March 11, 2019

1942. Bill Downs Prepares for Moscow Trip

CBS Sends Downs to Russia
Bill Downs' Soviet ID: "The People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs certifies that [Bill Downs] registered as a correspondent."
Bill Downs wrote these letters home to his family in Kansas City, Kansas shortly after being hired by Edward R. Murrow to take over for Larry LeSueur as the CBS correspondent in Moscow.
September 28, 1942

Dear Folks,

Well, I'm now with CBS and waiting to do my first broadcast which should come off some time next week. The trip to Russia is all set and I should be ready to leave sometime "before Xmas." I think I'll be traveling by the northern route by way of Murmansk although this is uncertain. The trip to Moscow should not be very dangerous now with winter coming on so there really is nothing to worry about. As I get it I'll be broadcasting about five times a week.

On the whole the job looks pretty good. It's surprising to be out from under the pressure of agency work. You don't have all the deadlines to meet. You actually only work a few minutes a day although it might take a full sixteen hours to gather the material for a broadcast. I have a lot to learn about technique—and hope to get that lined out before I get to Moscow. I also start some Russian lessons here in London next week. It seems a hopeless language to try to learn but they tell me it's really not as difficult as it appears at first.

All in all I'm pretty thrilled about the whole thing. My salary will be deposited in New York for me until I return. I'm buying heavy underwear, fur coats and gloves like mad. CBS pays for all the special kit I need and I'm picking up plenty of it. How I'm going to carry everything I need I don't know—but I'll manage somehow, I guess. The boys in Moscow already are cabling me to bring them such things as extra pipes, socks and neckties. Larry LeSueur, who I'm replacing out there, said he's leaving me a well-trained secretary—whatever that means. I'll probably stay at the Hotel Metropol where all the other correspondents stay. It's not going to be comfortable but it sure should be interesting.

I'm already trying to line up some British newspapers so that I can pick up some extra dough by writing articles for them. I also am negotiating with Newsweek magazine to do a weekly piece for them. I'm lining up an agent in New York to handle whatever articles I can write from there. All in all the assignment is shaping into something big and I am determined to make a success of it.

I'm sure busy and haven't had much time to write. In fact, I'm squeezing this letter in between appointments so I will have to keep it short. Meanwhile drop me a line and give everyone my regards.



November 25, 1942

(Somewhere on the Atlantic)

Dear Mom, Dad and Bonnie Lee,

I don't know just where this will be mailed from or when you will get it. But I have now been aboard ship for almost three weeks and we're still going strong. It has been a pleasant trip so far with very little rough weather and now that we are getting into the tropics, I am picking up a sunburn that should look very funny if and when I get to Moscow. However, with the developments in North Africa, God knows where the company will send me. There is some possibility that I will be diverted to the North African theater of war—however I still want to get to Russia.

In many ways this has been a funny trip. There are over 200 passengers, all of them going on some kind of governmental and military missions. Consequentially everyone walks around with that knowing air of secrecy common to minor government officials and everyone gossips and guesses about everyone else. Our ship is an old one that should have been retired to the scrap heap shortly after the last war. However she is not too uncomfortable although the accommodations are a little on the Chic Sale side. I am traveling first class which means that I share a cabin with four other fellows—a British journalist, a Free French sailor and a photographic expert. We have gotten along fine so far with only occasional outbursts of "cabin fever."

But the biggest shortage is women. There are about a dozen women aboard of which only about four are worth consideration. You can imagine the time they are having with the extremely large plurality of men. However the boat is so crowded that immorality is next to impossible—but there have been several demonstrations that where there is a will there sure is a way.

The liquor aboard is extremely cheap and extremely good. For example, first class French champagne (impossible to get in London) sells here for about $2.50. And there are still some Rhenish and Moselle wines left such as Liebfraumilch and still some German Hock.

The funniest thing about the whole trip, however, is the way you have to line up for everything. You line up for food, for baths, for drink and it is a grand sight in the morning to see an Earl standing in his place behind a dock-worker waiting for a seat on the toilet. There is something grandiloquent and almost Episcopal about the slow moving of the bowels in the post-breakfast ceremony on the ship's only bathroom.

But the worst thing about the whole trip is the feeling of being completely isolated and cut off from the world. The day we left port the Americans marched into North Africa. I knew something like that was coming off but I didn't expect it so soon. At first the news was easy to pick up and the ship's radio gave us regular news broadcasts which everyone crowded around to hear. However news reception was not always so good and there have been periods of two full days when we have had no hint of what is going on. That's enough to drive a newspaperman nuts.

But the trip has been a grand rest. I have picked up a few pounds in weight and have been sleeping 10 hours a day. I hope to be in Moscow for Christmas but it is very uncertain. If I make good plane connections and the Russians don't get too mixed up in protocol and red tape about letting me pass right into their country, I should just about make it.

I am asking the CBS headquarters in New York to relay news of my movements through KMBC. Or else they will do it direct by telegram. You might get in touch with the manager of KMBC whoever he is—I understand Claude Dorsey is still with them—and make some kind of arrangements with him about the time of my broadcasts etc. I also have a proposition with Newsweek magazine when I get to Russia and you might keep an eye on that sheet for some of my stuff if I can get any printable stuff out. You have to remember that censorship is very stiff in the USSR.

This is about all for the present. I'll drop you another line from Cairo or Teheran and let you know what I've seen and where I've been. Although we've had boat drills every day there has been no occasion for any alarm. About the only thing we've seen was a whale. We should see some sharks soon which is definitely not a pleasant thought in case we have to take a sudden swim. You can expect to hear from me shortly.