REPORTING FROM THE FRONT LINES OF WWII
By Sandi Moynihan | FALL 2015
After writing one too many stories about troops who had taken off to bomb Germany never to come back, Andy Rooney, along with seven other World War II correspondents, wanted to see the action.
“We were tired of going up to those air bases and interviewing young guys our age that had lost friends in battle and returning to the comforts of London that night,” Rooney said, according to Timothy Gay’s book, “Assignment to Hell.”
So, in a bold move, the reporters requested permission to ride along on an air raid so they could write about the dangers of bombing missions through vivid, firsthand accounts.
After weeks of begging, the reporters finally got their wish and were sent to gunnery school for a week of intensive training to prepare for the assignment. Despite their noncombatant status as journalists, the military insisted the reporters, who dubbed themselves the “Writing 69th,” needed to have enough combat knowledge to be helpful in case something went wrong during the flight.
On the morning of February 26, 1943, six of the seven reporters took off for battle in their respective planes, unsure of the stories they would return with. A few hours into their mission, the Writing 69th got what they came up to see. The Luftwaffe had spotted their formation and attacked.
“We were shot at,” Rooney told On Patrol in 2011. “I was at mid-side gunner. I operated a gun even though I was a correspondent. We weren’t supposed to, but I mean I was up there, and all the other guys were shooting so I had to pay my way.”
“I fired at every German fighter that came into the neighborhood,” Walter Cronkite wrote in his 1996 book, “A Reporter’s Life.” “I don’t think I hit any, but I’d like to think I scared a couple of those German pilots.”
Their planes were damaged, but Rooney and Cronkite made it back alive. One of their colleagues wasn’t as lucky. New York Times reporter Bob Post and the B-24 bomber he was flying in were never found.
Then, more than ever, the cost of the war resonated with the reporters, who each filed reports about what Cronkite called their “assignment to hell.”
“It was a really sobering experience for all of them,” said Brian Rooney, Andy Rooney’s son, who is also a reporter. “They realized they had done the right thing by going and experiencing it firsthand but that was when they realized that they were in a war.”
Names Behind the Bylines
Over 1,600 war correspondents flocked to the European and Pacific theaters during WWII to report back to millions of Americans back home.
Some correspondents, like Associated Press reporter Daniel De Luce, were newly minted storytellers with little experience. He worked at the AP for a decade before the war, first on and off as a copyboy and later as a reporter in Europe in 1939.
De Luce wrote stories from the European, African and Russian fronts, including a 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning story about partisans in Yugoslavia.
“Gee, I was thrilled to death, it seemed so romantic,” De Luce said in Karen Rothmyer’s book, “Winning Pulitzers: The Stories Behind Some of the Best News Coverage of our Time.” “I had this idea that I wanted to go over and see what was happening.”
Other correspondents, like the United Press’ Cronkite, were experienced but relatively unknown journalists at the beginning of the war. They hoped reporting overseas would help them make a name in the business. Cronkite, who dropped out of the University of Texas for a reporting job at the Houston Post, worked a series of print and radio gigs before joining the UP in 1939. After years of begging to be sent to cover the war in Europe, he got his wish in 1942.
Far from a veteran reporter, Cronkite still started the war off with considerably more experience than Rooney, a Stars and Stripes scribe who edited his college newspaper.
Rooney attended Colgate University before enlisting as an artilleryman. After realizing he didn’t take well to taking orders, Rooney, who always considered himself a writer at heart, leapt at the opportunity to report for the newly re-launched newspaper.
“I went into the Stars and Stripes office, which was just starting in Ireland, and asked for a job,” Rooney told On Patrol. “I said I was a journalist, which I wasn’t really. I had edited my college newspaper. … But I got the job.”
Reporting from the Trenches
De Luce, Cronkite and Rooney headed overseas with little knowledge of the task that lay ahead of them. To aid their reporting, civilian and enlisted journalists were granted officer’s privileges. Civilian reporters were also issued special uniforms featuring the words “War Correspondent” on the left breast pocket and shoulder so they could blend in while reporting in the field but stand out from active-duty troops. Because the correspondents’ uniforms looked like officers’ apparel at first glance, some enlisted men would accidentally salute the journalists, who were confused by the GIs’ show of respect.
As U.S. involvement in the war deepened, the War Department began to facilitate the influx of reporters and set up press camps so reporters had a place to file stories when they came back from the field.
“The Army actually kind of accommodated the press,” Brian Rooney said. “Eisenhower had assigned some units to actually help the press set up press camps and when they moved they had help from the Army and they would establish some regional press centers to move forward. “
In some locations, particularly in North Africa, troops were even assigned to transport reporters to and from the battlefield.
The press camps made the reporters’ lives easier, but gathering news stories was still arduous.
Despite the perks, war correspondents’ jobs were still time-consuming, difficult and dangerous. Reporters, like the GIs they covered, dodged bullets, sat in trenches and flew in B-17 bombers. They watched friends die, witnessed missions fail, but still managed to keep it together and make their deadlines.
“There’s that phrase, something about a lot of monotony and then thirty seconds of sheer fright. That’s the way it was a lot of the time,” De Luce said in Rothmyer’s book.
Battling Censorship and Technology
When reporters returned to base camp, they typed up their stories on portable typewriters and sent them off to a censor for approval. Sometimes, the censors didn’t change a word. Other times, they eliminated key story details or scrapped entire articles, which lead to more than a few heated disagreements in the press camps.
“The censors killed it, cut it, or did whatever they needed to do to it,” Cronkite said in an interview with Don Carleton for the book, “Conversations with Cronkite.” “And then they sent it back out to you, whether you wanted to file it that way or not.
“We argued like fury with the censors.”
Once censors approved a story, reporters transmitted their final copy via telephone or radio to their respective outlets before heading to bed. Transmissions could be spotty and unreliable, making the process even more frustrating at times.
Cronkite experienced these difficulties when reporting from the USS Texas along the Moroccan shore in 1942. None of his story transmissions made it back to the UP. After hearing nothing from him for a few days, his colleagues and family began to fear the worst. When he eventually made his way back to New York he discovered his transmissions had never made it back. Luckily, he had carbon copies of all his overseas stories and quickly refiled them.
Despite the logistical struggles in getting them to print, Cronkite’s stories ended up being the first uncensored stories from the North African front, making him famous overnight.
Freedom to Roam and Report
Though journalists battled both technology and censors, they were mostly free to report anything they dared to get out and see.
“They let those guys do what they needed to do,” said Brian Rooney, who covered the Gulf War. “There was some censorship [in WWII], but they allowed them to be reporters.”
From the beginning, Stars and Stripes gave Andy Rooney his own jeep, which allowed him to roam and write poignant profiles on officers, GIs and everyday people at war.
“My father did a story about this touching scene about a popular officer dying,” Brian Rooney said. “And [the military] would allow that kind of stuff to be published because they had free access.”
As a similar result of this reporting freedom, De Luce was able to travel to Yugoslavia in the fall of 1943 and write his Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the group that controlled the country after Italian forces left and German forces arrived. By chance, De Luce, who was assigned to the British military, was able to get into Yugoslavia.
In the short time he was there, he managed to meet with Yugoslav partisans and gathered enough material to write five stories. His landmark reports ended up being the only verified accounts out of Yugoslavia for almost a year.
“How lucky can you get?” he said. “It was a once in a lifetime thing.”
From Correspondents to Legends
After the war, a few of the correspondents who gained fame at war went on to become journalism icons.
Cronkite worked for years at CBS as an anchor and editor, earning the reputation as the “most trusted man in America.” Rooney also made a name for himself on CBS and hosted the “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” segment on “60 Minutes” from 1964 to 2011.
De Luce, never transitioned into the broadcast world, but he reported for AP as a foreign correspondent for 17 years before ending his career with the organization as an executive in New York.
They all said their time as WWII correspondents were some of the most formative years of their lives.
“It was an exciting time,” Rooney told On Patrol. “It was a great experience and I was lucky to come through it alive.”
—Sandi Moynihan is a USO multimedia journalist. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
© Sandi Moynihan, 2017