A patriot and journalist on war, past and present

War correspondent was the eyes and ears for anxious families back home

Conversations

June 05, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

In 1942, Sun publisher Paul Patterson recruited a young Yale grad, Holbrook Bradley, to the staff of the paper. After a year covering cops and the waterfront, the 27-year-old was tapped to cover the 29th Infantry Division - the heralded Blue and Gray, made up mostly of Maryland and Virginia soldiers - as the division trained in the United States and England for the invasion of France.

Sixty-one years ago tomorrow - on D-Day - Bradley watched the bloody charge of Omaha Beach from an offshore transport. He hit the sands the following day.

From then until the end of the war, wearing the 29ers' uniform and patch, he was a regional household name, chronicling day-to-day life with the Blue and Gray.

His dispatches put readers at scenes that were so detailed they became indispensable to historians, and, to the relief of local families, he always listed the Maryland soldiers that he ran into "over there."

After World War II, Bradley worked for Time-Life. Then he joined the State Department, working with the occupation in Germany. He later became an information officer in Korea, Vietnam and other places, and wrote four historical novels.

Today, he lives in San Diego, where he walks the beach and writes daily. His latest manuscript, in search of a publisher, is a narrative interweaving his war dispatches for The Sun.

A Purple Heart recipient, fluent German speaker and the man who served as translator for the German surrender of the port of Brest in 1945, Bradley spoke with his old paper about D-Day, the 29th and war coverage in general.

How'd you become The Sun's war correspondent?

I'd been covering maneuvers and training programs around the country, and the fellow who was covering the 29th moved on to [another posting]. A lot of guys wanted the job. Some were a bit jealous; here I was, fairly new, without formal training, and married to the boss' daughter [Polly Patterson, daughter of publisher Paul], so I had all that hanging over my head! [But] Polly went off with another man just before [I went overseas]. When I left, I wasn't scared of too much.

What comes to mind about D-Day?

What I remember most is the tremendous number of ships - battleships, cruisers, whatever - all firing at the shoreline. Then the first load of wounded that came back [to my boat]. I heard this chain noise - they were hoisting something up - and it banged on the side of the ship. I went down to the sick bay, and there was a guy, probably dying, in a stretcher. It didn't become personal till I started seeing guys I knew who'd been hit.

You landed the next day?

My editor, Neil Swanson, said if I got myself killed, we'd have no one there. So [June] 6 was out. On the 7th, I told my ship's captain I'd be hitting the beach. He said, "Not from my ship!" He was afraid if I kicked the bucket, he'd get the blame. When the next small boat came, I just went down the rope ladder and got in.

What was it like on the beach?

The worst of the fighting had eased, but there were bodies, our bodies, floating around on the water. It was a mess. It was amazing we'd gotten through. ... The Sun had given me a camera. When [my boat's] ramp dropped, I fell to one knee to take a picture of the landing. The guy behind me booted me in the [rear], thinking I wasn't going to get off the ship! I took a flying leap into the water and wondered whether the camera would ever work. [It did. Bradley's photos graced many issues of the Sun's Sunday magazine.]

Did you enjoy this work?

I did. It scared the hell out of me; I got hit once, and got pinned down a couple of times, and I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" If you're not scared, there's something wrong with you. But often, it was just an adrenaline drive.

What was your reporting regimen?

I went around with a guy named Corporal White, who was in the press section. He'd carry his M-1 - I wasn't armed - and we'd get in a jeep and drive as close to the action as possible, then get out and walk till we found the unit. By that night, I'd have enough stuff to go back and write. I'd usually sit in the hole I had dug, with my Hermes aluminum typewriter ... and bat out a story. ... I'd take it to the censor, and half an hour later, he'd have it for me, and we'd get it on its way, by point-to-point wireless, to Baltimore.

Modern journalists would never refer to Americans as "we," as you did.

We - the military - had a better operation than they do today. The purpose of the war was so clear: to get rid of Hitler and the Nazis and preserve democracy. I never met anyone who doubted the mission. After the war, even most Germans admitted they'd made a big mistake. Today, in Iraq, let's just say the purpose is a lot less clear. That changes things.

How has war correspondence changed in your time?

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