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Richard C. Hottelet broadcasts under fire near Aachen, Germany, in the winter of 1944.

By Richard C. Hottelet

The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II was observed with nostalgia, something the conflict in Iraq is not likely ever to evoke.

The Second World War was forced upon the West, rousing its people to mobilize all their resources. Iraq has been an intervention not of necessity but of choice. Its origin and purposes are suspect; its course has been bloody and erratic, and its outcome, both short term and long, is a matter of concern.

From 1939 to 1945 the American people knew what was going on. Reporters covering U.S. forces enjoyed conditions which, while often uncertain and hazardous, were professionally close to ideal.

Richard C. Hottelet, the only living member of Edward R. Murrow’s original reporting team at CBS Radio during World War II, speaks to the audience on June 6, 2004, during a GW/Smithsonian Associates event to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Shortly before D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered his commanders to allow accredited correspondents “to talk freely with officers and enlisted personnel and to see the machinery of war in operation in order to visualize and transmit to the public the conditions under which men from their countries are waging war against the enemy.”

The inevitable military censorship was fussy but not crippling.

The U.S. First Army press camp at Spa in eastern Belgium provided us, a dozen or so correspondents, with jeeps and drivers 24/7, no questions asked. Press Wireless was there as a commercial radio link to CBS News in New York, subject to all kinds of interruptions, sunspots, and “atmospherics.” It was the bronze age of communication.

The Germans had magnetic tape. We had an almost comically rudimentary wire recorder; no matter, New York did not want recordings.

We had a pretty useless G2 briefing on weekdays. One supposedly quiet Sunday morning I drove east to Fourth Division headquarters in the Huertgen Forest, to be received with some surprise. Did I know that German paratroopers had come down in the area the night before? An obviously big attack was underway not far to the south. Back to Spa in a lather, where Press Wireless could not raise New York but did contact London. I reported that what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge had begun. We tried the wire recorder again the following March for the great airborne crossing of the Rhine, but whatever was on the wire was lost when our plane was shot down. I made my way to the Ninth U.S. Army headquarters to do the broadcast.

Richard C. Hottelet’s copy of Gen. Eisenhower’s memo to unit commanders of the allied expeditionary force outlining the wide latitude given to news correspondents covering World War II. The memo was issued less than one month before D-Day.

Sparse though our spots necessarily were, they met a real need and were warmly appreciated. The other half of a complete news circuit, an eager audience, was waiting to hear how their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and sisters were faring.

Occasionally, the reports were eloquent. No one who heard them would forget the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, any more than the incomparable word pictures of Ernie Pyle. But, in the main, professional competence was the hallmark and broadcasters had a special edge: telling people directly what was happening. Murrow had not hired his crew as trombone-voiced radio personalities. He wanted reporters, and all in London had learned the trade at United Press.

The geography of the European war made it easier to explain. There was, as a rule, a discernible line between us and them. The signposts were reliable. That, and much else, has radically changed. The last neat war was in the Persian Gulf in 1991. Communication technology is light years beyond the 1940s and Korea. Almost instant voice and picture contact is now the norm. Armies of reporters service multifarious media in an unbroken 24-hour news cycle. The mask of battle is no longer the steel helmet of past millenniums. That began to change in Vietnam. In Iraq it has become the grotesque figure of the suicide bomber, unrecognizable and ubiquitous. And the political background to it all, constantly changing, is a game whose goals and players are largely mysterious.

Today’s reporters venturing out of specially secure strongholds can well be in the grip of a nervous tension that their colleagues of the 1940s may have felt only in the scariest moments. And their output is seldom gratefully received but too often kicked around, in political football.

They deserve recognition, admiration—and sympathy.

Click here to listen to a broadcast version of this article, as aired Aug. 15 on WAMU Public Radio in Washington.

Richard C. Hottelet, a member of Edward R. Murrow’s original reporting team at CBS Radio during World War II, is a GW Welling Presidential Fellow.