March 31, 2014

1942. Bill Downs Meets Edward R. Murrow

Downs Meets Murrow in London
Bill Downs (left) and Edward R. Murrow in East Berlin standing under a Free German Youth banner in 1948
This excerpt from The Murrow Boys (pp. 154-156) tells in part the story of how Bill Downs first met Edward R. Murrow in London in September 1942:
In the late summer of 1942, when Larry LeSueur was becoming tired and frustrated after a year of covering the eastern front, Murrow began looking for someone to replace him in Moscow. Collingwood said they needed a "very good feature writer, someone to tell the anecdotes, give the flavor of life in wartime Russia, rather than just paraphrase communiqués." That, of course, was a backhanded slap at LeSueur. (As generous and charming as Charlie Collingwood was to most people throughout his life, he could be a devious competitor; this unfair little insult was just the first bud of what later became a full-flowered rivalry between him and LeSueur). Bill Downs, in UP's London bureau, was just the man for the job, Collingwood said.

Downs did have a flair for feature writing, but he was above all a hard-nosed reporter, the kind who "got the story, got it first, got it right." He wore thick glasses with heavy frames. He was short and had an ample, powerful build, an abundance of dark hair, and a loud growl of a voice that when raised (as it often was) gave new meaning to the concept of wrath. But more than yelling, Downs loved to laugh. And drink. And tell stories. And argue. In roughly that order. He hated pomposity. When he first arrived in London, he entered a pub on Washington's Birthday and loudly proposed a toast to the man "who kicked the hell out of the English army one hundred and fifty years ago." Bill Downs also had a fierce sense of integrity and honor. Ed Murrow took to him instantly.

Downs had grown up in Kansas City, and all he ever wanted to be was a reporter. His father, William Sr., was a Union Pacific railroad engineer, his mother a housewife with a third-grade education. During his father's long absences on the railroad, Bill—an only child for nine years, until his sister, Bonnie, came along—was doted on by his mother.

The family was never very poor. When business fell off during the Depression, the Union Pacific cut back on Downs's runs, but he always kept his job. Even so, Bill Jr. was expected to help pay for his schooling: two years at Wyandotte College and two years at the University of Kansas. One of his summer jobs was as a grain sampler, testing the quality of the wheat before it went to market. Downs had to climb to the top of huge silos and dive down into the "damn dusty stuff" and come up with a pint of sample wheat. It was a dirty, hot, dangerous job, but it helped strengthen Downs's already powerful physique. Later it turned out to have had another advantage: it was the kind of hard youthful work that always appealed to Ed Murrow. In school Downs was sports editor of his high school newspaper and manager of the paper at Wyandotte College. At the University of Kansas, which he entered in 1933, he was according to a college friend, John Malone, "the best and most prolific writer and reporter in the whole university."

In 1935 the campus paper, the Daily Kansan, went bankrupt. The next fall the newspaper's board appointed Malone publisher, and he in turn chose Downs as managing editor. Within a year the paper began to turn a profit, and it has operated successfully ever since. Malone gave most of the credit to the energetic, impatient Downs: "He was a great managing editor. He had the newsiest paper around, far better than the Kansas City papers." After college both Downs and Malone were hired by the UP for its Kansas City bureau, along with another Kansan (and recent University of Texas dropout) named Walter Cronkite.

Downs was immediately tagged as a comer at UP. Within a few months, he was transferred to the Denver bureau and not long after that to New York. In 1941 he was given the wire service's plum assignment—the London bureau, the war. He loved the speed and immediacy of wire-service work, but when Murrow approached him about the CBS job in September 1942, Downs didn't hesitate. "Not only will it establish my name," he wrote to his parents, "but the work is easier and I believe has more future." Not to mention a seventy-dollar-a-week salary and an expense account.

First, though, he was supposed to undergo the pro forma voice test. It did not go well. Even Murrow called it "terrible" and told Downs to try again. This time, Murrow said, just go to Piccadilly Circus and come back with a story describing what you saw. On his return, Downs talked about two GIs leaning against a wall, admiring the passing parade of women, most of them in slacks. Suddenly one of the soldiers spotted an American Red Cross worker in a skirt. "Look, Willie," he shouted. "Ankles." Downs's growling voice didn't improve in the second test, but Murrow loved the story so much that he hired him anyway.

In November, after receiving a little radio training from Collingwood, Downs was deemed ready for Moscow. He set off, equipped with a new ankle-length, fur-lined leather coat and matching fur-lined flying boots for protection against the Russian winter. Although Downs found the assignment in Moscow no easier than LeSueur did, he managed to demonstrate that he was the equal of his seniors on the Murrow team. In late January 1943, after the Red Army's siege of Nazi-occupied Stalingrad had finally forced a German surrender there, Downs and several other American correspondents were taken to see the ruins.

"Try and imagine," he told his listeners, "what four and a half months of the world's heaviest bombing would do to a city the size of Providence, Rhode Island, or Minneapolis or Oklahoma City." It was "utter and complete and absolute devastation." In a fifty-mile radius one could see only piles of bricks and rubble and corpses." Downs continued, "There are sights and smells and sounds in and around Stalingrad that make you want to weep and make you want to shout and make you just plain sick at your stomach."