on live television and in phone calls to a local radio station.

Police arranged an end to the crisis after 63 hours, and Kiritsis emerged with Hall at gunpoint and made a rambling 23-minute speech in front of press microphones and cameras, saying, among other things: "I happen to be a [expletive] pretty nice fella ... My friends would say I'm the most stable man that they know. Can you imagine what it would take to drive a man like me to do a thing like this?"

UPI freelance photographer John H. Blair was only inches away from Kiritsis during his rant, snapping the picture that won him the Pulitzer Prize as Hall closed his eyes as if preparing for the end.

Blair was nearly denied his honor, however. According to Gary Haynes in Picture This, UPI photo bureau manager Jim Schweiker also was at the scene and claimed credit for Blair's image. Haynes says Schweiker was initially awarded the Pulitzer until UPI Vice President Bill Lyons intervened, concluding that Blair had the winning shot. In addition to the Pulitzer, Blair earned $5 – UPI's freelance image rate at the time. Schweiker was invited to resign.

Confined to a mental institution until 1988 after being found not guilty by reason of insanity, Kiritsis reportedly requested a print of Blair's photo, Haynes wrote. Kiritsis would have served as little as six months in custody if he had submitted to a psychological exam. He refused and ended up serving 11 years for contempt of court. He died a free man at age 72 in 2005.


Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers
1971 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting "For their newspaper documentary on the life and death of 28-year-old revolutionary Diana Oughton: 'The Making of a Terrorist.'"
BEFORE AND AFTER: File photos of Diana Oughton in her high school years (L) and police mugshot after protests in Chicago, shortly before her violent death. UPI reporters Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers won a 1971 Pultizer Prize for their profile on the Weather Underground member. UPI file

Diana Oughton grew up among privilege and wealth with her family in tiny Dwight, Ill., southwest of Chicago, confronting a quiet inner struggle with her identity that came to a head in the socially and politically turbulent 1960s. As she went to college to study teaching and became an adult, she fled her family's largesse to take part in ever more radical protest movements.

Oughton began activism with the Students for a Democratic Society with boyfriend Bill Ayers, who co-founded the violent Weathermen/Weather Underground group. Oughton was killed on March 6, 1970. She and two other radicals were killed in Greenwich Village while Oughton and Terry Robbins assembled dynamite into pipe bombs intended for an attack on "the Establishment."

Franks and Powers joined to report Oughton's fascinating story for UPI, published in 5 parts in the Boston Globe.

Lucinda Franks (Courtesy photo)

UPI interviewed Franks to uncover the making of the story and how it was received among fellow Unipressers – some of whom struggled with the fact that a woman – and a young one – played a primary role in winning the prestigious award.


David Hume Kennerly
1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography "For his dramatic photographs of the Vietnam War in 1971."
An American GI patrols a war-torn hill in Vietnam. Winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize. Photo by David Hume Kennerly/UPI

David Hume Kennerly won the Pulitzer Prize at age 25 while shooting for UPI in Vietnam, becoming one of the youngest winners of the award. His winning image showed a U.S. soldier moving down a bomb-shattered hill in Vietnam's A Shau Valley (near Hue) in 1971. The narrow valley and surrounding mountains were a key point along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that supplied Viet Cong insurgents in South Vietnam with weapons and food.

A native of Oregon, Kennerly joined UPI's Los Angeles bureau in 1967. He worked briefly in UPI's Washington bureau before getting the assignment he wanted: a spot in UPI's Saigon bureau, where he was named Southeast Asia bureau chief. In 1972 he left UPI to work for Life magazine just before it folded. He then worked as a contractor for Time in Vietnam, returning to the United States in 1973 to work for them in Washington.

In 1974, Kennerly became chief White House photographer under President Gerald R. Ford, and went on to cover politics and elections. As a freelancer, he also has numerous corporate clients – including The Girl Scouts (his most familiar GSA pictures are on their cookie boxes).

Now living in Roseburg, Ore., Kennerly remains an active photographer, author and public speaker.


PULITZER PRIZES FOR PHOTOS DISTRIBUTED BY UPI
Yasushi Nagao
1961 Pulitzer Prize for News Photography "For his photograph, 'Tokyo Stabbing,' distributed by United Press International and widely printed in American newspapers."
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Japanese Socialist Party Chairman Inejiro Asanuma prepares for a second strike from his attacker, 17-year-old right-wing fanatic Otoya Yamaguchi, who was tackled immediately after this moment and unable to deliver another blow. The attack came during a rowdy debate on Oct. 12, 1960, in the election campaign for Japan's prime minister. Asanuma died on the way to the hospital. This image won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for News Photography, among many other awards. Photo by Yasushi Nagao/UPI | Permalink

Nagao became Japan's first-ever Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with his image of the moment a 17-year-old part-time student and right-wing fanatic assassinated Japan's Socialist Party Chairman, Inejiro Asanuma, during a rowdy prime minister campaign debate on Oct. 12, 1960.

Working for the metro Tokyo newspaper Mainichi, Nagao arrived at the event and loaded his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera with a 12-pack of film, according to an account in John Faber's Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them. He took five general view shots and three pictures of each candidate, leaving only one unexposed negative in his camera. Though 15 photographers were present in the large auditorium, Nagao was only one of three positioned for a shot immediately after the stabbing. The other two photographers missed the shot -- one was out of focus and the speaker's podium was in the way in the other. The debate and attack were carried on live television in Japan.

In addition to the Pulitzer, Nagao's image won "every top award in the United States" as well as the 1960 World Press Photo of the Year. The latter allowed Nagao to travel abroad widely, impossible for most post-war Japanese citizens at the time.


Rocco Morabito
1968 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography "For his photograph, 'The Kiss of Life.'"
Utility line worker J.D. Thompson gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to co-worker Randall Champion, who was nearly electrocuted after brushing against a power line while conducting maintenance in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1967. Thompson's effort revived him, and Rocco Morabito's photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. UPI distributed the photo worldwide. Champion had another brush with death on Sept. 9, 1991, suffering third-degree burns to his face and hands after making contact with 26,000 volts while replacing a fuse. Photo by Rocco Morabito/Jacksonville Journal/UPI

Jacksonville Journal photographer Rocco Morabito, who started working for the Journal at age 10 selling newspapers, happened to be driving by when he saw a lineman hanging limp from a power pole after being nearly electrocuted on 1967.

Morabito got his camera out and captured the the moment when J.D. Thompson climbed the pole and gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to co-worker Randall Champion, reviving him. UPI distributed the photo worldwide.

Champion had another brush with death on Sept. 9, 1991, suffering third-degree burns to his face and hands after making contact with 26,000 volts while replacing a fuse. Thompson, Champion's supervisor, reflected on the cruel turn of fate for the Orlando Sentinel.


Jahangir Razmi
1980 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography "For the photograph 'Firing Squad in Iran' that was distributed by United Press International."
Eleven alleged enemies of the Iranian revolution are executed in Sanandaj, Iran, on Aug. 27, 1979. This image was anonymously distributed by UPI and awarded the Pulitzer Prize with the name of the photographer withheld. The photographer was identified (with his permission) in 2006 as former Ettela'at photographer Jahangir Razmi. The image was taken with a Nikon FE camera and Nikkor 28mm lens using Kodak ASA 400 Tri-X film. Jahangir Razmi/UPI

This shocking photo – taken Aug. 27, 1979, showing a firing squad executing "enemies of the Islamic Revolution" – was first published within hours across the entire width on the front page of Ettela'at, Iran's oldest newspaper. It also circled the globe, distributed by UPI in the following days, just three months before 52 American diplomats and civilians were taken hostage by student radicals in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. (They would be held for 444 days.)

The Pulitzer Prize that came the following year also was awarded anonymously.

Iran was nearing the end of its relatively nonviolent revolution, overthrowing a pro-West leader and installing an Islamic theocracy. But the blood began to flow as the new government went on a brutal campaign to cement its hold on the country. The newspaper that published the photo was soon swallowed up by the new government, which imposed heavy restrictions on media. Easy to understand why the photographer's name needed to remain hidden.

A Dec. 2, 2006, Wall Street Journal story by Joshua Prager ("A Chilling Photograph's Hidden History") identified Jahangir Razmi as the photographer (with Razmi's consent). Five days later, after further investigation, the Pulitzer board announced it would recognize Razmi as the winner.

This was the first and only time the prize was awarded to an anonymous recipient.

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Jahangir Razmi in his Tehran photo studio on Dec. 4, 2006. File photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | Permalink
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