Bill Downs

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Bill Downs
Bill Downs delivering a broadcast.jpg
Born William Randall Downs
(1914-08-17)August 17, 1914
Kansas City,
Kansas, U.S.
Died May 3, 1978(1978-05-03) (aged 63)
Bethesda, Maryland
Education University of Kansas
Years active 1937–1978
Spouse(s) Rosalind Downs

William Randall "Bill" Downs, Jr. (August 17, 1914 – May 3, 1978) was an American broadcast journalist and war correspondent. He worked for CBS News from 1942 to 1962 and for ABC from 1963 until his death. He was best known for his work with Edward R. Murrow as one of the original Murrow Boys.

Downs covered both the Eastern and Western fronts during World War II, and was the first to deliver a live broadcast from Normandy to the United States after D-Day.[1] He later covered postwar Asia, Operation Crossroads, the Berlin blockade, and the Korean War. He was an early and prominent voice urging Murrow to use his platform on See It Now to challenge Senator Joseph McCarthy.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Downs was born in Kansas City, Kansas to William Randall Downs, Sr. and Katherine Lee (née Tyson) Downs. He served as the managing editor of the Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas and graduated in 1937 with an A.B. in journalism. That same year he began his journalism career as a night manager in Denver and later worked the cable desk New York for the United Press. He remained in the United States for the next three years, and in 1940 was stationed in London as a wire reporter.

In September 1942, his former colleague Charles Collingwood introduced him to Edward R. Murrow. At the time, Murrow was in search for a reporter to relieve Larry LeSueur as CBS's Moscow correspondent.[4]

Prior to hiring Downs, Murrow had him undergo two pro forma voice tests, both of which went poorly due in part to Downs' gruff voice. Instead, Murrow sent Downs to Piccadilly Circus and told him to describe whatever he saw. Murrow loved his account so much that he hired him on the spot. Downs was soon sent to head CBS's Moscow bureau and remained there from December 25, 1942 to January 3, 1944.[5][6]

World War II[edit]

On the Eastern Front[edit]

Downs stayed with other Western foreign correspondents at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Immediately he joined his colleagues in dealing with heavy censorship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who required correspondents to submit articles and broadcasts transcripts for approval.[7] They were sometimes limited to what had already been reported in Russian newspapers, and were prohibited from casting Moscow in a negative light.[8]

Throughout 1943 he delivered intermittent shortwave reports on CBS World News Roundup. As Soviet authorities took foreign correspondents to various locations near Moscow, he reported on military developments such as the aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad and the summer Russian counteroffensive on the Central Front.[9]

Following the Soviet liberation of Kiev on November 6, 1943, Downs, Bill Lawrence, and several other journalists were escorted by Soviet authorities to the site of the Babi Yar massacres. He came across bits of human remains and old possessions at the site. The SS had attempted to destroy all evidence in their retreat from Kiev. Downs interviewed survivors of the Syrets concentration camp who were forced to participate:

Many in the press party were skeptical of the Soviet claims at Babi Yar, with Lawrence doubting the sheer scale of it. He later admitted to having "furious arguments" with Downs over how to report the story and wrote that his reluctance to wholly accept the claims resulted from seeing some colleagues submit stories with unsubstantiated information. As late as 1944, some Western journalists remained skeptical of the actual scale of the Nazi mass murders.[11]

He returned to the United States in January 1944, and brought with him Dmitri Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony after CBS acquired the American broadcast rights.[12]

On the Western Front[edit]

Bill Downs in Lüneburg on V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

Upon leaving the Moscow bureau, he briefly returned to the United States before returning to Europe to cover the landing of British troops in Normandy, separate from LeSueur and Collingwood but on the same campaign as all three headed for Utah Beach. On June 14 he made the first live broadcast from Normandy to the United States.[13] He was soon embedded with the 21st Army Group, and would remain so until the end of the war in Europe. In mid-August he followed Allied forces on their advance to liberate Paris and reported on the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.[14][15]

In September 1944 Downs and his United Press colleague Walter Cronkite were stranded near the front line in the Netherlands during the Battle of Arnhem. They were separated in a dense forest and, after much searching, Cronkite concluded that Downs was dead, and he made his way back to Allied territory in Brussels. He discovered Downs at the Hotel Metropole and angrily asked why he hadn't searched for him. Downs claimed that he searched for a long time, but it occurred to him that yelling "Cronkite! Cronkite!" sounded like the German word for sickness, and that he figured he would be taken to a Berlin hospital if he kept it up. Cronkite laughed, and the two remained friends until Downs' death.[16]

After months of following the Allied advance, he experienced a temporary bout of battle fatigue after the major defeat at Arnhem. He felt disillusioned by what he saw as indifference among the people at home who seemed to carry on as if nothing happened. To recover, he returned to London and stayed at Murrow's apartment before heading back to the front.[17] He later joined Murrow and several other of the Boys in a visit to the death camps at Auschwitz. The experience provoked increasing anti-German sentiment among the men.[18]

In March 1945, Downs and correspondents from the other major networks drew lots in Paris to determine who would parachute into Berlin during the first phase of the battle and deliver the first American broadcast. Despite never having jumped from a plane, Downs received the assignment, and the broadcast was to be pooled among all networks. The plans were ultimately canceled upon the Soviet capture of the city.[19][20]

Upon the capitulation of Hamburg on May 3, 1945, he delivered a broadcast using Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw's microphone and offered a firsthand account of the state of the city:

The day after on May 4, he gave an eyewitness account of the German unconditional surrender to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, for which he was awarded the National Headliner's Club Award. He described the Spitfires and Typhoons overhead flying north in pursuit of Germans reportedly attempting to escape to Nazi-occupied Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.[22]

Postwar career[edit]

After the war[edit]

In June 1945, Downs joined a hand-picked group of airborne correspondents organized by Tex McCrary to cover the Twentieth Air Force. The group included veteran journalists Bill Lawrence, George Silk, Homer Bigart, and more. They toured Europe in the weeks after V-E Day in a custom B-17 fitted with high-powered shortwave radio equipment. They started with Paris and moved on to examine first-hand the destruction from the Allied bombing campaigns on Hamburg and Dresden.[23] The group made stops in Cairo, Baghdad, and Sri Lanka before reaching East Asia in August to cover the final days of the Pacific Theatre. Downs reported from Manchuria during the Soviet invasion and was present for the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.[24]

In September 1945, the correspondents covered the postwar turmoil in Saigon, where they stayed at the Hotel Continental on the Rue Catinat. Downs and fellow correspondent James McGlincy were invited for lunch with Colonel A. Peter Dewey at a villa being used as the headquarters for the OSS operation in the region. While they waited, a skirmish broke out between the Viet Minh and the few men stationed at the headquarters. Shooting back as he ran, Major Herbert Bluechel emerged covered in Colonel Dewey's blood. In the confusion, Downs and McGlincy were handed carbines and joined the rest in the firefight. Downs shot down at least one man and is said to later have remarked how "the sight of the little brown figure falling will haunt him for years."[25] After two and a half hours the attackers withdrew, and Downs and McGlincy volunteered to head for a nearby airport in search of reinforcements. They took a bottle of Old Crow, pretended to be drunks and, on Downs' suggestion, sang as they walked when he posited "I don't think anybody would shoot at a man who's singing." They met three Gurkhas at the airfield and addressed them in pidgin English. The men responded in perfect Oxford accents and promised to go to the headquarters. Upon returning, the two joined the search for Colonel Dewey's body.[26]

In 1946 he received the "plum" assignment of flying in the observation plane during the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, and some of his reporting was carried across all networks.[27] In 1947 he accompanied photojournalist Chim across Europe as part of a piece called "We Went Back," in which the two chronicled the rebuilding of postwar Western Europe.[28] Later in 1947 he covered the labor turmoil in Detroit, including the attempted assassination of the United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther.

In 1948 CBS sent Downs to Berlin cover the blockade, as they wanted a reporter with war experience.[29] He delivered a Christmas broadcast from the cockpit of a Candy Bomber aircraft piloted by Gail Halvorsen, and discussed Operation Little Vittles.[30]

The Korean War[edit]

Edward R. Murrow (left) and Downs (right) in South Korea in 1950

Downs covered the Korean War at several points from 1950 to 1953. When Edward R. Murrow and Bill Lawrence arrived in Tokyo, they saw a disheveled Downs running toward them saying "Go back, go back, you silly bastards! This ain't our kind of war. This one is for the birds!" Murrow would later call it the best advice he ever ignored.[31] Downs and Murrow worked from General Douglas MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters with the rest of the press corps. Military censorship of press broadcasts and cables caused fury among reporters stationed there; Downs' cables were among the scrutinized. Murrow considered resigning, and while he did not go public with the issue, others did.

While the reporting mostly involved radio, there were also televised broadcasts that tested the medium's effectiveness in war coverage. Downs contributed to Murrow's See It Now episode "Christmas in Korea." In one televised report, he stood in a decimated Korean village next to the remains of a peasant's home as the camera showed an old man holding the hand of a child as they walked down the road. Downs concluded in saying "This is the side of war we don't see very much of, but probably it's the most important part of all."[32]

Later years at CBS[edit]

While working for CBS-TV, Downs was among the most insistent members of Murrow's circle to press for Murrow to use his platform on See It Now to criticize Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunism campaigns. His wife, Roz, described the atmosphere in Washington at the time, saying that "Nobody at the State Department would talk to [Downs] anymore, nobody at the Defense Department would talk to him anymore, nobody in government would talk to anybody--they weren't even talking to their own friends anymore...Everybody was crazy--and frightened."[33]

After Cronkite joined CBS in 1950, he covered the 1952 presidential election with Murrow and Downs. At one point, Cronkite and Murrow manned the anchor booth with Downs among the crowd of reporters on the floor as the vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave a press conference. Producer Don Hewitt told Downs to remove his headset and place it on Nixon so that Murrow and Cronkite could speak to him directly. Downs did so, handed Nixon his microphone, and told him "Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow want to talk to you." Nixon went on the answer their questions audible only to him. This practice of placing headsets on personalities to talk to Cronkite became a CBS trademark and joke.[34]

In 1951 Downs narrated an anti-crime series for CBS entitled "The Nation's Nightmare."[35] Its 1952 vinyl release featured original artwork by Andy Warhol early in his career. The record sleeve is sought after due to its rarity, though the recording itself has been called "bizarre."[36]

ABC News[edit]

Downs' post-World War II career prospects as a radio and television broadcaster were not seen to be as promising as those of some of the other Murrow Boys. His gruff voice was not very good on the air, and his looks were not great for television. At times he felt overworked and underappreciated by the organization.[37]

He ultimately left his position as State Department correspondent for CBS in March 1962 during a shakeup that also replaced Douglas Edwards with Walter Cronkite as the evening news anchor.[38] He spent the next twenty months writing fiction in an effort to create what he hoped would be the "Great American Novel."

After failing to publish his manuscripts, Downs joined ABC on November 22, 1963 to anchor radio coverage in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. He spent his later years working various roles, and was ABC's White House correspondent during Lyndon Johnson's presidency.[39] In the 1970s he was given smaller assignments on ABC Evening News, where he worked alongside his old CBS colleague Howard K. Smith.

Personal life[edit]

After World War II, Downs married writer Rosalind "Roz" Gerson on December 18, 1946, and together they had three children.[40] He died of laryngeal cancer in Bethesda, Maryland on May 3, 1978.

He was not related to ABC newsman Hugh Downs.


  1. ^ "Back to Normal Operations; Invasion Coverage Widened". Broadcasting (Vol. 26). 19 June 1944. p. 16. Retrieved 9 June 2014. 
  2. ^ Brinkley, Douglas (2012). Cronkite. Harper Collins. p. 157. ISBN 0062196634. 
  3. ^ Sperber, A.M. (1999). Murrow, His Life and Times. New York: Fordham University Press. pp. 403–404, 654. ISBN 0823218821. 
  4. ^ Bliss, Edward (1991). Not the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231521936. 
  5. ^ Cloud, Stanley, Lynne Olsen (1997). The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Mariner Books. pp. 154–156. ISBN 0395877539. 
  6. ^ "Symphony Score Arrives: Shostakovich Music Is Brought From Russia by CBS Man". The New York Times. 22 January 1944. 
  7. ^ Moorad, George (1946). Behind the Iron Curtain. Fireside Press. pp. 15–16. 
  8. ^ Gilmore, Eddy (1954). Me and My Russian Wife. Doubleday. pp. 84–85. 
  9. ^ Downs, Bill. "CBS World News Roundup, 25 July, 1943". CBS News. Retrieved 13 January 2014. 
  10. ^ Downs, Bill (December 6, 1943). "Blood at Babii Yar - Kiev's Atrocity Story". Newsweek: 22. 
  11. ^ Leff, Lauren (2005). Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 172, 244–248. ISBN 9780521812870. 
  12. ^ "Shostakovich Eighth Symphony To Have N.A. Premiere Sunday". The Montreal Gazette. 31 March 1944. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  13. ^ "Back to Normal Operations; Invasion Coverage Widened". Broadcasting (Vol. 26). 19 June 1944. p. 16. Retrieved 9 June 2014. 
  14. ^ Cobb, Matthew (11 April 2013). Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0857203193. 
  15. ^ War Report: A Record of Dispatches Broadcast by the BBC's War Correspondents With the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 - 5 May 1945. London: Oxford University Press. 1 January 1946. pp. 181–182. 
  16. ^ Gay, Timothy M (2013). Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle. NAL Caliber Trade. p. 528. ISBN 0451417151. 
  17. ^ Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne (31 October 1997). The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Mariner Books. p. 228. ISBN 0395877539. 
  18. ^ Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne (31 October 1997). The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Mariner Books. p. 235. ISBN 0395877539. 
  19. ^ Richards, Robert K. (19 March 1945). "Plane to Drop Bill Downs for Berlin Broadcast" (PDF). Broadcasting. p. 15. Retrieved 30 April 2014. 
  20. ^ "Down He Goes". Time Magazine. 2 April 1945. 
  21. ^ Downs, Bill. "CBS Radio broadcast by Bill Downs in Hamburg on May 5, 1945". 
  22. ^ Downs, Bill (5 May 1945). "500,000 More Surrender to Montgomery; Yield in Holland, Denmark, North Reich: U.S. and Soviet Unites Hack Czech Pocket". The New York Times. 
  23. ^ Kelly, Charles J. (2009). Tex McCrary: Wars, Women, Politics: An Adventurous Life Across the American Century. University Press of America. p. 82. ISBN 0761844562. 
  24. ^ McGlincy, James (28 September 1945). "Bill Downs and McGlincy Thru Saigon Mob Lines Singing to Summon Aid". The Kansas City Kansan. 
  25. ^ Lee, Clark (1947). "French Colonialists Are Sad Sacks". One Last Look Around. Duell, Sloane and Pearce. pp. 208–209. 
  26. ^ McGlincy, James (28 September 1945). "Bill Downs and McGlincy Thru Saigon Mob Lines Singing to Summon Aid". The Kansas City Kansan. 
  27. ^ "Atomic Bomb Series Begins This Week" (PDF). Radio Daily. 24 June 1946. Retrieved 25 February 2014. 
  28. ^ "We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933–1956 by Chim". International Center of Photography. 
  29. ^ Bliss, Jr., Edward (2013). Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. Columbia University Press. p. 216. ISBN 9780231521932. 
  30. ^ Cherny, Andrei (2008). The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Aircraft and America's Finest Hour. Penguin. ISBN 1440635951. 
  31. ^ Sperber, A.M. (1999). Murrow, His Life and Times. New York: Fordham University Press. ISBN 0823218821. 
  32. ^ Bliss, Jr., Edward (2013). Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. Columbia University Press. pp. 264–265. ISBN 9780231521932. 
  33. ^ Sperber, A.M. (1999). Murrow, His Life and Times. New York: Fordham University Press. pp. 403–404, 654. ISBN 0823218821. 
  34. ^ Hewitt, Don (2002). Tell Me A Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes in Television. PublicAffairs. pp. 57–58. ISBN 1586489658. 
  35. ^ Morse, Leon (28 July 1951). "CBS, NBC Share Laurels with Sock Pubserve Airers on Dope Menace". Billboard. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  36. ^ "The Beatles album artwork worth £70,000: Top 10 most valuable record sleeves revealed". The Mirror. 3 November 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  37. ^ Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne (31 October 1997). The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Mariner Books. pp. 227, 250. ISBN 0395877539. 
  38. ^ Doan, Richard K. (15 March 1962). "Major Shakeup at CBS: Edwards, Cronkite, Collingwood, Downs Involved". New York Herald Tribune. 
  39. ^ Caro, Robert A. (2012). The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Random House LLC. p. 141. ISBN 0679405070. 
  40. ^ Onofrio, Jan (2000). Kansas Biographical Dictionary: People of All Times and Places Who Have Been Important to the History and Life of the State. North American Book Dist LLC.