|Bill Downs broadcasting from Lüneburg, Germany on V-E Day, May 8, 1945 (Photo by Dennis Allen of the Second British Army)|
"It's interesting to see these boys I helped develop. Some get money-mad, others want fame, and some, like Downs, go on just doing their job." – Edward R. Murrow
William Randall "Bill" Downs, Jr. (August 17, 1914 – May 3, 1978) was an American broadcast journalist and war correspondent whose career spanned from 1937 to 1978. He is best known for his work as one of the original "Murrow Boys," a team of war correspondents hired by Edward R. Murrow to cover World War II for the Columbia Broadcasting System's nascent news division. These men were stationed across Europe throughout the war, with Downs delivering eyewitness reports on the London Blitz, Stalingrad, D-Day, and more.
After spending three years with the United Press in Kansas City, Denver, and New York, Downs was sent to London in 1940 to cover the war as a wire reporter. Two years later he met Edward R. Murrow and was quickly recruited to CBS. Murrow assigned him to the Eastern Front in December 1942 to relieve Larry LeSueur as the Moscow correspondent. Downs arrived just in time for the 1943 Soviet offensive, and over the next year he described in graphic detail the devastation he saw at various cities in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi withdrawal, including Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kiev.
After a brief return to the United States in January 1944, Downs rejoined Murrow in London. He landed at Gold Beach with the British 50th Infantry Division on D-Day. Eight days later, after much technical difficulty, he managed to acquire a working mobile transmitter, and in doing so unknowingly delivered the first live broadcast to the United States from the ground in Normandy.
He followed the Second Army throughout its campaign until the end of the war in Europe. He was the first correspondent into Caen upon its liberation, after which he covered the liberation of France and Belgium, Operation Market Garden, and the advance to Berlin. In 1945, he received the National Headliners' Club Award for his eyewitness report on the Nazi surrender to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
|Downs (third from left) approaching liberated Hamburg. Using the abandoned microphone of British Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, he described the city's surrender on May 3, 1945|
His work earned him the respect of colleagues and the troops he accompanied, but it was not without difficulty. In their book The Murrow Boys (1996, p. 227-228), Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson write:
"Downs was in the field most of the time, covering some of the fiercest battles of the war and having serious problems getting his reports on the air. Some felt he did not receive the attention and respect he deserved at CBS, that the network was taking advantage of him by keeping him so much in harm's way. In one letter home Downs himself complained that he was the only CBS reporter covering four armies: the Canadian First, the British Second, and the American Ninth and First. 'I keep telling the office it's stretching me pretty thin.'
"By all accounts, Downs was an excellent reporter; some people, including Bill Shadel and Paul White, thought he outshone the rest of the Murrow Boys. 'He was the best damn reporter in the whole works, absolutely the gutsiest guy in the world,' Shadel said. Paul White, not perhaps the most objective witness where the Murrow Boys were concerned, told a colleague that Downs was the only one he would trust to cover a four-alarm fire back home. Late in the war Murrow wrote to a friend, 'It's interesting to see these boys I helped develop. Some get money-mad, others want fame, and some, like Downs, go on just doing their job.'"With his explosive delivery and booming voice, Downs was not very good on the air. Nor was he an elegant writer. He wasn't handsome and glamorous like his better-known colleagues, didn't pal around with generals and politicians. He was Murrow's Ernie Pyle, more at home with the troops and his correspondent buddies than with celebrities, more at home at the front (despite his increasing abhorrence of war) than at the rear."
|Bill Downs during an interview with Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954|
During the war, he established a lifelong friendship with his former UP colleague Walter Cronkite. They continued to work together after Downs joined CBS; at one point both were nearly killed when caught in an air raid near the front lines. In later years, his friendship with both Cronkite and Murrow placed him at the center of their rivalry at CBS, a tense period which lasted until Murrow's resignation in 1961.
Almost immediately after the end of the war in Europe, he joined a group of foreign correspondents led by Tex McCrary that toured the Middle East and Asia. These reporters were among the first foreigners to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb blast, and were also present for Prime Minister Hideki Tojo's suicide attempt. In late September 1945, the press party stopped in Vietnam, where Downs was caught in a firefight near Saigon in the wake of the first American fatality in French Indochina.
Downs' later career saw assignments both foreign and domestic. In 1946 his eyewitness broadcast from the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests was pooled across all networks. He served as CBS' Berlin correspondent beginning in 1948 and remained there for two years with his wife Rosalind Downs (née Gerson) as he gave frequent reports on the Berlin Blockade and the airlift. In 1950 he joined Murrow in Korea to cover the war. One famous anecdote involves Murrow landing in Tokyo, only to be greeted by Downs:
". . . [Murrow] stepped onto a blistering Tokyo runway with William Lawrence of the New York Times, to see a dirty, bearded apparition flapping toward them, shouting, arms waving wildly, 'Go back, go back, you silly bastards. This ain't our kind of war. This one is for the birds.'
"It was Bill Downs, transferred to Korea sometime earlier, with what Murrow was to call the best piece of advice he ever ignored.
. . .
"In Korea, by contrast, all was confusion, the ill-equipped, ill-trained American and South Korean forces pushed back by the North Koreans to a toehold in the south around Pusan. There was no front line; communications ranged from primitive to nonexistent." (A.M. Sperber 1986, 341-342)
|Bill Downs interviewing Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1950s|
Soon after the debut of Murrow's See It Now program, Downs was one of the earliest and most insistent of Murrow's friends to urge him to use his new platform to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy. From 1953 to 1956 he was assigned to CBS' Rome bureau to cover the Mediterranean and Middle East, during which time he interviewed figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, David Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Sharett. He also interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt alongside his colleague Edward P. Morgan.
After almost two decades at CBS, Downs, frustrated with the new management and the industry's change in direction, left in 1962 in hopes of becoming a novelist. He felt that his career had declined over the years, and that the network had been taking him for granted as he received increasingly inconsequential assignments. This was in part due to the major shift in focus toward television; the new management at CBS believed that he was poorly suited to appear on screen, both because of his looks and his gruff voice.
After a year and a half of retirement, he joined ABC News in the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination. At ABC he worked as the White House correspondent and the Pentagon correspondent, in addition to providing regular commentary on American foreign policy and international relations. Starting in 1970 he covered ecological issues and became a regular contributor to ABC Evening News. He died of cancer in 1978.
|Edward R. Murrow's D-Day team in London on June 1, 1944. Clockwise from top left: Larry LeSueur, Edward R. Murrow, Richard C. Hottelet, Bill Shadel, Charles Shaw, Gene Ryder, Charles Collingwood, Bill Downs|
The sources featured are mostly primary and unpublished. The bulk of his personal papers are available at Georgetown University's Special Collections Research Center. These include original broadcast scripts, letters, memos, personal writings, photographs, and more. The rest of his papers and memorabilia were kept by his wife, Rosalind, until her death. Other information is cited from published works: magazine and newspaper articles, books both in and out of print, radio broadcasts, videos, and interviews. Many of the photographs of Bill Downs and the other Murrow Boys featured are from Downs' personal collection, although some have also been published elsewhere. For further reading, the book The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson is the definitive account of the rise and fall of Murrow's news team at CBS.
Unless stated otherwise, texts beginning with "Bill Downs/Location/Date" are broadcast scripts, most of which were read from London, Moscow, Berlin, Rome, and Washington. Other posts are of general historical interest, usually (but not always) tangentially related to Bill Downs' career, such as the 1944 articles by Ernest Hemingway, who Downs encountered at Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy two months after D-Day. I have also transcribed speeches and broadcasts that previously were not widely available, including the Murrow Boys' famous D-Day reports.
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|The badge worn by war correspondents during World War II, seen here on Downs and other Murrow Boys|