"If you ever have to go to war," Walter Cronkite said late in life, "don't go by glider." Gliders in wartime do not always glide the way they are supposed to, and the canvas-covered, aluminum-framed one carrying Cronkite to cover Operation Market Garden in September 1944 broke apart upon impact with the ground, tossing him and soldiers and equipment all over the landing spot in Holland.
Actually, Cronkite had "gone to war" long before that. He had come to the European Theater as a United Press correspondent in August 1942 and seen war in many of its forms, including the North Africa campaign, B-17 bombing missions and the D-Day landing.
Though to most Americans today World War II war correspondence is mainly associated with the name Ernie Pyle, there were hundreds of journalists covering various areas of the war for varying lengths of time. Five of the best and longest-serving are chronicled in Timothy M. Gay's broadly reasearched "Assignment to Hell."
Cronkite, who went on to fame as a broadcast journalist for CBS, was the longest serving. From 1942 until 1946, when he covered the Nuremberg trials, he never -- unlike the others -- got leave back to the States.
Hal Boyle, of the Associated Press, called himself "the poor man's Ernie Pyle." His columns and style of reporting on the average GI never received the acclaim that Pyle's did, but he did, like Pyle, receive a Pulitzer Prize for it.
Homer Bigart, a former Herald Tribune copyboy, overcame a stutter and a truncated education to become perhaps the most knowledgeable and respected of all war correspondents. He won two Pulitzers, the second for Korean War reportage.
Andy Rooney was an Army sergeant reporting for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Along with Cronkite and Bigart, he was one of a group of eight journalists known as the Writing 69th trained to fly on bomber missions with the 8th Air Force. (The name was a play on the Fighting 69th, nickname of New York's 69th Infantry Regiment.)
But of the five, the journalism of only one is still widely read: A.J. Liebling. His long, thoughtful, beautifully crafted pieces for The New Yorker magazine have been reprinted many times, most recently in a Library of America volume. "Cross-Channel Trip," his account of being aboard a Coast Guard landing craft on D-Day and after, is a classic of war literature.
"Assignment to Hell" (the title comes from a Cronkite remark about a bombing mission he was on) takes up all aspects of the journalists' wartime lives, from how they got assigned as correspondents to the battles and other incidents they covered. Their paths crisscrossed several times and, though they were fierce competitors on breaking news, they formed close friendships, especially Boyle and Liebling.
The five were not continually exposed to danger as soldiers and airmen were, but more than occasionally they went into harm's way to get the story. They had periods of downtime, but in general worked long, hard hours. Except for Liebling, they ground out copy daily -- though "ground out" does a disservice to the routinely good writing they produced under arduous conditions.
They were not cheerleaders. Their support of the Allied side was unquestioning, but their coverage was not. Each of them got into hot water at one time or another for asking questions or looking into matters that the brass preferred not to have raised.
All of their experiences are interesting, some fascinating, a handful well-nigh unbelievable, like Rooney's story of a B-17 top-turret gunner whose left arm was shot off and had to parachute out. Because of those dire straits he was given up for dead, but surprised everyone by turning up four months later on a Red Cross list of prisoners in Stalag 17-B.
"Assignment to Hell" is dogged by several errors (Ernie Pyle was killed not by a Japanese sniper, but a Japanese machine-gunner; Adolf Hitler committed suicide not on May 2, 1945, but April 30) and a few writing and editing slipups (the author is overfond of "ironically"). But quibbles aside, this is an informative book that shows the battlefields and stories of World War II battlefields through expert eyes.
Roger K. Miller's third book, "The Chenango Kid: A Memoir of the Fifties," has just been published.