By Samantha L. Quigley
Every career has a defining moment—some, more than one.
Andy Rooney’s, however, began 70 years ago and has yet to end.
Rooney was enjoying college life at Colgate University, when he was given an all-expense-paid trip to Army boot camp courtesy of Uncle Sam.
After nearly a year at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he shipped off to England with the 17th Field Artillery. It wasn’t long, however, before he found himself in London with a few days off.
“I went into the Stars and Stripes [newspaper] office, which was just starting in Ireland, and asked for a job,” Rooney said. “Said I was a journalist, which I wasn’t really. I had edited my college newspaper.
“But I got the job.”
He worked in Ireland for several months before moving to London to cover the 8th Air Force. Covering the Mighty Eighth meant going to the air base every time there was a raid and waiting for the crews to return and tell their tales.
On February 26, 1943, the 8th Air Force was scheduled to launch a raid unlike any the United States had previously flown against Germany. This time the world would know what happened before the letters to mothers and girlfriends made it home.
Rooney was one of the first six correspondents to fly along and cover a raid on Germany. His story How It Feels to Bomb Germany appeared in Stars and Stripes military newspaper the following day.
“It was very dangerous. It was not a smart thing to do,” Rooney said during a recent interview. “I got up there and I wondered why in the world I had volunteered to go.”
“But all the other guys were at war and I had to do something, and it was a great story for the newspaper, too.”
The skies over the original target, Germany’s Bremen Naval Base, proved too overcast to carry out the mission, so 65 of the 93 bombers turned their attention to the German naval base at Wilhelmshaven.
Ten minutes from the target, Banshee—the B-17 Rooney was on—encountered anti-aircraft artillery. The shells acted more like shotgun shells, he wrote in his book My War. When they exploded, shards flew in every direction.
“We were shot at,” Rooney said. “I was at mid-side gunner. I operated a gun even though I was a correspondent. We weren’t supposed to, but I mean I was up there, and all the other guys were shooting so I had to pay my way.”
In the midst of all of the anti-aircraft fire and the German fighter planes, Banshee dropped its bombs and rejoined the formation. On the way out of the target area, the tip of Banshee’s plastic nose was damaged by a shell. The temperature four miles above the Earth caused the bombardier’s fingers to freeze when he tore off his gloves and tried to stuff them in the hole created in the explosion.
It was also the first time the Germans had used parachute bombs and they were effective. Though it could have been one of these bombs that hit Banshee, Rooney wrote in his book that he didn’t know exactly what hit the plane.
What he failed to mention in his modest description of his participation in that bombing raid during the interview was that he helped save Lieutenant Bill Owen’s life when the navigator’s oxygen mask supply line was cut.
“It was an exciting time,” he said. “It was a great experience and I was lucky to come through it alive.” Not all of the correspondents who flew that day could say the same. The B-24 that New York Times reporter Bob Post was flying in crashed. He was never found.
Despite the possibility of not returning from any given assignment, Rooney said getting that first reporting gig with Stars and Stripes was a blessing.
“It was the single luckiest thing in my life,” he said. “I was really in a lot of dangerous situations, because wherever the war was, that’s where I went.
“It’s the best thing that can happen to a journalist because any good journalist is looking for something to write about and there’s no place there’s more to write about than at war.”
And there was plenty for Rooney to write about through the end of World War II. Not only was he one of the first correspondents to fly with a crew on a bombing raid over Germany, he was also one of the first correspondents allowed into the concentration camps after they were liberated.
“That was quite an experience—one I’ll never forget,” he said quietly. “Those guys were in such desperate trouble. They didn’t have enough to eat, were badly clothed, if at all.
“Concentrations camps were a bad thing.”
While the mention of the concentration camps may bring up difficult memories, Rooney’s job was to tell the world what he saw. He did it well and he did it without the assistance of modern technology.
Unlike today’s war correspondents—who have computers, the Internet, and mostly reliable cell phone service within arm’s reach—he wrote with a hand-held typewriter in an Army press camp.
He and 35 to 40 journalists traveled with the 1st Army Press Camp. Wherever the camp happened to be, Rooney—who had his own jeep, making him a “favorite friend”—would drive toward the action to find out what was going on. He often had company on these journeys—Joe Liebling, returned to his job at The New Yorker after serving as a war correspondent, and Walter Cronkite, went on to fame as a longtime CBS Evening News anchor.
When the reporters came back from the front, they’d write up their stories and send them back to their respective offices in London, which forwarded them to the United States. Rooney’s stories were first read in Stars and Stripes, but he said he kept tabs on them and frequently found them in civilian newspapers.
Despite technological developments, Rooney doesn’t think reporting on conflicts has changed much since he flew with the 8th Air Force.
“It’s a dangerous business and not many reporters go up front where the war is,” he said. “But there are always a few good reporters who go where the war is and report what they see.”
One of the things no World War II correspondent could have imagined was the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle. Sometimes it’s the positive milestones that hit the airwaves back home just minutes or hours after they’re met. Sometimes the transmissions aren’t so welcome, especially for families who see the aftermath of an attack and worry about the safety of their loved ones in the area.
As a journalist interested in getting the truth in front of readers and viewers, Rooney doesn’t have any qualms about being able to watch the war in near-real time.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “In life, it’s best if we know everything that’s happened to us and to the world. There’s no question that the world is better off knowing everything.”
Rooney was discharged from the Army in 1945. He found his way to CBS in 1949, where he started as a writer for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. He also wrote for several CBS news programs including The Twentieth Century, and News of America.
Today, at 92, he continues to make sure the world—or at least CBS viewers—get the facts when he gives them A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney as the concluding spot on the news program 60 Minutes.
His advice to young journalists today is simple.
“Stick to the facts. Find out what they are and tell them,” he said. “Facts are very hard to come by. It’s worth trying [to find them] and if you stick with it you can get the facts.”
–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.
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