October 21, 2014

1944. Life as a War Correspondent in Normandy

Bill Downs on the Western Front
CBS' D-Day team of war correspondents hired by Edward R. Murrow gather in London in 1944. From left to right: Richard C. Hottelet, Gene Ryder, Bill Downs, Charles Collingwood, Charles Shaw
Bill Downs regularly wrote home to his family in Kansas City, Kansas after D-Day. He talked about his life as a war correspondent in Normandy, from the long days of monotony to the spurts of front line action while accompanying Allied troops.

The ellipses between paragraphs indicate omissions of mailing addresses and general well wishes.

July 11, 1944

Dear Folks,

I finally received a letter dated May 5 which was most welcome. I don't know what has become of the rest of the mail, but the addresses seem to have been screwed up.

. . .

I was the first correspondent into Caen, but after running the gauntlet of German mortar and shell fire, I'm giving up the idea of being first everywhere. It was pretty frightening...and you don't know how much like home a slit trench can become. Caen is, or was, a beautiful city. There are some abbeys and cathedrals dating back to the tenth century. I hope we don't have to leave a trail of such destruction and death as we go forward. However, if we have to, we have to. No city or even country should be spared in stamping out the thing against which we are fighting. But it is not a pleasant sight.

The Germans have been shooting at us all too frequently lately, so I'm taking it easy for a while. I caught a nasty head cold last week but have gotten rid of it. Otherwise, I'm in excellent health. However British field rations are a little tiring. I've eaten steak and kidney pie until I'm sick of it...and stew and army biscuits are no better. Army tea, which is the only thing to drink in this man's outfit, is something they should have left in the horse.

Ed Murrow has offered both Larry LeSueur and me spot of leave if we want to take it. I haven't made up my mind yet, but I think that I'll stick around a while. I don't want to miss anything. There is so much to tell that it is difficult to begin. Generally the routine runs like this. Up at 7:15, have breakfast and get to an 8:30 conference, then another conference an hour later. After that you know where to go on the front. So you set out about 10 AM for the sector where you think things will be happening. Then you depend on your map reading to get you there. Very often you get on the wrong road and end up dodging bullets. But when you reach your destination, you look up the senior officer who shows you Germans or whatever is happening. You talk to the soldiers and get their story. Then you dash back down to make the afternoon broadcast at 3 PM—about 8 AM your time. Then you go out again looking for a story, get back for two more conferences at 6:30 and 7:30 PM and then write your evening broadcast at 11 PM. By that time you are ready for bed. I don't get but about one drink a week these days. You're too busy to play around. However there are some likely looking prospects in Caen...and I am ready.

That's about all. I'm living in a small hotel near the press headquarters but shortly am moving to a chateau. Water and light are the chief difficulties. There are none. And laundry is something you do yourself.

All in all I'm having myself one hell of a time...so don't worry about me.

Love,

Bill
_________________________________________ 

July 19, 1944

Dear Folks,

. . .

I'm getting myself a sunburn and have that bronzed look...which for a change does not come out of a bottle. The one thing about the British army that I like most is the fact that the British post exchange system gives you one good bottle of scotch a month...and a bottle of beer. I got a fifth of Vat 69 which disappeared in two days. With the shortage of local liquor, the place is as dry as the most avid prohibitionist could want it.

As you have heard, we've made a new breakthrough eastward and southward of Caen. I saw the world's greatest air bombardment from a grandstand seat only a mile away on a hill. It was really terrific. More noise than probably ever has been created on earth before.

Everyone over here is talking the end of the war, but I'm not so optimistic. I bet £50 the other day that Hitler would not be licked by October 1st. I've been looking for a beautiful blonde refugee who would like to do my washing and generally take care of me, but no luck thus far. This woman situation over here is hopeless. But really, getting laundry done is just as bad. I wear a shirt until it almost walks off me, then I change and wash it. Takes most of my leisure hours trying to keep clean.

I'm messing with the BBC broadcasting unit; we live in a chateau of a count. The Germans were living in the same place a few months ago. The count doesn't seem to mind which. The place has gone to hell generally, but there still are traces of the old feudal grandeur which he once owned—paintings, gilt, and worn out plush carpets.

I now have a jeep of my own and a driver. The jeep is named Mary Ann. The driver, Jock, says that's because his gal is the fastest thing in Britain. I'm getting rid of the captain who is supposed to conduct me. He is more trouble than he's worth—one of the vague types which you have to wet nurse. I conduct him instead of him conducting me. Having him around here is something like the days when I used to have to look out for Bonnie—only I think she was less trouble.

I saw some German prisoners the other day in the area south of Caen—they were the worst looking group of men I have ever seen. The British have them divided into two groups: those with lice and those without. The latter are a minority. And three out of four of them looked to be about 16 or 17—kids with their cheeks still puffed out in adolescence. Most of them carry dirty pictures around with them. On the whole they are a pretty scrubby lot.

But they fight like hell, even the young ones. These kids have never known anything but Nazism, and I will say that it makes good soldiers, but nothing else absolutely. Germany is going to be one hell of a problem after the war.

Outside of the fact that I'm getting the reputation for being the worst dressed correspondent in France, there's not much news. I'm going to the American quartermaster tomorrow and make my critics ashamed of themselves.

Keep writing...maybe I'll get one of your letters some day. If you want to reach my by cable, Paul White in New York will forward it to me. Take care of yourselves.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________ 

July 25, 1944

Dear Folks,

I finally received a letter written since D-Day.

. . .

I have been writing you letters since before D-Day. I hope you have been getting them. I have no stamps over here and have just been putting them in the mail in the hope they will get there.

Nothing much going on right now, but by the time you get this there should be some more good news. We don't exactly know what to make of the Hitler crisis. It sounds almost too good to be true. We feel that Adolf probably will get by with it again. He's had almost a generation to dig himself in. He won't be easy to throw out. Anyway, no one is worried about it...these troops on this front have to be licked whether Hitler throws in the towel or not. And that's what we're doing.

The destruction from our tremendous bombing has been terrific. We've captured 2,000 prisoners after the Caen breakthrough, and a large part of it was due to the air—they were bomb happy.

I had a bath the other day—wonderful feeling. We now are living in a chateau that has a bona fide count...acres of pictures on the wall of all his ancestors, and believe it or not a picture of Ben Franklin given to a former owner of the place by Benjamin himself when he was first US minister to France. Ben sent along a letter with the portrait, but the count say that the Germans took the thing away.

I live in a third floor servant's room in the chateau and it's really not bad, except no water or lights and an anti-aircraft battery practically under my window. I share a bed with Chester Wilmot, an Australian with the BBC.

All in all it's a pleasant setup and nice to come back to after the battlefield. I still hope to get a few days off in the next week or so.

Glad to hear that I took the priority over the GOP during the convention. Makes you think, I hope. Betting over here is ten to one against Dewey. Wanta bet???

Have a late broadcast tonight. We go on the air at 1:15 AM most nights...doesn't give a hell of a lot of time for sleep if anything is happening.

Hope to get some sleep for a couple of hours so I will stop now. Keep writing...

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________ 

August 3, 1944

Dear Folks,

We've finally been having some summer weather with sun and heat and everything. Also plenty of dust that gets in your ears, eyes, hair, and even your toenails. I must have driven through 70 miles of a solid wall of dust today getting to and from the front. We've made such fast gains here the past week that it no longer is a morning's job getting a story. You have to spend all day at it.

. . .

We are now about 35 miles inland and still going...no longer a morning's job getting to the front through all this traffic. It takes all day now. Everyone is extremely optimistic here. And for the first time I share the optimism. We have a hell of a lot of fighting ahead of us, but I think we now have the enemy's number. He has taken one hell of a beating since we landed. However we have so much of everything that he hasn't got a chance, and I think he's beginning to realize it.

I'm living in the chateau still, but we are going to have to move forward if travel difficulties get any worse. We used to be able to get to the front in a half-hour—now it takes three times that long.

I went to my first party in Normandie the other night. There were British nurses and plenty of liquor so everyone had a wonderful time. Even the nurses are beginning to look good...which really does mean that I need some leave. I hope to get a few days within the next week or so...depends on how things go. I still have no desire to take leave in England. Might miss something.

We've been moving so fast lately that we actually are capturing some villages and farms that haven't been blown to hell. They are beautiful little places, and the farming country is really rich. Grows anything from grapes to wheat. The country south of here where we are fighting now looks very much like the Ozarks except not so rocky and the ground is richer. And they don't have a river here worthy of the name. They call a river what we would call a creek...still, even these streams are important because they stop tanks from getting through.

But while it is a beautiful country to look at, it is the devil to fight in. It's a sniper's paradise.

. . .

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________ 

August 11, 1944

Dear Folks,

Looks like I am going to get that few days rest. Leaving this afternoon for the unspoiled American sector in Brittany where the towns are whole, bottles are full and beds abundant. Hope to get a couple of days doing nothing during this lull before the big storm. Will tell you about it later.

Have been working with the Canadian army in the past week. They seem to have bad luck on their sector of the front. However it is the toughest sector in France and they have done exceedingly well considering.

Summer has finally shown up. Lovely August weather, hot without being stifling and blue skies and sun. Went swimming the other day for the first time in years, but I think I'll have dust in my hair from now on.

Not much to tell you about. I am doing two broadcasts a day when possible. Get up in the morning, go to corps headquarters and find out what happens...go forward from there to division HQ for a more detailed picture, then up to a brigade for more details, and then up to the front for eyewitness stuff. Get shelled or mortared frequently and have become adept at hitting the ground faster than it takes to blink an eye, but have been exceptionally lucky.

Then I come back about noon, write the morning broadcast, and go on the air at 3 PM here. Repeat the whole process in the afternoon if anything hot is developing and come back and write my evening broadcast that goes on any time between 11 PM and 1 AM from here.

So it doesn't leave much time for anything but work. I hope to be able to scrounge some brandy to bring back with us. Seems that the German Army fights on liquor...all of it confiscated for the Wehrmacht. Hope to run on to a German Army stores dump, but highly unlikely I'd think.

Got a Nazi flag as a souvenir the other day. Will bring it home. Also got some German haversacks that I needed, and some clothing for the refugees. Our refugees at our camp are looking better every day. Have a wonderful old woman who takes care of my room. She talks for hours in French; I don't understand a word and speak English to her. She doesn't understand either but we get along fine. Goes on for days. She brings flowers and thinks Americans are wonderful and I supply candy for her kids who spend their whole days shining my shoes. We may be moving our camp soon. I'll be sorry to lose her. The war is going okay. May end sooner than hoped, so keep your fingers crossed.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________

August 20, 1944

Dear Folks,

I finally got my two days leave. Went to a paradise called Mont St. Michel off the Brittany coast...fantastic place. One island used to be a monastery in the 10th century and now caters to tourists. The people were still celebrating their liberation, and champagne and wine and brandy flow like water. Wonderful food and omelettes as big as a platter.

The press gravitated to it naturally, like flies to honey. Saw a lot of the boys and met Ernest Hemingway, who is now gathering information for another book about the French underground. He is quite a character and a very nice guy. The French people treated us like kings.

It is different in the American sector than the British. The towns are intact, and the people haven't lost their homes, so they suffered little. The head of the resistance movement in one town was a little guy who was the town veterinarian. He had spent the past four years blowing up German trains, cutting their telephone wires and such. He seemed almost sorry that he had to go back to treating horses and cows after all the excitement. His mother-in-law brought out some 50 year old calvados for us to drink. It was in a wide bottomed flask with a narrow neck, and inside the flask were two big pears. It seems that she tied the flask over a branch of pears 50 years ago and they grew in the flask. She added the calvados—applejack to you—and there it was. Very good and strong enough to knock your hat off.

The mayor in this town also came up with some liquor champagne, which was something like 80 years old...fine brown sweetish stuff bottled in Napoleon's time. His daughter was the liaison officer for the whole underground army in Brittany. She was a dowdy looking red head but with a lot of guts. She had just been released after two months in a Gestapo prison. They knew she was in the underground but couldn't prove anything. So they turned her loose just before the invasion.

There were a lot of tears and everyone kissed on both cheeks, and singing of the national anthem of both countries...very moving and sincere. However, after all the wine and liquor I consumed in two days, I really did need a rest when I got back. For the first time in I don't know when, I didn't have a birthday celebration. Worked all day, got into Falaise before it was captured. Narrowly missed being blown to hell by a mine and considerably shaken but came back with a good story.

The Germans are pulling out now, but no one knows exactly how far. They don't have a hell of a lot left in Western Europe, and with what the Russians are doing to them I don't think they can last long. However, they have created a lot of mad men who might do anything, including holding out until all of them are dead.

We're having some beautiful weather here and it has given the air forces time to do their stuff. They have been raising hell with the enemy. I've seen thousands of beat up German cars and trucks and carts. It's tough on the horses, and the stink is terrific in the forward areas. Also for the first time on the sector, the casualties are fairly light...don't see many bodies as formerly, which is good for everyone's morale. But there are more and more mines and booby traps and you have to watch your step more for them than any shells or mortars. Still a lot of snipers about, but no one pays much attention to them any more.

We probably will be moving forward pretty soon. Don't know exactly where, but I hope it will be in as nice a place as we have now. I hope to get into Paris, but it doesn't look like I'll cover the story of the fall of the city. I'm in the wrong army. Still there are other good stories on this front so I don't mind so much. They say there are something like five million people starving in Paris now. It shouldn't be too pleasant, but the reception should be terrific. It may be that we'll have to fight for the city which would be tragic. I hope the Germans are smart enough to pull out of it. Otherwise the reprisals will be greatly intensified, and they must be thinking of those now.

Anyway, we'll have to wait and see. I have some work to do now, and I think I have a bath lined up later. I still have the blasted hives. But most of the time I'm too busy to scratch. I want to take over Gene's insurance, but I don't know how I can arrange it from here. You take care of it and let me know the cost every six months or so and I'll forward the money. If you need dough for anything else, just whistle. Take care of yourself and give my love to everyone.

Love, 
Bill