Assignment to Hell
- Timothy M. Gay
- New American Library
- 508 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Knight
- May 31, 2012
From North Africa to southern France, Homer Bigart, Walter Cronkite and other legendary correspondents spotlighted here bore witness to the fight against Nazi Germany.
Review by Robert M. Knight
The United States had been officially at war with the Nazis for 14 months when Homer Bigart of the New York Herald Tribune asked Walter Cronkite of United Press if he had thought of a “lede” (journalese for “lead”) for his story about a bombing raid he had witnessed from the belly of a B-17 Flying Fortress. According to Timothy M. Gay, Cronkite replied: “I think I’m going to say … 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. …”
Cronkite’s purple prose helped his story get huge play in the States and dominate the British tabloids. But for the next half century, Bigart and Andy Rooney of Stars and Stripes “felt obliged to give their pal unmerciful guff about it.” Purple and clichéd the quote might be, but Gay decided to use it as his title. Assignment to Hell presents the coverage of Bigart, Cronkite, Rooney, Hal Boyle of the Associated Press and A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker.
Whose hell was it, anyway? At 26,000 feet, hell can literally freeze over, but the ground below looks no more hellacious than pretty pictures of puffs from the squadrons’ bombs. Although casualty rates indicate that the greater hell was in the air, it is at ground level that war can look much more like the hellfire that a soldier might expect. Either way, Gay’s five correspondents mostly covered the ground war. From North Africa to Sicily to the Italian boot to D-Day Normandy to Belgium to Holland to southern France, they did witness the hell of war.
With its death camps, with its devastation of cities like Dresden, Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II was despicable. But at some level, the war was hard not to like. Our adrenalin flowed freely, our pride burst and Americans felt good about themselves. Unlike nearly every war we have since fought, this one was huge, its goals simpler, more clear-cut.
The Nazis and their Japanese and Italian allies were clearly evil. Journalists felt few ethical dilemmas as they helped maintain American morale. And what we now call the news media was limited to three easily defined delivery systems: newspapers, radio and magazines, as well as the wire services that supplied most of them.
Like a stock market, the less ambiguous a war is the more people are likely to invest in it.
Not that these five reporters didn’t daily fight the restrictions of a censorship system that militated against any news that might, just might, help the enemy or that might, just might, hurt home-front morale. (The relative lack of censorship in the Vietnam War has been blamed for the public’s eventual conclusion that it was a waste of American talent and treasure. The military learned its lesson. We are left even today feeling that we really don’t know what happened during the 1983 invasion of Grenada.)
But enough of the philosophy of war — Gay shares less of it than I just did. His is a proper journalistic effort to cover journalism history: If a paragraph, sentence, clause, phrase or word doesn’t move the story along, surgically remove it. Here is an example of a successful execution of the dictum that every word must count: “Straining his eyes as he peered through the binoculars, Hal Boyle could barely make out the two American soldiers tramping through the dank gloom along the swollen river. It was cold and foggy, as it had been practically every day that benighted winter. Everything around the riverbed reeked of death. … ‘Amid a deathly silence,’ Boyle watched as they ‘marched through battered no-man’s-land to the brink of the bloody Rapido River.’ ”
As a good journalistic writer, Gay does not ignore the less noble inclinations of his subjects. For example, Liebling’s “gout, his ample girth, and his thick glasses all made him look pathetic. … ” In London, he “constantly dined at an upper-crust restaurant off St. James’s called Wiltons, whose wartime prices were obscene.”
Outside the five, Gay occasionally includes a myriad of other reporters, including the iconic war correspondent of the day, Ernie Pyle: “The more Pyle saluted the brave men in foxholes, the more his editors insisted on eyewitness accounts from the front. Being in close proximity to combat scared most journalists, but it absolutely petrified Pyle.” As it turned out, though, he died in combat, on the Japanese island of Ie Jima.
Other icons get no flattery from Gay. He says Ernest Hemingway had “degenerated into a self-caricature.” He implies that Gen. Mark Clark was more concerned about how his pictures would look in the newspapers than how too much caution could, and did, sacrifice American lives. Gen. George Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery come out looking even worse than they did in the movie “Patton.”
Most Americans were born after World War II and many share the general skepticism generated by modern war. But even to these later generations, the five correspondents in Assignment to Hell must come across as flawed but genuine heroes. Bigart won the Pulitzer Prize for his later coverage of the Pacific war, “which was not nearly as gripping” as his earlier stories from Europe, Gay says. Boyle covered the Korean conflict and then Vietnam where, even drunk, he rarely missed a deadline. Gay implies that his well known drinking problem got worse as the Vietnam War got more frustrating. Like Boyle, Liebling “never did find another D-Day” and he “never got control of his gluttony, nor did he try very hard.”
By 2008, only two remained alive and in the public eye: Cronkite and Rooney. Since then, both CBS News veterans have died. But they obviously did all right.
A veteran journalist and teacher, Robert Knight is the author of the newly published Writing Public Prose: How to Write Clearly, Crisply and Concisely (Marion Street Press). He also has written a successful textbook for Marion Street Press, Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft. He lives near Gettysburg, Pa.