D-Day: from the war front
KEN Crawford of Newsweek and I hired a room in London that summer 40 years ago and waited for D-Day, which finally came June 6, 1944. In order to fool the Germans the authorities collected hundreds of journalists for fake invasions and we would dash off to various ports in England. One time we went to the home of Daphne du Maurier and I still remember the splendid magnolias. There was never any doubt that the invasion was coming, the secret was where. Elaborate deceptions were practiced. The enemy never guessed the actual place in Normandy; they thought it would be farther north.Skip to next paragraph
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Reporters were allocated to different tasks. I was assigned to the heavy cruiser Quincy, Captain Drury commanding, with a crew of 1,500, mostly from Boston. Ken Crawford was assigned to one of the assault units. He was supposed to stay aboard a landing craft and watch the invaders while I was in a big ship trying to compose a newspaper story amid the slam-banging of guns and a purser's cabin that shed a few rivets after each salvo. Crawford jumped overboard, immediately hit a pothole over his head, and came up without most of his gear. Hemingway called him the bravest man he knew. He scrambled ahead amid surge and billows of icy water and wrote what I think was the best eyewitness story of the day. (I have it before me now, published in Newsweek June 19, 1944.)
Reporters' problems were a little different from those of the invaders. We had to see what was happening, turn it into narrative, get it back to London and through the censors, and get it to our editors.
Frightened? I was scared; but the occupational anxiety was whether I could make the deadline on a newspaper 3,000 miles away. Some 150,000 troops were put on Normandy that first day (half teen-agers). All we had to do was to buck the traffic tide the other way with our color pieces. Once in a lifetime. Could we do it?
I wrote, ''When we went to bed it was all quiet - not a vessel in sight in the Channel.'' When the German Army looked out the whole sea was filled, slow-moving craft under its own power, other craft being towed, including the makings of a whole harbor. Amphibious tanks, airplanes and gliders overhead. The whole thing trembled in the balance for a few hours. Then we had a beachhold. ''We had done better than expected (said one account); losses did not exceed 20 percent.''
Ken's account was eyewitness: ''Down ramp! shouted the coxswain from the elevated stern. Down it came with a clank and a splash. Ahead - and it seemed at this moment miles off - stretched the sea-wall. We had all daubed our faces with commando black. I charged out with the rest, trying to look fierce and desperate , only to step into a shell hole and submerge myself in the Channel. Luckily my gear was too wet and stinking to put on so I was light enough to come up.
''The soldiers were well out of the water, carrying packs, guns, heavy mortar parts, and radio equipment by the time I made the beach. They crouched low and ran ape-like.'' He continues, ''Strangely there were no mines and no machine guns. Only artillery fire, and that directed against the boats.''
The account carries details: ''Just in front of me a shell burst in a cluster of seven men. Six crumpled . . . The seventh screamed in agonized amazement.''
So that was the situation for two journalists. Now all we had to do in our respective spheres was to get our stories back to America.
In my case I had typed my piece in sextuplicate, and the USS Quincy (conveniently running out of ammunition) dashed me across the Channel so fast that the destroyer assigned to cover us gave up in disgust.
War correspondents notoriously arrived in London from the front in jitters. The official new pickup system had collapsed. Twelve hours later I had reached Waterloo Station, found a taxi, got into the Underground hugging typewriter, steel helmet, gas mask, and loads of gear and found my precious copy, sent ahead , just going through the censor. The earlier telegraphed version had arrived at 10:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. Boston double daylight saving time). The Monitor's London bureau chief, Mallory Browne, and his valiant secretary were there in person trying to pry it loose.
The chaos of that office can hardly be told. Millions of invasion words trickled, streamed, and then cascaded in. My mood was murderous. My copy must pass the Navy, then the Army, and any part of it could be pooled for other news organizations.
I chinned myself on the lintel of the door. I waited 1 1/4 hours. It so happened that I could recognize my particular precious bundle of copy like a mother its infant. Other reporters examined it. Try to get sympathy from anybody else? Pooh! The Reuter man later on told me fragments of his masterpiece still dribbled in hours later. Mine had come to rest in a metal basket between censors. After a scene of which I am still ashamed (though not very much) I liberated it - and I made the edition. (By some means Ken got his piece in, too.)
And what did we write? Why guns, and planes and bombardment and bravery - the pitching landing barges disgorging Yanks and British and Canadians. They made D-Day a success and with Normandy the end of the war was in sight.
We did our jobs all right, didn't we, Ken?