January 21, 2015

1941. Downs Writes Home from England During the Blitz

It Can Happen Here
Bill Downs in England covering a story at a Birmingham hospital in 1941

January 3, 1941

 Dear Mom, Dad, and Bonnie Lee,

I suppose you are wondering what happened to me on the December 29th big raid—and outside of a lot of excitement, I have little to report. It really was something I'll never forget—the whole sky lit up by flames and the sad spectacle of all those lovely old buildings going up in flames. It's such damn wanton destruction that infuriates you. But I'll never forget it.

The winters here remind me of Kansas City—they're that cold. But I'm living comfortably and am well fed. New Year's Eve was the quietest I've spent in years. I was in bed by 11:30 because of nothing to do and saw the new year reading a book. Actually, this blackout is very good on the morals, the pocketbook, and the constitution. I'm drinking less than I have in years and working harder.

I haven't met any girl chums as yet. American women admittedly have more on the ball, it seems. But I'll scare up something. The theaters start their last shows at 5:30 PM, so I have little opportunity to see them getting off later than that from work.

I work six days a week, of course, with my day off changed so far every week. They are pretty nice about shifting the working hours around, and it works out that I won't be on any steady day or night trick I don't believe. Right now I'm breaking in on the desk, which means I'm practically editor for the whole of Europe.

Consequently, I'm spending plenty of time reading up on my history and economics and such stuff. After I get that taken care of, I think maybe I'll study some French—it really comes in handy. I'm saving some money to buy myself a suit. I can get a good one for about $40, hand tailored with some of that fine English wool that costs like hell in the States. It surely is a good feeling not to be in debt, and if I can I'm going to keep it that way. However, living is not a cheap proposition here—but I have little to spend it on.
Consequently, I should be able to send you something. I was glad to get your letters, and I trust that you had the traditional New Year's brawl in the basement. I also would like to know if you ever received the books. There were about $50 worth of them there and I hope they arrived okay.

We've had an air raid alarm virtually every night, but there doesn't seem to be much activity except for that one bad night. We hear stories that Hitler is running out of ammunition after pouring so much across the channel without doing any good at all. Although this has never been confirmed, I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't true.

Thus far I only regret that someone hasn't told the English about central heating. There seem to be few buildings in the entire city that have ever heard of it. But they do go in for hot water and the baths, usually in tubs three times the size of ours, are wonderful. And they still have to learn to make a pot of coffee, although they do have us beat all hollow on tea. They also have it all over us on courtesy. The thing that first struck me about the people here, and this includes the poor people as well as the rich and well educated, is that they are so nice to each other. There is none of the American curtness  or rudeness about them. Things move a lot slower but they are a hell of a lot more pleasant. While America travels at about 60 miles per hour, they seem to go along at about 25 and get there just the same. I get a little vexed sometimes trying to get service in a bar or restaurant, but when you finally do get waited on, they are so nice about it, there's nothing you can say.

I've got some work to do now and will close this off, but write soon and tell me all the gossip.




January 17, 1941

Dear Mom,

This probably will reach you a month late, but I want to say that birthday greetings, like good wine, get better with age—so happy birthday. I'd like to send a present, but it's well nigh impossible. So you'll have to take a rain check on it.

I've been through my first big air raid and am not ashamed to say that I was properly scared to death. There's nothing quite so terrifying as the sound of a big one falling. It has been described all the way from the rip of a sheet to a freight train at full speed. Actually, there's no description for the sound. The sensation, I imagine, is like Our Nell had when she was tied to the railway track in the old-time melodramas. Actually the noise is worse than the sound of the explosion afterward, except of course if the damn things don't hit too close.

But I wouldn't miss it for anything. There's not a chance of being bored, and it certainly brings home just what indiscriminate war means. I would hate to think of such a thing happening to America. So you and Dad had better cast aside those old Republican Party standards and plug for the passage of that Aid to Britain bill No. 1776. If you think this isn't our war, you have another thing coming. I've seen things I never thought could happen in a "civilized" age. If such things happen here in London, it's not inconceivable to me sitting in the middle of it to see it happening in Kansas City or New York or any other town in the United States.

I am really enjoying my work. I've met dukes and duchesses and find them just like the people next door. And I've had my share of the gory end of it too. I'll have to tell you just how much of a person's character is revealed by his feet. That's about all you actually see of a casualty being carried on a stretcher.

The American correspondents here are a fine bunch of gents, and they help a beginner all they can. There's an American Correspondents' Association, and the Ministry of Information treats us all as as if we were sickly children needing to be nursed and helped. In all, the job is more or less of a snap, although there is a lot of hard work connected with it, and the responsibility is terrific.

London, I'm convinced, hasn't changed in six hundred years, and it will take more than a war to start this metamorphosis. They still wear silk hats, morning coats, bowlers, and the most uninspiring ties in the world. I still have to meet an English girl who'll compare with the American standard model. I've seen a few, but I don't seem to meet them.

I've bought myself a suit. Had it tailored and everything. Cost about $44. The rationing program has done absolutely nothing to my waistline. The only thing is that, when I can look at something green again and it DOESN'T turn out to be a Brussels sprout, I'll kiss it.

I haven't received any letters from you yet, but with transportation and censorship being what it is, you have to expect some delays. Please tell me if you got the books okay—also dose up the gossip. I got an Xmas card from Webb Bringle. He's working for an oil company in Phillipsburg, Kansas, still married. That's about all I know. I'll be expecting a letter soon. Better use airmail.