March 16, 2015

1944. Bill Downs Prepares for D-Day

The Second Front Awaits
Bill Downs (third from left) and Charles Collingwood (far left) on the Thames sometime in the 1940s

The ellipses between paragraphs indicate omissions of details such as well wishes and mailing information.

April 12, 1944

Dear Folks,

I finally got over here after a dull crossing with nothing but gales for over half the voyage . . . we certainly are winning the battle of the Atlantic. Not a single Nazi sub came close to us. Actually, the battle of the Atlantic has become something of a bore. The Navy guys are fed up with the lack of action.

But England is the place that has really changed. It is an entirely different country now from the one I left 18 months ago. There seem to be more Americans crowded on this island than you can find in Manhattan. And equipment—it's so thick that you literally have to watch out to keep from stepping on it. I was impressed by the production when I was home, but over here you really see what the boys back home have been doing.

. . .

London looks about the same as usual. The bombings they have been having haven't been as heavy as the ones I went through in 1940 and '41. Food is expensive and the standard price for whiskey is about $1 per drink. I've found myself a flat and take possession tomorrow. It's in the center of London and pretty nice.

I've been busy the past week getting my credentials in shape, getting my field kit together, and crowding some broadcasts in between. Have been so busy really there's been no time to get my feet on the ground. Have met a lot of old friends, but now there are so many reporters around that they are hard to single out. About two hundred reporters are waiting to cover the invasion. Should have millions of words for you to read when the show starts.

Everyone is on edge. People here are tired of waiting. Tempers are a little short and there's a general feeling of last minute hustle and bustle. I leave town in a couple of days for a brief course of training with some news broadcasting-recording equipment. The office has assigned me to cover the British army in the early stages of the invasion. In many ways it is a better assignment than the American army. However, I still want to cover our own forces and hope to get transferred over later.

. . .

CBS is ready to cover the show. I believe we have the best staff of any of the radio networks, so keep listening for news. A lot of my stuff will be written from the front. I probably won't be on the air for some time after the show starts, but I hope to be one of the first to get back an eyewitness account—and you can depend that I will make it good.

I've gotta go now. I'm sorry I delayed writing for so long, but if you could see the number of offices I've been in and the number of people I've had to see this past week, you'd forgive me.

. . .

Pass on my love to everyone, and keep a major share for yourselves.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________________

April 24, 1944

Dear Folks,

Spring is a wonderful season in England. All the fruit trees are trying to outdo each other in blossoms. The contrast of war and spring is at first a little shocking, especially when you think of it in terms of blood and death, but you get used to it. I think that's the trouble with the world—people "get used to" too damn many things which they should long ago have eliminated from civilization, such things as poverty and ignorance.

I have been assigned to cover the British army. I wanted to work with the Americans, but there are certain compensations in working with the British which should be to my advantage. Anyway, I wish this invasion would get underway.

The office is in good shape with, I think, the most competent news staff of any of the broadcasting chains. Ed Murrow, of course, is one of the best-informed reporters over here. He's easy to work with and leaves the office to more or less run itself. Larry LeSueur and Charlie Collingwood were here when I was in England before. Two new men are Dick Hottelet, former UP man in Berlin who was jailed by the Nazis for six months or so, and Charles Shaw, a nice guy from San Antonio. So at least CBS is ready. We hope.

I have a new flat. It's a small place, one room with a kitchenette and bath. To give you an idea of the prices, I have to pay $37 a week rent for it, but it's cheaper and better than living in a hotel.

. . .

I have to go to work now and cut this off. Keep your letters coming, and give my love to everyone.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________________


May 17, 1944

Dear Folks,

I couldn't write you last week because I was up in Scotland. I'll have to tell you about it later, but I had a wonderful time and even got in some golf. Also went fishing but didn't get anything. We fished for perch in a loch—lake to you—using worms. I got two bites but couldn't land anything. It's a beautiful country, and the Scots are a much more unreserved race than the English or Welsh. We ran into an unlimited supply of good Scotch whiskey which we took full advantage of as you can imagine.

Ernie Pyle was along. He had just received the Pulitzer Prize and came in for quite a ragging.

. . .

Everyone here is confident of the coming operations. No one expects it to be a breeze and some people are going to get hurt, but I believe we have them licked. Anyway, I'm glad I'm going in and not sitting on Hitler's west wall waiting for what is going to hit them, and plenty.

I have to run now. Keep the letters coming. And take care of yourselves.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________________

May 30, 1944

Dear Mom,

. . .

Not much news over here. I've been working fairly hard, but there isn't enough to do right now and it is driving me slightly nuts.

Heard a new joke the other day. Seems that a GI was playing gin rummy in his barracks with his dog. The sergeant came in and said, "What are you doing?"

The soldier answered, "Playing gin rummy."

Sergeant: "What, with a dog?"

Soldier: "Sure."

Sergeant: "He must be one of the smartest dogs on earth."

Soldier: "Naw, I've beat him three games already."

So you can see what I've been doing over here. I've also heard some more disreputable jokes, but they'll have to be saved until I get home. I should entertain censors!

. . .

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________________

June 20, 1944

Dear Folks,

You'll have to excuse my delay in writing, but I think you realize the difficulties under which I have been operating. First we were held incommunicado for a week, and then we were shipped over here. I assumed that you were hearing my dispatches and would know that I was okay. I have been working about 18 hours a day—that's the way it goes here—and so there really hasn't been much time between dawn and darkness for anything else.

Strangely enough, what promised to be the biggest adventure in my life fizzed out like a wet firecracker. I came over in an LST and was scheduled to land on D-Day right behind the assault troops. But I didn't get in finally until about 4 p.m. on D-plus-one, that is, the day after the assault. I was very lucky. I landed on what was probably the quietest beach taken. As a matter of fact, our landing might have made at a dock. The Jeep rolled off without hardly getting its wheels wet. However, there was plenty of evidence of the hard fighting that had gone on before. Bodies and devastation and such.

I didn't exactly picture myself going into France on a white charger hurling typewriters at the enemy, but I must admit that I expected more of a meeting than I received. Absolutely nothing happened to me—that is the first day. The night before we had quite a picturesque air raid off the beach with lots of stuff going up and down. It wasn't exactly pleasant. And then again that night we slept in an unfinished German gun position and had another air raid on the beach.

But then I moved up to Bayeux. You probably have read about this fantastic town. The war has absolutely passed it by. The British took it the day after the invasion and the Germans were so surprised at the attack that they pulled out without destroying or damaging a thing. I lived at a marvelous hotel there with plenty of food and wine...and clean sheets and even a hot bath if you arrange about four hours ahead for it. It is known as sort of a paradise here. Incidentally, the local drink is called Calvados—it is distilled cider, in fact a very strong applejack. Very good and very intoxicating if you don't watch out.

My first trip to the front was pretty hot. There are more than enough snipers in these parts, and we managed to get ourselves sniped at by a German machine gun. Then we ran into shell fire, but the Nazis are notoriously bad shots.

I don't mean to imply that I'm going out every day and risking my life or anything like that. It's just that you take those chances, and they are no more than walking across main street at lunch hour. You simply accept the possibility of getting hit by a bullet the same way Dad or anyone else accepts the possibility of getting hit by an automobile when he crosses the street. It's the same way with bombing. We get it here every night, but no one seems to get hurt.

Anyway, you can't write a story about the war without seeing it. I would feel like an awful heel if I wrote about how tough it is at the front without knowing and experiencing some of this tough stuff myself. Besides, you can't learn those things without going through it.

I won't bore you with what has happened to me. I almost caught myself a German the other day but a Commando beat me to it. I've seen some things that I will never get, and I have come to know courage and guts in such a way that I never before believed they existed.

. . .

I got a break and got the first broadcast out of the continent, so they tell me. But right now things are very dull. That is from a story viewpoint. They are not and never are dull at the front, not when you are sweating out a patrol when every moment might decide your fate.

You also will be interested to know that the Germans seem to have evacuated or married or shipped off or killed most all the eligible young women. I can't prove a thing about French women, it seems, until I get to Paris. It leads to a much, much too healthy existence. I have to go now. It's getting dark and we have no lights. Incidentally, none of this letter is for publication. Keep writing to me and maybe I'll get some of your letters.

Love,

Bill
____________________________________________________

July 2, 1944

Dear Folks,

It's Sunday again and time to write another letter. That's about the only way that we have of keeping track of the days here. We have had a nice offensive on this front, but now things are slacking off. I've been to this front about every day. The Germans have pushed up a lot more artillery and mortars, and it hasn't been pleasant. However, I haven't gotten myself into any spot that I can't get out of.

There is a tremendous wave of optimism here about the end of the war. Everyone seems to think that the Jerry is about licked and that he doesn't have enough stuff to stop us. I'm not so optimistic. The Nazi may not have as much as we have, but he fights like hell and knows how to conserve equipment. On the strength of my judgment I've taken a couple of bets—one that the war won't be over by October 1 and the other that it won't be over here by December 31. I hope to lose them both. At least it would keep me consistent. I don't believe that I have won a bet on the war since it began.

I have moved off a camp cot into a small hotel. Two other fellows share the room, but I managed to snaffle the bed so I'm all set. It's very comfortable, except that there is a mysterious system of getting water. It comes out of the tap at odd hours of the day, sometimes at 6 a.m. and sometimes about midnight. So you have to be on your toes to collect enough to wash with.

I'm out looking for a bath today. Hope to line up one by the middle of the week at least. And I've been doing my own washing when the water is plentiful. Must say that my washing comes out very grey, but I assume that it's clean.

We will have been here a month on Tuesday. Doesn't seem like a day more than ten years. Everyone is beginning to get a little tired. I haven't taken a day off yet but hope to this week. I should get some leave back to London about the last of August, maybe earlier. I should like to celebrate my birthday in Paris, but I'm taking no bets that I will.

However, unless the front absolutely bogs down. I'm not going to ask for leave until we get to Paris or at least until something definite is settled over here.

The going to the front every day gets on your nerves. You begin to hear things that aren't there. And it becomes harder to make yourself go forward when you're retired.

. . .

I hear that they finally got the Halo on Dewey, but I wouldn't give him Hitler's chance of winning. And if you don't vote for Roosevelt, I'll figure that my time over here is wasted. Such statements as I read in the papers that "we must return to Washington D.C., to the union..." and such ridiculous crap makes me sick. If the Republican die-hards get control of our government we will have this to do all over again. And believe me, I can show you hundreds of graves that prove the futility of the kind of government the Republican isolationists are talking about. It seems funny that those dopes who prate about their free enterprise and isolationism—because it has made them fat and rich—end up fighting the war on their fat backsides while other men have to be buried on the battlefields that their narrow, shortsighted policies have created.

This is not time to talk about America first or Britain first or Russia first. This time it has to be humanity first, last, and always. This time we have to damn well see that no one nation tries to kick the world around. We put guns on our policemen in our cities to keep the peace—we have to do the same for the world.

This really isn't meant to be a sermon, but the political chicanery and self-seeking bull that comes from political conventions sounds very hollow sitting here.

I've got to go now. Keep writing and maybe I'll get a letter sooner or later.

Love,
 

Bill