February 2, 2017

War Correspondents Recall World War II with Dan Rather

Remembering the War Forty Years Later

In 1985, World War II correspondents joined Dan Rather on CBS Morning News to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The broadcast features Walter Cronkite, William L. Shirer, Winston Burdett, Eric Sevareid, Richard C. Hottelet, Andy Rooney, Ernest Leiser, Charles Collingwood, and Douglas Edwards.
May 6, 1985

DAN RATHER: Good morning, I'm Dan Rather in London. Forty years ago this week, the Great War in Europe came to an end. It simply isn't possible to summarize all the ways in which that war changed the world. Tens of millions of lives were lost or shattered, and the map of the world was redrawn in ways few could have imagined.

What is possible is to talk with an extraordinary group of men—the witnesses, the chroniclers, the war correspondents. The men historians will turn to to try to understand one of the great tragedies in human history.

(archive footage introductions)

WALTER CRONKITE: I'm just back from the biggest assignment that any American reporter could have so far in this war: covering the occupation of North Africa by American troops.

RATHER: Walter Cronkite, United Press.

WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Hello America, hello CBS. This is William L. Shirer speaking to you from Berlin.

RATHER: William L. Shirer, CBS News.

WINSTON BURDETT: This is Rome. The people of this ancient and still splendid capital have seldom celebrated such a riotous holiday as they did today.

RATHER: Winston Burdett, CBS News.

ERIC SEVAREID: The battle to clear the Rhineland has gone well this Sunday. Nothing sensational, but good, steady progress all along the fronts with no setbacks anywhere...

RATHER: Eric Sevareid, also of CBS News.

RICHARD C. HOTTELET: For the time being we won't be able to give you very much firsthand information on how things look and work on the Russian front of the line, because we're not allowed to go across the Elbe anymore.

RATHER: Richard C. Hottelet, CBS News.

ANDY ROONEY: There was a mad scene of jubilant celebration on the East and West banks of the Elbe at Torgau today as infantrymen of Lieutenant General Hodge's First United States Army swapped K-rations for vodka.

RATHER: Andy Rooney, Stars and Stripes.

ERNEST LEISER: Berlin, the capital of defeat, today is a charred, stinking, broken skeleton of the city.

RATHER: Ernest Leiser, Stars and Stripes.

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD: Germany surrendered at 2:45 on the morning of May 7, 1945.

RATHER: Charles Collingwood, CBS News.

DOUGLAS EDWARDS: It was Victory Day, a Victory Day that comes not many times in a lifetime. And this is London returning you now to CBS in New York.

RATHER: Douglas Edwards, CBS News.

We brought these nine men here to the Café Royal in London, where some of them dined and drank and gossiped. It was through their eyes and ears and voices that Americans saw and heard the Great War.

Walter Cronkite, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, as you sit here and think about the war ending forty years ago, what is the first memory that comes into your mind? Walter?

CRONKITE: Good gracious that's a long time ago, I think. Well, obviously the relief that the killing was over and I think there was a very subjective feeling on my part at least that the possible killing of Walter Cronkite was over for a while.

RATHER: Can you remember when you were most afraid?

CRONKITE: Oh, which day would you like to have, 9:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 3:00 PM?

I think probably the most—well I think the most frightening was when I was caught in a ditch with Bill Downs—the late Bill Downs, who's a memory for all of us here—he and I were caught in a ditch in the Netherlands under very heavy fire. We just got too far advanced, as all of us did at one time or another. Got up there and they brought us under mortar fire and then small arms fire, and our driver and we too were in that ditch and I didn't think there was any way out of that one. And we were there for quite a little while—well, probably a minute! (laughter)

No, we were there some minutes, but it certainly seemed a lot longer than that. And I remember the only bright moment of it—Downs had a great, indomitable sense of humor, and he tugged on my pants leg—I was lying in front of him in this ditch—he tugged on my pants leg and I thought maybe he had some great solution for getting us out of there, and I turned around and said "Yeah," you know, shouting at him, "What?" He said, "Just think! These are the good old days!" (laughter)

RATHER: Winston Burdett, you said you knew a story on Eric Sevareid and the liberation of Rome.

BURDETT: Well, the liberation of Rome was one of those glorious days, those freezing days, short moments in which all the hardships and sacrifices of the recent past give way to hope and expectation for the future. That mood does not last long.

As to Eric, I remember particularly Eric in an open jeep—sitting in front of an open jeep in the motorcade as it moved down the narrow principal street of Old Rome.

Eric, very splendid in army uniform, and the beautiful women of Rome out in their finest dress for the occasion and, being particularly struck by Eric, applauding him, evidently mistaking him for the victory general.

SEVAREID: My old man's memory fails entirely.

RATHER: Charles Collingwood, you were laughing at that story about Eric Sevareid, but now who around this table knows the story of Collingwood's conquest of Paris, when Paris was liberated? Any volunteers?

ROONEY: Well, I can't tell a story on Charles but I came in August 24 and I remember I was a good friend of Ernie Pyle's and we got up to the balcony of the Grand Hotel and there was this scene of wild jubilation below us and everybody was hugging and kissing. And Ernie Pyle, who was not given to this kind of thought, looked down and he said, "Any man who doesn't sleep with a woman tonight is a sissy." (laughter)

COLLINGWOOD: Well, it was quite a scene, I tell you that.

They were fighting around they Place de la Concorde, so I said to Bill Walton of Time and Life who was with me in a jeep, "Let's go up and liberate Montmartre." So we did!

Montmartre is full of gangsters, as you know, and they're very used to weapons. Well, they greeted us as heroes, and I was the only one who spoke even passable French, so I had to get out on the balcony of a hotel and make a speech to the crowd below—all these hoods.

RATHER: What did you tell them, Charles?

COLLINGWOOD: Oh, well I started out with lots of ties of amitié between our two great countries, it's a historical tie. But we had a splendid liberation. We were a privileged lot, gentlemen.

RATHER: Eric Sevareid, I wanted to ask you and Richard C. Hottelet. Did you know, Eric, around the time of the first Allied bombing of the Rhine that Dick was in a bomber flying toward (?).

SEVAREID: No. It was up—what was it, a B-17?

HOTTELET: I was in the command Fortress of the Troop Carrier Command.

SEVAREID: I was on the ground. I found out that he was in the neighborhood while I was trying to do a broadcast from the radio van, and he appeared in the rear entrance holding a vast wad of white silk, shouting at me to tell New York to put him on the air. He got—he ruined my broadcast, but he got a good—(laughter)

RATHER: But you were one of the early broadcast pioneers. You were one of Ed Murrow's Boys. Did you have a sense at that time—as you were almost literally there when broadcast journalism was born—did you have a sense of its potential then?

SEVAREID: I didn't. I was so damn scared of the whole medium and it took me a while to grasp, but—what was going on?—I hadn't been back to the States for several years. And until I went back at the end of '40 I didn't get the impact of what we were doing; we were just talking in a piece of metal here. I never knew if anybody heard it.

CRONKITE: What these people are too modest to say, but I can say, and Andy and Ernie and I can say, and we're the only ones I think who can say that.

RATHER: You were working in print while they were working in broadcasting.

CRONKITE: We were in print. These men made broadcast journalism what it is today. These men, sitting at this table, made it. The Murrow team made it. Nobody else was doing it. Nobody else had realized the potential. Murrow put together this team who were wordsmiths and could graphically on radio tell you what they were seeing. It was better in some ways than television today, even as a good novel is sometimes better than the movie that was made out of it.

RATHER: Because it was so descriptive?

CRONKITE: It was descriptive, it had emotion, it had the realism of the event—being there, you heard the background noises taking place. And these pioneers deserve, I think, some credit—that we gotta build a memorial somewhere.

RATHER: We'll have more on tomorrow morning's CBS Morning News from the war correspondents.