Traveling with troops of World War II was routine

April 11, 2003|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The most famous "embedded" war correspondent in Baltimore journalistic history was a man who traversed the killing sands of Omaha Beach three times on D-Day and thereafter became almost a member of the family in countless Baltimore homes: Lou Azrael.

Louis Azrael (1904-1981) was the star columnist of the old News-American, which in its heyday as the largest circulation daily in Maryland was better known as the News-Post and Sunday American. His column, begun in the old Baltimore Daily Post in 1927, was required reading for politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats and the general public for more than half a century. (The News-American folded in 1986.)

When the United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, Azrael got the News-Post to wangle him an assignment covering the 29th Infantry Division, made up mostly of Maryland and Virginia troops. One of the few reporters attached to a specific division, he not only covered its training but took part in much of it because he expected to go into battle with the troops - even though he was well over draft age.

The 29th became a key spearhead of the Normandy invasion. Azrael was one of 28 U.S. correspondents of 500 stationed in England to be chosen to report on the opening stages of the battle. As a "pool" reporter, he served not only his individual paper and wire service (Hearst's International News Service), but all the reporters left aboard the troopships and back in Britain.

He and his comrades in the 29th were among the first to hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. When the front ramp dropped open on the landing ship tank (LST) on which Azrael was ferried to the beach, he jumped into water up to his chest. His dispatch paper was ruined as he made his way through the machine gun and rifle fire that peppered the waves and the beach, finally reaching an inland quarry. There he caught his breath and looked around for something on which to type his first report. He spotted the body of a German soldier, rummaged through his knapsack, and found business stationery with the letterhead: "Ernst Henning, Photographer, Leipzig."

Azrael typed his dispatch, ran back down the beach, handed the story to a serviceman on a boat that would carry wounded back to the troopships, then dodged more gunfire as he ran back up the beach - for the third time.

In the confusion, the troopship telegraphers put the byline "Ernst Henning" on Azrael's first battlefront dispatch. But Lee McCardell, a Sun reporter in England, recognized Azrael's copy and corrected the byline. The Sun's D-Day reporter, Holbrook Bradley, did not go ashore until June 7, and his stories on the invasion were delayed for more than a week by wartime censorship and the confusion surrounding battlefront reporting.

So on June 9, 1944, The Sun's editors had no alternative but to grit their teeth and print on their front page the next day two of Azrael's bylined, first-hand accounts of the initial assault, distributed by Hearst as part of the pooled reports from the front.

Azrael remained with the 29th through the rest of the European war. Once he even captured several Nazis single-handedly. While rummaging through a cache of liquor and wine he discovered in a dimly lit underground fortification near Brest, France, he was surprised by two Germans. "In an emergency man uses any weapon he has at hand," Azrael wrote in his next story. "And in my hands were two bottles of liquor. So I vaguely pointed one bottle at the Nazis and shouted in German, `Hands up!'"

The Germans, terrified and looking for someone to whom they could surrender, willingly gave up. "I shall have wine with tonight's supper," Azrael wrote. "Wish you were here."

By "embedding" today's TV, radio and print journalists with the troops in Iraq, the Pentagon's brass has - rather astonishingly - recognized the wisdom of their World War II predecessors, who allowed reporters such as Azrael, Ernie Pyle and Cornelius Ryan (both good friends of Azrael's) to report as freely as possible on what they witnessed, and bond with the troops they cover. Thirty-seven years after D-Day, Azrael observed that combat duty was "a great hardener and a great softener.

"Fifteen minutes in a trench with other men during a shell bombardment can form the kind of enduring relationships that would require years of development under peaceful circumstances," he said.

The same was true for the readers to whom he had provided the stories of their loved ones in combat. After the war, Azrael resumed his column, which he continued until his death. He found that thousands of Baltimoreans considered him a personal friend, even though they had never met him. And the veterans he had encountered casually three decades earlier continued to call him for advice - or just to chat - for years. "They feel they know me," he marveled toward the end of his life, "which is very gratifying."

Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer, was a colleague of Lou Azrael's at The News-American.

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