October 18, 2013

1950. Downs and Murrow in Korea

Letters From Korea
Edward R. Murrow and Bill Downs in Korea

Bill Downs and Edward R. Murrow were among the many war correspondents who covered the Korean War. Below are some abridged letters sent home from Downs to his wife. He writes of his experiences with fellow correspondents, military censorship, and life in Korea.

July 13, 1950

                I’ve got a few minutes to write…this area is a shambles, no communications, conflicting reports of what’s going on. Even in Tokyo we have to start from scratch since some genius closed us up out here. In other words, all work and no fun.
                The trip to Korea was a nightmare. You have to clear all of MacArthur’s red tape first, then you catch a 3 AM plane, you go to an airfield six hours away in southern Japan, then the rain falls in torrents, then there is a report that your airfield has fallen (which is untrue), then finally you climb aboard a plane-load of bombs and they set you down at another airfield a hundred miles away from your destination. After reaching Taejon, the troubles just begin. No transportation. So you hitchhike to headquarters, check in, lug your baggage to the correspondents’ billets and pick a soft place on the floor. Then you start to hitchhike to the front with a GI driver who doesn't know where he’s going. Then you arrive at headquarters, get a briefing, go forward, get shot at and run like hell lugging your tape recorder behind you. After you get out, you find the batteries have failed.
                On the way back you hitch another ride. The driver loses his way and you end up in southern Korea almost to the coast. You backtrack and arrive about midnight on an 8 hour trip in a truck over the worst roads in the world. It should have taken an hour and a half. You scrounge a blanket, try to sleep on the floor but fleas and mosquitoes won’t let you. The next day you take your recordings and get the hell out. That’s about it.
                By the time you get this, I’ll be on another story which you will be reading about. Don't worry, it doesn't look too difficult. I missed Marguerite [Higgins] in Taejon, such was the confusion and the haste. Frank Noel is now coming over, which will break the boredom of this area. Marguerite, incidentally, has managed to make every correspondent over here despise her…but she doesn't appear to mind.
                [Bill] Costello is up to his ears in work and routine. Also Bill Nuckols and Alice just arrived in town yesterday…he’s on permanent assignment. Sends his regards. You’ll be happy to know that I’m on my fifth day of a beard. If it comes out all right, I might bring it home with me. Anyway, I’ll send you a picture of it if anything develops. It’s pretty horrible looking right now.
                I forgot to tell you that Bill Dunn also showed up working for NBC. He’s lost a lot of weight and feels fine. We hope to find time for a golf game one of these days.
                Only diversion so far was a Japanese meal of sliced pork, raw fish and sukiyaki---plus geisha girls to pour the sake (nothing else). We seem to work around the clock. The 8 AM shows for NY are broadcast here at 10 PM. We record for the 7:45 at 2 AM. [Eric] Sevareid show is at 1 PM. No one is getting much sleep…it’s ungodly hot and if you aren't wet with sweat you are wet with rain. In other words, stay away. As soon as we get lined out here and I can retreat, I’ll let you know about Hawaii. It can be arranged.
                I hope you found the house we want. I’ll be ready for something sensible to do after this debacle. But it looks like victory may be a long time in the making…if we ever achieve a complete victory here. I don’t know.

The aforementioned beard

July 24, 1950
                Just a few lines before shoving off for a broadcast…it’s how, sweltering, sweat is dripping down my beard which is this (---) long. I look and feel like a character off skid row. As you know, Murrow arrived with your letter. Then another arrived, plus a dispatch from Bienstock which is called an “Absolute Assignment” giving you control of my insurance so that you can buy the house. You now have me in your power.
                I’m enclosing a letter from Leonard Miall in which you will be interested. Keep it and then next time you get a chance call him and see if everything is okay with the car. Sounds all right. Also enclosing a picture form the Nippon Times which does not do justice to my hirsute accomplishments. As you can see, laughing William Lawrence did not get married. Still has tears in his eyes and now trying to forget it all among the Korean Fleas.
                Finally I am getting W. Costello to the front for a look as well as Pepper Martin. We have been sitting with our thumbs you know where for the past week…but since this is a relay job, I said that I wouldn't go back until someone else took a crack at it. Murrow and I are going over towards the end of the week. Meanwhile I have been doing nothing but trying to get tape recorders to work. Turned engineer, I have. Murrow took one for the little darlings along on his operational flight…it came out sounding like the inside of a Mixmaster but he managed to salvage 30 seconds.
                I’m told that Jack Jefferson is coming over…which is good news and will put me into a position to disengage…a term I’m fond of. [Higgins is] going back to the front to get loused up again. I think she’s got a suicide complex. No kidding, she’s nuts…wants to call off the thing with Will Hall. And he’s breaking his neck to get over here. I suggest we keep out of it.  

The next letter is missing the second page.

July 30, 1950
                I’m just preparing to shove off for Korea for a week or so. It’s ungodly hot here and I sweat by the gallons…haven't lost much weight though. My beard is not very successful. After a few more days and some pictures, I’m shaving it off. Just thought you should see the experiment, that's all.
                As you know, Jack Jefferson is coming out here. Murrow is collaborating with me to get both of us back in September or thereabouts. The idea is that the experts figure the weight of the news will shift back to Europe in the fall (I'm doubtful of this). But nevertheless, my "disengaging" program from this part of the world is underway. The local picture on Korea is getting better, I believe…but the overall picture in the Far East is getting worse. The dilemma is that Russia can afford even less than we to take a defeat in Korea…and when and if we look like winning, then she will probably move somewhere else in this part of the world. I want to get back before this happens or I might be stuck here for months. On the other hand, there may be a move in Europe which will take interest away from here…then I can probably return to fill the resultant gaps in Washington.
                Murrow is out with the B-29s today. The more I see of the guy, the more respect I have for him. He turned down the VIP treatment to bunk in with the jammed up Press Club facilities. Saw John Osborne of Life last night. He’s going to Korea in a couple of days too. M. and I had dinner with Bill and Alice Nuckols the other night. She still looks like a potential president of the women’s auxiliary of AA. Sends her best.
                Moseley has managed to screw up a couple of things in San Francisco and Murrow is for sacking him. He failed to send the first broadcast out of Korea by Costello…said there was nothing new in the content.
                Also Murrow and I were talking about the “great return.” We discussed Honolulu…the possibility of meeting you and Janet there. But since that is the long way home by PanAm, we are in the process of concocting a scheme which sounds good at the moment.
Downs and Murrow returned to Korea sporadically throughout the war. In a Christmas Eve, 1952 episode of See It Now entitled "Christmas in Korea," Murrow interviews American soldiers stationed on the peninsula. Downs makes a brief appearance.

August 8, 1950
                I’m back to cure my flea bites and to get some rest. Honest to god, that Korea…
                I spent a lot of time in Pusan, as you probably have gathered. The town has one paved street, some streetcars, a good port and that’s about it. Except millions of bugs and Koreans. The only thing that saved the day was a half-dozen bottles of Scotch I was farseeing enough to bring along. Slept on the floor most of the time, no baths…and people started to walk to the windward of me.
                Met the Marines and rode the rods on a flatcar with a tank to the front. Forgot about all the tunnels and when we arrived, I looked like the kind of the hobos. Spent a day at the front…most unpleasant and came home. I had a hunch about the offensive. Too damn many Koreans again. Their battle intelligence is terrific. We’re going to have one hell of a time before this is over…if ever it is.
                Murrow worked the north, I the south. Didn't see Boyle or Lawrence this trip. Probably see them next week. I've been thinking about doing an expense account…but find that it includes our arrival in Washington and have drawn a blank there. I’ll think of something.
                Bob Considine arrived the other day…he’ll be leaving soon…and I’ll have him give you a ring. Jack Jefferson is due here within the next few days. I don’t know how my disengagement plan is coming off…that’s the reason I asked you about it the other day.
                New York is being so fussy about the quality of recordings we have been doing by phone from Korea that everyone here is furious. For example, they refused to take a frontline piece by Murrow after the attack. I heard it played back from San Francisco, and while it was not studio quality, it was extremely dramatic and understandable. I raised hell saying they don’t fight wars in studios…but anyhow had to get up and 4 AM and do a digest for him.
                I took TV pictures like mad but don’t know whether they have been used or what. We have recorders over here galore…but most of them are out of whack. 
Downs somewhere in Korea

August 14, 1950
                Just thought I would report to you that the situation is well in hand. Joe Alsop just showed up. He’s going to Korea, the best excuse yet I have to stay away from the place. As you have heard, Christopher Buckley was killed. I don’t know whether you met him or not, but he was one of my favorite Englishmen. We were on the Normandy show together. Everyone is depressed by the mounting casualty list and there are less and less chances being taken…except by Marguerite and Homer Bigart…one or the other is going to get it one of these days. Telling them doesn’t help.
                Costello is going over this week. I’ll be able to go back for another session after that…if we aren’t off the peninsula by then. (joke)
                Murrow leaves on the 16th and is bearing gifts…as is Barney Oldfield, who left the day before yesterday with a birthday gift for you. I am sending along the Seven Happy Gods of the Orient—originally Chinese but adopted by the Japs. Now my problem is to identify them. When you get the happy seven, there may be no explanation but I’ll send it along later. Also sending a Kimono for Will. Would you like one? Okay, I’ll get it.
                The other news is that Chester told Murrow that he plans to replace me here about September 1. I don’t know who is coming out. We are thinking of hiring a man here. At any rate, the disengaging process is on. I hope they get the sewers in before I return.
                Your description of the house sounds wonderful. Only a couple of things I’d like to know further. Is it brick or what…does it have a basement…what kind of heating facilities? If you get a chance, take a picture of it and pass it along.
                I have to finish this so that Murrow can take it back with him. They moved his plane up a day. Apparently he’s got to go to Europe after this trip…I don’t envy him at all.