Captain Bob Sheets and his crew (their B-17 bomber was named Shoo Shoo Baby after an Andrews Sisters song) had been introduced to their visitor at the preflight briefing precisely three-and-a-half hours after midnight. They found themselves shaking hands with a stoop-shouldered twenty-seven-year-old United Press (UP) correspondent with a husky baritone, a Gable-ish mustache, and a pair of mischievous eyes that missed nothing—especially if wire service competitors were lurking. His name was Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr., and he’d spent so much time at Molesworth he considered the dingy base his second home in England.
Around airmen, Cronkite was the soul of affability, often springing for the next round of ale and offering a sympathetic ear as he scribbled their accounts of clashes with the Nazi war machine. But in the company of rivals—reporters with Associated Press (AP) and the International News Service (INS)—he could be aloof, often curt. Rats churned inside the young Cronkite; with a deadline looming, he suffered no fool gladly. Instead of sitting square to an Olivetti or a portable Hermès as he typed his dispatches, he tended to perch sideways, legs crossed, furiously puffing a pipe as his fingertips crashed over the keyboard. Literally every second counted when butting heads with the competition.
Two years into covering the war, Cronkite’s waistline was thinning almost as rapidly as his hair. He complained in letters to his wife, Betsy, that the combination of round-the-clock reporting, food rationing, and dreadful English cuisine made it tough to keep on weight. He was so haggard he looked “like hell,” he confided to Betsy. The faux officer’s uniform commissioned by the U.S. military—a dark olive suit coat with War Correspondent stitched over the left breast pocket and on the left shoulder patch—now bagged around his neck like the blazers he had once borrowed from his dad for Chi Phi fraternity dances at the University of Texas.
Cronkite may have been emaciated, but from the deft way he fastened his flak jacket and “Mae West” life preserver, then hoisted himself through Shoo Shoo Baby’s starboard-side waist hatch and wriggled past the ammunition box, the two waist-gun emplacements, the aperture to the Sperry ball-turret gunner’s post, the radar and radio compartments with their wires jutting every which way, then negotiated the narrow metal beam that spanned the bomb bay, inched past the ladder to the top-turret gunner’s perch, and—skirting the elevated cockpit—finally lowered himself into the Plexiglas nose with the bombardier and the navigator, it should have been apparent to his new friends that he was hardly a rookie.
Correspondents, especially wannabe pilot Cronkite, were in awe of flyboys: the bomber skippers who hustled the “swellingest gals”; the fighter hotshots who bragged about their duels with Luftwaffe aces over the North Sea; the bombardiers, radar technicians, radio operators, flight engineers, and navigators who, when not in their cups, would calmly dissect their planes’ performance at five miles above the earth; and, most of all, the tail-, topside-, and ball-turret gunners, the eighteen-year-old kids who stared into their beer a little too long, hands trembling as they took another gulp.
Cronkite the correspondent may have been awed, but Cronkite the human being knew enough not to get too close. Indeed, among the first things he told Harrison Salisbury when the UP senior editor (and future New York Times sage) arrived in London in early ’43 was to keep an emotional distance from the bomber boys. Too many wouldn’t be coming back—or if they did, they’d be shot up, maybe crippled for life, Cronkite warned.
Fully three-fourths of the American airmen who flew against Nazi Germany in 1943 and the first half of 1944 ended up as casualties of one kind or another, apparitions that haunted the journalists who covered East Anglia airdromes, sharing beer and small talk with doomed young men. Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, Cronkite’s friend and fellow air war writer, likened bombing missions to playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.
On that day of days, Cronkite’s Flying Fortress was one of 9,500 Allied warplanes that saw action over the Channel. During takeoff, Cronkite parked himself in the B-17’s plastic nose, the better to absorb the full adrenaline rush.
By the time Shoo Shoo Baby rumbled down Molesworth’s mucky runway, jostling its men with each bump, the sun had been up for a while. Twenty-four thousand Allied paratroopers had already hurtled into the dank gloom all over Normandy. Before long Cronkite could glimpse through the clouds the “unbelievable” spectacle of vessels steaming across the Channel—so many, he wrote, that there “didn’t seem to be room for another.” By now it was nearing 0700, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
It was D-Day.
One of the boats that Shoo Shoo Baby barreled past at sixteen thousand feet was LCI(L)-88, a Landing Craft Infantry, Large, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and carrying an elite band of Navy demolitionists. At that precise moment, LCI(L)-88 was hovering a mile or so off a beach Allied planners had christened Omaha.
Bracing themselves against choppy seas, LCI(L)-88’s officers were standing on the bridge, peering through field glasses, trying to divine how the first wave of seaborne troops—infantrymen from the U.S. Army’s Blue and Gray Division, the Twenty-ninth—was faring. From that distance it was tough to tell, but it didn’t look good. Huge plumes of smoke billowed from German artillery and 88’s, the deadly accurate antiaircraft and antitank guns. Every few seconds there was a concussive whoosh! as enemy gunners zeroed in on the boats in front of them. The splashes were getting closer and louder.
At exactly 0735—sixty-five minutes after H-Hour—LCI(L)-88’s job was to clear a path for the next wave of invaders scheduled to hit the heart of Omaha. Its mission was to deposit the expert engineers who’d been trained to dismantle the insidious obstacles that German commander Erwin Rommel had planted to repel an attack. Allied planners called that section of the beach, apparently without irony, Easy Red.
Perched next to the officers was a rotund thirty-nine-year-old writer with thick wire-rim glasses named Abbott Joseph Liebling. Liebling, scion of a wealthy New York family, owned a set of binoculars so powerful that he loaned them to the LCI(L)’s captain that morning.
The essayist was A.J. to readers of The New Yorker magazine but Joe to his friends—and in five days onboard the LCI(L), four of them spent docked at Weymouth, England, Liebling had made a lot of new friends. The Coast Guard and Navy men were tickled that an intellectual with an Ivy League pedigree could talk sports—especially prizefighting—with such relish. Liebling not only knew more about boxing than most cornermen, but loved to imitate his heroes, inducing howls as his chubby carcass pranced and jabbed, bobbed and weaved. He was also a dead-on mimic, the kind of guy who could eavesdrop on a snatch of conversation and instantly spoof both ends.
Liebling was the least pretentious-looking correspondent in the ETO. Combat reporters weren’t necessarily matinee idols, but most tried to dress the part, sporting an aviator’s scarf or a tanker’s jacket or some other item that projected a martial image. Fashion affectation, though, was lost on Liebling, whose military-issue slacks fit so loosely they flapped in the breeze. Three decades later, fellow correspondent Don Whitehead remembered that Liebling “managed to look like a large, uncomfortable sack of potatoes.”
The potato-shaped boxing aficionado had begged the Army for an invasion assignment with foot soldiers. Liebling wanted to coldcock Hitler’s Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) with his First Division pals from Tunisia—and had a personal invitation from the First’s commanding general, Clarence Huebner, to hit the beachhead at Omaha. Many of the men in the Big Red One, as the First Division was known, were native New Yorkers, ethnic guys with “Toidy-Toid Street” accents and attitudes to match—the streetwise cockiness that Liebling loved to celebrate in print.
After the Army press brass refused to honor Huebner’s proffer, Liebling accused them of perpetrating reverse snobbery. Nobody wanted to hand a plum invasion spot to some fat egghead from a snooty rag, he crabbed. But Liebling was lucky: Two old friends were handling the Navy’s invasion-day press relations. They arranged for a berth for Liebling on LCI(L)-88, one of the first large landing crafts scheduled to hit Omaha.
Liebling had no idea until he arrived at Weymouth that the boat was skippered by an acquaintance. Before the war, Coast Guard captain Henry Kilburn “Bunny” Rigg had been a prizewinning sailor; on occasion, Rigg would write up his seafaring adventures for none other than The New Yorker.
Liebling’s prewar critiques of New York’s dining scene had betrayed a weakness for the good life. He was both gourmet and gourmand, and the thin gruel of service chow took some getting used to. On his first night on LCI(L)-88, before sitting down to a repast of frankfurters and beans, Liebling made mental notes as Rigg and the commanding officer of the beach battalion rolled out a remarkably detailed map of Omaha, buttressed by reconnaissance photographs of Easy Red that showed where the Germans had dug in pillboxes and artillery guns. Rigg pointed out a blockhouse on the bluff overlooking the beach, saying they could expect menacing fire from that area.
At 0720 D-Day morning, the Coast Guard captain turned to his staff and barked, “Mister Liebling will take his station on the upper deck during action.” It was Rigg’s felicitous way of telling his friend to stay the hell out of the way. Once topside, Joe watched Rigg send the craft surging toward the buoy-marked opening “like a halfback going into a hole in the line.” After the boat sped back up, it soon encountered capsized vessels, a burning LCT (Landing Craft, Tank), and infantrymen floating in bloodied water, many with their heads submerged. Other GIs were struggling in water up to their necks. Fourteen years later, Liebling was to write of the men in the water off Easy Red: “They seemed as permanently fixed in time and space as those Marines in the statue of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.”
Tracer bullets, each with a descending arc, were zinging all around as Rigg swung LCI(L)-88 to the right. With machine gun bullets battering the boat, Liebling found himself shoulder to shoulder with a pharmacist’s mate. The two flattened their backs against the pilothouse and sucked in their guts. Artillery explosions were ripping into the water; it felt like at any second the boat would founder. Noxious smoke was everywhere; the noise was deafening.
Moments later Liebling felt the craft run aground. He craned his neck toward the bow and saw that the landing ramp somehow, miraculously, was already down; his pal, the coxswain, clad only in bathing trunks and a helmet, had leapt into the surf. In spite of the pandemonium, the Navy men were rushing forward, rifles and demolition equipment in hand. Liebling could hear an officer chanting, “Move along now! Move along!” as if, Liebling wrote, “he were unloading an excursion boat at Coney Island. But the men needed no urging; they were moving without a sign of flinching.” Much of the enemy firing, Liebling surmised, seemed to be coming from the blockhouse on the right that Rigg had singled out.
Amid the din, Liebling heard the welcome rattling of the stern anchor being dislodged. Seconds later the boat was rocked by a blast. It was a seventy-five-millimeter enemy artillery shell that tore through the bulkhead and smashed through the ramp winch, disabling it.
“Pharmacist’s mates, go forward! Somebody’s hurt!” an officer yelled. Liebling’s pilothouse pal and another medic scurried below. A Coastie came running by and screeched in Liebling’s ear: “Two casualties in bow!” By now, they had swung clear of the beach and were chugging toward deeper water. Captain Rigg almost forgot about the spider mines as he yanked his craft away from danger; the LCI(L) limped toward a designated area mid-Channel where a hospital ship awaited.
To Liebling, whose ears ached and head throbbed, it had seemed like an eternity. But LCI(L)-88 had been anchored off Easy Red for just four excruciating minutes.
As Liebling worried about which of his shipmates had been wounded, his chum and acolyte, Staff Sergeant Andrew Aitken Rooney of the military publication the Stars and Stripes, was also aboard a warship headed for Normandy. Over dinners together at Fleet Street eateries like The Lamb and Lark, the New Yorker essayist had taken a shine to the kid reporter. The cocky Rooney must have reminded Liebling of the Irish pugs he loved to watch at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. At 0739 on D-Day, though, Rooney was still closer to Britain than France. He was billeted with a Fourth Division infantry unit floating a few miles out in the Channel. The men on Rooney’s boat were scheduled to come ashore at the assault’s westernmost beach, code-named Utah, on D-Day plus four. Like his friend Cronkite, Rooney had been covering the U.S. bombing campaign against Hitler almost from its outset. A former Colgate University lineman, Rooney was a pugnacious GI who had trouble keeping his lips zipped. Before being transferred to the Stars and Stripes in the fall of ’42, his stint in the Army had been marked by one contretemps after another with higher-ups.
Upon receiving his draft notice in the summer of ’41, Rooney had been assigned to an artillery unit that was eventually sent to North Africa. Fortunately, by then he was in England carrying a steno pad, not in Tunisia hauling a howitzer.
Late in the evening of June 5, Allied planes flying wingtip to wingtip in magnificent V formations soared over Rooney’s convoy. Rooney didn’t know it, of course, but the planes were C-47 Dakota transports and gliders ferrying paratroopers of the U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions to their drop zones behind Utah Beach—the very place where Rooney and his shipmates were headed. The Army had given him his own jeep, which he spent hours weatherproofing, slapping thick grease onto its electrical connections, ignition, and generator. At the Stars and Stripes’ insistence, the jeep was being transported across the Channel, too. When Rooney hit Utah, he was determined to drive it over the dunes and into the farmland beyond. Rooney spent June 6th getting snatches of invasion news from the ship’s radio, trying to avoid getting seasick as he stared across the waves and wondered at what point on French soil he and his jeep would have to begin dodging enemy fire. He’d been in the ETO for twenty-three months and had never been near a ground fight, although he’d earned an Air Medal for flying along on five combat missions. “It’s hard to see the big picture,” he wrote, “and especially hard if you’re in the picture.”
One correspondent who thought he understood Normandy’s big picture was Rooney’s prospective jeep mate, Harold V. “Hal” Boyle, a thirty-three-year-old reporter and columnist for the Associated Press. An Irishman who under normal circumstances was witty and gregarious, on the afternoon of D-Day Boyle was the “maddest man in England,” a colleague remembered. Along with a select group of reporters that included Cronkite’s UP pal McGlincy, Boyle was supposed to be onboard a landing craft hitting Omaha Beach. Things went so rough on day one at Omaha, however, that officials kept the press contingent “sitting on their prats” in England, Boyle complained.
Boyle by then was a grizzled veteran of amphibious landings, having witnessed four of them in the Mediterranean Theater. In November of ’42, he nearly drowned in the waters off Casablanca when his craft got swamped on a coral reef. Guys in the trenches loved swapping stories with Boyle. He had an Irish bartender’s mug, an infectious smile, a big belly and a big belly laugh, pockets crammed with cheap cigars, chewing gum, and chocolate bars, and, most importantly, an omnipresent flask of rotgut that he was only too happy to share. He also knew how to deliver a profane punch line. His gift for salty language impressed even the most hard-bitten grunts. He was ruddy-faced and beefy, with a batch of brownish Hollywood hair that made him the envy of every aging correspondent in the ETO.
Boyle loved Big Red One infantrymen from the Big Apple as only a Midwesterner could, laboring to capture their banter in Leaves from a War Correspondent’s Notebook, the popular column he started in late ’42. Faithful readers of Boyle—and by June of ’44 hundreds of papers back home were running his features—knew that the First Division had saved the Allies’ bacon in Tunisia and later up the gut of Sicily.
As he listened to briefing officers describe the stiff resistance that Allied invaders were likely to encounter in Normandy, Boyle braced himself for the worst. The seaborne landings in Morocco and Sicily had been relative cakewalks. But getting off Italian beachheads at Salerno and Anzio had proven nightmarish. For weeks following the Anzio invasion, enemy tanks and artillery operated so close in the nearby hills that binoculars weren’t always needed to follow their movements.
While Boyle stewed in London on June 6, his friend Homer William Bigart, a thirty-seven-year-old correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, was doing his own stewing eight hundred miles southeast. The dogged Bigart was another veteran of the siege at Anzio. Along with other journalists who had followed the dispirited campaign of Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, Bigart was in freshly liberated Rome. At that moment the Trib reporter was trying to make sense of Clark’s curious decision to abandon pursuit of German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Army Group C, which was finally on the run after a long and bloody stalemate.
Bigart believed in covering war, a Shakespeare-loving colleague once said, “from the cannon’s mouth.” On the evening of June 4, Bigart was following forward elements of Clark’s army as they entered the Eternal City. In the rugged prose for which he was already renowned, Bigart wrote, “[It] was a moment of such wildly primitive emotion that even now, 12 hours afterward, it is impossible to write soberly of the nightmarish scene along the Via Nazionale, where jubilation gave way to frozen panic and sudden death.” Nazi commanders, in a last-ditch effort to keep the Allies from crossing the River Tiber, hurled flak wagons—lethally armed half-tracks—into Clark’s lead column, which at that instant was engulfed by delirious Romans.
“It was like a scene from the Russian revolution,” Bigart continued. “The transition from exultation to paralyzing fear was not immediate—there was that split second of astonishment when the throng merely stood agape, watching the tracers ricochet off the stone walls of the Palace of Rospigliosi.”
The next morning, it was Bigart’s turn to stand agape as the squirrelly Clark insisted on posing for photographs on Capitoline Hill instead of chasing Kesselring. When he arrived for a press conference called by his fifty-person public relations team, Clark feigned surprise that newsreel cameramen, photographers, and correspondents were waiting. For months Clark had told the press that the aim of the Italian offensive was clear: to decimate Kesselring’s forces. Now, suddenly, the campaign seemed to have a more cynical objective: to make Mark Clark a newsreel star and a hero in the pages of Life and Look. At one point during the session, Clark spread a map on an ancient balustrade and, nodding thoughtfully, pretended to point out something to his corps commanders, a couple of whom were so embarrassed they tried to avoid making eye contact.
Bigart exchanged incredulous looks with Paul Green of the Stars and Stripes, Eric Sevareid of CBS Radio, and other journalists. One correspondent, quite possibly the acerbic Bigart, notorious for his cut-through-the-crap quips, averred, “On this historic occasion, I feel like vomiting.”
On June 6 Mark Clark was still holed up in Rome, and so was the Fifth Army’s media entourage. Reporters were at the makeshift press headquarters banging out copy when word came over the radio that the Allies had finally launched the cross-Channel invasion. The correspondents threw up their hands and pulled out their cigarettes. They knew they were missing the biggest story of the war.
At roughly 0750 on D-Day, as LCI(L)-88 chugged out of range of shore guns, Joe Liebling went down to the well deck, hoping its injured seamen weren’t seriously hurt. He stumbled onto a grisly scene. Permeating everything was a “shooting-gallery” stench.
The news wasn’t good. Bloody body parts were splattered all over. Two Coasties were gravely wounded; one injured man “lay on a stretcher on deck breathing hard through his mouth,” Liebling wrote. “His face looked like a dirty drum-head: his skin was white and drawn tight over his high cheekbones. He wasn’t making much noise.”
LCI(L)-88 clung to the transport area on D-Day morning, expecting at any instant to be ordered back to Omaha. But when no instructions came, Rigg and Liebling concluded, correctly, that the boys on Easy Red and all the rest were having too tough a time.
That afternoon, Liebling spotted an undamaged can of roast beef lying on the deck. “I opened it, but I could only pick at the jellied juice, which reminded me too much of the blood I had seen that morning, and I threw the tin over the rail.”
Liebling had visited Normandy several times in his youth; he had always pictured the Channel a brilliant shade of blue. Now in his mind’s eye it would forever remain a dull and depressing gray.
Four years earlier, Liebling had fled his precious Paris just before the Nazis goose-stepped down the Champs Élysées. Liebling had long dreamed of a triumphant return. But now machine gun nests and pillboxes and Panzer tanks and half of Hitler’s Wehrmacht stood in his way.
It wasn’t enemy resistance that foiled the bombing run of Shoo Shoo Baby and its sister planes at 0715 on D-Day so much as the weather. The formation encountered only a few bursts of flak and sporadic rocket fire. But as the Flying Fortresses arrived over Normandy, gunning toward the bridge at Caen, the cloud cover suddenly thickened.
Cronkite, who’d been nervously searching for Luftwaffe fighters that never materialized, now looked toward the ground and could see nothing. Neither, staring through his bombsight, could bombardier Umphress. It was such a blackout that Bob Sheets and his copilot couldn’t see the Forts flying on either side. “Any collision,” Cronkite remembered, “would probably [have] set off a chain explosion, wiping out the squadron.”
Flying blind, the squad zoomed over what should have been Caen, but no one could tell for sure. They made a second pass, this time at a perilously low altitude, hoping there’d be a break in the clouds. There wasn’t. They had no choice but to call off the attack.
Under normal conditions the bombers would have jettisoned their packages over enemy territory, but strict orders forbade that: D-Day planners didn’t want bombs dropped anywhere near Allied paratroopers. Dumping their load over the Channel wasn’t permitted on D-Day, either: There were too many Allied planes flying at too many altitudes; accidents would have been inevitable. So the squadron had no choice but to execute a big bank, climb many thousands of feet—no easy trick in zero visibility—and return to Molesworth. All of which meant Bob Sheets’ worst nightmare: Setting down his plane on a fog-shrouded runway while armed with live ordnance. “Now, that was a hairy landing,” Cronkite recalled.
There was little time to exchange pleasantries with Shoo Shoo Baby’s crew: A quick photo was taken, then Cronkite raced back to London to file his story. His bosses at UP had been frantically searching for him, convinced, Cronkite recalled, that he’d “been up to no good in Londontown.”
“Where were you shacked up last night?!” they screeched as Cronkite rushed into the UP offices in the News of the World building on Bouverie Street off Fleet. They calmed down when Cronkite informed them his ass had been over the Channel and back in a B-17.
Cronkite had never been so disappointed, he confided a few days later to Betsy. “Why, we [Shoo Shoo Baby] didn’t even get shot at,” his letter grumbled. Not being able to drop bombs on Caen was “like taking only one drink on New Year’s Eve.”
From Assignment to Hell by Timothy M. Gay. Published by arrangement with NAL Caliber, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright Timothy M. Gay, 2012.