Newspaper dispatches about D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and other defining war-time moments are captured in Joseph R.L. Sterne's new book, “Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II.” He brings together and analyzes these writings in a book that reviewer Michael Sragow says "offers a bracing fresh perspective — the intensely written perspective of Sun correspondents filing copy from the front as if the life they shared with their subjects and their readers depended on it." Here's more of Sragow's report (for an excerpt of the book itself, go to the jump):
Observation, analysis, and the tingle of personal experience come together in their dispatches with a hot-off-the-typewriter quality that hasn’t cooled since they first hit newsstands between 60 and 70 years ago. ... Providing context as well as insights gleaned from his own 44-year career as a Sun correspondent, foreign bureau chief and editorial page editor, Sterne compiles and shapes their stories into a chronicle of combat, politics, social upheaval — and a newspaper’s recognition that a major metropolitan daily in the 20th century needed to be a major cosmopolitan daily to serve its readership and fulfill its journalistic responsibility.
[Sterne says,] “Think of McCardell going from the command post maybe 25-50 miles to the trenches to the front lines, then watching and observing a firefight, and coming back, and — can you imagine? — sitting down and filing a 2,000 or 3,000-word piece. Just astounding. Think of Bradley, with the 175th Regiment of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division, bobbing up and down on a troop ship, coming ashore on D-Day Plus One, wading through the water and observing all the snafus and the dead on Omaha Beach, and somehow sitting down and writing this incredible copy. Nothing is more ephemeral than newspaper copy. I wanted to put something into a book that might preserve it from total obscurity.”
The following is an excerpt about reporting on the Battle of the Bulge, a fierce German counter-attack in the Ardennes that began in mid-December, 1944:
What was to be a terrible Christmas for tens of thousands of American soldiers figured hugely in December 24 Sun staff dispatches of Mark Watson, Lee McCardell, and Price Day. ... In post-holiday stories [Dec. 26, 1944], all four Sun correspondents described why the Yuletide had come to be called “Black Christmas” by soldiers in the trenches.
“This has been one hell of a Christmas,” wrote McCardell. “It has been a magnificent winter day of bright sunshine and freezing temperatures along the pine-clad Ardennes, white with snow where the American troops are fighting to beat back one of the main thrusts of the German counter-offensive. But there is no Christmas spirit out there so far as the soldiers are concerned.
“Snow-covered hills and deep little valleys have been noisy all day with machine-gun and artillery fire. Dirty brown smoke from burning villages bombed and strafed by our fighter aircraft smear the blue horizon of the Christmas sky. The fighting is slow and confused by the fact that many Germans still are wearing American uniforms, driving captured American trucks and using American tanks. The country over which the battle is being fought is extremely rugged, with high wooded hills and steep ravines. It is distinctly not what a soldier in a tank division would call ‘good tank country.’ Christmas dinner for the men was cold canned C rations of meat and beans.”
Price Day, with the Seventh Army the day before Christmas, described a moonlit Christmas Eve as “an unquiet one.” “There is no snow but the moonlight falls almost as cold and white as snow. For the first time this winter the canals here are frozen over. The water in the shell and bomb craters and in abandoned dugouts and foxholes has become thick ice. The churned mud of the fields and roadsides has stiffened, holding impress of the last vehicles to pass through before it froze. Only the swift streams remain fluid. ...
“Strasbourg, where, according to the story, the custom of the Christmas tree originated, spreads dark and ghostly under the early moon, the frail spire of its cathedral pointing up to the stars. Elsewhere, on the roads behind the front, traffic is being carefully checked by MPs carrying ready tommy guns. As they stop the vehicles, other men with tommy guns crouch to one side, while armored vehicles watch from the other. It is certainly not an atmosphere of peace.”
With Day reporting about action south of the main Ardennes, Holbrook Bradley filed from north of the Ardennes along the Roer River. “Doughboys, standing guard duty, stamp their feet to keep the circulation flowing. Overhead a million stars glow in the cloudless night, casting a cold gleam on the barren fields and battered villages.”
Nine days later [Jan. 16, 1945] McCardell wrote a riveting story about the plight of soldiers fighting in the Ardennes Forest in the dead of winter. “You have to see it to believe it. If you can imagine an army fighting its way through the mountains of Garrett County in mid-January, with ten to twelve inches of snow underfoot, the trees encased in frozen sleet, the temperatures four to five degrees above zero, the skies overcast with the constant threat of more snow – if you can imagine this you’ll have some idea of the ordeal through which the American troops are passing.
“But that’s only part of the picture. You must blacken the snow with greasy soot where enemy shells have burst. You must drop frozen bodies with waxen faces in the drifts along the back roads where burial parties have not yet passed. You must people the pine forest with cold soldiers in shallow foxholes, their fingers numb and their toes frostbitten. You must picture tanks crawling across unbroken fields of snow, the dull clank of their tracks over the snow-caked bogie wheels muffled and remote. You must see infantrymen gloved and bundled against the stinging cold, weighted down with ammunition and weapons, toiling across hilltops, knee-deep in snow.
“When the dreary winter afternoon’s cold, unfriendly half-light fades across these frozen hills, you must see the infantry men drop their gear in the snow, get out their shovels and dig in for the coming night — dig through a foot of fine, dry, sifting snow and another foot of hard frozen earth. You must feel the bite of the icy Ardennes mist that rises now from the snow to fill the hollows among the hills and cling to their heights like thick, gray, frosty mildew. You must get stuck in one of these drifts, get out and push or shovel a path for your jeep while the snow beats into your face like a desert sandstorm. You must try keeping warm in a freezing countryside whose houses have been stripped of their doors, window glass and roofs. You must try to keep warm in unheated truck cabs, tanks, half-tracks and open jeeps.
“The correspondents attached to the Third Army average eight or nine hours a day in jeeps getting up to the front and back again to town where press censors and radio stations are located. We live the life of Riley compared with that of the average GI in combat on the battlefront. I wish we could do justice to his fortitude. To keep my aging bones warm, I go forward wearing heavy GI winter underclothing, a wool-lined combat jacket, felt-lined flying pants, a wool-lined trench coat, a muffler, two pair of heavy woolen socks, felt-lined galoshes, a fleece-lined helmet. ...
“No GI is so warmly dressed. I don’t have to sleep in the snow or eat cold rations. And I never return to my warm, lighted quarters at night without a deep sense of my own unworthiness and shame. After dark, there’s no light in the cold, lonely foxhole in the pine forests. There’s no warmth except that of the bodies of the living men who sleep there in their overcoats and lie awake waiting for the dawn. It’s a long wait.”