April 1, 2015

1944-45. Bill Downs From the Front During the War's Final Stages

Thoughts on the War Reporting from the Front Lines


The ellipses between paragraphs indicate the omission of details such as well wishes, mailing addresses, and similar information.

October 9, 1944

Dear Folks,

Well here I am back in London for a brief leave and to get some winter kit and enjoying it to no end, with only an occasional buzz bomb to disturb the atmosphere. I got fed up and tired after the Arnhem show and went to Paris for a couple of days. After that I came over here to get some wool underwear and stuff...am going back to Holland this week to see if we can't finish this thing off. I guess I had what you call "battle fatigue." Couldn't sleep nights, had nightmares and such stuff. But after some quiet and rest I'm okay again, although I still do not like the idea of going into Germany or of a winter campaign.

Paris is just as lovely as the songs and books say. There is no heat and hardly any transport except bicycles, but the women are just as beautiful and there are plenty of things like cosmetics and a style industry and such surprising peacetime industries that long ago disappeared from London. The people seem fairly well fed and, like Belgium, there is a tremendous black market that seems to have become part of the national economy. I was exceedingly depressed ten days ago by the course of events, political and military. After watching men die like they did and then to come back and suddenly realize that people behind the lines were carrying on as if nothing happened got me down. But there seems to be no way to make people realize what suffering and what sacrifices goes with war and I've about given up.

I'll be covering the Canadians and the British again, so you'll be hearing from me soon. There is so much to tell you that I don't know where to begin. So I'm afraid that we'll have to let it ride until later. I should be getting some home leave in the spring, and by that time maybe this thing will be ended. After that I suppose it is the Pacific for me. I am going to resume writing for Newsweek. They want some British coverage now, and you can watch for me in that magazine.

Oh yes, just before I left Eindhoven, two cartons of very welcome cigarettes arrived, one Chesterfield and the other Lucky Strike...keep them coming. The others should catch up with me sooner or later.

I'm sorry I haven't had time to write more often but I've been just too damn depressed to get it done, and moving all over the place the way I have has not given me time to sit down to a typewriter. However, I should have more time in the next couple of weeks and will keep you posted. Explain that to Bonnie and Glen and tell them I have their address somewhere. Take care of yourselves and keep writing.

Love,

Bill
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October 21, 1944

Dear Folks,

Well, I'm back in Eindhoven again and more or less ready for the winter campaign. I'm feeling better than I did three weeks ago. They said I suffered from battle fatigue...another way of saying I was fed up with the war. I wasn't sick, just worn out after four months of steady campaigning since D-Day. Couldn't sleep and had nightmares when I did and that sort of thing.

Went to London where Ed Murrow took me in hand. Got into civilian clothing, read a half dozen books and lived in his apartment in normal surroundings and found that my morale went up 100 per cent. I'm still browned off by the complacency that exists in rear areas, and in America about the war. No one seems to realize just what the men over here are going through, and have yet to go through before this thing is done. But there seems little that we can do about it. Somehow, I feel responsible because it has been my job to report the bloody war and still no one seems to know what we're talking about.

Anyway, I had some rest and got myself some long underwear and woolen socks and am back at it again. The front is dull right now, and I am doing very little broadcasting. But should get to work soon I think.

. . .

I came back by way of Paris, and really you have to see the city to believe a place can be so beautiful. It's going to be a hard winter for all of Europe...lack of fuel and food. The only cheering thought is that it is going to be harder on the Germans than on us. We are beginning to run into the old atrocity stories again. I tried to tell them in Russia but no one paid any attention. Now we are finding the same Nazi prisons, the same torture weapons —with some improvements—and the same sad stories of persecution, execution, and privation by Hitler's bad boys. I don't suppose anyone will believe these stories either, although we are collecting and printing enough evidence to hang the whole German army.

It seems that the Presbyterian mind of the average American cannot accept the fact that any group of people can coolly sit down and decide to torture thousands of people. And if torture isn't enough, then to kill them as calmly as an ordinary person would swat a fly. This refusal to believe these facts is probably the greatest weapon the Nazis have, and it will operate in the post-war judgment of the Germans—wait and see. All of us more or less normal people will throw up our hands in horror even at the prosecution of the guilty —because there are so many guilty that we again will think that we are carrying on a pogrom when actually it is only making the Nazis pay for their crimes.

Unless it can be brought home as to what the Germans have done in Europe—the cruelty and ruthlessness and bestial killings and emasculations and dismemberment that has gone on—well, I'm afraid that we'll be too soft on them...

Maybe I've gone a little nuts on the subject, but this must absolutely be the last and final world war. I have seen too many terrible things to even imagine what our scientific invention will produce as the weapons of the next. The flying bomb was only a sample of the terror in store. The large scale use of this weapon means that our air forces—or any air forces—are completely outmoded. The aircraft as a bombing weapon is obsolete. Our only good fortune is that Hitler did not get it and other things into production sooner. As it is, he is too late. We hope.

But enough of preaching. I will stay up here as long there is a story. But I plan to dig into Brussels too, and perhaps alternate on a back area assignment with someone else...such as Paris and maybe London. Ed Murrow asked if I wanted to go to Stockholm. I turned it down because I couldn't see myself sitting comfortably there while this thing is going on. It may have been a good assignment, because there is a chance of some good stories breaking there.

Anyway, we are fairly comfortable here. We have lights and hot water although there is no heat. But lights and hot water are godsends in this country, and we're sticking to them.

I think I'll be okay when I get back to work again. And don't worry about me, because I haven't even caught the colds that are wandering about. Army rations may be boring, but they are healthy and I have enough clothing to keep me warm through a dozen winters.

Still, I'm optimistic about the end of the war. I feel that Germany cannot stand up under cold and lack of fuel and food and arms and everything else she needs to fight us and the Russians. Wait until the Red Army gets rolling this winter and I believe that we won't have much quarrel with the Nazis. They are going to be tough to root out of their holes, but they know they will be rooted out no matter what. And I think sooner than expected.

Anyway, we'll have to wait and see...I hope to god I'm right.

. . .

Take care of yourselves...I certainly intend to.

Love,
Bill
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November 18, 1944

Dear Folks,

We've had a couple of minor attacks the past week that have kept us busy, but outside of that there has been very little going on. I've been doing some work for Newsweek during the lull...wonder if you have seen any of it?

Spirits have been better here the past couple of days. The sun actually has come out for the first time in two weeks. No kidding, this Dutch weather is about the worst that I have come across. It's like living in the tropics only it's cold as hell...just wet though. Everyone is more or less settled down for a long winter campaign. Christ, the number of times I wished I was in Florida where at least the sun is not afraid to shine.

. . .

We have a nice mess fixed up here in a big house. Someone located a couple of cases of cognac the other day and we've built a bar to house it. The stuff comes in handy after a day in a cold jeep and wading around the gawdawful mud here. These Dutch towns are pretty at first, but they begin to pall after a time. The people aren't unfriendly...just uninteresting and not very enthusiastic. After a while you find yourself while you're not working just sitting around doing nothing. I've been reading about three books a week.

All in all I'm afraid it is going to be an unpleasant winter. I hope to get transferred to Paris for a spell there at SHAEF. Ed Murrow is due over here next week and I'm going to put it up to him. This is really a secondary story now and I want more work to do.

I'm afraid that I have little to talk about today. Feeling a little tired. I spent eight hours in my jeep yesterday and am now taking it easy for a while.

Keep writing all the news and take care of yourselves.

Love,
Bill

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December 6, 1944

Dear Folks,

Sorry for the delay in writing but I've made another trip back to London. Ed Murrow has returned to the States for Xmas and I'm helping around the office while he is gone. I should be going back to the continent in another couple of weeks and relieving someone else who wants to get out of the mud for a while.

The British and Canadian front has been quiet for the past month and as you know there has been little but minor attacks going on. Looks now like we are going to have to wait until spring before we can end this up.

. . .

Larry LeSueur is filling in on the British Second Army for me while I am gone and he'll be screaming for a replacement soon so I'll be back there I suppose. I have been thinking about making a deal to go to the Pacific, but maybe that is a little too soon for that war. I only hope to hell that we can get this thing over with soon. I'm getting fed up with it.

London looks the same as always. The food is better and it really is good to get back to civilization. I'm getting a lot of reading in, seeing some movies and hearing some concerts.

I'm hoping to get back in the spring, but if this thing blows up about that time, God only knows how long I'll be. There are three guys who have vacations coming before me, and there is the Pacific show. All in all, everything seems to be pretty much in the air. On top of that, my contract comes up for renewal in the spring and I must see about that. Probably can handle that from here.

At any rate, I want to come home as quick as possible. I've never yet been homesick, but there is every sign that I'm approaching the starting point. Just fed up I guess. Still I've got to stick this out...and I want to. It is this sitting around that drives you nuts.

Anyway, I'll probably be talking to you from the front again soon so take care of yourselves. Keep writing.

Love,
Bill
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January 18, 1945

Dear Folks,

I have a few minutes time waiting for a broadcast and thought I would drop you a line. Nothing much to write about...weather continues to be miserable and the war continues to go in our favor despite it. I have been feeling okay. For some reason or another I refuse to catch a cold, although I spend about six hours a day in the pneumonia wagons, as we call jeeps these days.

Incidentally, do you remember Colonel Underwood, the blond headed screwball who used to be publicity man for the Lexington Hotel? I believe both of you met him in New York. He took Mom out on the town.

Anyway, he showed up in Spa where I am now living. It was quite a surprise and we had a large evening. He's with the counterintelligence corps as a special agent tracing down Nazis behind our lines or something like that. Evidently doing a good job of it. He has the rating of Sergeant but everyone still calls him Colonel to the great confusion of all concerned.

Still I don't know if I am going to get home leave this spring. If this thing shows signs of dragging on a long time, I might have a chance for a month or so. But if it breaks wide open again I'll stay, of course.

Cris Cunningham, another screwball who I believe you met in NY—he was the black-haired little Irishman who ran with Dickinson and I—he is with the First Army too and currently is living with me in the villa. We have been more or less working together at the front...but my having to get back in time for broadcasts makes it difficult.

Right now I have much more work than I can make a good job of doing. I am the only CBS man right now covering the Canadian First Army, the British Second Army, the American Ninth Army, and the American First Army. I keep telling the office that it's stretching me pretty thin, so I may get some help pretty soon.

. . .

Love,
Bill
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February 3, 1945

Dear Folks,

I've got a few minutes before a broadcast. I've just returned from Brussels where I had a series of conferences with some big shots, and they seem to think that the war is just about over. But they were thinking the same thing six months ago and I'm a little confused by it all. However, I guess it is as close to over as it ever has been, and the sooner the better. The Russians always have been the key to victory and now they are proving it.

We have been working hard on this front, and as the troops drive eastward through the Siegfried, we are going to have to work that much harder. It might be that I'll get home this summer after all. But don't plan on anything. I won't believe it myself until it happens.

Nothing much in the way of local news to tell you. I'm feeling fine. So far have avoided catching cold, although I have damn near frozen my feet a couple of times. Cris Cunningham and I still have our fur lined foxhole here and it is very comfortable, although we have to keep on the scrounge for coal. Incidentally, coal over here sells for something like 400 dollars a ton...no kidding. Needless to say, we do not buy it at that price.

. . .

We have had a thaw here the past three or four days, and it now is muddy as hell. There doesn't seem to be any brand of perfect weather for wars. It's either too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dusty to fight comfortably. However it will be a welcome change to get out of these hills and into Germany where the country is more flat and you don't have to wonder what is waiting for you over every hill. Still, I suppose that by then we'll be wondering whether there is a sniper in every building.

. . .

Love,
Bill
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February 14, 1945

Dear Folks,

. . .

Nothing much here in the way of news. Went up to the Canadian sector last week to have a look at their new offensive. Got a couple of good stories but have returned to the First Army again and hope we will soon have something to write about. It has been quiet around here as you know. Optimism continues to soar, but no one is sticking their necks out before this thing is over. We had too much of the wrong kind of optimism a few months ago.

Incidentally, a couple of months ago I sent a package of souvenirs home. It contained a swastika flag, a Nazi dress dagger, and a few other odds and ends. Let me know if and when it arrives. I want you to keep them for me. I went to a hell of a lot of trouble to get them.

. . .

I'm beginning to gain some weight again...have to get some exercise I guess. Riding hours on end—and I mean end—in a bouncing jeep serves only to exercise the posterior. Everyone around here is developing what we call jeep kidney. You can practically feel it rattle around inside of you, and the number of times you have to go to the can is marvelous. The weather here is getting warmer, but the resultant thaw has mud hip deep to a tall squaw. I check my feet every night to see if they are getting webbed.

I've been needling the office about home leave but there seems to be little chance now until this thing is over. Don't want to leave now anyway if there is a chance of missing out on the payoff. Will let you know if there are any changes.

Someone was telling me that the pictures taken of John Wilhelm's wedding in Maastricht have appeared in Life. You'll find me among those present, I think, probably kissing the bride. However, that is no criterion. I don't always going around kissing other men's wives—especially if the husband is standing there watching.

Gotta go now. Let me know when the package I sent arrives. And thanks again for the cigarettes.

Love,
Bill
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February 26, 1945

Dear Folks,

Just came from the front and am kind of tired. Glad to know everyone's safe back from Florida...also that the stuff I sent arrived. I don't go in much for souvenirs except good ones.

I've been working kind of hard now that we have started moving again. Went down and saw the kickoff of the new offensive. It was one of the most fearsome spectacles I've ever witnessed. I think that 45 minute barrage must have convinced a lot of Germans.

Anyway, I hope I don't have to watch any more of them. Everyone is in great spirits and we made five miles today. Beginning to get very close to the Rhine. Then we'll see what the Nazis are going to do. Only thing about it is that I'm afraid that the front is getting so far away we'll have to leave this beautiful place and move into what is left of Germany. No kidding, I thought that I had seen destruction before, but this matches anything I've seen in Russia. There simply is not an undamaged house in this part of the Reich.

We have run into very few civilians. Those we see usually have small children. Germans or not, you can't help feeling sorry for the kids. It is one case where the sins of the fathers are visited on the following generation. Maybe this one can do something about it.

Opposition thus far is surprisingly light...not even too many mines...and we've suffered very few casualties. However I think it will get worse before it gets better. I'm no Pollyanna anymore. I'm feeling tired, and if this letter sounds depressing it's because I've spent something like seven hours in a jeep today. That saps most of the energy out of you to begin with. I'm having trouble with a tooth that an army doctor filled in for me last month. Outside of that, my health is tops.

After this particular series of battles winds up I think I'll buck for a rest in Paris, although if this thing looks like it's getting somewhere I want to stay on. That's the hell of it. If you leave, you're afraid that something will happen.

. . .

Gotta go now and get some sleep. Have to go back to the front tomorrow. Maybe we'll have a chance to see Cologne in the distance.

Love,
Bill
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March 8, 1945

Dear Folks,

Just a line during a very, very busy period. We have just about cleaned up the story on the fall of Cologne. A more ruined place I have never seen. 45,000 tons of bombs. The people are a little slap happy as you might expect. They are now all of our friends. Not a Nazi in the bunch. They almost tried to give us a welcome like the French and Belgians. These people are beaten and know it.

It was an easy entry...lot of snipers around. All those ruins make it a ghost city...wouldn't want to walk around it on a bright moonlight. Still a lot of corpses that haven't been buried. People didn't even have transport for that. There are a lot of German men in civilian clothing who are trying to fool us that they were never in the army. But we are fooling very hard these days.

It's just about a four hour drive to Cologne, so it means that we spend just about 8 hours a day in a jeep. I think one of my kidneys have come loose from its bracket already.

I was looking at a house near Cologne the other day and saw something move in a room. We went into the house and there was a perplexed parrot sort of pacing up and down a ruined rafter. We found his cage in the rubble and brought him back with us. We've named him Adolf but he can't talk, even German. All he does is whistle and crow like a rooster and make noises like a streetcar. We were going to keep him as a mascot, but no one wants to take care of the bird. I cleaned out his cage the first day, and I know damn well I don't want to spend this war wet nursing a parrot. I think we'll be able to give him away.

We'll be moving our camp into Germany soon...should have done it a long time ago. It will be grim, but nothing could be as bad as eight hours in a jeep.

I gotta go now. We've got still another German town that is going to fall. Have to be there and for the bigger news that we hope will come later.

Take care of yourselves. See you later.

Love,
Bill
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March 30, 1945

Dear Folks,

Didn't mean to, but the past six weeks have been so busy what with the Rhine crossings and everything, that I really haven't had a chance to write. Right now I am living in Germany and am back with the British Second Army after a brief bit of work in Paris and a flight on the Wesel crossing of the Rhine. But since I did the Remagen bridge crossing, just too damn much has been happening not to work. I have done a lot of broadcasting, so I assumed that you weren't worried about me.

The news is tremendously good again, and I hope that we really will have a quick victory this time. However, every time I have an optimistic feeling about it, I stifle the thought at birth. I don't want to be wrong this time. But the way the Germans are folding where they're suppose to fight, it looks like this is the real thing. Still, I'm counting no victory hangovers prematurely. I hope that by the time you get this the issue will be settled.

. . .

It is all set for me to go to the Pacific. Ed Murrow returned from home a couple of weeks ago. He and I will be the only ones from the European Theater. However, I should have a few months in the States first and am sweating those out as soon as this thing folds up completely over here.

Incidentally, I took this British assignment because I thought that sooner or later it is going to be an important front. It has to be because Churchill and everyone sees political importance in having British troops in on the kill. And I want to see that kill. So I should be all right up here, although you probably won't be hearing from me quite as often.

. . .

Love,
Bill