July 17, 2014

1944. Bill Downs and Walter Cronkite Trapped in the Low Countries

"The Good Old Days"

The story told by Walter Cronkite in the video above is one of the most often repeated anecdote about Bill Downs, and it appears across many publications. The actual quote—usually something similar to "these are the good old days!"—varies among sources. It recounts the events of September 1944, when Downs and Cronkite were trapped and separated near the front lines in Belgium during a Luftwaffe air raid as they covered Operation Market Garden.

There are a number of versions of this particular story, and Cronkite himself wrote his own recollection in 1963. Each retelling appears to vary slightly, with new details in each.

As recounted by Cronkite on January 8, 1963:

By Walter Cronkite,
CBS News Correspondent
Walter Cronkite, a United Press correspondent during World War II, revisited the scene where he had dropped with the U.S. Airborne Division, for the "Twentieth Century" documentary "Air Drop at Arnhem," a report on the largest airborne operation in military history, which ended in disaster. The report will be broadcast on the CBS Television Network Sunday, Jan. 20 from 6:00 to 6:30 PM, EST, with Cronkite as the narrator.

I was either one of the luckiest or among the unluckiest correspondents in World War II, depending on one's point of view. I was picked as pool correspondent to drop into Holland with the 101st U.S. Airborne Division, under the command of Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor. The objective of the Allied Airborne Army (82nd U.S. Airborne Division, 101st Division and the 1st Airborne Division) was to end the war in 1944 by making an end-run around the Siegfried Line at Arnhem and sweeping down into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany.

Prior to the air drop at Arnhem, the Allied Airborne Army had been scheduled to go into action on 16 different occasions. Each time the correspondents would draw to see who would be pool man. I was winner 13 of the 16 times. From July until September I was constantly on alert. Awakened at night (it always happened at 3:00 in the morning), I would be driven out to some secret base in England, there to wait...Sometimes my drop-mates were Poles and Czechs, desperate men, blackened faces and all. One time we actually were in the planes, propellers spinning, when a soldier in a jeep came tearing across the field to tell us the drop had been called off. The reason the airborne operations were called off was Gen. Patton's swift advance across France, securing the areas before the airborne troops could drop into them.

On Sept. 17, 1944, we finally made it—20,000 men in 1,544 planes, 478 gliders.

My fellow correspondents advised me not to go by glider. It was much more dangerous than dropping by parachute, they told me. But, on this drop I was assigned to glide, and glide I did. Unfortunately, no one had told me the technique used in glider landings. I later learned that the pilot, after being cut loose from the tow-plane, puts the nose down and dives, thus making a fast-moving, hard-to-hit target. In short, the glider drops like a stone. Then after leveling out and touching down, the pilot slams the nose into the ground, bringing the craft to an abrupt halt—usually with the shattered tail waving in the air. In this correspondent's opinion, glider pilots were among the war's most courageous men.

When I landed with the 101st near Eindhoven, our pilots proved to be a classicist. Men, helmets and gear flew like shrapnel around the interior of our deliberately crashed glider. I grabbed a helmet from the debris and ran across the field to where I saw others heading. Stopped by enemy fire, an officer pounding along next to me, shouted, "Major, are you sure that is the rendezvous point?" I told him I wasn't sure at all, and, in addition, wasn't a major. "Then why are you wearing that helmet?" he yelled indignantly. I had picked the wrong one.

After staying with the 101st for two days, I joined up with Bill Downs, CBS News correspondent attached to the British Second Army, the ground troops which were driving up the Eindhoven-Nijmegen-Arnhem road in an effort to link with the three airborne divisions.

We set out to find brigade headquarters at Eindhoven, on the outskirts of which the Germans still fought. At dusk, we were driving down a road next to a park when the Germans started bombing. We pulled our jeep under some trees and Downs unlimbered his recorder. But the first string of bombs fell in perfect pattern across the park, straddling us. Bill and I vaulted the fence into the park. How, I'll never know. Afterwards, as I prepared a more leisurely departure from the park, that spiked fence loomed six feet.

In addition, the Germans sowed the woods with small anti-personnel mines. After the raid, I went looking through those mine-infested woods for Downs, shouting his name over and over. He was gone, vanished. Finally, I found the jeep and recorded a tribute to my gallant colleague. I found out later the recorder hadn't been working—probably fortunately, considering the nature of that particular corn!

A few days later, the loss of Downs still weighing heavily, I walked into the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. There was Downs at the bar, friendly and unharmed.

I was indignant. I told him I had walked for hours seeking him or his body through that potentially German-infested, certainly mined woods shouting his name until I was hoarse. Had he done the same for me?

"Are you nuts?" said Downs. "Going through those words shouting 'Cronkite, Cronkite' I'd have ended up in a Berlin hospital."

Downs' point was well taken. "Cronkite" is Dutch and after 280 years of Americanization doesn't mean much of anything, but a German word that sounds very much like it means, clearly and understandably, "sickness."
Downs' receipt from the Hotel Métropole in Brussels
This account is from Cronkite (2012) by Douglas Brinkley, pp. 120-121:
A number of Cronkite's great war stories came from Market Garden. His sidekick in the flat Dutch countryside was frequently Bill Downs of CBS, a former Unipresser and Cronkite's closest friend among the Murrow Boys. With Downs as his constant companion, Cronkite maneuvered around the shifting battlefields of rural Belgium and the Netherlands that month. Downs, who had been attached to the British Second Army, and Cronkite were in rural Belgium when a merciless Luftwaffe strafing occurred. They sprinted together to the nearby forest for cover. Soon they were separated. Cronkite called out to Downs, but to no avail.  He feared for his friend's life. For hours Cronkite shouted for Downs until his voice was hoarse. Once back in Brussels, he told friends that poor Downs was missing in action. Then one evening, Cronkite headed over to the Hotel Metropole for a cocktail. To his astonishment, there was Downs, sitting at the bar with friends, having a gay old time. A wave of anger swept over Cronkite as he headed to Downs's table.

"I thought you'd been killed," he said. "I went through the woods calling your name."

An embarrassed Downs had an alibi. "I couldn't go around calling your name," he said. "They'd think I was shouting in German."
As told in Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle (2012) by Timothy M. Gay:
As the dive-bombers struck, Cronkite was in a jeep with his old UP pal from Kansas City, bespectacled CBS Radio correspondent Bill Downs, the reporter that Murrow had wanted Cronkite to replace in Russia. Cronkite and Downs were driving near the Philips Electric works complex when bombs began falling. They jumped out of the jeep and vaulted over a tall fence into a park. There they huddled behind chopped-down trees as bombs pounded all around. Neither knew how, but they became separated.
With incendiary fires raging, Eindhoven looked sickeningly familiar to Cronkite: London during the Little Blitz. Cronkite knew about the Luftwaffe's dastardly "butterfly" bombs that tended to lodge in trees and bushes before detonating. So as he went looking for Downs, he had one eye peeled on the limbs overhead and the other scoping the ground for mines.

Cronkite decided to get out of the woods and go back to the jeep. When he retraced his steps, he was astounded to find that the fence over which he and Downs had scrambled was more than seven feet tall. Without an adrenaline surge like the one he'd had earlier, Cronkite couldn't possibly climb it. He had to find a downed tree whose trunk was close enough to the fence to use as a makeshift stepladder.

Downs was nowhere to be found. Cronkite even checked Eindhoven's bomb shelters; no one had seen him. In one shelter a Dutch family with sobbing children spotted Cronkite's uniform and began pressing him about when the bombing would stop—which, of course, he couldn't answer. He went back to the jeep, found Downs' tape machine, and recorded a heartfelt tribute, praying someone would find it—and, eventually, Downs' body, too.

Then Cronkite hitched a ride to Brussels, where he hoped to find a warm bath, better wire facilities, and more malleable censors than the 101st's tight asses, which barely let reporters acknowledge that the division was in Holland and cramped their time on transmitters.

Cronkite found a room at Brussels' Hôtel Métropole and, still dirty head to toe, decided to toast his departed friend with a quick drink at the bar. "There stood Downs," Cronkite recalled, "immaculate in a clean dress uniform."

"Damn, Bill, I spent all that time at risk of life and limb from those mines yelling for you, looking for you, and you just up and left me there."

Downs' excuse was that, after a few minutes of rasping "Cronkite! Cronkite!" it occurred to him that his friend’s name sounded disconcertedly like the German word for "sickness." If any enemy soldiers encountered Downs, "They would have figured I was sick and hustled me off to a hospital in Berlin." Cronkite couldn't help but laugh.

A few days later Downs and Cronkite were back in Holland with the 101st, which was fighting off another German attempt to regain control of the highway north of Eindhoven. In the midst of lethal mortar fire, Downs and Cronkite leapt into a ditch.

"We had been there a while when Downs, lying behind me, began tugging at my pants leg. I figured he had some scheme for getting us out of there, and I twisted my neck around to look back at him," Cronkite recalled.

"Just think!" Downs hollered. "If we survive them, these will be the good old days!"