The cause of 60 million deaths, World War II remains the greatest cataclysm the human species has inflicted on itself: an exhibition, if the gods were watching, of humans at their most depraved, but often their most noble. No wonder that seven decades later historians are still toiling to convey the dimensions of that horror, and the glory that often shone through it.

Timothy M. Gay believes that some glory belongs to the daring correspondents who covered the fighting in Europe against Nazi Germany. Five Americans among them are handsomely celebrated in Gay’s “Assignment to Hell” — Walter Cronkite, then of the United Press wire service; Hal Boyle of the Associated Press; Sgt. Andy Rooney of the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes; A.J. Liebling of the New Yorker magazine; and Homer Bigart of the New York Herald Tribune.

The stories they hammered out on portable typewriters, close to — sometimes amid — the actual fighting, their copy wangled through the censorship and somehow back to the United States, established reputations that grew into dazzling postwar careers and lasting fame.

Each writer excelled in riveting stories of individuals fighting and dying, stories that can still move one to tears. Above the D-Day beaches in Normandy, Boyle found the fresh grave of a young family relative. “Now,” Boyle wrote, “there was a mound of earth above his body. . . . And tangled in the wire which held his dogtag was a withered Normandy rose left there by French peasants, who have put a flower over every one of the two thousand American graves in the cemetery.”

Cronkite spent months at Molesworth, an American air base in England, with bomber crews returning — and often not returning — from raids over Germany. He flew in such a raid himself, riding in the exposed Plexiglas nose bubble, even manning the machine gun to beat off Luftwaffe fighters. He said afterward, “I’ve just returned from an assignment to hell,” giving this book its title. The UP said it was too risky and ordered him to stop.

’Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle’ by Timothy M. Gay (NAL Caliber)

Cronkite told the story of a bombardier who, “though mortally wounded by antiaircraft shrapnel, crawled back to his bombsight and sent his bombs crashing squarely on the German U-boat yards at Vegesack.” That earned a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Rooney wrote for Stars and Stripes the story of a top-turret gunner on a B-17, whose arm was blown off at the shoulder. He desperately needed medical attention but faced a four-hour flight home. His navigator buddy secured the gunner’s parachute and tossed him out over Lower Saxony. A young German girl saw him and, defying Gestapo orders, got medical help. He was imprisoned but later repatriated to the United States for a long and fulfilling life. His story was featured in the 1949 Gregory Peck film “Twelve O’Clock High.”

Gay tells us intimately how these correspondents lived, traveled, slept, what they ate and — particularly Liebling — what they drank. A Francophile bon viveur, Liebling might have corrected certain mistakes Gay has made: Calvados is not “fermented” but distilled, Pernod is not a “sweet liqueur” but an aniseed-flavored aperitif, and the British beer is not “bitters” but “bitter.” Small matters but significant.

Gay’s language is clunky at times: “Rats churned in the young Cronkite,” meaning the reporter was competitive. In London they wanted to take a real day off and “peruse” the city. Attacking in the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans kept “abject” radio silence.

Still, he tells great stories, not only hair-raising but often funny.

In 1944, Cronkite joined airborne troops landing by glider in Holland. In a potato field the glider flipped over and broke up. Scrambling out, Cronkite lost his helmet, but found another and headed off, to be followed by a string of enlisted men, because the helmet he’d grabbed was an officer’s.

Given Cronkite’s future fame at CBS, his attitude toward broadcasting at the time is amusing now: “I thought it was kind of a schlock business compared to print,” he told an interviewer much later. In 1943, Edward R. Murrow, famous for his CBS broadcasts during the London Blitz, offered Cronkite a job. He turned Murrow down because the UP had raised his pay. Gay adds:

“Murrow’s ‘boys’, Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood among them, tended to look down their noses as Cronkite, the wire service grunt who — heaven forfend! — actually cared about breaking news. The Murrow boys weren’t reporters so much as seers, urbane commentators who dined with prime ministers one day — and parachuted out of planes the next. . . . And, as Collingwood would later demonstrate, the Murrow guys sometimes weren’t above manipulating the facts for their own aggrandizement.”

That charge would take some parsing in a seminar on journalism ethics. Yes, Collingwood prerecorded a hold-for-release account of the liberation of Paris, and, yes, CBS broke the “hold” and broadcast it half a day before Collingwood set foot in Paris. But even if released when he intended, the piece still described scenes he had imagined, not witnessed. But saying that Murrow’s boys “sometimes weren’t above” such practices implies that they indulged in them often. I’d need more examples to believe that.

But “most World War II correspondents,” Gay concludes, were “conscientious journalists who insisted on being close to the action and reporting something resembling the truth. Even with intrusive censorship, the journalism they practiced during the war helped propel their postwar craft — and spawned the greatest era of press independence and integrity in American history.”

That claim I find overblown, just considering the mixed role of the press, for example, in the McCarthy era.

Liebling, who went on to produce the celebrated New Yorker series “The Wayward Press,” gave a more modest postwar verdict: “The times were full of certainties. We could be certain we were right — and we were — and that certainty made us certain that anything we did was right, too. I have seldom been sure I was right since.”

Robert MacNeil was a journalist for 40 years with Reuters, NBC, BBC and the “NewsHour” on PBS. His latest project is “Timeline — World War 2” — an app just released for the iPad.


The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents
Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney,
A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart and Hal Boyle

By Timothy M. Gay

NAL Caliber. 508 pp. $26.95