Dateline: Liberated Paris
December 2, 2009 |  by Joseph R.L. Sterne

Baltimore Sun war correspondents were the first American reporters to file stories from Paris after Allied troops liberated it in 1944. An excerpt from Joseph R.L. Sterne’s new book, Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II

It’s 1939. Adolf Hitler has set his sights on Poland. In anticipation of war, London holds trial blackouts, and The Sun, Baltimore’s flagship daily newspaper, dispatches reporters to Europe. By fall, the Second World War has begun and during the next six years, The Sun’s war correspondents risk their lives to send home a series of powerful narratives, astute in their observations and often prescient in their military comprehension. Their bylines appear in reprints across the world as they break news, beating even The New York Times in their coverage of the war’s battlefronts.

Joseph R.L. Sterne decided to honor that writing by revisiting the war as it unfolded in Baltimore’s preeminent daily newspaper. Now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, Sterne, 81, was a political reporter and editor with The Sun from 1953 until 1997. He spent three years scouring archived copies of the paper, culling the best pieces of war writing. “I was very well aware—as a guy who had written all his life—about the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing. It wraps the next day’s fish,” Sterne says. “These were great newspapermen, they were greatly respected. I wanted to take their writing and put it into a book and make it a little more permanent.”

This fall, the Maryland Historical Society Press released the fruits of Sterne’s research. Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II tells the story of the war through the eyewitness reports of Baltimore journalists. In the excerpted chapter that follows, Sterne brings us Lee McCardell’s and Mark Watson’s triumphant accounts of the liberation of Paris in 1944, as well as Price Day’s blunt reportage of war’s painful reality. —Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

After spending most of June and July fighting their way into Normandy, Allied forces in August broke out of that province and swept into tank country on the high road to Paris. It was an exultant moment for The Sun. In an era when it considered The New York Times as the only newspaper worth emulating, the liberation of Paris gave The Sun a dramatic opportunity to outshine its “good, gray” competitor. And it did so with enough resourcefulness and luck to make the last week of August a triumph that ought to be remembered as long as presses roll in Baltimore.

Lee McCardell was the first American reporter to get into the French capital ahead of the authorized U.S. entry. He did so by befriending five members of the French Resistance who gave him a ride on the roof of their Citroën as they raced into Paris one day ahead of General Charles de Gaulle’s forces. “It wasn’t the easiest method of travel but the driver was in a hurry to get home,” McCardell wrote.

His colleague, Mark Watson, was hardly to be outdone. Riding into Paris next day with a U.S. armored column, he found himself the only fluent French speaker among his fellow Americans seeking directions to the Eiffel Tower. Desperate to join the victory parade, U.S. officers installed Watson in a car at the head of the column. “That is the sort of thing a newspaper correspondent dreams of but usually encounters only in the movies,” Watson mused.

On August 28, 1944, Baltimoreans awoke to read a six-column front page headline: “Two Sun Correspondents with Allies Entering Paris.” Just below appeared an unusual home-office box. The McCardell-Watson race had turned into an unintended intramural competition: “McCardell by a Length” was the small headline. “Lee McCardell beat Mark Watson by a day,” the paper declared, tongue in cheek. “McCardell, going in with the French in a somewhat unofficial fashion, entered the capital on August 24 while Watson, traveling with the Americans, entered the city August 25. But McCardell’s first dispatch reached the Sun office in so short a time before Watson’s that a photograph was needed to determine the winner.”

More to the point, the stories of both reporters carried Paris datelines. Not so with The Times. In that crucial liberation week, the New York paper did not have a single staff-written story from inside the city. The nearest it came was a “NEAR PARIS” dateline. Otherwise The Times relied on the Associated Press, the United Press, and staff reports from Supreme Allied Headquarters.

What happened? Weren’t New York reporters supposed to be everywhere? This author learned the answer only when, six decades later, I chanced upon an account of the recapture of Paris by A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker magazine. Both he and Harold Denny of The Times had been caught in huge traffic jams along all roads leading to the French capital on liberation day. Denny, after coming across some Germans, “saw he had a scoop of historic proportions since he was the only correspondent for a daily publication present,” Liebling wrote. So Denny tapped out his story, gave his dispatch to a public relations officer, and then suffered a correspondent’s worst nightmare. The press center at the Hotel Scribe managed to lose “poor Denny’s exclusive eyewitness story,” Liebling wrote. “At any rate The Times never received it. The big [Times] story about the surrender was an Associated Press dispatch that read as if it had been assembled in London.” All this on the same day The Baltimore Sun had two bylined dispatches by reporters who had much more to write about.

First let McCardell begin his story: “It took me six days to reach Paris, traveling at times behind various reconnaissance and armored elements and finally entering the metropolitan area yesterday with tanks of a French armored division.” He described the five members of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) that he had fallen in with as guys “in summer sport clothes” who really knew their way around.