WASHINGTON - Flying in bombers, ducking into foxholes and dodging bullets were everyday occurrences for many World War II correspondents, including five who later became famous and award-winning journalists.
Walter Cronkite, then of the United Press wire service; Andy Rooney, of the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes; A.J. Liebling, of the New Yorker; Homer Bigart, of the New York Herald Tribune; and Hal Boyle, of the Associated Press, were all notable war correspondents.
Timothy M. Gay wrote about their lives and what they had to go through to get their stories out to the public in his book, “Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle.”
On Tuesday, Gay, along with Walter "Chip" Cronkite III, son of longtime CBS News journalist Walter Cronkite; Tim Wendel, former Gannett/USA reporter and editor; and David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post, talked about the book at the National Press Club.
They spoke about the importance of these reporters to the war and how they affectedthe future of journalism.
“I am lucky to be paid to write something I care about as passionately as World War II journalism and to follow these five great correspondents,” Gay said.
Throughout World War II, these war correspondents put themselves in harm’s way on a day-to-day basis to cover stories first-hand.
Cronkite flew on bombing missions over Nazi Germany and was the only American correspondent to fly in a bomber over the D-Day invasion in 1944.
Rooney earned a bronze star for his coverage of the great seige at Saint-Lô in Normandy, France, after D-Day and was the first correspondent at the capture of the bridge at Remagen, Germany.
Liebling fled Hitler’s storm troopers when Germany blitzkreiged across France.
Bigart was trained by the 8th Army Airforce to fly a plane on combat missions.
And Boyle was the first American newspapermen on the scene after the massacre of unarmed G.I. prisoners at Malmedy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Whether on the front lines, in the air or at sea, war correspondents placed themselves in the line of fire to report the war to Americans.
Gay said he wants readers to understand three themes in his book.
The first is how these reporters rose to the challenge despite being “wet behind the ears” when the war began.
“There was nothing about their backgrounds that could suggest that they could cover a global conflict,” he said.
Second, he said, the reporters needed physical and mental courage to cover dead and wounded soldiers on a daily basis.
And the third theme is the legacy that these correspondents left to post-war journalism.
“These journalists made journalism an essential and an honorable profession,” Gay said.
The discussion that followed Gay’s reading focused on Cronkite and Bigart.
“One is the voice of God, and the other is a voice I wish I had as a writer. Cronkite’s voice had clarity, sensibility, sense of humor and everything about it seemed perfect,” Maraniss said. He said Bigart, who later covered wars in Korea and Vietnam, was his hero.
Wendel spoke about the group of correspondents as a whole.
“This book has taken some names that are somewhat commonplace and some other names that we may have not have heard about, but you realize the synergy and kinship between all of them,” he said.
In their later careers, Cronkite anchored “CBS Evening News” for 19 years. Rooney became part of the CBS News program “60 Minutes” for 33 years. Liebling continued to cover stories for the New Yorker until his death in 1963. Bigart went from the New York Hearld to the New York Times in 1955 and remained there until his retirement in 1972. Boyle continued to write for the Associated Press for 30 years.
“These guys came back after the war and created the greatest era of press independence and integrity in American history,” Gay said.
Reach reporter Janiece Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.