Andy Rooney was -- I believe -- the last surviving member of a small group of Army-allied reporters called (cleverly, I must admit) the Writing 69th. Members included longtime Rooney pal, Walter Cronkite. The Writing 69th was an unusual collection of extremely gutsy reporters -- as great reporters are -- who embraced the assumption that you couldn't very well relay the stories of soldiers to the homefront unless you were with the soldiers on the battlefront. Homer Bigart was, of course, the grand master of battlefield GI reporting, but Rooney was a pretty solid legman himself in this regard. He flew at least five missions with a wing from the 100th Bombardment Group [Heavy], based at Station 139, Thorpe Abbotts, in East Anglia. (And thanks to my reader, Gerald Twomey, for the specific details.)
In 2003, Rooney participated in a PBS oral history entitled, "Reporting America at War." Here's what Andy said. It's well worth a read.
As an aside, one of the reasons I loved and admired Rooney so much was his dedication -- genuine dedication -- to the men and women of the U.S. armed services, and particularly those members of the generation that is now on the cusp of disappearing altogether. Tom Brokaw relayed a story to me some time ago about a "Nightly News" visit to France to one of those vast grave sites in Normandy, and standing near one stone was Rooney -- head bowed, in contemplation, or more likely simply overwhelmed with emotion. Brokaw says Rooney then and there directly inspired his desire to write a book about a generation that emerged from a crippling depression to fight a war whose magnitude and devastation we can only now barely comprehend. That book of course was called "The Greatest Generation."
We were covering the air war in England — eight or ten reporters writing about the Eighth Air Force. I met Walter Cronkite in London, and we traveled a lot together. Another great friend was Gladwin Hill, who was with The Associated Press, later with The New York Times. And there was a man named Bob Post, who was The New York Times' reporter.
Every time there was a raid, we would split up and each go to a different bomber group. Then, when the crews came back, we would interview them. And sometimes they didn't come back. We, on the other hand, went back to our flats in London and lived quite a comfortable life.
After a while, we saw so many people we had gotten to know who were shot down, taken prisoner, or killed that we all began to feel guilty about covering this war the way we were. It just seemed wrong to us. I don't know who decided to do it, but we decided we'd better go on a bombing raid ourselves.
Though correspondents were never supposed to man a gun or carry any kind of a weapon, we were all forced to go to gunnery school; we practiced gunnery in cased they needed us in the air. [On each raid] they were losing 5 to 6 percent of all the bombers that went out. There were 25 bombers, give or take one or two, in each group, and each crew had to do 25 missions. Well, if you have to do twenty-give missions in a group of 25 planes, and you're losing five percent, it doesn't take any mathematical genius to know their chances of finishing were not good, and not many finished twenty-five missions. I think maybe 15 or 20 percent finished twenty-five missions successfully and were allowed to go home. The raid we went on was only the second raid into Germany. It was on Wilhelmshaven. I got in my bomber and I thought to myself, "Why am I doing this? I'm scared to death. I mean, I don't have to risk my life" — except that I felt so bad for all the men who did have to risk their lives all those times that it just seemed like it was the honest thing to do.
I remember we had these heavy flak jackets. A B-17 is not like a modern airliner. Wires and everything were all over, and getting through the bomb bay to the back — which would be the cabin in a passenger plane now — was very difficult. If you had a parachute on, it was tough to get past all the wires without getting snagged on everything. So I didn't wear my flak jacket. I stood on it.
I had this feeling that I didn't want to be hit from underneath, but of course what happened was the flak exploded in the air around you and didn't necessarily come from below. If there was flak before you got to the target, the pilot could take evasive action. But once the bombsight zeroed in on the target, you couldn't take any evasive action or the bombs would not go where they were designed to go.
That plane was a perfect target for the gunners from underneath, and that was the frightening part of it — you just had to sit there. There were seven of us [reporters] who actually went, and I was the youngest, but I ended up with the best story because my bomber was hit.
I was up in the nose of the plane, and a shell came in and took a small piece of the Plexiglas nose off. The bombardier, who was in front of me, panicked and tried to stuff something in the hole. At seventeen or eighteen thousand feet, that air coming in is subzero, and he took his gloves off. His hands froze and it was terrible. I looked across at the little desk that the navigator used. His oxygen tube had been pierced and he lost his oxygen, and at eighteen thousand feet he collapsed.
So I got to the pilot intercom and I asked him what to do. He said, "Well, we have emergency air in oxygen bottles up behind me. Take some deep breaths and come back up behind me and get the oxygen bottle; bring it back down and hook him up to that." Well I didn't know how to do any of this and here I was, with somebody's life at stake, and I didn't know how long you lasted once you took your oxygen mask off. But I took some deep breaths, I took my oxygen mask off, and went through this alleyway up behind the pilot.
There I got an oxygen bottle and hooked up the navigator, who was a much more experienced flyer than the bombardier. He regained consciousness and got the bombardier quieted down. So I had by far the best story to tell of all the correspondents who went out that day.