May 16, 2023

1945. Bill Downs and James McGlincy in Vietnam

Tragedy in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh in 1945 with the OSS Deer Team; "Left to right (standing): Phần Đinh Hủy (Hồng Việt), René Defourneaux, Hồ Chí Minh, Allison K. Thomas, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Henry Prunier, Đàm Quang Trung, Nguyễn Quý, and Paul Hoagland. Front row (kneeling): Lawrence Vogt, Aaron Squires, Thái Bạch (Thái Bá Chi)" (source)
In 1945, Tex McCrary led a group of war correspondents across Europe and Asia as they covered the world in the final months of World War II.
One of those correspondents, Clark Lee of the International News Service, wrote in 1947 about their time in Saigon. He described the events leading up to the death of Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey, an American operative for the Office of Strategic Services, and the resulting firefight that broke out in September 1945. James McGlincy (of United Press) and Bill Downs had been scheduled to meet with Dewey for lunch at the OSS headquarters on the day he was killed. McGlincy wrote a report for United Press soon after the incident. Downs also recounted the experience twenty years later in an article in 1965. Both accounts are featured below.

From the Kansas City Kansan, September 28, 1945:
Bill Downs and McGlincy Thru Saigon Mob Lines Singing to Summon Aid


Editor's note—

James McGlincy, United Press staff correspondent, covered the war in Europe and was the first Allied correspondent to send a dispatch out of liberated Paris. Assigned to the Pacific after the surrender of Germany, he was among the first newsmen to enter Tokyo and atomic-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it was in Indochina nearly six weeks after the end of the Pacific war that he had what he called his narrowest escape. He tells about it in the following dispatch.

William Randall "Bill" Downs is the son of Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Downs, [address], this city. Before the entry of the United States into the war, he was with United Press in London. Following the entry of the United States he spend a year in Russia as a correspondent for CBS. From Russia, Downs returned to the United States, returning to England in time to land with Allied troops on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, where he made the first radio broadcast, representing CBS. He covered the war until the German surrender was completed. Downs was one of eight top radio and newsmen chosen to make a special plane tour leaving the United States in mid-summer of this year, making stop-overs at London, Paris, Berlin, Cairo, Baghdad, Ceylon and China. Downs reached Manchuria in time for the entry of Russia into the Japanese war. He then went on to Guam and Okinawa, and was present at the time the Japanese signed the surrender terms in Tokyo bay.

Saigon, French Indochina—(UP) Two American newsmen helped fight off besieging Annamites with carbines and revolvers for two and a half hours yesterday, then walked thru the lines for help lustily singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

"I don't think anybody would shoot at a man who's singing," said CBS Correspondent William Downs in suggesting the songfest.

I agreed it was worth trying, and it worked. We reached a British-held airfield and sent reinforcements to the four other Americans still holding out in the besieged American headquarters.

We had gone to the headquarters for lunch, only to wind up in a tighter spot than we ever had been in reporting the war in Europe.

It had been eerily quiet as we drove our jeep to the headquarters, and we had to detour around several road blocks made from trees. Japanese sentries at the gate saluted as we entered.

Shooting Breaks Out

The table was laid, but we decided to wait a few minutes for Lt. Col. Peter Dewey of Washington, D.C. and Maj. Herbert Bluechel. Suddenly yelling and shooting broke out along the road 100 yards away.

From a field in front of the house appeared the bedraggled figure of Bluechel. He had a .45 automatic in his hand and was pumping shots toward the road as he half staggered into the front garden.

His head, neck and left side were covered with blood.

"They've killed the colonel!" he shouted as tho in a daze. "They've killed the colonel."

By this time a yelling crowd of perhaps 100 or more Annamites were nearing the house.

"They're after us," gasped Bluechel. "They're trying to get us."

Shots Answer Overtures

He reached the house and collapsed into a chair. He said he and Dewey had run into a road barricade and had told Annamites they wished to drive thru.

"Americans, Americans," they shouted, he said.

But the Annamites opened up with machine guns and blew off Dewey's head. Bluechel made his way afoot to the headquarters, shooting as he came.

Bluechel miraculously escaped unhurt. The blood on him was from Dewey.

By this time bullets were spattering against the house. We quickly took stock. There were six of us altogether, augmented, but not much—by Japanese sentries.

We ran into the garden. I flopped behind the stone wall and looked up to see Downs standing a few feet away firing with a carbine into shrubs beyond.

Somebody in the garden yelled: "There goes one!"

The reply came from a second floor window: "I can get him."

There was a shot, then: "I got him!"

"Nice shooting!" came a shout from the garden.

We all took stations along the garden wall. I felt pretty helpless with my .45, but there were no more carbines left.

For about a half hour we shot at Annamites on the road, in the field before headquarters, and in shrubbery along the side.

Decide to Go for Help

Then during a break, we dashed for the house. I went to the roof with two others. We shared a carbine. Occasionally an Annamite would run across the field or a clearing in the shrubs and we'd shoot.

It became pretty obvious that help would have to be summoned. We went into a huddle and Downs and I volunteered to walk to a British-held airfield a mile and a half away to get a message out.

We struck out across the field giving a wonderful imitation of two scared guys trying to act nonchalant. Then Downs had his inspiration and we burst into song—not good, but apparently effective.

We met three Gurkhas near the airfield and addressed them in pidgin English. They answered in perfect Oxford accents and promised to go to the headquarters

Report to Headquarters

At the airfield, we found Air Transport Command Frank Rhoads of Wilkes Barre, Pa. He telephoned British headquarters.

Then Rhoads, another major, a GI and I jeeped back to American headquarters. We waved our hates and yelled "Chiw"—"Americans." It worked this time, and we passed thru eight road blocks without incident.

When we reached the American house, we told them relief was on the way, then set out to find Dewey's body. We had to call off the search, however, when a force of Gurkhas advanced toward us firing automatic weapons in all directions as they advanced.

We finally drove back into Saigon.
From This Week magazine, in the July-August 1965 issue "This We Remember...":


Some day I hope a good historian chronicles the deep-seated disappointment of the people of Southeast Asia that followed the Allied victory over Japan. In China, Burma, Thailand, the Malay archipelago, Indo-China—and even native Hong Kong—Tokyo's surrender was supposed to produce a world that never was, nor ever could be.

In the propaganda-cluttered minds of millions of Asiatics V-J Day was supposed to be followed by waves of rich and smiling Americans bringing food and medicines. More importantly, the U.S. soldiers were supposed to arrive with a form of instant democracy which would promptly bring justice to the people's oppressors and establish a functioning government of, by, and for the people. A new brotherhood of man would bring prosperity and independence and all would live happily ever after.

Americans were big in those hopeful, post-victory days. Never was U.S. prestige so high among the peoples of Asia, including the citizens of what now is called Vietnam, North and South.

Col. Tex McCrary's airborne correspondents corps, of which I was one, made a diversionary flight into Saigon about a month after the the Japanese surrender. The overlay of French provincial charm, seemingly the only positive heritage from French colonial rule, could not conceal the confusion and chaos seething through the city. The Japanese surrender had left French Indo-China like a battered, misused orphan asylum. The orphans, both the French and the natives, were fighting for possession of the ruins.

Saigon was in the death throes of outdated colonialism. The final stages had begun back in 1940 when the Japanese moved into the country. The Nipponese colonials were surprised when, instead of fighting, the resident French colons merely moved over to make room. Using the excuse of Vichy, these Frenchmen continued to exploit their rubber and rice holdings for the Axis war machine. Not even the shame of Paris nor the disaster of Pearl Harbor deterred their pursuit of the lush life as they deposited their war profits in the Banque de l'Indo-Chine.

The Japanese were more cooperative, and at the same time played the other side of the coin by wooing the Indo-Chinese with their "Asia for Asiatics" program.

But as Allied counter-strategy pushed the Japs back, Tokyo's proconsul in Saigon became distrustful of the resident Frenchmen. Six months before V-J Day he ordered the colons into internment camps.

Meanwhile, the Japs allowed the wispy, intellectual Ho Chi Minh to marshal the nucleus of a coalition government made up of various Annamite factions from all sections of the country. And on August 17, 1945, the occupation authorities recognized Ho's new Republic of Vietnam, the first all-native government in the country's modern history.

The Vietnamese fully expected that since Americans immediately occupied Tokyo after the surrender, U.S. troops would also move in to cleanse the defeated Japanese from their land.

But instead of smiling GI's, there arrived a stiff, pukkasahib corps of red-tabbed British officers leading a glowering force of Gurkha troops. Gen. D.D. Gracey, Blimp-born and -educated, immediately made it clear that His Majesty's soldiers were not there to preside over the dissolution of the French colony. He summoned the closest Frenchmen at hand—the resident Vichy collaborators who now touted their brief Japanese internment as patriotic credentials—threw the new Vietnam government out of Saigon's municipal building and set up his headquarters there.

The Annamite patriots—Christians, and Buddhists, democrats and Communists—took to the hills. Using liberated Japanese weapons, they formed small guerrilla bands and struck back, burning rice stores and warehouses claimed by the resurgent colons. They floated through Saigon's canals and burned huge stockpiles of rubber collected by the Japanese.

So threatening and irritating were these rag-tag raids that General Gracey took political reverse action. He ordered the defeated Japanese troops to retain their rifles and guard vital Saigon buildings from the native peoples in whose name the victory had been won!

The British commander refused to talk with the Sorbonne-educated Ho Chi Minh, a fellow-traveling friend of Josef Stalin (who was a U.S. ally at the time also, remember). But he got little help in his pacifying mission from the French colons. With regressive arrogance, these gentlemen appeared on the streets of Saigon to search out and beat their former Annamite employees and servants who refused to return to work. The low point of the comic tragedy was the sight of a fully armed Japanese soldier standing at solemn, bow-legged attention, carefully guiding a warehouse burning like a haystack behind him.

The one calm and detached personality in Saigon's post-victory chaos was a youthful American officer, Col. Peter Dewey. Dewey was the commander of an OSS team which had parachuted into Indo-China to aid the release of some 130 Americans interned there. The OSS group had stayed on to be joined by a small group of U.S. Army Military Air Transport personnel who set up a headquarters at the Saigon airport.

The British made no secret of their resentment of those few Americans with shortwave radio communications to Allied headquarters in Singapore. Besides, MI-5 was reporting that Colonel Dewey was making friends with the natives—even trying to contact that trouble-maker, Ho Chi Minh.

The Vietnamese could not distinguish Americans from British, and this led to a tragedy that is particularly memorable in light of what is happening in Vietnam today. One afternoon UP correspondent Jim McGlincy and I were invited to lunch at the OSS headquarters in a luxurious villa on the Saigon outskirts. Colonel Dewey was to join us after checking at the airport. On the shortcut road back to the villa, a Vietnamese guerrilla force ambushed his jeep. One of their leaders later told us they thought the vehicle was British.

Peter Dewey was killed. Ironically, the colonel believed in Vietnam's struggle for independence against the returning colonialism.

Instead of eating lunch that day, McGlincy and I, both out-of-trade correspondents from a war that supposedly was over, joined the OSS men fighting off the guerrillas. Later we failed in an attempt to recover Peter Dewey's body.

So did the French colons, who quit the search long before Dien Bien Phu.

May 10, 2023

1945. The Uprising in French Indochina

The Buildup to War
"Free French 6th Commando C.L.I. in Saigon are saluted by surrendered Japanese in November 1945" (source)
In this excerpt from the book One Last Look Around (1947, pp. 200-211), foreign correspondent Clark Lee recounts his experience in French-occupied Vietnam in late September 1945. At that time, Lee, Bill Downs, and James McGlincy were part of an airborne correspondent corps touring East and Southeast Asia toward the end of World War II.

They told us what was happening. "The Annamites are revolting. They are willing to die rather than be colonists of France again. British Gurkha troops are opposing the Annamites and the Japs, who were supposed to be disarmed, are helping the British. It's a stinking mess."

The picture in Indo-China was this: Some 23,000,000 of Indo-China's 28,000,000 native inhabitants are Annamites and nearly all of them wanted to end France's eighty-year rule over their homeland, a territory as big as France itself and rich in coal and rice and other agricultural products. They had risen in arms once before in 1929, but the French machine-gunned and bombed them into submission. Now, the Japs had apparently given them their big chance for freedom from a regime whose colonial record was shameful. For instance, after eighty years in the colony, the French had permitted only five per cent of the people to learn to read and write.

Trouble came into Indo-China in 1940 when the Japs shot and bullied their way into the north, ostensibly for the purpose of closing off one of China's last supply routes through the Indo-Chinese port of Haiphong, from which a railroad heads into Chinese Hunnan. A year later, Vichy opened the door to Saigon and the south for the Japs, ignoring the obvious fact that they wanted Saigon as a springboard for their attacks on Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, and for their occupation of Siam. Economic agreements were reached between Tokyo and Vichy for the exchange of Indo-China's rice and metals for Japanese manufactured products. Instead of the 5,000 tons of rice they were getting, the French supplied Tokyo 1,000,000 tons annually to feed the Japanese troops who were shortly to besiege our starving forces in Bataan.

The Vichyites, headed by colonial governor Admiral Jean de Coux, threw in their lot wholeheartedly with Japan and its Axis partners. That their own homeland was in Nazi chains meant nothing to these French Colonials. Their first concern was the preservation of their own interests and for three years—all during Pearl Harbor, Tarawa, Saipan, even the liberation of France—the Japanese occupation forces and the colonial French lived in perfect harmony, collaborating enthusiastically and doing business to their mutual profit.

With the collapse of Vichy, Admiral De Coux took over complete control in Indo-China with the support of the French Fascist, Pétainists, businessmen, and government officials, and the Banque de l'Indo-Chine clique—plus, of course, the Japs. Some Frenchmen and Annamites wanted to resist the Japs and made a brief stab at organizing the underground. They were ruthlessly suppressed by De Coux. Some were exiled to the penal colony of Poulo Condore, where conditions were so bad that they even horrified the Japs. Two Tokyo newspapermen who visited the island described finding 1,500 political prisoners who "were subjected by the French to all conceivable atrocities . . . who stood mute and expressionless like dumb animals."
"Occupation of the Tonkin Palace, Hanoi, on 19 August 1945" (source)
A few French escaped to Allied territory, but not many of them could make the long trek to India or China through the Japanese lines. Not trusting the French Colonials, the United States made no serious effort to get arms to the few resistance leaders.

Major Verger told me, "There was no underground worthy of the name. A very few of the French assisted American aviators to escape after they were shot down, escorting them to the coast where they were picked up by submarines. There was one captain who had a secret radio set and supplied important intelligence information for our planes. Outside of that, I regret to say that my fellow countrymen did nothing to resist the Japanese or assist our forces. There was an army revolt in 1941 against admitting the Japanese to the colony without a struggle, but it was suppressed and the survivors either fled to China, were imprisoned, or abandoned their activities.

The French-Japanese honeymoon ended on March 9, 1945, when the Japanese suddenly surrounded the homes of De Coux and of the French officers and quickly disarmed the 6,000 French troops in southern Indo-China. Simultaneously the French in the north surrendered, and the French men and women were interned.

Then the Japs played their trump card. Knowing that Tokyo would surrender shortly and that the end for them was not far off, they permitted the Annamites to form their own government to replace the French regime. A coalition government of Communists and Nationalists was set up with branches in Hanoi and Saigon, and was promised complete independence by the Japanese. When Tokyo surrendered, the Japanese gave the Annamites some arms and told them to carry on with their government and defend their independence. Meantime, all during the war, the United States and the provisional government of France had been sparring about the future of Indo-China. Roosevelt fought the churlish De Gaulle and the stubborn Churchill for a new status for all Asiatic colonies. For Indo-China he wanted an international trusteeship to pave the way for total freedom. But as soon as he was dead, Truman and Byrnes forgot his desires and concentrated on the "get tough with Russia" game to the oblivion of such trifling matter as freedom for a hundred million Asiatic peoples. During their wartime discussions, the French indicated their willingness to grant freedom "within the Indo-Chinese federation and French union, plus recognition of democratic liberties for all and education in native and French culture." But De Gaulle and other officials made it clear that France renounced none of her Far Eastern possessions.

The situation was further complicated int the north by Chinese claims to the Tonkin area, which blocks Yunnan province's only convenient doorway to the outside world. Some 400,000 lived there and most of them looked to Chungking for guidance. With the end of the war, Chinese troops moved down from Yunnan into Tonkin and by Allied agreement occupied all of Indo-China north of the 16th parallel. But when the French tried to move their own armed forces into the area in March 1946, again by Chinese-French agreement, Chinese forces around the port of Haiphong fired on their landing craft and warships. After finally getting ashore, the French found that the Chinese had not ousted the Annamite officials but had strengthened their position.

When we reached Saigon in October, 1945, the Annamites were still occupying the government buildings from which they had officially functioned since August 17th, when the Japanese installed them in complete power. They called their government the Viet Nam Republic, substituting that pre-colonial name for Indo-China, a French importation.

"Now," said Colonel [A. Peter] Dewey on our first night in Saigon, "the British troops are driving them out. The Annamites are determined people and it is taking a lot of shooting."

The British commander, General D. D. Gracey, a self-proclaimed Tory and believer in Empire, was willing to use whatever means necessary to restore white supremacy and try to rebuild the shattered self-confidence of the French. In negotiations with the Viet Nam prior to the landing of British troops, the British assured the Annamites that Gracey's mission was to disarm the Japanese and restore order. The Annamites were foolish enough to believe that story. Instead of carrying out the promise, Gracey returned the Japanese troops to their posts, allowed them to keep their arms, and used them to attack the Annamites who were likewise using Japanese arms when they had any at all beyond sticks, clubs, and spears. Thus, as was to be the case in the Dutch East Indies, the British used their former enemies, the Japanese, to shoot down other Asiatics. If the Japanese were planning a comeback in later years in their "Asia for Asiatics" campaign, they could not have asked for better propaganda ammunition.

Gracey's defense was: "What do you want? Do you think we will surrender European supremacy to the first group of outlaws that point guns at us?" In other words, the words not only of Gracey, but of his superior officers and the London Labour government, defend the Imperial system and the hell with these outlaws who believe in the Four Freedoms.
"British General Douglas Gracey (right) relinquishes command in Vietnam to French General Jacques Leclerc" (source)
The French who saw us at first in Saigon cheered enthusiastically for the arrival of "les soldats Américains." They said openly, "Now we can put these Annamite beggars back in their places." They were crestfallen when we told them we weren't troops, but correspondents, and that no American forces were coming to the colony.

Actually, the American "forces" consisted of Colonel Dewey and his mission, plus a group of eight Air Transport Command personnel headed by Major Frank Rhoades. Dewey jumped from a transport plane into Saigon right after V-J Day and quickly got the 136 American war prisoners out of their camps and headed home. Then, instead of leaving, he got mixed up in a game that was too fast for him. "I am remaining to protect American property," he explained. What property? He had hung out the American flag from the offices of Standard Oil, Texaco, and Singer Sewing Machine. Also, he had intervened dramatically a few days before when Annamites had prepared to storm the Continental Hotel and threatened to kill the French people sheltered there. Dewey had bluffed the Annamites into believing the hotel was American property, exhibiting a "bill of sale" made over to him by the Corsican manager, and had waved the American flag to turn back the would-be attackers. Tragically enough, it was the lack of an American flag on his jeep that caused his death.

The British were more concerned in talking to us about the A.T.C. mission than about Dewey's. The A.T.C. men were under orders to set up a base on a line from Shanghai to Singapore, a "temporary line to operate for a limited time." The British found that hard to swallow. "I understand," General Gracey told us, "that the A.T.C. is establishing a line to carry letters. Who the letters are from or what necessity there is for carrying them, I do not know." It was the suspicion of the British and French that far from being temporary the American base was to be used by future American globe-girdling airlines. Since then, the Civil Aeronautics Bureau in Washington has licensed American routes to Indo-China and Siam.

If our arrival was a disappointment to the French, it was even more so to the Annamites. Like all of the people of Asia they looked to Americans in the first weeks after the surrender as true liberators and believed in democracy for everybody, everywhere. They hoped the United States would guarantee their freedom. They knew the French would not give an inch more than they had to, despite the "liberal" promises of De Gaulle and his henchmen. If there had been any doubt in the minds of the Annamites about the French, it disappeared when the colonial overlords were released from internment after the Japanese surrender.

Feeling their oats once more, the French resumed their old habit of kicking around—literally—the despised natives. This was a grave mistake, because the French were not strong enough to get away with it pending the arrival of reinforcements of guns, tanks, rifles and hand grenades. Then the Annamites turned back on them and suddenly the French realized that they were dealing with people who were willing to give their lives to demonstrate to the world their desire for freedom. The Annamites were still fighting when the vanguard of British troops came in, and it was at this stage of the struggle that we reached Indo-China.

The Japanese just stood by and chuckled while the Annamites turned their arms on the French, kidnapped and killed many of the most hated of their tormentors, and drove the terrified Colonials out of their suburban homes and into a narrow section of Saigon paralleling the Rue Catinat. Inside the city the Annamites quit their jobs. Most of them faded away into the countryside, hiding in villages which the British troops attacked and burned in reprisal for attacks on their supply lines. The city, stripped of ninety per cent of its populace, was paralyzed. We found the water supply off, the lights working only fitfully. To the disgust of the French, who for years had been accustomed to regard their servants as pieces of furniture, the servants disappeared. There were no rickshaws in the streets, no public transportation of any kind.

Along the Rue Catinat and the small "safe" area surrounding it, the French gathered in little worried knots. They were ashamed of their war record, their cooperation with the Japs, their inability to do anything now about the Annamite uprising. The men huddled in the cafes, unwilling even to take rifles and go out and protect the city. They shouted for more help—Japs, Gurkhas, Americans, it didn't matter—and they plotted how they would avenge themselves on the Annamites when their turn came.
View of Đồng Khởi Street (formerly Rue Catinat) in Saigon, October 1945. Photo by John Florea (source)
Starting at seven in the morning, the French came out to parade up and down the Rue Catinat, stopping at the sidewalk cafes for an apéritif of anisette, ice, and water. At eleven they went into the few restaurants still open, but soon to close, and ate heartily for two hours and then disappeared for a siesta. About four in the afternoon, people started to emerge again and an hour before dusk everyone had gathered either in the candle-lit lobby of the Continental Hotel or on the sidewalk outside. We learned a new line there. All around the world, in Sicily, Italy, France, Germany, Egypt, the Philippines, Japan, young kids had approached us with outstretched hands and pronounced the local equivalent of "cigarette pour papa." In Saigon, Frenchmen stopped us on the street and, too ashamed to ask for themselves, begged, "A cigarette for my wife."

It was pitiful to watch the French when the sound of shooting was heard. One night a platoon of Japanese ran up on the double to take sentry positions outside the hotel, and there was a panicked rush for inside. Another night Annamites set fire to the market place four blocks from Continental. The French, silent and terrified, refused to go near the fire—even though the supply of food was growing scantier every day—but the Chinese stall owners made frantic and futile efforts to drench the flame with small splashes of water from leaking buckets. Most of the time there weren't any lights, and in the confusion of that pushing mass around the hotel, more than one Frenchwoman wound up in the room of an English officer or correspondent. Despite this amateur competition, the bright-looking half-caste girls roaming the Rue Catinat did a big business.

During one outbreak of shooting, the owner of the Continental called us into his office for an apéritif with him and some friends.

"Why," they demanded in an aggrieved tone, "do you not protect us from those devil Annamites?"

We baited them, "This is not the quarrel of Americans. For all we know, justice is on the side of the rebels. We hear that the French have been inexcusably cruel to them. In fact, we would just as soon shoot French as Annamites." This last remark was accompanied by an ostentatious fingering of carbine triggers.

"Ah, monsieurs," the hotel owned gushed, "it is quite right that you are. All of us in this room are not French. You are surprised, no? The fact that we do not come from Metropolitan France. We are Corsicans. This local political squabble is not of our making, but the fault of the French who have treated the Annamites inconsiderately."

Meantime, Frenchman and Corsican alike continued to plan for vengeance. They got it after the French troops under irascible General Jacques LeClerq finally arrived to take over behind Gurkha and Japanese guns. Witnesses later described the long lines of Annamite prisoners, manacled or trussed up, being marched down the Rue Catinat to the filthy jail, where they were fed miserably, given drumhead trials lasting a few minutes and then sentenced to many years at hard labor on Poulo Condore Island—or even condemned to die for distributing leaflets asking for independence. In this and other ways, the French finally got retribution for the humiliation that we watched them undergo.

At night, Annamites would slip into the city, set fire to the power plant and other buildings, and shoot off their rifles. The harassed Gracey was unable to stop them with his small force, whose forays into the countryside and across the river to the Chinese quarter proved fruitless. He blamed the Japs for his troubles, accusing them of instigating the Annamites to fight, and at the same time he called on the Japs to assist him in putting down the fighting. In desperation, the British commander visited the home of the aged and ailing Japanese field marshal, Count Terauchi, and warned him that unless the Japs behaved themselves they "would not be sent back home to Japan." Gracey pointed out that the Allied plan was to repatriate the Japs in Nipponese shipping. Very few bottoms were available, Gracey said, and he threatened that unless Terauchi saw to it that his troops were good boys, no ships would come to Indo-China for them. This provided another big laugh for the Japs, who didn't care very much either way whether they stayed or went—after all, it was France that wanted the colony back.

Meantime, the fighting was getting sharper every night and more and more factories and homes were being burned by the Annamites. On the third night of our stay, Captain Joe Coolidge, a distant relative of the late Calvin and Colonel Dewey's No. 2 in the O.S.S., was shot through the throat and arm while escorting a group of French women and children through an Annamite barricade.

We got word of it through Colonel Dewey, who sent for us to come to his room at the Continental. Perhaps it was premonition that made Dewey talk at length about something that was on his mind. He had been doing a great deal of running around in the midst of the fighting, and had found the Annamites friendly when they discovered him to be American. "It's the French they're after. Not us, nor even the British. They won't shoot at the Japanese at all." Dewey's difficulty was to identify himself as an American. "I had an American flag on my jeep, he said, "but General Gracey forbade me to fly it. When I go up to one of the barricades, there is always a chance that the Annamites will kill me before I can identify myself."

Several of us stormed up to see Gracey and protest against his refusal to allow the American flag to be flown from automobiles. "I cannot permit it," he said. "That is a privilege of general officers only." If you chose to be strict about it—and Gracey did, for obvious reasons of European and Imperial prestige—the British general was correct in his position, according to military regulations. He went on to say that he had no objections to flags being painted on jeeps and cars, which was a meaningless concession in view of the total absence of paint in Saigon. Likewise, he agreed to flags being tied to the side of vehicles, but that was no assistance whatever since the important thing was to be recognized well before you drove up to a barricade, and a flag on the side was not visible from a distance.
Ho Chi Minh (center) and Vo Nguyen Giap (far left) with American OSS agents
The following day Colonel Dewey invited two of our party, Bill Downs and Jim McGlincy, to lunch at the O.S.S. house on the northern edge of Saigon. They drove out with Major Verger and with Captain Frank White, a member of the nine-man O.S.S. mission, and sat in the patio to have a drink and wait for Dewey to return from the airport.

Five minutes later there was heavy firing up the road, and an American officer came running toward the O.S.S. villa which was also, in effect, American Army headquarters in Saigon. The officer halted every few yards to crouch and fire his .45 back down the road at some invisible pursuers.

Hurriedly, Captain White issued carbines to the correspondents and to the other four men in the house, and they got behind the garden wall and fired at a crowd of Annamites who suddenly came into sight pursuing the American. The Annamites took cover—there were about a hundred of them—and the officer staggered into the yard behind the protective wall. He was Major Herbert Bluechel. His neck, shoulders, and most of his body was covered with blood and he appeared to be seriously wounded.

"They got the colonel," he gasped hysterically. "They killed the colonel."

The blood on Bluechel was Dewey's blood. The two Americans had been passing a barricade in their jeep. Dewey gestured to the Annamites ahead to remove the crisscrossed trees forming the road block, but they suddenly opened fire with a machine gun. The colonel's head was blown off. Bluechel, unharmed, jumped out of the jeep and sprinted frantically up the road.

"What a pity," Bluechel exclaimed. "The Annamites liked Dewey and he liked them and he believed they should be free. If they had only recognized us as Americans, they would never have shot."

Meanwhile, the Annamites began pushing toward the house. The Americans ran inside and took positions at the windows. Like Dewey, they did not want to kill Annamites, but they were being fired upon and there was no choice except to shoot back. Yelling and shouting, the Annamites advanced down a drainage ditch parallel to the road, pausing from time to time to fire their guns. They were bad marksmen and although their bullets bounced off the house, none of the Americans was hit.

Spacing their shots, the Americans picked off the attacking men. Three fell as they tried to run across an open field. Several others were wounded. Bill Downs shot down at least one man, and he says that the sight of the little brown figure falling will haunt him for years. But blood was being shed, hysteria had taken command, and there was no chance to stop and argue things out.

Briefly, the Annamites retired, and then returned with a machine gun. They fired one burst into the front of the house and then ceased fire. In this interlude a jeep with three more O.S.S. men drove squarely down the road without drawing a single shot, and turned into the yard. Meanwhile, six Japanese sentries who were on duty guarding the villa had taken a casual part in the fighting, firing once or twice but mostly just crouching out of the way.

After more than two hours of skirmishing, the Annamites began to withdraw, and McGlincy and Downs volunteered to walk across the field and try to reach the airport in search of reinforcements. They took their sidearms for defense, a bottle of "Old Crow" for courage, and on the theory that nobody would shoot at a singing man they walked along caroling at the top of their voices, "For he's a jolly good fellow." They made it to the airfield without trouble and dispatched a message for help. Then the two correspondents, with Major Rhoades of the A.T.C., drove back in a jeep through the Annamite positions, where a group were picking up wounded under a Red Cross flag. The Americans waved their arms and shouted, "Chee-Wee, Chee-Wee," which means American in the Annamite tongue.

Back at the house, the Americans decided to go out after Dewey's body. Major Verger took the precaution of changing his French army shirt for an American jacket. He tied a white handkerchief to his carbine and waved as the jeep gingerly approached the Annamite positions. "Where is the commandant?" McGlincy demanded of the sentries.
Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey
An excited young man—in civilian shirt and shorts like the other fighters for freedom—stepped forward and delivered a fiery speech on liberty and the rights of man, intermingled with violent protests against the Americans, who loved liberty, killing Annamites who sought it. Another young Annamite, about sixteen or seventeen, assisted in translating the leader's discourse.

Downs explained, "We would like to get Colonel Dewey's body."

There were lengthy negotiations, and finally the commander agreed to return Dewey's body if the Americans would bring back the bodies of the Annamite casualties. These terms were accepted. The Americans drove back to the scene of the battle, picked up three bodies, and piled them on the hood of the jeep.

When they returned to the barricade, the Annamite leader became even more violently excited. "Three for one is not fair exchange," he protested through the interpreter.

"Where is Colonel Dewey's body?" Downs asked.

"It is not here," the young man said. "I cannot go through with this agreement when you ask three for one." The Americans insisted that they had kept their part of the bargain.

The negotiations were broken up suddenly by the sound of firing. A group of Gurkhas were coming down the road, shooting off their rifles and driving before them a terrified group of native refugees, mostly women and children. The Annamites at the barricade glared at the Americans, as if they suspected that the negotiations had been a trap to hold them until the Gurkhas arrived. Then they faded away into the woods and behind nearby houses.

Dewey's body was never recovered. For months afterward the French used the missing American's body—the body of a man who believed they should be free—as a bargaining point against the natives. They refused to enter discussions until the body was produced and the Viet Nam government even offered a reward for the corpse.

Reports of Dewey's death in his flagless jeep—there had been a flag but it was wrapped around a pole and thus unidentifiable—quickly reached Lord Louis Mountbatten in Singapore as our stories went out. He sent an urgent message to General Gracey to fly down to Singapore and report on the incident, and the general asked for a lift in our B-25, which had returned after making a trip to Calcutta to pick up equipment for our crippled B-17. As we drove to the airport, we passed through a deathly quiet mile of no-man's land, with torn trees and the bodies of animals on the road—souvenirs of the Gurkhas drive the day before. Native villages along the road were aflame, and here and there Frenchmen crouched behind the stone walls of fine villas. Every few hundred yards there was a Japanese soldier with a rifle and a bayonet—unconcernedly guarding our route. Our own carbines and pistols were cocked as we peered over the sides of the truck.

Throughout the night there had been the sound of drums and shouting from the perimeter around the city and sporadically the noise of shots smashing into buildings. Circling over the city in the B-17 we counted a half dozen large fires, several of them quite close to the besieged Rue Catinat. These fires were symbolic funeral pyres of many natives, for the French came back in with American arms and with the help of the British engaged in bloodletting and slaughter. But eventually they would be the signal fires of freedom.

April 6, 2023

1945. Bill Downs from Germany on V-E Day

Bill Downs Reporting from Lüneburg on V-E Day

Bill Downs

CBS News

May 8, 1945

This is Bill Downs speaking from Lüneburg. This V-Day has started out very quietly here in Lüneburg on the British sector. The convoys continue to roll through the narrow streets, and the long, long lines of surrendering Germans and liberated Allied war prisoners and slave laborers stream back to the rear areas. The people of Lüneburg are going about their business as if it was just another day. It may be V-Day for the Allies, but it's Surrender Day for the Germans.

The people I saw this morning looked like they're trying to ignore the whole thing. The shops are opening up, and already the long lines at the food stores are collecting. Ex-Nazi Hausfrauen with their baskets and string bags beginning a life of queuing that has plagued all of Europe since the Nazis went on the warpath.

It's a beautiful day here; the weatherman could not have planned more perfect weather for a surrender celebration. But right now there's very little celebrating. The British are a reserved people, and out of propriety for the French and American and Russian forces still fighting, they did no dancing in the streets when Montgomery signed the surrender terms that put the British Second and Canadian First Armies out of the war last Thursday.

But no doubt tonight the bottles of French champagne that we find in every rich German's wine cellar will make their appearance. But meanwhile the army is too busy to celebrate Victory in Europe Day. The millions of German soldiers must be kept moving to the concentration areas, the liberated Allied prisoners must be evacuated, and somehow the slave laborers who look to us for help must be housed and fed. But I have an idea that tonight there'll be a hot time in Lüneburg.

This is Bill Downs with the British returning you to CBS in New York.

March 15, 2023

1943. The Babyn Yar Massacres

"Blood at Babi Yar: Kyiv's Atrocity Story"
"In liberated Kyiv, Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. From left to right: Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28. (Photo by A. Ioselevich / No. 8718, Siberia Photo Service)."*
The Babyn Yar (Babi Yar) ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine is the site of some of the largest massacres of the Holocaust and World War II. The first and largest was carried out in September 1941 over a 36-hour period during which German forces murdered 33,771 Jews. Over 100,000 more Jews, Romanis, Ukrainians, and Soviet prisoners of war were murdered there over the next two years until the Soviets retook Kyiv in late 1943.

Bill Downs wrote an article for Newsweek in 1943 titled "Blood at Babii Yar – Kiev's Atrocity Story," in which he recounted the second visit to the site taken by a group of American, British, and Soviet reporters. New York Times correspondent Bill Lawrence was in the same press party, and wrote an article titled "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed." The two accounts are featured below.

From Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22:


The following story was cabled by Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS Moscow correspondent:
The first foreign witnesses this week returned to Moscow from what are probably the most terrible two acres on eartha series of desolate ravines in the Lukyanovka district three miles northwest of Kiev. The name Babii Yar is going to stink in history. It is the name of the main ravine where the Russians estimate between 50,000 to 80,000 people were killed and buried during the 25 months of the German occupation. From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era occurred there between September 1941 and November 1943.

The press party was led by the Ukrainian author and poet, Nikola Bazhan. The Ukrainian Atrocities Commission called three witnesses to meet us at the ravine. They were Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28all Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. Vilkis did most of the talking, interrupted occasionally by the other two. The first act in the tragedy took place in September 1941, a few weeks after the Germans captured Kiev. One day they ordered all Jews to report at the Lukyanovka district and bring their valuables with them. Thousands of men, women, and children marched out to Lukyanovka, thinking they probably would be evacuated. Instead, Nazi SS troops led them to Babii Yar.

At the wide shallow ravine, their valuables and part of their clothing were removed and heaped into a big pile. Then groups of these people were led into a neighboring deep ravine where they were machine-gunned. When bodies covered the ground in more or less of a layer, SS men scraped sand down from the ravine walls to cover them. Then the shooting would continue. The Nazis, we were told, worked three days doing the job. However, even more incredible were the actions taken by the Nazis between Aug. 19 and Sept. 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines.

On Aug. 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house.

Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely.

The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi Tommy guns.

As substantiating evidence, while walking over the mass graves, I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skull with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework.

The most persistent question that presents itself is why the Nazis took such pains to cover this tragedy. Previously, the Germans made little effort to conceal their pogroms in any occupied territory. If in their retreat they intend to try to cover their crimes, this represents a new and significant policy which presupposes the possibility of defeat. The United Nations declaration regarding war criminals, which closely paralleled Soviet announcements on war crimes, thus can be said to have had its first real effect.
"'Babi Yar,' where the Germans carried out mass executions. (Photograph by A. Ioselevich / No. 8717 Siberia Photo Service)"* [The photograph is of the press party being taken through the site].


The Russians took great care not to damage Kiev, their most beautiful city. That was one reason why the first break-through bridge was built dozens of miles upriver. By outflanking them from the northwest, they forced the German withdrawal. There was no fighting in Kiev and the Germans for the first time did not have time to do their usual job of complete demolition.

Yet practically one-fourth of the city has been destroyed, either by Red Army scorched-earth actions or by the Germans. The city's main street, the Kreshchatik, is completely in ruins. However, there are many blocks of apartments and buildings intact. The Germans had a complete municipal organization ready to take over the city at the time the Reds retook it. The plans even included renaming streets such as Doctor Todt Strasse and Horst Wessel Strasse.

The Soviet government reached a new high in efficiency in reestablishing Kiev's municipal government. Before Kiev was taken, food stores and sanitation squads established a dump as close as possible to the city. They then quickly moved in. City and regional Soviets were established shortly after the reoccupation. Bakeries were set up and banks opened.

Today Kiev looks like an ancient city suddenly occupied by pioneers. It is not uncommon to see workmen packing pistols, and you get used to seeing women, some in fur coats and stylish hats, with rifles slung across their backs. But it is a city of old women and children. The strong and healthy have been exported as slave labor to Germany.
Bill Lawrence's Account

From The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3:

Soviet Atrocity Group Hears Nazis Machine-Gunned Victims in Sept., 1941
Prisoners of War Forced to Build Pyres Were Shot to Destroy All Evidence

KIEV, Russia, Oct. 22 (Delayed) — Kiev authorities asserted today that the Germans had machine-gunned from 50,000 to 80,000 of Kiev's Jewish men, women and children in late September, 1941 and, two years later—when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army seemed imminent—had forced Russian prisoners of war to burn all the bodies, completely destroying all the evidence of the crime.

This was the story told to the Kiev Atrocity Commission and to a group of British, American and Russian newspaper correspondents after having visited bleak Babi Yar, a deep ravine northwest of Kiev, where the massacre was alleged to have occurred. The story was told by three Russian soldiers, who said they had participated in the burning of the corpses and had escaped from the Germans, and by Paul F. Aloshin, chief architect of Kiev. No witnesses to the shooting appeared before the atrocity commission or talked with the correspondents.

On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us. It is the contention of the authorities in Kiev that the Germans, with characteristic thoroughness, not only burned the bodies and clothing, but also crumbled the bones, and shot and burned the bodies of all prisoners of war participating in the burning, except for a handful that escaped, so that the evidence of their atrocity could not be available for the outside world.

Remaining Evidence Is Scanty

If this was the Germans' intent, they succeeded well, for there is little evidence in the ravine to prove or disprove the story. We did see a few isolated bones, including a skull and some matted hair, a shoulder bone and an arm, a gold tooth bridgework and some spots on the ground which we were told had been made by the blood of prisoners shot by the Germans after the burning of the bodies of Jewish victims had been completed. There were spectacle cases, handbags and other evidences of things left in Babi Yar. Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there.

Before the war, Kiev had a Jewish population of more than 100,000 in a total population of more than a million persons. Among the estimated 70,000 total population of Kiev today, there are said to be very few Jews.

This is the story as we heard it. Mr. Aloshin, who was the correspondents' guide on our first day in Kiev, took us out to Babi Yar and told us how on Sept. 28, 1941—nine days after the German Army took Kiev—all Jews in the city were ordered to report to the Lukyanovka district, bringing with them their most valuable possessions. Mr. Aloshin said the Jews went expecting that they were to be evacuated. Instead, they were met by German troops, who ordered them into the ravine, where they were directed to give up their valuables. Part of their clothing also was removed. Then, according to the city architect, they were placed on a platform, machine-gunned and thrown into the ravine.

Mr. Aloshin said that war prisoners were required to bury the bodies. Some of the victims were only wounded, but were buried anyway. The job of shooting and burying the Jews took several days, he said.

Eyewitnesses Tell Story

Mr. Aloshin said the story had been told to him by a German architect, who boasted of the deed, but, said Mr. Aloshin, when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army became imminent, the Germans decided to remove the evidences of their crimes because of the lessons learned by the Russian discoveries of the Stalingrad and Kharkov atrocities, and they ordered the bodies burned.

Correspondents who heard Mr. Aloshin's story requested Soviet authorities to provide them with eyewitnesses to some of the crimes charged against the Germans. Accordingly, on the following day, in company of Mikola Bojan, Ukrainian poet and Vice Commissar of the Ukrainian Soviet, the correspondents were again taken back to Babi Yar, where the atrocity commission was meeting, and where they heard the stories of Efim Vilkis, 33; Leonid Ostrovsky, 31; and Vladimir Davidoff, 28, who said they were Soviet soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and forced to take part in the disinterment and burning, and who were among the handful of prisoners who escaped.

The principal witness was Vilkis, an Odessa-born Jew who before the war was a freight loader in Kiev. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp just across the road from Babi Yar, and he told how on Aug. 14, 1943, all prisoners were lined up and 100 selected by the German authorities for an undisclosed task.

Vilkis said these prisoners were taken under heavy guard across the road to Babi Yar. He said they thought they were there to be killed by the Germans. These prisoners were shackled together and told to remove their shoes and hats and strip themselves to the waist.

Then, Vilkis said, they were put under the command of S. S. troops headed by a major general and told to start digging in the ravine. This digging continued for several days, he said, without uncovering anything. Then, Vilkis continued, a German officer who had participated in the original shooting came to the scene and told the commanding officers that they were digging in the wrong place. He directed new digging operations at another place in the ravine and soon they began uncovering bodies.

Ostrovsky and Davidoff listened intently to Vilkis' story, interrupting occasionally to offer corroboration or to provide additional details. The three showed correspondents wounds on their legs caused by leg shackles.

Vilkis said that as the work of uncovering the bodies continued, other prisoners were sent to a near-by Jewish cemetery, where marble grave markers were removed and brought to Babi Yar, where they formed crude stoves. The prisoners then carried the bodies of the Jewish men, women and children and laid them on the marble foundations. More than 100 bodies comprised each layer. On each layer the prisoners were forced to place wood, and then another layer of bodies. When the first stove was filled, gasoline was poured and a fire started, but did not burn well because of lack of draft.

Vilkis said the Germans then sent another group of prisoners back to the cemetery, where the iron railing around the graves was removed to make grates. In the second attempt, the bodies were placed farther apart, and the burning was successful.

Each pyre took two nights and one day to burn.

He said the work of destroying the bodies continued from Aug. 19 to Sept. 28.

During the burning, he said prisoners who became sick or went mad were executed by the Germans in the presence of other prisoners. He said that every day three to five prisoners were shot.

When the work of burning the corpses was completed, they knew then that the Germans intended to kill them and burn their bodies so that there would be no witnesses to the atrocity.

Vilkis said that he and a group of other prisoners had decided to escape. He said that in going through the clothing of disinterred Jews, they had found a few keys, including one that a prisoner who had been a locksmith was able to use to open the door of their dugout. The prisoners loosed their shackles, and on the night of Sept. 28 they decided to make a break for freedom.

By this time the number of prisoners working had been increased to about 300. As they dashed out of their dugouts, German sentries armed with machine guns poured bullets into the groups.

Vilkis said that only a very few had escaped, but he did not know the exact number. He said that he, Ostrovsky and Davidoff found shelter near a cement factory near by, where they remained in hiding until the Red Army took the city Nov. 6.
Members of the press party some time later in Rzhev being led by Soviet officials, 1943.
The Press Party's Reactions

Unlike some of their counterparts on other fronts during the course of World War II, Moscow-based foreign correspondents were not allowed near the front lines; their movement was restricted and their reports were subjected to heavy censorship. Reporters relied frequently on government news sources for important military updates and information, and press trips around Moscow and surrounding areas were directed by watchful state officials.

As the Soviets made major territorial gains in 1943, foreign correspondents were able to visit liberated cities, concentration camps, and massacre sites and see the devastation firsthand—but censorship continued to pose a major challenge. Downs wrote in 1951:

During my stay in the Soviet Union, the government had the excuse of military security to fall back on. However, it is my belief that fear and suspicion are as much a part of the Russian censorship policy as security. There is another quality that is embraced in censorship policy too. This is pride. For example, we had many long arguments with the censors concerning the reporting of military casualties. The government wanted absolutely no mention of them. Our argument was that the world—and particularly Russia's allies—should know the sacrifices the nation was making in fighting the war. But the attitude of the censor was that a Russian killed in battle somehow reflected on the national honor. There was a constant watch on copy to stop anything—be it a humorous story or what—that might possibly reflect on the Russian "honor."

Although the trips to the retaken areas remained as they were before—carefully orchestrated guided tours—they afforded reporters an opportunity to see for themselves the actual scale of the Holocaust, to speak to survivors and witnesses, and to inform readers and listeners at home and abroad exactly what had taken place.

The press party visited Babyn Yar shortly after the area's liberation. According to Deborah Lipstadt (1993), some of the correspondents were skeptical about the death toll, while others questioned whether the murders took place at all. Several considered the overwhelming scale of the massacres to be implausible. Joan Peterson (2011) addresses the reactions of Downs and Lawrence specifically:

. . . Both men were part of a group of British, U.S., and Russian newspaper reporters who, along with the Kiev Atrocity Commission, heard the account from three Russian prisoners of war who had been forced to participate in the corpse burning in 1943 and later managed to escape from the Germans. The articles differ in tone. Lawrence's is guarded. Given the paucity of evidence after the destruction of the corpses, he stated, "On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us." Downs, however, wrote, "From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this era of Nazi era atrocities occurred there." Both men were taken to the ravine where they related slightly different versions of the few scattered bones, shoes, spectacle cases, and bridgework that they observed. Spots of blood on the ground were explained as made by the prisoners who had been shot after they completed their grisly task. (Only a dozen or so prisoners managed to escape out of the 200-300 prisoners forced to do this work.) Where Lawrence used terms such as "isolated" and "scanty," Downs said, "As substantiating evidence, . . . I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skill with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework." Lawrence, however, added, "Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there."
.    .    . 
Successive writers would draw from the words used in both depictions. Lawrence described the site as "Bleak Babi Yar." Downs called the site "probably the most terrible two acres on earth," "a series of desolate ravines," and he said that "the name Babi Yar is going to stink in history." Downs used the word "tragedy" three times. It can be surmised that Lawrence's account contains a measure of disbelief at the magnitude of the action; Downs' one of shock and distress. Both responses are consistent with how many people first absorbed reports of Nazi atrocities. 

Deborah Lipstadt is highly critical of the reporting by Lawrence and Toronto Star correspondent Jerome Davis in particular:

By this point the Nazi threat to "exterminate" the Jews should have been understood as a literal one. There was little reason, in light of the abundance of evidence, to deny that multitudes were being murdered as part of a planned program of annihilation. But despite all the detail there was a feeling among some correspondents, New York Times reporter Bill Lawrence most prominent among them, that the reports that Hitler and his followers had conducted a systematic extermination campaign were untrue. Lawrence did not doubt that Hitler had "treated the Jews badly, forcing many of them to flee to the sanctuaries of the West"; but even in October 1943—ten months after the Allied declaration confirming the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews and six months after Bermuda—he could not believe that the Nazis had murdered "millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies. . . . and those who might be mentally retarded."

His skepticism permeated his story on Babi Yar. Though he acknowledged that there were no more Jews in Kiev, their whereabouts he simply dismissed as a "mystery." Lawrence's report surely left even the least skeptical reader unconvinced of the Babi Yar slayings.

.    .    . 

Equally skeptical about the reports of mass murder was Jerome Davis of Hearst's International News Service and the Toronto Star. Neither Lawrence nor Davis seemed able to accept the idea of a massacre, much less of a Final Solution.

Davis's and Lawrence's doubts would have been more understandable had their colleagues who visited the site with them manifested the same suspicions. But they drew markedly different conclusions. Bill Downs, who was Moscow correspondent for CBS and Newsweek, was convinced that one of the "most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era of atrocities occurred there." Henry Shapiro of United Press, Maurice Hindus, a special correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and Paul Winterton of the BBC all described the flesh, human bones, hair, shoes, glass cases, and even gold bridgework they found in the dirt. Lawrence and Davis, who saw the same things the other reporters found, could not believe that they represented the remains of thousands. Though neither Lawrence nor Davis suggested it, it was obvious that they both believed that these items could have been placed in the sand by those who wished the reporters to believe that such things had happened there. 

.    .    . 

Despite subsequent reports further confirming the disappearance of the Jews from cities and towns throughout Europe, Lawrence maintained his "built in skepticism" for a long time. If someone such as Lawrence, a seasoned reporter for the most important and influential American newspaper and one who had the chance to visit the site and talk with witnesses, remained so riddled with doubt, it is not surprising that the American public, which depended on the press to bring it the news, tenaciously clung to its skepticism. As we shall see, Lawrence was far from alone. In fact many of those in the highest and most powerful echelons of his profession maintained their skepticism for another year and a half.

Lipstadt notes that The New York Times ran the story on page three, while other newspapers ran it on page one. She also notes that the New York Journal-American ran the United Press story by Henry Shapiro under the headline "100,000 Kiev Civilians Killed by Nazis: Wholesale Massacre Revealed."

In the book Buried by the Times (2005), Laurel Leff writes:

Lawrence later wrote that he had doubted that "50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here," and got into "furious arguments" about how to report the story with CBS's Bill Downs, "who believed it all." . . . Lawrence was at the height of his frustration with the Moscow assignment. He had been begging his editors to transfer him for months. Just before he went to Babi Yar, he noted other Moscow correspondents' willingness to print unverified assertions and then to retract the claim in a subsequent story. "But, meanwhile, the damage of false reporting had been done," he wrote to [Edwin L.] James.

Lawrence reflected in 1972 that "Babi Yar was the first site of an alleged atrocity that I had ever visited, and my skeptical mind simply rejected claims that more than 50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here."

He recounted one instance in which reporters and foreign dignitaries were taken in January 1944 to the site of the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war were murdered in a series of mass executions. Soviet authorities blamed the Germans, who had discovered the site a year earlier and sought to use it for their own propaganda purposes. It took decades before the Russian government admitted that the NKVD had committed the executions in 1940. However, in a report in April 1943, Downs relayed the Soviet denial published in Pravda after the Germans uncovered the site. He described the German announcement as "the latest gory German propaganda," and said that "the German story of this crime has too many holes in it to be believed."

Lawrence wrote that he ultimately concluded that the Germans had committed the atrocities at Katyn, but said that the evidence was contradictory. The manner of execution pointed toward the Soviets, but the postmortem handling of the victims was characteristic of the Nazis in 1941—the year that the murders had taken place, according to Soviet officials who denied responsibility.

Lawrence wrote that "all my skepticism about war crimes and atrocities vanished" after visiting the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp that had been operated in Poland by the Nazis until its liberation in July 1944. He described, in graphic detail, what he called "the most terrible place on the face of the earth" in an article published on August 30, 1944 titled "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp." He wrote:

This is a place that must be seen to be believed. I have been present at numerous atrocity investigations in the Soviet Union, but never have I been confronted with such complete evidence, clearly establishing every allegation made by those investigating German crimes.

After inspection of Maidanek, I am now prepared to believe any story of German atrocities, no matter how savage, cruel and depraved.

Many news outlets were deeply insufficient in their reporting on the atrocities against Jews. Lipstadt writes that "as late as 1944 eyewitness accounts, particularly those of survivors, were not considered irrefutable evidence even if they came from independent sources and corroborated one another. The press often categorized them as prejudiced or exaggerated." She quotes Kenneth McCaleb, the war editor of the New York Daily Mirror, who said that foreigners were seen as having an "axe to grind" against the Germans.

Downs' Experience

Bill Downs, for his part, was greatly affected by what he had seen in the year he spent in Moscow. Cloud and Olson (1996) write that Downs told friends upon his return home that "coming back . . . is something like stepping out of a St. Valentine's Day massacre into a Sunday school classroom." They quote a letter to his parents in which he said that "I've seen more bodies than I care to remember." In a 1946 manuscript, Downs wrote:

When I returned to the United States from Soviet Russia early in 1944 I recounted what I had seen at Babi Yar. It received mixed reaction. People would look at me curiously. Obviously I had been taken in by Russian propaganda. My friends expressed pity. Others called me a liar. In fact, one fanatic wrote me a post card charging me with being a Russian agent and threatening my life.

This was, you remember, before we had landed in France. It was before we had uncovered the horror and brutality of Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau. But we saw what we saw. And I suppose skepticism over facts so horrible, details so stomach-wrenching, was not an unnatural reaction to the sheltered, inexperienced minds at home.

.    .    . 

The story of Babi Yar is an important story. A story which the world should remember in the coming days as our statesmen attempt to lay the foundations of peace. The mortar for this foundation is mixed with the blood of millions of people—American soldiers and the soldiers of a dozen other of our Allies. The blood let at Babi Yar also is in this foundation.

While accompanying the British Second Army on its advance toward Germany, Downs lamented the doubt and indifference in another letter to his parents dated October 21, 1944:
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 weaponswith some improvementsand 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 collect and print 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 guiltybecause 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 Europethe cruelty and ruthlessness and bestial killings and emasculations and dismemberment that has gone onwell, I'm afraid that we'll be too soft on them.

His disillusionment had only hardened by the end of the war. Cloud and Olson recount that, after visiting Auschwitz in 1945, Downs told friends he felt like shooting the first German he saw, and later said: "By the time the war ended, all our idealism was gone. . . . Our crusade had been won, but our white horses had been shot out from under us."

Several memorials have been erected in the decades since the Babyn Yar massacres, including one dedicated in 1991 to the Jewish victims fifty years after the first killings took place.

Menorah monument in Kyiv, Ukraine dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Babyn Yar massacres (source)

* The first two photographs are from Bill Downs' personal papers. The Russian-language captions were taken from notes taped to the back of each photo. The English captions include more detail and are thus not intended to be direct translations. The original captions are below.
First photo:

Оставшиеся в живых свидетели массовых казней десятков тысяч мирных жителей, совершенных немцами в окрестности Киева "Бабий яр". На снимке /слева направо/ Вилкис, Островский и давыдовю.

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис

Second photo:

"Бабий яр", где проводились немцами массовые расстрелы мирых жителей.

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис
This post was originally published in 2013. It previously included Lawrence's account as told in his memoir, rather than the Times article. That excerpt can be read here.

Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 195-196, 235.

Downs, Bill. "Blood at Babii Yar: Kiev's Atrocity Story," Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22. Accessible at:
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, April 8, 1943. William R. Downs Papers, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University Library, Washington, D.C.

Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, October 21, 1944. William R. Downs Papers.
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to John Desmond, December 26, 1951. William R. Downs Papers.

Lawrence, Bill. "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed," The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3. Accessible at:

Lawrence, Bill. "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp," The New York Times, August 30, 1944, pp. 1, 9. Accessible at:

Lawrence, Bill. Six Presidents, Too Many Wars. (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), pp. 91-100. Accessible at:

Leff, Laurel. Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 172.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. (New York: Free Press, 1985), pp. 244-248. Accessible at:

Peterson, Joan. "Iterations of Babi Yar." Journal of Ecumenical Studies. September 22, 2011. The Free Library. Accessible at: