July 9, 2012 11:58:15 AM
Walter Cronkite, working for United Press, had just returned from witnessing a B-17 raid against the Nazis, and a reporter buddy wanted to know how he was going to lead his piece on it. "I think I'm going to say," he replied, "that I've just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 26,000 feet above the earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting gunfire..." The purple prose got his story highlighted in American and British papers, but for decades afterwards, his fellow reporters kidded him about his overblown words. One of them was Andy Rooney who covered the war for The Stars and Stripes: "When I want to remind Cronkite that he is a mortal man, I quote him a few sentences from his United Press story that day." Maybe the phrase is overwritten, but historian Timothy M. Gay thinks it is completely true. He has given it as the title of his book on Cronkite and Rooney, and three of their lesser-known fellows. Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle (NAL Caliber) tells how some of the glory and some of the success of the war can well be attributed to these correspondents and others who flew in the bombers, rode in the jeeps, and suffered under fire to get their reports out. They tapped out their stories on their portable typewriters, and in the mostly chronological record here of the African, Sicilian, Italian, D-Day, and German campaigns, as well as the constant bombing within England, they not only got out that famous first draft of history (one of the attractions of this book is that Gay has often quoted their work), they brought back just how hard the soldiers were working and sacrificing for the folks at home. Gay's book provides a history of the European war with the immediacy of on-site reporting.
Like the soldiers they were writing about, the reporters had bravery and they also had good humor. The band of reporters trained by the Army Air Force to fly on missions included Cronkite, Bigart, and Rooney, and they called themselves "The Writing 69th", punning on the Fighting 69th, nickname of New York's 69th Infantry Regiment and a title of a film a few years before. When Cronkite was on the USS Texas rushing west to Casablanca so he could get a story in, he was appalled that the ship was ordered to change course to return to the States; he thought his time covering the front was going to be over. But then he realized that he could claim to be the first correspondent to return from the African war zone, and he was eager to race back. The commander of the Texas wanted publicity for his ship, and arranged for Cronkite to be sent off in a biplane, fired aloft by a catapult: it was "as close to being shot out of a cannon as one could arrange without joining the circus," Cronkite said. They also appreciated the self-deprecating humor of the troops. Boyle wrote an article urging an end to Dear John letters because they were too devastating; so many GIs had been dumped, they had formed the Brush-Off Club.
There were times of jubilation as the war progressed. When the Army finally took over Fort du Roule near Cherbourg, they found an underground city stoked with food, ammunition, and supplies. Rooney was there to see that there were also thousands of cases of champagne, brandy, and more. The general on the scene threw a guard around the cache, and bumped the question of what to do with it up to Omar Bradley, who didn't like what alcohol did to soldiers, so he bumped it up to Eisenhower himself, who decided that the booze had to be divided among all the divisions that had fought the war in the area. The brands were far above the alcohol most GIs had sampled, and Rooney got hectored to help pick out the best bottles; he was a teetotaler, and was no help at all. But the New Yorker writer Liebling was a known connoisseur, and word went out for him to report to the tunnels. He "had the time of his life pointing to this case of wine and that batch of cognac." Hal Boyle wrote a story of the liberation of the hooch, and quoted a soldier who knew how powerful some of it was: "It's just bottled hangovers. If the Germans drank that stuff regularly, it is no wonder we knocked them out of Cherbourg. We call it 'Hitler Tonic.' One drink and you think you own the world."
It was not, of course, one big party. All of the correspondents got to share in the sweat, mud, and blood when they were in the middle of battle, and that's where they often found themselves. Writing about the little guy became a theme for all of them. Rooney had a little experience editing a college magazine and then writing for his brigade newsletter, but this meager journalistic history got him to The Stars and Stripes where he quickly learned how to be a reporter. His first story was a salute to some unknown grunts behind the scenes, and his lede (a word Gay often uses; it's the way journalists spell "lead") began, "The Purple Heart may never be awarded to the grease monkey in olive-drab overalls who works seven days and nights a week to keep Army wheels rolling." Less than a week later he wrote about the B-17 technicians "who often work all day in a space that would make a telephone booth look like the waiting room of Grand Central Terminal." The stories would always include the names of the GIs involved and their hometowns. Eisenhower was a big fan of the paper, and had winced when early on it was running overly enthusiastic editorials; he didn't want propaganda. The reporters might have played up the stories of the regular grunts, but of course they had to report about the war's inevitable losses. Boyle found above the D-Day beaches in Normandy the fresh grave of a young radioman, a family relative who had been directing fire when German cannon got him. Boyle was to write the sort of story that still tugs at the heart: "There was a mound of earth above his body and in it was stuck a stake bearing his 'dog tag.' And tangled in the wire which held his dog tag was a withered Normandy rose left there by French peasants who have put a flower over every one of the two thousand American graves in the cemetery."
The reporting was not always appreciated by the brass. Bigart's reports of a stalemate in Italy, for instance, riled the censors and the generals, but Gay says that Bigart, Boyle, and others were censoring themselves, and not coming close to revealing the ugly truths of the Italian campaign. Getting around the censors, or working with them, is a constant theme here. Cronkite, for instance, would ask himself about an article he was going to submit whether it contained only facts that without doubt the Germans already knew. If so, it was worth a fight with the censors, and if not, it was time to censor himself. "Censorship was bumpy, erratic, and often an embarrassment to the Four Freedoms the Americans were supposed to be defending. But, Cronkite recalled, 'it worked with considerable smoothness, despite that.'" Bigart was especially good at playing the game. He would ensure that he was the last reporter at the censor's tent, still tapping away at his story while the censor was anxious to get out and join his buddies for a beer. Bigart also had a stammer, which he would use to delay things further and to get sympathy; the technique worked repeatedly, and Bigart won his share of censorship feuds.
Rooney was one of the first to report back from a freed concentration camp. He had been skeptical about how bad such things could have been, as he remembered that the Allies in WWI had put out propaganda about phony German atrocities. He wasn't the only reporter who was a skeptic, but once he saw the camps he was ashamed to have doubted. Walking through the camp at Thekla, he saw hundreds of prisoners burned to death in a hut into which the SS guards had herded them because the Allies were approaching. He wrote powerfully about the bodies, and then about walking into the village. "The people of Thekla said that to us endlessly. 'We didn't know.' They said it until we felt like kicking them down the street and into the compound themselves. If they didn't know, which seemed impossible, they should have known."
The correspondents profiled here deliberately wanted to make journalism better, and they did. They could not have known that this sort of prose work was going to be phased out as America went into wars that were controversial and were covered by microphones and cameras rather than portable typewriters. These were young men who saw a duty to get their stories out, and often did it bravely, and knew that their bravery was small compared to that of the soldiers they were covering. Assignment to Hell is a welcome reminder of how tough the fight was, and how just. Rooney would revisit Normandy many times, and wrote of one such visit, "Even if you didn't know anyone who died, the heart knows something the brain does not - and you weep. If you think the world is selfish and rotten go to the cemetery at Colleville overlooking Omaha Beach. See what one group of men did for another on June 6, 1944."
1. Photo essay: 'Wizard of Pawz' COMMUNITY
5. Lee's thriller topic of Wednesday's Table Talk ENTERTAINMENT