Five Journalists’ “Assignment In Hell”

Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart. I suspect that most readers would recognize the first two names on this list. Walter Cronkite was a renowned anchorman for CBS news. Trusted by the American people so much, that when he voiced his opposition to the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the American people.” Andy Rooney was America’s curmudgeon from the moment he appeared on 60 Minutes in the summer of 1978 until his death in 2011. But how many readers honestly recognize the names A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, and Homer Bigart?

All five men served as war correspondents during the Second World War, and I just finished learning about them myself from Timothy M. Gay’s outstanding chronicle of their experiences, Assignment in Hell. My primary criteria for judging nonfiction is pretty simple: did it make me want to become whatever it was I was reading about? After reading Assignment in Hell I wanted to be a war correspondent following the Allies into Germany during WW-II.

I’m not sure where my fascination with the Second World War comes from. My grandfather and four of his brother served in the U.S. military during WW-II. For them, it was not something they tended to talk about. I think my interest was sparked from Stephen Ambrose’s book, Band of Brothers. As I have gotten older, and read more history, I also think that the Second World War was the last one in which there was a clear moral imperative. It was good versus evil. Andy Rooney, who had a professor in college who said that any peace was better than any war, changed his mind after covering World War II, and seeing the Nazi death camps. “Any peace is not better than any war,” he wrote after.

The story of these five journalists and their experiences covering the news in WW-II is riveting. Each writer was different, each had a different style. Some covered stories that were large in scope, others wrote about the everyday life of the soldiers. Journalism rose to heights that it had not seen in decades, and set the bar so high, that is has rarely been surpassed since. To that end, I came away from the book envious of Cronkite and Rooney and Liebling and Boyle and Bigart. Where are the journalists like these fellows today? For a brief period of time, journalism seemed to flourish, almost independent of the businesses that they inevitably were.

I already knew Andy Rooney from his spots on 60 Minutes and his newspaper column. I knew of Walter Cronkite. There have been journalists I’ve admired over the years. Peter Jennings on TV. Al Martinez in print. But I’m grateful I had the opportunity to get to know–even a little–Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart, and A.J. Liebling. They serve as role models for future generations of journalists to study and strive toward.

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