In Memoriam: Andy Rooney

Monday, November 14, 2011
(NOTE: this entry was originally going to be called 'In Appreciation' but, unfortunately, Mr. Rooney died before I could compose the post.  I will use that 'slug' for others deserving thanks for their contributions to journalism and/or the media.)

There isn't much to say about Andrew Aitken "Andy" Rooney that hasn't already been said by his fans, his critics or the man himself.  A fixture at the end of CBS News' '60 Minutes' programs since 1978, he shared his thoughts on a myriad of subjects in those few allotted minutes that drew applause, criticism, or simply just a faint empathy of viewers to the ongoing observations of America’s favorite curmudgeon.

Rooney passed away on November 4th at the age of 92 due to post-operative complications after an undisclosed surgical procedure.  Although he achieved his professional reputation as an essayist, humorist and television writer/personality, he began his long and distinguished career as a military journalist and it is this part of his life that I want to reflect upon here.  Most of what I provide below are from two books about his time in uniform: My War, an account written by Rooney himself; and The Writing 69th, a record of World War II military journalism.

In the summer of 1941, Rooney, then a 22-year old student at Colgate University, received his draft notice from the US Army to report for duty.  Being from a comfortably wealthy Albany, New York family during the Great Depression, he attended a local preparatory school and was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity at the New York liberal arts college and this notification at the end of his junior year was a shock.  Through those years, he gravitated towards the isolationist policies that were prevalent throughout the country prior to America’s entry into World War II but he could not honestly qualify himself as a ‘conscientious’ objector to avoid military service.  

After completing basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Private Rooney was assigned as a battery clerk in an artillery unit which eventually deployed to the United Kingdom to eventually see action in Europe--and most likely direct combat. Fortunately, the young soldier spotted a notice for newspapermen to apply for redeployment to the Army’s official paper, the Stars and Stripes, which was setting up operations in London for the 2+ million American troops being massed in the UK for the future assault on Nazi Germany.  Highlighting experience he had with high school and college publications (plus some clerical tasks during the time he entered the Army), Rooney received word of his transfer orders which would mark the beginning of his professional journalistic career.

Initially tasked to cover minor stories (his first credited article was for an Air Force local bowling tournament), the novice correspondent improved his craft and eventually moved up to reporting on the day-to-day activities of the flying units in the immediate vicinity of London.

The standard practice was to have the reporters meet with returning aircrews who would describe their activities during missions over occupied Europe.  That changed in February 1943 when Rooney and five other American journalists who called themselves 'The Writing 69th' (this group included future CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite) flew on a daylight bombing raid on the German coastal city of Wilhelmshaven.  The B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft he flew in was damaged on its way from its mission but was able to land safely at its RAF Thurleigh homebase.  Due to that incident, his account of the raid was featured as a front-page story in both the Stars and Stripes as well as his hometown newspaper, the Albany Times-Union (he was also invited to share his airborne experiences on the BBC’s radio show, London Calling). 

A copy of the February 27, 1943 edition of the Stars and Stripes (with Rooney's article on the bombing raid right below the headline)

Shortly after the Allied 'D-Day' invasion of Normandy in July 1944, Rooney and other journalists tagged along with Army units in their campaign to expel the Nazi occupiers in France and other western European countries.  He provided continual accounts of American forces moving through those contested areas, earning him an Air Medal for flying on five raids over Germany as well as a Bronze Star for meritorious service while gathering “without regard to his own safety, first hand descriptive material for a complete and accurate story.”  Feeling embarrassed for receiving that hero’s award for doing nothing he regarded as heroic, Rooney never mentioned it to others he worked with.  He also earned the ire of General George S. Patton over Rooney’s rebuke of a Third Army release that provided an incorrect date that they crossed the Rhine River into Germany.

Luckily, Rooney and other Stars and Stripes reporters were given protection from undue influence by superior officers by the two highest ranking officers in the US Army—Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall who said “a soldier’s newspaper is a symbol of the things we are fighting to preserve and spread in this threatened world” and that it “represents the free thought and free expression of a free people.”

Shortly before the German surrender in May of that year, Rooney was reassigned to cover the war in the Far East and made it as far as Kunming, China before being notified that he was to be discharged in July 1945.  In all, Rooney spent three years as a reporter and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant.  He arrived back in the United States on August 2 and was in New York City when Japan surrendered after the dropping of two atomic weapons on its cities the following week.  On that historic day, Rooney went to Times Square to experience the spontaneous celebrations as he did the year previous when Paris was liberated from the Nazis. 

Before he left Europe, Rooney toured through two German concentration camps (Buchenwald and Thekla) after hearing first-person accounts from two fellow journalists.  Being skeptical of such places as simply propaganda ploys to incite patriotic fervor against the enemy, he proceeded to those locations to view the genocide himself.  The sight of these atrocities made him realize that he was wrong for trying to avoid military service and to have America stay out of that conflict and that “any peace is not better than any war.”  While in his later years he expressed his reservations about US involvement in Vietnam and Iraq, in 1945 he felt that World War II fit the criteria of a “just” cause.

I had the pleasure of being part of a ‘welcome home’ ceremony over the weekend for 33 World War II and Korean War veterans who visited Washington DC and its historic military monuments and memorials.  Those dozen or so men from the earlier conflict are well into their 80s and 90s and represent a period of our nation’s (and world’s) history that we will hopefully never have to experience again.  It might have been just me but this year’s Veterans Day ceremonies seemed to be a little more somber because we lost one of the most audible voices from that generation earlier this month.  Thank you, Staff Sergeant Rooney, for your service to your country and to journalism as a whole.

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