For the families of the thousands of men and women serving abroad, journalists’ reports from the battlefields in Iraq do more than just convey the day’s casualties and victories. As they have whenever U.S. soldiers have been involved in foreign combat over the last 200 years, journalists provide a crucial window into the unimaginable world our loved ones experience. Last Wednesday night, discussing World War II with famed reporter Walter Cronkite, I realized just how important that window is.
Often when people we love come back from something as horrible as war, the last thing they want to do is relive their experience. My grandfather, who died last year, was one of those quiet people who never wanted to discuss the atrocities of war with his grandchildren. In our family, he was held in such high regard that no one dared breech a subject he didn’t want to discuss. Since he never discussed his war experiences I was left wondering how they shaped his life.
In addition to helping discover the rocket fuel that powered the Apollo 11 mission, he was also a C-47 pilot in World War II and flew several dangerous missions.
One of these missions was flown on D-Day. Though my grandfather did not realize it until later, his personal hero Walter Cronkite was in the sky that day as well.
During his sixty-five year career, Walter Cronkite was one of the best reporters in the world. He covered almost every war since World War II and every president from Truman to Clinton.
Cronkite is famous for his unwavering ability to tell the news without involving his own personal opinions. His legendary status can be seen in one of Richard Nixon’s most famous quotes about the Vietnam War. Worried about Cronkite’s souring attitude towards the war, Nixon said, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the war.”
Within the small circle of my Southern family, Mr. Cronkite was spoken of with a great deal of respect. My grandfather loved Walter Cronkite, a news reporter who was as brave as any soldier on the front lines. My grandfather told us he had read somewhere that Cronkite was in the skies with him over Normandy.
In typical Southern fashion, this tidbit of information expanded over the decades – until at last we determined that Walter Cronkite was sitting in the back of Granddad’s C-47 with his typewriter in his lap, writing about the war even as bullets pierced the side of the aircraft.
When I discovered Mr. Cronkite was coming to town for the Simon Benson Awards, I was determined to speak to him and find the real story behind what he was doing on June 6, 1944. After many phone calls, I was granted a personal interview with Mr. Cronkite.
Sitting in Cronkite’s suite at the Benson, he seemed quite happy to reminisce with me about his recollections of the war. He told me how on D-Day he was supposed to be on the ground writing the lead story from the London office, but he inevitably found himself drawing straws with other reporters to see who would be the one to go on a mission to an undisclosed location. He drew the short straw.
Unlike the story my family and I had concocted over the years, Mr. Cronkite was not typing away in the back of granddad’s C-47, he was actually in a bomber on D-Day.
Mr. Cronkite leaned back in his chair as he told the story and said, “Although normally in a war we would just drop our bombs anywhere over enemy territory, you see, but it was terrible weather and if we dropped them, we could hit the [U.S.] paratroopers on the ground.” Amazingly, the paratroopers that prevented Cronkite’s bomber from releasing his payload – the 101st and 82nd – had been dropped off by my grandfather’s C-47.
He chuckled, “We had to fly all the way back to London with the bombs still attached to our plane.”
I will always have a great respect not only for the troops who put themselves on the line every day, but also for the reporters who risk their lives to bring the stories to us.
After our conversation, I showed Mr. Cronkite a photograph of my grandfather, on which he wrote a brief note to my mother telling her that the real hero was her dad. However, I think war reporters can be heroes, too.