Timothy M. Gay’s new book, Assignment to Hell (NAL Caliber), brims with terrific stories about five American correspondents who covered World War II, including 27-year-old Walter Cronkite, then reporting for UPI radio. Gay recounts many hazardous Cronkite assignments, including his crash-landing in a glider during the 1944 invasion of Holland.
ONCE THE LEAD C-47 cut its tow rope, the glider carrying Walter Cronkite, Brigadier General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, and a dozen other 101st Airborne staff officers began bucking over Holland’s flatlands. Everywhere Cronkite looked he could see white-striped gliders—dozens of them—poised to crash-land in the fields just west of the Meuse River outside the Dutch village of Zon. Suddenly, the sky blackened with antiaircraft bursts; as his glider plummeted, Cronkite could hear artillery fire.
September 17, 1944, was a perfect afternoon for an airborne invasion: The wind was calm and the skies were overcast enough to make it tougher on enemy gunners….Cronkite had somehow been under the impression that glider flight would be soothing. Sure, the landing might be rough; from the air, he had seen remnants of gliders splintered all over Normandy. But to be snuffed out while gliding might be a good way to to go to heaven, he recalled thinking, “no roaring engine, just a nice silent glide into eternity.”
But the last thing gliders did was “glide.” Canvas-skinned American Waco gliders were held together by flimsy aluminum tubing. “The canvas cover beat against the aluminum,” the 80-year-old Cronkite remembered in 1996, “and it was like being inside the drum at a Grateful Dead concert.”
Every bump while on a glider felt like a violent jolt. Cold air rushed in; the noise was so deafening that troopers had to communicate through shouts and gestures. Once freed from the tow rope, glider pilots knew they were dead ducks to German gunners. They wanted to get on the ground pronto, so they pointed the nose downward and plunged, hitting the turf almost almost vertically. Many gliders crumpled on impact; pilots would deliberately crash the nose into the ground to get troops out quicker.
“If you ever have to go to war, don’t go by glider,” Cronkite the daredevil volunteered later.