With the invasion of Normandy, the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, the triumph of the first moon landing and the nightly drama of the Vietnam conflict, few people have been a witness to as much history as Walter Cronkite. Even fewer people have had his gift to eloquently convey historic events in a manner that made his audience feel as if they were not merely spectators, they were participants. In a 1994 issue of Naval History Magazine, the Naval Institute was fortunate to have Cronkite share some of the most memorable experiences from his storied career. In addition to discussing his early days as a navy correspondent, Cronkite was kind enough to mention that one of his favorite segments from the award winning program “The 20th Century” was originally inspired by an article in Proceedings Magazine.
Major General, USMC (Ret.)
U. S. Naval Institute CEO
The retired anchor of “The CBS Evening News” recently told Naval History editor Fred. L. Schultz that World War II was much different from the other wars he covered in his long news career. Unlike some subsequent conflicts, in World War II the American public never questioned “the nature of the enemy or the necessity of the fight,” he said.
A former naval correspondent for the United Press, he accepted a late offer to join the Army’s Eighth Air Force for the Normandy Invasion. Minutes before the attack 50 years ago, Cronkite watched the drama unfold from a B-17 Flying Fortress. At age 28, he quickly had become a veteran reporter and quite proficient in his craft. Of a bombing raid over Wilhelmshaven in February 1943, he wrote that it was “an assignment to hell – a hell 26,000 feet above earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting gunfire, of crippled Fortresses and burning German fighter planes, of parachuting men and others not so lucky.”
Cronkite won the George Foster Peabody Award in 1962 for his news reporting and for his popular series, “The Twentieth Century,” but he is probably best remembered for his coverage of the space program and for his sometimes controversial reporting on the Vietnam War. His grave television announcement of President John F. Kennedy’s death left an indelible image in the memories of many.
Today, Cronkite has an office at CBS in New York and maintains a busy schedule of interviews, narrations, and a Discovery Channel series, “The Cronkite Report.”
Naval History: I understand you were a Navy correspondent early in World War II. How did that come about?
Cronkite: I think I was one of the first correspondents accredited after Pearl Harbor. I was with the United Press in Kansas City when they brought me to New York and sent me down to the Navy office at 90 Church Street to be accredited.
In about March 1942 I went out on my first convoy – at that time the biggest, fastest convoy that had ever been put together. It was a huge assemblage of all the former passenger queens that took the nucleus of the Eighth Air Force overseas. It included a battleship and a cruiser-destroyer escort force and steamed at 15 to 17 knots, which was much faster than any of the others at the time. All the ships were over 20,000 tons.
On the trip over, to Greenock, Scotland, we had a couple of alarms but no actual attacks. The destroyers went chasing off after various pips that came over their sonar, but we never experienced any attacks. We had one problem with an old Dutch ship. She was an old three-stacker that couldn’t keep up. She was making smoke every day, and that created a lot of problems for Commodore [C. F.] Bryant.
The Manhattan burned on that return trip. She had an accidental fire on board. Fortunately, she had not been sabotaged as first feared. She was bringing back some casuals, Americans who had been working in Ireland establishing bases at Londonderry. That was quite a dramatic naval story. The Brooklyn put her nose right up against the burning Manhattan to take off the passengers. It was a remarkable feat. I was the only correspondent around, so I had a nice scoop on that story.
Naval History: How did a naval correspondent manage to see the Normandy Invasion from the air?
Cronkite: Well, I did not have a reportorial assignment. I was going to write the lead story at the UP office in London. It was a kind of compliment to get that assignment, but on the other hand, I was torn in my emotions. Obviously, it would be a lot safer in London than on the beaches, but I did want to be in on the action. I was disappointed not to get an active assignment on that historic day.
But in the middle of the night, around 1:30 in the morning, a dear friend, Hal Leyshon, who was a public relations captain in the Eighth Air Force, appeared suddenly at my door. He was an old poker-playing, drinking buddy of mine, a former advertising man from New York. Many nights he’d appeared at my door at 1:30, but not in the sober condition he was this night.
He was very formal about it all, and said in somber tones unlike him, “Is there anyone here besides you?” I don’t know who he thought might have been there, but he came in after I assured him there was no one else. He looked in my closet, under my bed, and in the other room. I was a little offended at his inspection I was getting after saying nobody was there. Then he said, “I’ve got to swear you to secrecy before I tell you anything else.”
Of course, we had been expecting D-Day at any time. Our correspondents who were to accompany the troops and the ships had been disappearing one-by-one for almost a month, as the military tried to cover up what day D-Day would be. They didn’t want the correspondents all leaving town at the same time.
We knew it was coming, so I knew as soon as he started that pledge-to-secrecy business that this had to be something about D-Day and that it might even be that day.
The Eighth Air Force had not been planned to take correspondents on whatever its D-Day air missions might be, but when it learned that some of its planes would be bombing right behind the beaches, it was decided at the last minute that a pool correspondent representing all of the press should go. Of those correspondents qualified for high-altitude flight, I had won the secret draw.
By good luck, I was assigned to the 303d Bomb Group, with whom I had flown on the first mission to Germany and whose activities I had covered for some time.
All this Hal didn’t tell me until we were in his military car on the way to the base, safely away from listening devices or prying ears. All I knew there in the apartment was that the assignment would be dangerous, but the Eighth Air Forces thought the story would be worth the risk. Although I would be going against my UP D-Day assignment, I didn’t hesitate to grab the chance at least to have a look at the action, if I couldn’t be on the beach itself.
As we drive toward the base, Hal also helped relieve me of any concern I had about UP reaction. I would be back, he said, perhaps even before the first stories were getting back from the beaches, and I probably would have, for a palpitating public, the first eyewitness story of the invasion.
It didn’t turn out quite that way. I didn’t get back from our mission until almost noon, and by that time, thanks to superb military communication – particularly by the Navy – the first dispatches from the newsmen on the ships and on the beaches were coming back.
And worse, the cloud cover was so heavy that my view of the beach had been, for the most part, obscured. I did get a look at the huge armada of forces, an incredible assembly that spread as far as we could see through the clouds. Up and down the coast were battleships and cruisers firing their big guns and landing craft assembling for the attack.
The last I saw before the clouds became impenetrable were landing craft just leaving their ships to head for the beach. But I never got a good look at the beach itself. With pathfinder aircraft accompaniment, some of the Allied air armada, including other squadrons of the 303d, were able to bomb through the clouds. Our squadron, however, was told to bomb only if we practically could see the expressions on the German faces. We were to take no chance on bombing targets of opportunity or jettisoning our bombs. Our crew was too uncertain as to where our ground forces might be by the time of the bombardment.
Led by Capitan Lew Lyle, who later became a major general, we went in at around 15,000 feet, a comparatively low level for heavy bombers. With our bombs armed and ready, the flight – in close formation through heavy cloud layers – was a hair-raising experience.
Our target was shrouded under a solid blanket of cloud. The bomb bay doors were slammed shut. Lyle hoped to make another pass, playing on the small possibility that an opening would appear in the infernal clouds.
The clouds were so thick with aircraft, however, that he was forced to stick to the highly detailed flight plan dictated at the morning briefing. There literally was no way to get back into the queue of planes thundering toward their targets at every level in and above those clouds.
Then, we did the almost unthinkable. We returned to base in England with our bombs still on board. Despite terrible visibility in intensifying fog, we wended our way through the traffic jam of bombers coming and going and landed without incident. But the exercise with that load of explosives was no picnic. With the light flak and absence of enemy fighters, there were no battle casualties.
Perhaps the greatest danger I faced was returning to my office, where my boss unleashed his fury before I had a chance to explain my mission. My story, competing with those of our valiant colleagues on the beaches, understandably saw light of day in few newspapers.
Naval History: A lot of people, even in high school and college history classes, forget that the Navy was even involved in the various amphibious landings of World War II. Why do you think that might be?
Cronkite: Though this isn’t necessarily the most popular line to take with the Navy, the Coast Guard is the service that never got much credit, and it was very heavily involved. But you’re right. The Navy doesn’t get enough mention. The reason at Normandy was that the great sea battle aspect was missing. There were no enemy ships among the fleet. There were no Trafalgars, no great fleet actions to dramatize.
And the major feat was getting to the beach. The Navy provided that transport and lost a heck of a lot of people in landing craft that were scuttled and shot up. But I think it was not unnatural of the press to concentrate on the men ashore, the push against the Germans, forcing them off the beach. Naval gunfire, of course, played a major role, too. Artillery never gets much credit, nor do the transport troops. The Navy was both transport and artillery at Normandy.
Naval History: Your friend and colleague Andy Rooney participated recently in a seminar cosponsored by the McCormick Tribune Foundation and the Naval Institute. In a speech there, he said he wishes we could come up with something besides a war to rally the American people as World War II did. Do you think anything will ever come along that will get everyone that excited again?
Cronkite: Oh, not to that degree. This was four years of concentrated effort against great odds at first, with a serious danger of failure that people knew existed, despite all the morale-building and drum-beating.
It took us a couple of tough years before we were able to get to the beaches of Normandy and put the German war machine to rout. For two-and-a-half years, from December 1941 to June 1944, we suffered several setbacks. The German invention of the V1 and then the V2 rockets was especially troubling. Fortunately, they were able to launch those only at the end, as a last gasp. But if they would have had those just a few months earlier, it might have made some difference in the outcome of the war.
So we weren’t out of the woods for a long time, and the fact that we were in an all-out battle for the survival of our system rallied people more than anything else could.
Of course, the next great thing aside from World War II was the space program, which was a peaceful effort, but it had an underlying element for world dominance that united the American people.
Naval History: The press played a major role in rallying people during both World War II and the space program. Would you say it also played a role in reversing that feeling during the Vietnam War?
Cronkite: The situations were vastly different, so vastly different that I think the comparison is an invidious one, really. In World War II there was no question of the nature of the enemy or the necessity of the fight. In Vietnam, there was considerable doubt – reasonable, rational doubt that we should be there.
Our presence in Vietnam was an option, not a necessity being forced upon us by enemy action. After all, by December 1941 we were still dragging our feet about being part of World War II. And we probably would have dragged our feet right on through, if the enemy had not offended us, endangered us, attacked us, threatened to invade us.
That was not the case in Vietnam.
Naval History: I’m sure you know that Peter Braestrup, in his book Big Story (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), criticized television news pretty strongly, as opposed to print journalism. To what do you attribute that criticism?
Cronkite: You mean in the Vietnam War coverage?
Naval History: Yes.
Cronkite: I’m not an enthusiast for Braestrup’s book for several reasons.
Naval History: I’m sure you’re not.
Cronkite: I think he misses a point. It seems to me that if the people of the United States are willing to vote and to support sending their young people – now women as well as men – into combat, they should be willing to look at what combat really is.
If they are unwilling to sit in their living rooms and see what the troops – the troops they sent to fight – are up against, they are somehow playing the coward themselves. And that is beyond anything I’d like to contemplate. I don’t think that’s what we Americans are.
Now then, does it affect the politics of conducting a war? Of course it does. But that’s for the good. It is well that we all are aware of what war really is – what it means – before we commit to it.
I do not say that we idly commit to war. I don’t think we do. I think those who are involved in policy making are rational people, and have been in most cases, but they might be a little bit wrong-headed sometimes in thinking that the expenditure of a few lives can save many. Maybe they’d better think about how many would be expended in the worst-case scenario before they get us involved.
Naval History: You said “show people what war is.” Is that the reason Braestrup criticized broadcast over print coverage? As a print journalist himself, he says they got it right, and you guys got it wrong, essentially.
Cronkite: Well, I disagree with that.
Naval History: He referred to you and Frank Magee of NBC, in particular.
Cronkite: He was talking mostly about my summary after Tet. That is the only editorial I’ve ever done on the air, other than those in defense of freedom of the press itself.
No, I don’t think I had it wrong. Admittedly, it would appear that later evidence contained in North Vietnam – now that the North Vietnamese generals have talked about the war – shows that they had suffered severely and were not capable of mounting another offensive of that nature. While that would seem to indicate that Braestrup and other critics have it right, that I was signing off a little early, it ignores the fact that General Westmoreland was asking for something over 300,000 more men in order to put a finish to the war.
Well, we’d been hearing about this escalation of forces from the time we first sent troops under President Kennedy to help instruct the South Vietnamese Army. Our people were there only for purposes of instruction, originally. From that we’d escalated into this terrible mauling that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army planned for us. I can’t see that we were wrong in reporting about that. If Westmoreland needed that many men to build his forces for an all-out attack on the enemy, then we were promised only another massive escalation in the face of crumbling support from an increasingly divided home front.
Naval History: Some reporters have complained about Desert Storm, about limited access and censorship. And some military people have complained about instant satellite television transmission. What would you say can be done to improve military and media relations?
Cronkite: I think the way the military handled the press in the Persian Gulf was a miscarriage of the democratic process. I think it was a frightful commission against the American people not to let them know what their troops were doing in combat. We send them there. They’re our boys and our girls, and it’s our war. And we’d better know about what they’re doing – in intimate detail.
I’m not against censorship. I’m for it. I believe in censorship. Some of those in my own profession who demand live coverage from the front are simply, incredibly unrealistic. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. It shouldn’t be done. There should be no live coverage. But we should have cameras at the front recording what goes on. Then the film or the tape can pass through censors before being released. There are military secrets, clearly, and the security of our forces is the first consideration. That security should never be placed second to anything, including freedom of the press.
But you can have both, as proved in World War II. We were permitted at the front. We were aided in getting to the front in nearly every case except the most highly secret, small-unit operations. We were there, and history was recorded.
But there is no freely acquired history of the Persian Gulf War, because we weren’t there. It’s history as vetted by the military. And that’s not adequate, not good enough. They’ve got a special interest. So I’m indignant about it.
Naval History: It sounds that way.
Cronkite: But for good military and media relations, the essential is to understand on both sides the nature of the mission. If you understand the mission of the other guy, you’ve got to be sympathetic to his problems and the importance of his mission.
The military simply must realize that it is an army of a democratic nation, and a democracy demands that the people know so they can support our military actions. The public needs to know the rationale of a military action as nearly as it can be interpreted by good reporters. But there are some terrible ones. Believe me, I’m not one to defend all war reporting from the Persian Gulf or anywhere else, including World War II. An awful lot of bad reporters get out there, just like some people are promoted to lieutenancies who should not be leading troops. It happens on both sides, and we ought to understand that. Both will make mistakes.
I’ll tell you, a lot of war correspondents who wear that battle patch never leave the base command quarters. And a lot of soldiers never leave headquarters but still wear the ribbons they’re after. They’re heroes of the war who never heard a shot fired in anger. And a lot of correspondents are in the same category.
But the guys on the line or on board the ships have a great appreciation for each other – the correspondents for the troops and vice versa. Boy, there’s an appreciation. They’re in the thing together, and they understand. What it takes to understand security is to be out there with the troops. Then the correspondents want a lot of security, for obvious reasons. By the same token, those guys on the front line or in the ships want to be recognized. And they are the first to appreciate the correspondent, even as a correspondent appreciates what the grunt goes through in the dugout by being with him.
The grunts also appreciate that those correspondents are there voluntarily. I don’t know how many times I was asked during the various wars I covered, “What in the hell are you doing here? Do you have to be here? Did anybody send you here?” I would say, “Well, my office asked me if I’d come.” And they then asked, “And you accepted that? You went?” They had a great appreciation for the fact that we were up there doing the job.
So the problem is not with the troops or the correspondents in the field. It’s with the headquarters, perhaps of both. I think it’s as much fault of the networks to talk about live battlefield television coverage as I think it’s a terrible mistake for the military to prohibit cameras at the front because somehow or other our security is going to be violated. The cameras can go without satellite dishes. So there’s no reason why the war should not be recorded.
Naval History: What do you think of the information superhighway we’re hearing so much about? It seems to me that the urge and the demand for real-time transmissions are only going to get worse.
Cronkite: Well, the capabilities will be even more of a problem. You know, there will be a day in the not-too-distant future, when the satellite transmitter will fit right on the camera. But we can require that cameras going to the front line are not so equipped. I don’t think that’s so difficult to do. I can’t imagine fighting a war, under present circumstances at least, with live television coverage at the front. For one thing, the transmission could presumably be captured from the satellite by the general or the major sitting 500 yards away on the other side of the line. How can you show the deployment of troops and expect the enemy to be blind to what you’re covering? The last I heard, the television industry was still making that demand of the military, that we have that privilege. I think that’s a ridiculous request.
Naval History: We’ll wrap up with something fun. What would you say has been the most significant event that you covered as a news reporter?
Cronkite: I don’t think there’s any question about it – landing a man on the moon. Of course, as a reporter I’ve covered the wars. And those were significant events. The assassination of President Kennedy was a significant event. There were a lot of them. But for real, true historical significance, man landing on the moon is going to be the most important date in 20th century history. All the other things we’re talking about today, in the history books 500 years from now will be mere asterisks, compared to the moon landing.
When we think back 500 years now, we think of Columbus landing in 1492. But a lot of other important things happened in the 15th century – a renaissance, a black plague, an inquisition. But do you remember any of those dates? Can you even cite the events? The Columbus landing in 1492 is a different story, and the moon landing will be similar in stature.
Naval History: We understand you are writing your autobiography. How is it progressing?
Cronkite: Don’t ask. I do this instead of writing my own book.
Cronkite Cites Proceedings
After our formal interview, Mr. Cronkite related the following bonus anecdote:
You know, the Naval Institute Proceedings was a tipoff to one of the best shows we ever had on “The Twentieth Century.” We took the man who spied on Pearl Harbor for his first and only trip back to Pearl Harbor. And we barely got him out of town before the lynching.
We were trying to keep his visit secret. He was inclined to have a drink or two and got into a Japanese bar, where the local clientele found out who he was. Word spread to the newspaper, and we had to spirit him on a plane and get him out of town.
A Marine lieutenant colonel tracked him down and was interested in just whatever happened to the guy. He found him in a successful fuel oil business in Hokkaido in northern Japan. Then the colonel wrote a piece about him. Nobody else picked it up, except a bright-eyed guy who worked for us. He brought the clipping from Proceedings, and we went right to Japan.
At first the fellow said he wasn’t going back to Pearl Harbor. He spoke virtually no English, but we finally persuaded him and got him to come. He was curious enough, so we played on his curiosity and promised him that he wouldn’t run into trouble.
And he was wonderful.
Golly, it’s been 30 years since we did that. It was remarkable. The Navy actually loaned us a boat, and we went out and he identified the ships. We took him up to the tea house where he had spied on the Pacific Fleet.
He was sent over allegedly as an assistant to the Japanese consul in Honolulu. That was his cover. He had attended the naval command school, was a trained intelligence officer, and he was to spy on the ship movements out of Pearl Harbor. Well, he tried to get a job at the Navy yard, but failed because he didn’t speak any English, among a few other problems.
So he was desperate. What was he going to do? Then he went one day to a Japanese tea house up in the hills overlooking Pearl Harbor. As he sat there drinking tea, he realized he was looking right down on Pearl Harbor. He said he could read hull numbers without binoculars. And he said to himself, “This is the best possible view.” He went up to that tea house every day, sat there all afternoon, and observed what ships were in and what ships were out. Of course, we made the great mistake of being in a routine. It was absolutely hidebound. Our ships went out on Monday and came back on Friday, and he recorded the numbers and where they were docked. That was the way he spied on Pearl Harbor. There was no undercover work. Anybody could have done it.
Naval History Magazine, May/June 1994 Volume 8 Number 3