He flew combat missions with the Eighth Air Force, followed the troops ashore at Normandy, witnessed the breakout at St. Lô, crossed the bridge at Remagen, joined the triumphal march into Paris—and had the time of his life.
Andy Rooney cut his eye teeth as a reporter for the military newspaper The Stars and Stripes during World War II, long before he became more widely known as the curmudgeonly commentator on the CBS television program 60 Minutes. Moreover, he returned home a certified hero—the only war correspondent to win the Bronze Star Medal and the Air Medal for flying five combat missions. Rooney spoke with writer and historian Donald L. Miller before an audience last November at the International Conference on World War II, sponsored by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Following is a condensed version of their conversation.
World War II was a pageant of misery: 60 million people killed, 40 million of them civilians. Yet, for people like yourself and thousands of others who lived through it, it was an exhilarating experience.
There was never anything like it. It’s a terrible thing to say, but I was lucky to be of age. I had finished my junior year in college and I hated the Army—I hated everything about the military—and I was drafted at the end of my junior year. I registered in the college town I was in, Hamilton, N.Y., where Colgate University was, and I thought they would be amenable to letting juniors finish their senior year. Well, the head of the draft board was also the local druggist, and he was head of the American Legion, and he thought every American boy should serve now. So I was drafted; never finished college.
You thought you might be a conscientious objector.
I did. And I ultimately decided that I was not enough of an intellectual to be a conscientious objector. I had really strong feelings that war under any circumstances is wrong. But then I got reading more about what Adolf Hitler was doing at that time, and it was hard to justify being a conscientious objector, so I never registered as one.
You were drafted in the summer of ’41, right before Pearl Harbor, and sent with an artillery company to Great Britain.
Well, I was first sent to Fort Bragg, and it just reinforced my hatred of the military. I hate Fort Bragg, N.C.—I hate all of North Carolina to this day—just because of that. Poor North Carolina: North Carolina didn’t do anything to me, but I don’t think kindly of it. I was in North Carolina training in the artillery unit for three or four months before we were sent overseas.
I think everybody wants to know how all of a sudden Andy Rooney the artillerist becomes Andy Rooney the correspondent.
I was shipped to England and I started writing some stories for The Stars and Stripes from my unit. The Stars and Stripes was a very good, professional newspaper but it was weekly at that time. [The U.S. military] suddenly dumped 2 million American soldiers into the British Isles and they realized they had to have a daily newspaper. So, they needed reporters and newspaper people, and I lied and said I was one and got the job and held on until I learned how to do it. And it was probably the single most fortuitous event in my life because I got to go everywhere. I saw the war like nobody—very few people saw World War II as I did because there was nowhere I couldn’t go.
When you first arrived in England, you wrote that the greatest story at the time was the air war. And you wrote an incredible column in The Stars and Stripes about how the real story of the Eighth Air Force was getting submerged under a pile of cold statistics. What was the real story of the Eighth Air Force?
It was very tough for me. I would go out to these bases—and a B-17 crew was 10 men—and I would get to know these guys. I’d have dinner with them and we’d laugh and joke together. I got to know the guys. And it was always so sad. You know, the day after a raid you would come in one of the barracks and one of the beds was…everything was still there. The bed was made and the picture of the wife or children was on the little stand behind— but he was gone. And you knew instantly what had happened. You didn’t have to ask any questions. He had been killed on the raid. They were losing 4 or 5 percent of all the bombers they sent over Germany. Now, each airman had to do 25 missions before he got to go back to the United States. Well, if you’re losing 5 percent and have to do 25 missions, it didn’t take any mathematical genius to know what your chances were of getting through.
You witnessed an unbelievable event that you were incapable of writing about, [involving] a ball-turret gunner.
I was on the B-17 and we were hit by German fighter pilots. And the ball-turret—you’re familiar with what it looks like under the bomber, presumably. It was a very delicately geared thing. A guy sat in there—there was just room enough for him—and he had a gun and he had buttons and he could go in any direction. And then, at one point, he got the ball in just the right position so that he could open a door and climb out into the airplane. Well this guy, his thing was hit, and he was not killed. But all the gears on the ball-turret were gone and the ship was in tough shape—and they had to land. They had to land and the pilot knew what was happening. There was no choice he had. Here was this guy alive in the ball-turret. The wheels on the plane were gone, had been shot out. And they just pancaked down on the ball-turret. It was a bad day.
And you went back to London and could have written that story, but…
I suppose…yeah. That was a tough story and I didn’t try to write it. I had been too close to it.
You were in a unique position once the war was over to compare ground combat and air combat. How would you compare the two? The bomber boys had fought an intermittent war.
They did. And it was both good and bad because they lived a normal life much of the time. They went into London, had a good time, met girls. But then, every three or four days when they had to go on a mission, the chance of getting killed was great: 5 percent. And when death is at stake, 5 percent is not a good number. The infantry was in the mud and slop all the time. They never got clean clothes on, never saw a girl. I think, to that extent, they got used to their life that way. It was in some ways easier than going in and out of it the way the Army Air Forces people did because it was so tough on the days they had to go on a raid. But then, it was easy when they weren’t. But psychologically, I think, emotionally, it was very difficult for the Air Forces.
In the spring of ’44 you were reassigned. You were going to take part in the great epic of the war: the D-Day invasion.
I got in there on D-plus-4 and I’ll tell you, it was still not very safe. D-plus-4 doesn’t sound like much, but the Germans were still shelling the beaches. They say they couldn’t see the beaches because there were hills behind the beaches where they were shelling willy-nilly. The chances of getting hit were still pretty good. Then I hooked up with the 4th Infantry Division and went away from the main war where they were fighting the Germans and went out toward Cherbourg. The Army desperately wanted to capture Cherbourg from the Germans because…they wanted to get a major port, which Cherbourg was. I was so young, can you believe it, I didn’t drink yet. So we came on this cave, and it was the place where the German officers had stored all their liquor. They were living high off the hog in Cherbourg. They had taken all the French liquor and wine they wanted. We ran across that thing and we loaded up the back of our Jeep and—I was ready to learn to drink at that point.
You’ve returned to the beaches on many occasions?
I do. It’s interesting; I only like to go to places I’ve already been to at my age. I don’t know why that is.
On these return voyages, you’ve stood on the hill overlooking the cemetery on Omaha Beach.
Yes. I’m not emotional normally. But I’m telling you that if any of you go to France and get a chance to go to the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, it is one of the most dramatic things…I could cry right here now. Here are thousands—tens of thousands—of young American boys there in the ground. My age— they were my age. And I just kept thinking, “My god, look at the life I’ve had that they never got to have.” It was so sad. The Germans were up on those bluffs overlooking the hills, and you go there and look, and you can see what it was. It was fish-ina-barrel shooting from those hills down into our guys wading in. Sometimes they couldn’t get the boats all the way in and they’d have to jump out up to their waist. And they got killed, a lot of them.
You worked really close to the front lines. But, at one point, you said you felt like you were almost copping out because you didn’t have a gun and you weren’t fighting and you could move wherever you wanted to.
I was the same age as those poor bastards who were in the infantry. And who was I? I had been in college, I had it better than they did, and I did feel guilty sometimes about not being in the fighting part of the war.
You witnessed one of the great breakouts of the war at St. Lô and got real close to the action there.
We were bottled up on the beaches [and the hedgerows] for a long while, from June 6 to July 27, I think it was. That’s a long time to be bottled up with some shelling. When we got to St. Lô, there were heavy German forces there, and one of our commanders recognized that if we could break through at St. Lô and get a tank division, or 10,000 men, through that one small hole and then spread out, we would then be behind the German lines. That’s what happened at St. Lô. We did take St. Lô and were from that point on able to spread out. The Germans panicked, and at that point they just picked up and ran, from all the way along the Normandy coast. It was really the end of the invasion and the most terrible part of the war for us.
One of the things we were throwing around here at the conference was this idea that the Wehrmacht was a superior fighting force to the American Army or the Big Red One.
Oh, it wasn’t true! I mean, the Americans were so American. You know, they were not well disciplined, but Jesus they would do anything. You know, they didn’t stand in line and get counted every day; they just fought the war as individuals. There was still a lot of lining up in the German army, even after we landed there. No, there was just no question that the American soldier made a better fighter than the German soldier. It’s why the Germans lost the war right there. They could have repelled us. If they had fought the war sensibly when we came into Normandy, they could have driven us back into the Channel. So, no. I have low regard for German fighters. They’re great as scientists, but they did not make good soldiers.
Since we’re dealing with a—lower grade: You don’t have a high opinion of [General George S.] Patton.
That certainly will be the understatement of this meeting.
Why don’t you explain?
First, he was a bad general. He got too many guys killed. He didn’t take into consideration what was going to happen to the people he was sending forward. He was a loudmouth jerk. He walked around in jodhpurs and a pearl-handled pistol on each hip. I mean, for what? He was going to shoot somebody with it? No, he was a bad general. We had some great generals. Eisenhower: I always had great respect for Dwight Eisenhower. He was a great general and he cared about the troops. He didn’t want any more than necessary to get killed and he did everything possible to protect them. And that was not true with Patton. I can’t say enough bad about Patton as a general.
You once got a letter from Patton’s daughter.
Yes. I was talking about Patton and I said something about him on the air, I guess. And I got a letter from Patton’s daughter. It was just one sentence: “Dear Mr. Rooney, My father wouldn’t have liked you, either.” I still have that letter. It’s one of the greatest letters I ever got.
One of the great moments in the war for you, and for so many people who were lucky to be there, was the liberation of Paris.
It was determined—I guess it was August 24—that the 4th Infantry Division, with armored troops, was going into Paris. The French 2nd Division Blindée was also going in, so we had to choose which group to go in with. Well, I was with an armored train in my Jeep and it was a frightening experience because I was there out in the open with all these tanks. At one point, the lead tank was hit and everyone closed up and huddled in their tanks. I got out and ran because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I pulled my Jeep over so it wouldn’t get run over by a tank and went over into a field. I was down behind a stone wall looking to see where the fire was coming from, and I see this man over to my right and I realized he was one of us. It was Ernest Hemingway. How about meeting Ernest Hemingway behind a wall? I had never cared much for Ernest Hemingway’s work. I thought it was sort of bombastic. I didn’t tell him that, though. But then, the next day, we did go into Paris. It was such a triumphant scene.
There was never a better American military victory than the taking of Paris. Most of the Germans had fled by then and we went in and they staged a parade. There is no place in the world that makes a better parade scene than that one mile, slightly downhill from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. It is just perfect. So, I’m down in the Place de la Concorde viewing the whole thing, and Charles de Gaulle—he and Patton were cut from the same military uniform—stages this march. He’s got his hat on, you know, and he walks the mile on the cobblestone street down from the Arc de Triomphe. As he enters the Place de la Concorde—at this point the Place was ringed with tanks, mostly Sherman tanks—suddenly a shot rang out from over the American Embassy, which is at one side of the circle. Of course, everybody panics. They’re shooting at de Gaulle! And de Gaulle didn’t flinch. So all the tanks—there must have been 100 tanks— turned their guns where they could see a couple men running across the top of the American Embassy, and they just started shooting.
Anyway, I go there now and I always get a car. I tour that Place de la Concorde and go around that circle and somebody cuts me off. And I think to myself: “You son of a bitch; I know something about this place you’ll never know.”
You witnessed the American entrance into the city with Ernie Pyle, on Ernie Pyle’s balcony.
Ernie Pyle was one of the correspondents that I hung out with. He was really a delightful guy. He just knew what a story was and he knew how to write it. He was better than any of us. There was [a] big hotel, one of the fancier hotels there. And Ernie Pyle and several other correspondents had rooms up on the top. He went up on the roof and I went up there with him. Here we are looking at this wild scene of American soldiers being besieged by French girls. You know, they’re running up to them, hugging them. And Ernie Pyle, who didn’t use any rough language ever, says, “Any GI who doesn’t get laid tonight is a sissy.”
Then there was, of course, the drive to the Siegfried Line; to the German border and eventually to the Rhine. You saw obliterated city after obliterated city: Aachen all the way to Dortmann. Any feelings of remorse about the civilians who were killed in the bombings, the artillery raids?
I didn’t at the time. Aachen was a particularly dramatic place. It was a big city and it was toward the end of the war. I went in with the tanks. That’s where I was so impressed. Here we had just taken this huge city; a million people, I suppose. And here there were American tanks in the middle of their streets, stalled because there was really no place for them to go anyway. It was just very difficult for them to move. We had moved all these tanks into the city. It was probably a dumb move. There was not a sniper. They all had guns, but there was nobody on those roofs shooting at us. And I never understood that. You wouldn’t have found that in an American city. I mean, if the Germans had moved into an American city as we had moved into Aachen, there would have been snipers everywhere. It would not have been safe for the Germans in the tanks in our streets. It was a very interesting phenomenon.
You know, Andy, it seems that you were either at the right or the wrong place every time. I mean, you were there at the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen when the famous breakthrough took place.
That was a lucky break. I was at that point traveling with the 9th Armored Division and I knew we were getting close to the Rhine. And the Rhine was another place like the beaches of Normandy. I mean, the Rhine is a big river. To get an army across a river that wide is some event. So, the Germans had destroyed bridges all up and down the Rhine. We got to Ludendorff and the Ludendorff Bridge, a big railroad bridge in Germany, was intact. We could not believe it. Our generals were just stunned. We poured divisions over it. That night we got about 10,000 people across that bridge. It was substantively the end of the war. The next day the Germans couldn’t see it anymore because there were hills behind the bridge, but they still had their artillery shooting from about eight or 10 miles. They were dropping shells and they finally hit the Ludendorff Bridge and brought it down. But by that time we had a lot of guys across the river.
You wrote a story about that bridge—with photographs. And you didn’t have a camera.
Thanks for leading me to that. There was this lieutenant, Marcus Hoffman. He lived in San Francisco. I talked to him and he liked the idea that I was a Stars and Stripes reporter. He was attached to a group that was going across the bridge. But he had a camera. And he was really more interested in the pictures he was taking than in the war at that point. And I said, “it’s just too bad that these pictures you’re taking are not going to be seen by anybody except when you get home in San Francisco. Would you give me your negatives? I will get them to Paris tonight and get them in The Stars and Stripes tomorrow.” I knew I could do it. And so he gave me his film. I swore on my death that I would get them back to him the next day. Well, I went back the next day and of course he had crossed the bridge and gone on with his group. I never got his pictures back to him. I felt bad about that for 50 years. I wrote about it in a book I did two or three years ago. I went to San Francisco on some other event and he called me—a friend of his had seen it—and I gave him back his pictures. It was just one of the damndest things in my life.
You were one of the first reporters to witness the concentration camps.
Thekla was a small camp I went into. And I suppose it had 5,000 prisoners. They were living in these barracks and when we got close, some of them ran for the barbed wire that surrounded the camp that they were in. We got there the next day and—God, it was a terrible scene. There must have been 50 men impaled on the barbed wire. They had run to the barbed wire, tried to fight their way through it and had been shot right there. And they hung there.
After the Germans had poured gasoline on them.
Yeah, the Germans had poured gasoline on the buildings and lit them. That’s why they did…they had to get out.
After seeing Thekla, you wrote that “I never knew that any peace is not better than any war.”
You know, I had been so close to being a pacifist. And that was my thought; that I could not believe that there would ever be a war that was better than any peace. And certainly, that war was one that had to be fought. I don’t think this one we’re fighting now is one we have to fight. But still, that memory of how I felt then keeps me from feeling too adamant about the suggestion that we should have to pull out of Iraq.
Tom Brokaw helped to revitalize interest in the war and created a label for you guys: “The Greatest Generation.” But you’ve never taken to that term.
My generation had a war to fight. And I believe that the current generation, given that war that had to be fought, would fight it just as we did. I think our “Great Generation” got the reputation for being great for what we did. But I think any generation would have done the same thing.
Donald L. Miller is the author of three books on World War II, including Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2006), which is excerpted in this issue. A DVD of the complete Rooney interview is available for purchase at www.nationalww2museum.org.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.