November 6, 2014

1940. Downs Sets Off for London

London Bound
"SS Excambion (I) commenced sailing in 1931. The SS Excambion became the troopship USS John Penn, but she was sunk by a Japanese torpedo bomber off Guadalcanal on 13 August 1943" (Photo by Roger Scozzafava - source)
Bill Downs wrote these letters home describing his trip to Europe en route to cover the war as a wire reporter for the United Press' London bureau. The ellipses mark illegible portions of the letters.
November 24, 1940

(From New York)


Since I have been notified that I'll be playing left field for the London staff within the next couple of weeks, things have been so goddam jammed—a Downs bottleneck, and I do mean bottle—that individual letters to you chums is an impossibility. So you'll have to content yourselves with a chain letter. (Make five copies, send them to the most luscious brown-eyed blondes you know with transportation to New York and I'll do what I can for them. If you break this chain, may your whiskey turn to water.)

It seems that I leave America on November 30 aboard the S.S. Excambion, go to Lisbon and Madame Olga's—which is a bigger port for Americans than anything left in Europe I understand—and from there fly to London. All this of course if the draft board, the State Department, Portuguese authorities, British customs, the Germans, and God don't care particularly.

The idea is for me to stay there until you gents come over . . . Meantime, I'll be trying to keep up a 1,000 average with little screamers, incendiaries, and Bosch bombs. I absolutely refuse to have anything to do with aerial torpedoes or nasty things over 1,000 lbs. Sorry.

I am looking forward to life in an air raid shelter and promise to hand along any techniques which you guys might want to practice with the covers pulled over your heads. In return, you must agree to keep that vast army of charmers stretching from Denver to the Atlantic imbued with that old spirit—it usually takes less than a quart. And for God's sake and mine, just occasionally mention my name to keep those home fires burning pending my return. I absolutely will stand for no sabotage.

Meanwhile, give my regards to one and all and don't be too long about dropping over to my place in line to the subway. You all might even air-mail me a letter or two.


P.S. — I absolutely cannot write to 50 people from London, so I'll have to take turns.

December 12, 1940
(From Lisbon) 
Dear Mom, Dad and Bonnie Lee —

I'm writing this aboard ship on the last day out and I'll have it carried back by anyone I can find to get it to you the fastest route possible. The crossing has been fine with good weather all the way and not even a tinge of seasickness. About all I have been doing for the past 11 days is eating and sleeping and the results already can be seen in my waistline.

I think I have run on to a scoop already and have to wait until I see how I can get the story out of Europe before I can tell. Another bit of good luck was winning about 75 in a card game with the captain. He and I got to be good friends and he tipped me off to plenty of minor yarns which might make good reading sooner or later. The people on board are a strange lot, all of them either returning to their homes in Europe or getting new jobs in the war zone. Among them is the Marquise de Montrichard, a young American girl going to join her husband in France, with whom I also became friends. Three Italian naval officials also are here and are pretty good guys. Otherwise there are few on the passenger list worthy of mention.

The first evidence of the war we saw was in Bermuda. There, contraband control officers questioned everyone—they were exceedingly nice to me since I was en route to London—but they confiscated all food that might be taken to the war zones and took such things as soap and matches. They didn't even search my cabin, so I lost nothing. Two days ago we sighted a British cruiser on the horizon. It followed us for a while, evidently looking us over, but then turned about and left.

I still do not know when I will get to London or how long I'll stay in Lisbon. I should like to stick around Portugal for a while and see what goes on. There is plenty doing there if someone only took the trouble to dig it out. The place is crowded with refugees trying to get to America, and I understand hotel rates are terrific. However, with my new winnings added to my original pot, I should have no trouble. Anyway, it's going to cost the United Press and not me.

I met an Englishman who got off at Bermuda who gave me some addresses of his friends and a club to which he belongs. I'm supposed to look them up, but I'm not sure that I will. He took me to his club in Bermuda for a drink and showed me the town. There's not much there except a bunch of censorship officials, Scottish troops, and a few American sailors working on the new defense naval base there. It is a provincial sort of place. The roofs of the houses all are whitewashed so that rain water won't be contaminated. It's the only fresh water they have on the islands. Luckily, it rains almost every day.

The ship's officers and crew are a nice bunch of fellows. They have a lot of fun razzing me because I'm from Kansas, but I refused to get seasick. The captain wants me to go with him to the big casino near Lisbon where the American colony is. I don't know whether I can make it, but I might find out something interesting there.

I've got some last minute work and packing to do now and will write you again in Lisbon and then from London.

Don't worry about me. Thus far I've had a lot of breaks and the whole thing is a breeze. I believe there is a minimum of danger. Drop me a line in care of the London bureau and give me the latest news.

Love to all, 

January 3, 1941
(From London)

dear mom dad and bonnie lee —

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

The winters here remind me of Kansas City—they're that cold. But I'm living comfortably and well fed. New Year's Eve was one of the quietest I've spent in years. I was in bed by 11:30 because of nothing to do and saw the new year in reading a book. Actually, this blackout is very good on the morals, the pocketbook, and the constitution. I'm drinking less than I have in years and working harder. American women admittedly have more on the ball, it seems. But I'll scare up somethings. The theaters start their last shows at 5:30 PM so I have little opportunity to see them getting off later than that from work.

I work six days a week, of course, with my day off changed so far every week. They are pretty nice about shifting working hours around, and it works out that I won't be on any steady day or night track, I don't believe. I'm practically editor for the whole of Europe. Consequently I'm spending plenty of time reading up on my history and economics and such stuff. After I get that taken care of, I think maybe I'll study some French—it really comes in handy. I'm saving some money to buy myself a suit. I can get a good one for about $40—hand tailored with some of that fine English wool that costs like hell in the States. It surely is a good feeling not to be in debt, and if I can I'm going to keep it that way. However, living is not a cheap proposition here—but I have little to spend it on. Consequently, I should be able to save something I was glad to get your letters—and trust that you had the traditional New Year's brawl in the basement. I also would like to know if you ever received the books. There were about $50 worth of them there and I hope they arrived okay.

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

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

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