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America’s first parachuting World War II correspondent: Weapons and Warfare

Jun 5


This week on Weapons and Warfare, as the world reflects on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Host Ryan Robertson has a conversation with a journalism professor and documentarian, Barney McCoy, about his latest film, “Running Towards The Fire: A War Correspondent’s Story.” This new documentary centers on the experiences of World War II correspondent Robert Rueben who made the jump into Normandy with airborne troops in the early hours ahead of the Allied invasion.

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{RYAN ROBERTSON} All right, Barney, thank you so much, Barney McCoy for joining us today. You have a great documentary that just came out. It’s called running towards the fire. For those who haven’t, you know, we kind of prefaced it a little bit before. But for those who don’t know about it, or haven’t seen it yet. It tells the story of a war correspondent, the first American war correspondent on the ground, reporting from the Allied invasion of France. So, you know, we’ll go into all the different stories about it and everything, Barney but really my first question is, how did you hear about this story? And how were you know, you have a team of people? It took you five years to get this project out, like, how did you hear about it? And how did this kind of all come together for you? 

{BARNEY MCCOY} First of all, thanks, Ryan, for letting me be interviewed by you. And it’s a great, a great project I had the opportunity to work on. It really began with another Nebraskan by the name of Barney Oldfield, who was a Nebraskan, a graduate of this college. And he was a public information officer with the US Army Airborne and World War Two. And going into the Normandy invasion months and months beforehand. He was tasked with beginning to vet some of the correspondents that would be credentialed to to go ashore during the invasion and report on what was happening with the Allied troops, the US troops in France and certainly beyond that. So as I was looking through Oldfield’s extensive volume of materials at the State Historical Museum, I came upon some correspondence between Oldfield and this guy named Robert Reuben. I’d never heard of this guy before and Reuben this was a correspondence that goes back into the 1950s. And, they were going back and forth with each other. And that’s what I really found out about Reuben’s story because Barney had recruited Reuben and five other work correspondents, if they could go through airborne jump school, if they were crazy enough to do that and survive five successful parachute jobs. They would have the privilege of flying with the US Army Airborne, five hours before the D-Day invasion began, behind German enemy lines, and then if they survived to report on what was happening on the ground. So Reuben was the first of the six correspondents to actually hit the ground in Normandy. I think he was number seven of the roughly 13,000 US Army Airborne troops that either parachuted him or came in on gliders. He was number seven to hit the ground. I think he was two positions behind US Army Airborne General Maxwell Taylor. So that’s where his whole story began. Next step, and this whole process was as I was trying to get more background on Ruben. I knew about Oldfield and I had talked about him before I hit him, and I thought he would be a great story. But then I find out about this relationship that Oldfield had with Ruben. And so I contact Reuters, Reuters news service in London. Ruben was working for Reuters as a worker responded. And so I contacted Reuters and I said, Do you have any photographs, you have any records? I’ve got a lot of the newspaper articles that Ruben wrote during this whole process, during Normandy and beyond into Germany, but I just didn’t really have much in the way of photographs, or really anything else to tell me much about Rubens job as a Reuters correspondent. Long story short, an archivist in London, went out to their warehouse, and about a month later contacted me back he said, Hey, Barney, I’ve got some photographs. You could use these photographs of Ruben when he was a correspondent for Reuters. And we found it’s like a manuscript that was wrapped in cellophane. Reuben had died in 64 from cancer, never married. No kids. And a friend of his had found this manuscript and sent it to us and said, I don’t know what to do with this, but maybe you can use it for something. And Reuters, since Reuben was a Reuters war correspondent. Turns out it was a 400 page manuscript, memoirs, if you will, that Reuben had written from the moment basically, he was recruited by Oldfield to go through airborne jump school, all the way through his ordeal in Europe, all the way into following American troops into Germany at the end of the war.

{RYAN} It’s just, it’s amazing that it’s never been published. To me. It’s amazing that it’s just sat on a shelf in a warehouse. I mean, for all these years when you, when the archivist said Oh, we found this manuscript like were you just like, What do you mean you found a mate like what was going through your mind?

{BARNEY} Well, number one is can we get a copy you know, cuz it was like, you know, Like, okay, because you, you hear about things like this. And you think to yourself, Okay, this could really be wonderful, but I need to actually find out what kind of things he was writing in this memoir. 

{RYAN} And just because it’s 400 pages doesn’t mean it’s good, right?

{BARNEY} It doesn’t mean it’s good at all. Yeah. And so, we did get a copy. The Reuters folks were fantastic to work with, particularly their archivists. And so they sent us a copy of the memoir, I started going through this, and I said, this guy is basically, you know, we want to produce a story about the important role that correspondents played in World War Two. And this guy was the very personification of that and describing in very intimate and personal details, the things that he was experiencing, as he was reporting to the rest of the world on what was unfolding in combat and World War Two. So. So we knew that we had hit the jackpot at that point. And we also began trying to reach out to find out if Reuben had any surviving relatives that we can contact. And at that point, we found out that there was actually a niece of his out in California and some other nieces as well. But one niece in particular, had the original manuscript that when Reuben had died, had been passed down to her. So. So you know, and it was really interesting, because her name was Jean Schwartz, or Joan Schwartz, I’m sorry. And she said, you know, we tried to get this published. But there was just no interest in anyone thinking that this was worth publishing. I go, Well, we think it’s worth publishing. And we want to make it the backbone of a documentary that we’re producing about war correspondents and World War Two. And so anyway, she was very helpful in coming up with some other great photographs of Ruben. I mean, going back all the way to his teenage years, he grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He was born in Omaha, the family still has relatives over there. So that really connected us to other members of the family who were able to give us some other archival materials that we were able to use them as documentary and bring it more to life. And it was beforehand. So I don’t know, I was just, you know, to me, that’s kind of the serendipity is you start going down these various channels that you’re doing archival research and things begin to pop up that you never imagined existed. And they all contribute to a better telling of that story. 

{RYAN} Absolutely. One of the archival pieces of footage that you found was Reuben with Eisenhower and Churchill.

{BARNEY} It was one of those like, Oh, my Lord. It’s like, one of the first things that Reuben talks about early in his memoirs, and he said, I got really fixated on the idea of trying to see if I could go with the airborne. We knew that they were going to go into Normandy, but I wanted to be there with them when they parachuted into Normandy, at the very beginning, you know, what became the D-Day invasion. And so he was at this airfield in Great Britain, about three months before the D-Day invasion. And it was this big demonstration that the US Army Airborne was putting on for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And Reuben describes, you know, I’ve looked him up in the sky, and I’m seeing these C-47s,, hundreds of these planes are flying over. And 1000s of troopers are parachuting out with these golden green and red parachutes. He said, I was hooked, you know, and that’s what I asked Barney Oldfield, what would it take for me to be able to go with those guys? So what I started looking for, I said, Is there any chance that there was a press photographer out that day taking photographs or maybe, you know, newsreels were very popular back in that era? Maybe there was a newsreel, a company that was out there, getting that demonstration, because after all, you had Churchill and Eisenhower together.

{RYAN} In Great Britain!

{BARNEY} Oh, yeah. And so I found a company that had this. It was part of a movie reel. And it was just B-roll that they had shot of Eisenhower and Churchill, at this demonstration. And oh, my lord. That’s Robert Reuben, on Churchill’s right shoulder as you’re walking through this airfield, and in this demonstration, taking all this stuff and, and so, you know, then this, you know, suddenly this documentary takes out another, another rendition of life, if you will, because you get to see Robert Reuben, you know, 80 years after the fact of the flesh and blood walking on this airfield with two of the greatest historical figures of World War Two. And there he is in the middle of it all. I was like, wow, this is a magical moment. But that’s, that’s really part of the serendipity that we experienced over and over again as we went through and we’re Thomas project and that’s certainly that was one of those home runs. And you know, from your own background in the news business that’s like, Okay, go we have nobody has ever put together before. Yeah, we just have that. And it’s history. If you didn’t know who Robert Reuben was, you sure as heck know who Winston Churchill was. And Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Right there, the three of them are all together in one place at the same time.

{RYAN} Yeah, and, you know, you mentioned he wanted to be right there with it. And that kind of leads me to my next question. He had the first story reported from the field. And it was written on cigarette paper and carried by a carrier pigeon back to the UK like, yeah, what do you read that? You know, think today, like I’m talking to you over the internet, right? It’s an instant communication. But when you read that, carrier pigeons, like, that’s that that stuck out to me is like dad’s nuts.

{BARNEY} Yeah, that was another one of those interesting finds that we were able to make and actually doing, you know, more background research on that it was very common that as a backup, that there are actually a lot of carrier pigeons being carried by US troops in World War Two. The Germans as well the axis troops as well, Allied troops as well, that were using carrier pigeons as a means of getting communications back home or across battle lines. When you know radio and telegraph anything else might be failing, or even the atmospheric conditions wouldn’t allow for those signals to get through the carrier pigeons. Oftentimes, were able to do that. And, and that’s exactly what happened with Ruben is he had the presence of mind to be able to call upon a guy, a soldier that has some of these carrier pigeons, and he wrote his first dateline on that and got it out. And Barney Oldfield was over on the other side of the English Channel and a soldier comes in and says “Colonel Oldfield, we’ve got a pigeon here that’s got a, it’s got a message on it that’s directed to you.” And that’s how Barney Oldfield then sent that through to Reuters. And they were able to publish that first statement.

{RYAN} You know, I’m sure, Barney, that you came across all kinds of just wow stories, right? While you’re reading through his memoirs, some of the things that stuck out to me in the doc that you mentioned, obviously must have stuck out to you because he included it in the documentary. He was on the road to Paris, you know, there was the big push to be the first to report on the liberation of Paris. He and a Reuters buddy take alternate routes, different routes to try to increase their odds of getting there. He makes it his buddy doesn’t. Later on, he talks about being some of the first American boots to be in some of these liberated areas, being some of the first Americans that these Europeans have seen that they’ve been praying for, right? What were some of the stories, some of the things that really stuck out in your mind from Reuben’s time, you know, documenting all of his travels.

{BARNEY} Um, you know, I, first of all, I think just the overwhelming over the the period of time that he was reporting in the field, 25 years old, and witnessing combat for the very first time in his life, and, you know, all the horrific things that happen in combat. And just the sheer exhaustion, I mean, literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he was either in the field covering combat, or he was trying to get him back through censors back to, they haven’t published back in Great Britain and sent around the world. I think what we really see in this program is just the erosion of the physical, the mental wear down and combat puts on anybody who’s a participant in that. And it really gave me a much greater appreciation, I think for the kinds of sacrifices that war correspondents were making guys like Robert Reuben and so many others, hundreds of others, as they were trying to chronicle, the incredible the ultimate sacrifices that so many soldiers and sailors and airmen were making in World War Two as well. So the rest of the world would know about that. And at the same time, making sure that those people who were fighting these wars knew that people back home had not forgotten about them. They could read stories about themselves or their units in the newspaper and know that all their efforts were not in vane. So I think that was an important thing that really came through. And certainly, when Bill Stringer, who was a colleague of his was killed, ambushed by German troops as they were both trying to be the first among the first to get to Paris for the liberation of Paris, in 1944. To me, that is one of the heartbreaking scenes of that, that whole documentary where It all comes together and, and ruin was just so devastated. And he writes about just everything. You know, when he finds out as he’s awesome trying to get to Paris that Bill Stringer has been killed, ambushed by Germans hit by an anti-tank shell. You know, that’s one of the certainly the reality of war comes even closer to home for him at that point in the story. So I think that was really powerful. We also talked about when they got into Liège in Western Belgium or Eastern Belgium for the first time and they had gotten there the day after German troops have been rousted by Allied troops and US troops for the first time in four or five years and just meeting some of the people that had been living there under occupation and I don’t want to give away the spoiler there but but it’s heartbreaking. It really is. And, and you really understand not only through, in that case, Robert Reuben’s words. But Bill Heinz was another great reporter and correspondent that Heinz was traveling with, or that Ruben was traveling with, wrote about it for the New York Sun newspaper, and just the way that they were able to describe what they were experiencing really brought that home, I think, for the readers back in America and elsewhere around the world that were reading their their stories.

{RYAN} You know, when I’m sure you could sense this while you were reading the Reubens memoirs, but you could kind of get a sense as the documentary was progressing. You know, yeah, he was a 25 year old kid, but there are some lines in the documentary like, you live yours. And within two weeks, like you age decades, and just two weeks, and you can kind of see his mental, I call it hardening. Right? Just the separation that a reporter had, like, in order to tell the story, he had to be disconnected from it a little bit, right? Yeah.

{BARNEY} Yeah. That’s what the inevitable is, is that yes, you put that up on the shelf. And you, you just you somehow you reason with yourself that all of these things that you’re witnessing, we’ll deal with later. Just the trauma of war, the horrors of war, the bloodshed, the people who are being wounded and killed around you. And seeing that all the time, you can only put that up on the shelf for so long. And eventually, it comes back to haunt everybody who’s a participant in that in one way, shape, or form. And that’s certainly something that we saw with Ruben over the course of this memoir is just slowly wearing him down. And you know, and he was writing and doing a masterful job, his reporting, but at the end of the day, you still have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, Oh, my God, how do I? How do I put up with all of these things that I’m experiencing? How do I begin to process that it’s just overwhelming. And eventually, it was overwhelming for him and a lot of other war correspondents too.

{RYAN} What impressed you the most about Ruben and you know, about his ability to carry on? What impressed you the most when, as you’re researching him,

{BARNEY} How dedicated he was to the task of reporting, even though it was taking a terrible physical and mental toll on him, there’s no doubt about that. And yet, he kept coming back time and time again, and doing some just amazing reporting. You know, not only did he witness the surrender of Germany, in May of 1945, but then he’s off to the Pacific. And there he is, in September of 1945, on the USS Missouri, again, writing about and witnessing Japan’s surrender to the United States, the USS Missouri. So, I mean, and he had done writing even beyond that, too. So I just say, his dedication as a journalist, to really seeking out the truth and trying to tell a story that would keep people informed, that would make them aware of the kinds of sacrifices that men and women for this country and other countries, our allies were putting forth, as they fought these two wars on basically one war but on different fronts, you know, and Japan and the Axis powers in Europe as well as Germany too

{RYAN} One of the things that stuck out to me in your documentary was this idea that Eisenhower had a speech written just in case D-Day didn’t go the way that it did. I didn’t know that he had a speech prepared. You know, for in that event. Was that common knowledge? Did you know that?

{BARNEY} It certainly is something that more and more people have become aware of over the past several decades and it’s really interesting to me, we did make note of that in the documentary itself. But if you look at the date that Eisenhower wrote at the bottom of that letter, which he wrote a day or two before the actual invasion, in which he said, you know, if this doesn’t go right, I’m going to take complete responsibility for it as commander. But he signs it July the fifth. And to me, that’s another indication of just how stress how sleep deprived, you know, the how heavily the burden, and the weight of his decisions as a Supreme Allied Commander were making on him and his command staff at this pivotal moment in world history, in which, you know, we were sending all these forces into Europe, trying to get a foothold onto mainland Europe so that we could repel the Nazis and their Axis forces as well across Europe to so. So yeah, I thought that that really tells us something about great leadership, about a great leader who was willing to take the ultimate responsibility, win or lose, but particularly in this case, assuming that if things didn’t go well, and certainly in the days, the beginning days of that invasion, everything was up in the air. And we all know about the enormous losses that American and Allied troops were succumbing to. The Germans knew they were coming, and they were prepared for them. And they had well fortified defensive positions. And it was a bloodbath. And Eisenhower had even told us airborne soldiers before they took off, you know, hours before the invasion began, that “You know what? 70 to 80% of you may very well die in what you’re trying to do.” And yet we continue to go forth. And so, to me, that’s astounding. That’s a testament to faith. And the necessity that we felt we had to take if we were ever going to be able to turn back the Nazis.

{RYAN} That, you know, that that, that wherewithal to know this is the right thing. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to, you know, it’s going to be a hard hill to climb, but we know it’s the right thing to do. Despite the costs, what are some other lessons that you think Ruben helped bring to the forefront, to the public that would probably be good lessons to learn again today, considering the world that we find ourselves in. 

{BARNEY} Sure. You know, Beverly Deepe Keever, who I really owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to for her her role she was the longest serving work were spotted another incredible Nebraskan that we interviewed, because we wanted to really find out, you know, from her own experience, what these were correspondents from World War Two were going through. And, you know, and she said, you know, World War Two was such a night and day scenario. I mean, there was no doubt about the atrocities and the brutality that the Nazis were unleashing, across Europe and elsewhere, as they were, you know, prosecuting the war. And so that it made it she felt much easier for correspondents and those who are covering that war, to be able to really say, you know, what, this is, this is a justified war, we need to be here, we need to be doing these things, we need to be making these sacrifices, particularly as the United States, if we don’t step in, right now, when we have to, then it’s very, very likely that this war is going to be a lost cause for for democracies around the world, not just America. But any other democracy that might be standing up against Japan, and Germany, and the other axis powers in World War Two. So I thought that that was an interesting thing. I mean, sometimes we really have to say, Okay, what is the right thing to do? Not just for ourselves, but for what we want to represent as a country as a democracy, what kinds of sacrifices do we need to be able to talk about and report about, and make sure that people understand that these are the ultimate sacrifices they really, really are, when people serve in the military, and are willing to put it all on the line, not for themselves, but for their country, and for their families and their friends and families back home, but also for that sense of the ideals of what a true democracy and right and wrong, morally, are all about?

{RYAN} You know, I was, I was inspired by, I mean, he did these things 80 years ago, right, but I was still inspired by Rubens. As you said commitment to journalism, he knew like hey, I want to be, I want to parachute out of a perfectly good plane and float down into enemy like occupied land like I want to do that knowing full well like the caveat is if you survive, then you can go do your job. How do you think that level of journalism compares to some of the journalism that we see today?

{BARNEY} Well, I’ve had to put that under the lens of war correspondents. And I would say, if I were to take a look at the kind of war correspondent reporting I’m seeing today, for example, in places like Gaza, or certainly before that over the past couple of years in Ukraine, I’d say that level of dedication is still there, the the risk that war correspondents today are taking to be able to report and get word out, in many regards, may be more dangerous, because of the weaponry and the technology and the lethality of weapons today than it was even back in World War Two. World War Two, what was the number I wrote down here 69 war correspondents and photographers were killed in World War Two, you know, more than that more journalists than that had been killed in Gaza over the past six months. So that really tells you again, just how lethal being in a war zone can be for a correspondent and certainly in places like Ukraine, too. So. So I don’t I would say the dedication is still there, the risk may, in many regards, be even greater today for work respondents who are working in war zones. As far as the rest of the journalism pack, we know that we’re living in a world where there are different focuses by news outlets on the way that they cover the news. Some have a left bias, some have a right bias, some do a good job of being straight and down the middle. But we have more of that separation. In terms of news outlets, I think, than we’ve had in modern history, certainly a much different story than what we had back in World War Two, when pretty much everybody was on the same page, as far as their values, what they were attempting to do, the stories they were writing, who they were representing, and so forth, and so on. So I think that that probably is the biggest difference in what we see with news outlets today. And why people really need to be sure that they stay informed and find trustworthy, reliable news outlets that they consistently can rely upon to stay informed. 

{RYAN} Why is it important for you to tell the story of war correspondents like Ruben?

{BARNEY} I think that so people really understand and being really understand how important it is to have independent sources out there that can report to them, they can make up their own minds about that they can get information when it’s important for them to be informed and certainly in times of war, that’s a critical thing to and to have people who are willing to take the kinds of risks the extreme risks that work correspondence, specifically, they have the riskiest job of you know, in the whole realm of journalists out there who are reporting on a regular basis. There are all risks involved with all of it to some extent, but riskiest of them all, has to be a war correspondent, they understand that anytime they’re out in combat, anywhere near a place where a battle is unfolding, that their lives are also potentially at risk, too. And we’ve seen that I mean, again, how many journalists have died in Gaza? How many journalists have died covering the war in Ukraine. And that, again, is a reminder that there is a price for information. There’s tremendous sacrifices being made by these news outlets who are deciding that they’re going to try and cover these stories, and have independent ears and eyes on their reporters or correspondents, helping to get that word back home to people like you and me.

{RYAN}  Barney McCoy, thank you so much for joining me today. The documentary is called running towards the fire, we will have a link to it on our website For folks out there if they want to go in tune in right now. We’re, you know, this camera that can react like right here, plug your all the places that it can be at? 

{BARNEY} Oh, sure. Well, yeah. And number one huge shout out to the Nebraska public media for allowing this to happen. They’ve really given us that platform. You know, we approached them, and we basically said that I think we’ve got a great story here for you. And you know, the process, you have to go through and still raise funds for numerous script treatments. It’s, it’s a, it’s an incredible process. But they’ve been so supportive, and they’ve given us that wonderful platform to be able to share this documentary through, and you can go to their website and watch the video on demand. They’ve been broadcasting it to the end, they’ve been steadily broadcasting it, I think this week, on a pretty regular basis, and they’ll rebroadcast it from time to time. But we’re just so thrilled to be able to have this story, you know, where you bring history alive again, when you tell stories like this, and you preserve that, not just for people like you and I who get to watch these kinds of programs, but for the families of Robert Reuben, who are saying things and learning things about him that they never knew before. What a treasure for them to have that as a keepsake in their own family history and to know about that in their own identity you know as relatives are rumors as well too. 

{RYAN} And so Nebraska public media the website is Nebraska Public Media dot O-R-G. Nebraska public media is all spelled out. Professor McCoy again, thank you so much for joining us today. Really appreciate your time. And excellent work on the documentary. I encourage everyone out there listening right now and watching right now, to go watch it.

{BARNEY} Ryan, thanks again for the opportunity to talk about this program and for your interest in it and keep up the good work.