May 6

'The Necessity of the Fight'

Friday, May 6, 2016 12:01 AM

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We were in an editorial meeting when our secretary, Marcia Owens, walked in and whispered, “There’s a guy on your phone who says he’s Walter Cronkite. Yeah, right! It actually does sound like him, though. What should I say?” It was indeed the man who had become known as “the most trusted man in America.” He was calling to correct an error in memory he had made in an answer to a question I had posed during our interview the previous week. We were putting together our D-Day 50th Anniversary commemoration, and we thought that someone who had had a bird’s eye view of the invasion from a B-17 Flying Fortress would make an interesting addition. A former correspondent for the United Press, he accepted a late offer to join the Army’s Eighth Air Force for the bomber operations over Normandy.

Surrounded in his CBS office with a modest library and an array of memorabilia from a distinguished career in journalism, Cronkite did not take the term "retirement" very seriously. Above his assistant's desk the headline from a clipping read, "Cronkite Cannot Say No." Courtesy L. Furgatch.

Surrounded in his CBS office with a modest library and an array of memorabilia from a distinguished career in journalism, Cronkite did not take the term “retirement” very seriously. Above his assistant’s desk the headline from a clipping read, “Cronkite Cannot Say No.” Courtesy L. Furgatch.

At the time, Cronkite was the retired Emmy Award-winning anchor of The CBS Evening News, but he still kept his office in the iconic “Black Rock” building of CBS at West 52nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York City, which is where we met. There, immediately preceding our meeting, he was recording segments for the Discovery Channel’s The Cronkite Report. In 1962, he won the George Foster Peabody Award for his news reporting and for his popular series, The Twentieth Century. Cronkite was the author of A Reporter’s Life, his autobiography. The interview appeared in the June 1994 issue of Naval History.

USNI: How did you manage to see the Normandy invasion from the air?

Cronkite: I was going to write the lead story at the UP office in London. It was a kind of compliment to get that assignment, but on the other hand, I was torn in my emotions. Obviously, it would be a lot safer in London than on the beaches, but I did want to be in on the action. I was disappointed not to get an active assignment on that historic day.

But in the middle of the night, a dear friend, Hal Leyshon, who was a public relations captain in the Eighth Air Force, appeared suddenly at my door. He was very formal about it all and said in somber tones unlike him, “Is there anyone here besides you?” He looked in my closet, under my bed, and in the other room. Then he said, “I’ve got to swear you to secrecy before I tell you anything else.” I knew as soon as he started that pledge-to-secrecy business that this had to be something about D-Day and that it might even be that day.

As we drove toward the base, Hal helped relieve me of any concern I had about UP reaction. I would be back, he said, perhaps even before the first stories were getting back from the beaches, and I probably would have, for a palpitating public, the first eyewitness story of the invasion.

It didn’t turn out quite that way. I didn’t get back from our mission until almost noon, and by that time, thanks to superb military communications—particularly by the Navy—the first dispatches from the newsmen on the ships and on the beaches were coming back.

Led by Captain Lew Lyle, who later became a major general, we went in at around 15,000 feet, a comparatively low level for the heavy bombers. With our bombs armed and ready, the flight—in close formation through heavy cloud layers—was a hair-raising experience.

Our target was shrouded under a solid blanket of cloud. The bomb bay doors were slammed shut. Lyle hoped to make another pass, playing on the small possibility that an opening would appear in the infernal clouds.

The air was so thick with aircraft, however, that he was forced to stick to the highly detailed flight plan dictated at the morning briefing. There literally was no way to get back into the queue of planes thundering toward their targets at every level in and above those clouds.

Then, we did the almost unthinkable. We returned to base in England with our bombs still on board. Despite terrible visibility in intensifying fog, we wended our way through the traffic jam of bombers coming and going and landed without incident. But the exercise with that load of explosives was no picnic. With the light flak and absence of enemy fighters, there were no battle casualties.

Cronkite appears here late in World War II, posing with the crew of a B-17 "Flying Fortress" in occupied France. He was a naval correspondent for the United Press until signing on to cover the Army's Eighth Air Force. Courtesy W. Cronkite.

Cronkite appears here late in World War II, posing with the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress in occupied France. He was a naval correspondent for the United Press until signing on to cover the Army’s Eighth Air Force. Courtesy W. Cronkite.

Perhaps the greatest danger I faced was returning to my office, where my boss unleashed his fury before I had a chance to explain my mission. My story, competing with those of our valiant colleagues on the beaches, understandably saw light of day in few newspapers.

USNI: The press played a major role in rallying people during both World War II and the space program. Would you say it also played a role in reversing that trend during the Vietnam War?

Cronkite: The situations were vastly different, so much so that I think the comparison is a specious one, really. In World War II there was no question of the nature of the enemy or the necessity of the fight. In Vietnam, there was considerable doubt—reasonable, rational doubt that we should be there.

USNI: Peter Braestrup, in his book Big Story [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978], criticized television news pretty strongly, as opposed to print journalism. To what do you attribute that criticism?

Cronkite: I’m not an enthusiast for Braestrup’s book for several reasons. I think he misses a point. It seems to me that if the people of the United States are willing to vote and to support sending their young people—now women as well as men—into combat, they should be willing to look at what combat really is.

If they are unwilling to sit in their living rooms and see what the troops—the troops they sent to fight—are up against, they are somehow playing the coward themselves. And that is beyond anything I’d like to contemplate. I don’t think that’s what we Americans are. It is well that we all are aware of what war really is—what it means—before we commit to it.

I do not say that we idly commit to war. I don’t think we do. I think those who are involved in policy-making are rational people, and have been in most cases, but they might be a little bit wrong-headed sometimes in thinking that the expenditure of a few lives can save many. Maybe they’d better think about how many would be expended in the worst-case scenario before they get us involved.

The network anchor was beginning to sow signs of frustration in this February 1968 interview with a University of Huế professor. A week later Cronkite made his historic pronouncement that the Vietnam War would end in stalemate. He still say he was right in that, one of the few editorials of his news career. U.S. Marine Corps Photo.

The network anchor was beginning to sow signs of frustration in this February 1968 interview with a University of Huế professor. A week later Cronkite made his historic pronouncement that the Vietnam War would end in stalemate. He still say he was right in that, one of the few editorials of his news career. U.S. Marine Corps Photo.

USNI: You said “show people what war is.” Is that the reason Braestrup criticized broadcast over print coverage? As a print journalist himself, he says they got it right, and you guys got it wrong, essentially.

Cronkite: Well, I disagree with that. He was talking mostly about my summary for Tet. That is the only editorial I’ve ever done on the air, other than those in defense of freedom of the press itself.

No, I don’t think I had it wrong. Admittedly, it would appear that later evidence contained in North Vietnam—now that the North Vietnamese generals have talked about the war—shows that they had suffered severely and were not capable of mounting another offensive of that nature. While that would seem to indicate that Braestrup and other critics have it right, that I was signing off a little early, it ignores the fact that General [William] Westmoreland was asking for something over three hundred thousand more men in order to put a finish to the war.

Well, we’d been hearing about this escalation of forces from the time we first sent troops under President Kennedy to help instruct the South Vietnamese Army. From that we’d escalated into this terrible mauling that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army planned for us. I can’t see that we were wrong in reporting about that. If Westmoreland needed that many men to build his forces for an all-out attack on the enemy, then we were promised only another massive escalation in the face of crumbling support from an increasingly divided home front.

After our formal interview, Mr. Cronkite related the following bonus anecdote: You know, the Naval Institute Proceedings was a tipoff to one of the best shows we ever had on The Twentieth Century. We took the man who spied on Pearl Harbor for his first and only trip back to Pearl Harbor. And we barely got him out of town before the lynching.

We were trying to keep his visit secret. He was inclined to have a drink or two and got into a Japanese bar, where the local clientele found out who he was. Word spread to the newspaper, and we had to spirit him onto a plane and get him out of town.

"Top Secret Assignment," by Takeo Yoshikawa and Lieutenant Colonel Norman Stanford, USMC, from the December 1960 issue of Proceedings.

“Top Secret Assignment,” by Takeo Yoshikawa and Lieutenant Colonel Norman Stanford, USMC, from the December 1960 issue of Proceedings.

A Marine lieutenant colonel had tracked him down and was interested in just whatever happened to the guy [Takeo Yoshikawa]. He had found him in a successful fuel oil business in Hokkaido in northern Japan. Then the colonel had written a piece about him. Nobody else picked it up, except a bright-eyed guy who worked for us. He brought the clipping in from Proceedings, and we went right to Japan.

At first the fellow said he wasn’t going back to Pearl Harbor. He spoke virtually no English, but we finally persuaded him and got him to come. He was curious enough, so we played on his curiosity and promised him that he wouldn’t run into trouble.

And he was wonderful.

The Navy actually loaned us a boat, so we went out and he identified the ships. We took him up to the teahouse where he had spied on the Pacific Fleet.

He was sent over allegedly as an assistant to the Japanese consul in Honolulu. That was his cover. He had attended the naval command school, was a trained intelligence officer, and he was to spy on the ship movements out of Pearl Harbor. Well, he tried to get a job at the Navy yard, but failed because he didn’t speak any English, among a few other problems.

Takeo Yoshikawa, who spied on Pearl Harbor. National Archives photo.

Takeo Yoshikawa, who spied on Pearl Harbor. National Archives photo.

So he was desperate. What was he going to do? Then he went one day to a Japanese teahouse up in the hills overlooking Pearl Harbor. As he sat there drinking tea, he realized he was looking right down on Pearl Harbor. He said he could read hull numbers without binoculars and said to himself, “This is the best possible view.” He went up to that teahouse every day, sat there all afternoon, and observed what ships were in and what ships were out.

Of course, we were making the great mistake of being in a routine. It was absolutely hidebound. Our ships went out on Monday and came back on Friday, and he recorded the numbers and where they were docked. That was the way he spied on Pearl Harbor. There was no undercover work. Anybody could have done it. кредит на карту