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Opinion

Writing for Stripes defined Rooney’s life

By TIMOTHY M. GAY | Published: May 17, 2012

Andy Rooney, the crusty commentator who left us last fall at age 92, wrote and opined for a lot of remarkable organizations. He contributed to Holiday and Harper’s magazines, coined wisecracks for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in the golden days of CBS Entertainment, crafted award-winning documentaries for CBS News, and late in life became a popular broadcaster on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

But it was the three years he spent as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes in Europe during World War II that defined Andy Rooney’s life. He never tired of reminiscing about how much the military publication and its people meant to him.

“God, it was a great paper,” he said with moistened eyes six months before he died.

It’s a good thing that the 22-year-old Pfc. Andy Rooney could write, because he wasn’t doing himself any favors as an artilleryman. A former Colgate University offensive lineman, Rooney was a pugnacious GI who had trouble keeping his mouth zipped around superiors. Before being transferred to Stars and Stripes in the fall of 1942, his stint in the Army had been marked by one confrontation after another with higher-ups.

Upon being drafted in the summer of ’41, Rooney had been assigned to an artillery unit that was eventually sent to North Africa, where it was overrun in February of ’43 by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Fortunately for the upstate New York kid, by then he was in England carrying a Steno Pad, not in Tunisia hauling a howitzer. Rooney was lucky: his contributions to the brigade newsletter had been appreciated by a kindly lieutenant who helped Rooney land a reporting job in London with the newly revived Stars and Stripes.

Rooney knew he’d caught a break — but had no idea just how life-altering those orders were. He had stumbled into one of World War II’s accidentally magnificent institutions.

Stars and Stripes, which traced its roots to the Civil War, had been exhumed in France during World War I. It was resurrected again in early ’42 as U.S. troops began arriving in Northern Ireland. It started in Belfast as a weekly with a modest staff of five. But as tens of thousands of American soldiers poured into the British Isles, the operation was moved to offices in Soho in London’s West End. Soon Stars and Stripes became a three-times-a-week affair, then a daily with an eventual staff of more than 150.

Rooney was just one of many great journalists who cut their teeth in Soho’s editorial offices. Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes,” and future Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin all got their start at Stars and Stripes, as did dozens of other notables. At the Army’s insistence, reporters and editors stayed active-duty military; many, including Rooney, were granted the rank of staff sergeant.

The paper’s biggest fan was the Supreme Allied Commander; yet Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower winced when, early on, it ran a series of overly rah-rah editorials. Instead of propaganda, Ike and his staff wanted something that had the feel of a hometown paper, complete with reasonably honest coverage of war developments (the two censors in the Stars and Stripes newsroom rarely killed stories), local news, sports, and gossipy features about Hollywood and Broadway. Plus, of course, plenty of photos of starlets.

Under the no-nonsense direction of Staff Sgt. Robert Moora, formerly of the New York Herald-Tribune, and Moora’s deputy, Cpl. (soon to be Sgt.) Bud Hutton, the one-time editor of the Buffalo Evening News, Stars and Stripes became a GI must-read.

Stars and Stripes’ newsroom was something out of the film “The Front Page.” It reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke; its floor was grease-stained, littered with butts, soda bottles, half-eaten sandwiches, carbon paper, and rejected ledes torn with disgust out of Underwood typewriters. Rooney loved every smelly inch.

The normally cocky Rooney was so green that when given an early assignment to cover the most mundane of stories — a service bowling tournament — he panicked, not knowing how to distill his notes into a simple who-won-and-by-how-much article. But Andy’s luck continued: When he called to check in that night, the phone was answered by one of his pals, not the imperious Moora or Hutton. His buddy jotted down the tourney information and volunteered to draft something for the next edition, sparing Rooney the humiliation of fumbling for a lede.

Despite the bumpy start, it didn’t take long for Rooney to begin finding his rhythm. The cub reporter earned his first Stars and Stripes byline in early December 1942. His tribute to the men of the motor pool ran on Page 2.

Datelined “AN ORDNANCE MAINTENANCE UNIT IN ENGLAND,” Rooney’s article led with: “The Purple Heart may never be awarded to the grease monkey in olive-drab overalls who works seven days and night a week to keep Army wheels rolling. But he is made of the same basic stuff that puts the men in the Flying Fortresses in the headlines day after day. The greasy monkey is the unglamorous, backstage — and very necessary — human element of this war.”

Rooney had found his niche. Six days later he did a feature on B-17 bomber technicians, men “who often work all day in a space that would make a telephone booth look like the waiting room of [the] Grand Central Terminal.” The prep school kid from the elite college quickly became Stars and Stripes’ champion of “ordinary” guys. Before the war ended, Rooney the reporter had saluted nurses, medics, jeep drivers, infantry grunts, flight engineers, tank men, resistance fighters — and even the occasional officer. Rooney and his bombing campaign colleague Hutton would become so fond of young air gunners that, together, they wrote a book about them.

Rooney always pooh-poohed his contributions to World War II journalism, but he was tough as nails: one of the first U.S. correspondents to fly on a bombing raid over the Reich; among the first into liberated Paris; literally the first newspaperman on the scene when the bridge at Remagen was captured intact; and among the first to be horrified by Hitler’s mass murder at Buchenwald and Thekla.

He earned an Air Medal for going on five combat raids and a Bronze Star for his gritty coverage of the capture of Saint-Lô in Normandy. He celebrated French underground guerrillas in Brittany and extolled the cleverness of Dutch citizens who hid famous paintings under the Nazis’ nose.

His tributes to the men who made the ultimate sacrifice in Normandy remain among his most poignant writing. He arrived at Utah Beach four days after D-Day. There were scattered artillery salvos but nothing that caused him to flinch; the nearest fighting was a couple of miles inland. Yet signs of death were everywhere: the Graves Registration Unit had placed rows of dead GIs in the sand just above the high-tide mark.

“They were covered with olive-drab blankets, just their feet sticking out at the bottom. I remember their boots — all the same on such different boys,” he wrote.

Rooney pulled out a notepad that evening and scrawled a poem. His first verse imagined a future battleground guide lecturing “a bus-load of people about events that never happened in a place they never were.”

In the decades to come, Rooney would visit Normandy many times. As he watched visitors listening in a variety of languages to guides not yet born in 1944, he was struck by his prescience.

“Even if you didn’t know anyone who died, the heart knows something the brain does not — and you weep,” he wrote of his pilgrimages.

“If you think the world is selfish and rotten go to the cemetery at Colleville overlooking Omaha Beach. See what one group of men did for another on June 6, 1944.”

Timothy M. Gay lives in Vienna, Va, and is the author of “Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart and Hal Boyle.” This column is adapted from his book.

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