Column: The other Homer

COURTESY PHOTO Homer Bigart in Vietnam.
COURTESY PHOTO Homer Bigart in Vietnam.

No reporter during my lifetime was more admired by his peers than Homer Bigart, who was awarded, along with many other honors, two Pulitzer Prizes for his work as a war correspondent.

By the time I joined the ranks of the ink-stained wretches in the early 1960s, Bigart had such a towering reputation that it was not uncommon to hear colleagues refer to him – without a trace of irony – as “the legendary Homer Bigart.” So I was mildly surprised to learn that he was a late bloomer.

Bigart began his career at the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy and worked at that entry-level position for more than five years. The main reason his promotion to reporter was so long delayed was because he did not look, act or, above all, talk like a journalist.

With his frail build and wire-frame glasses, he projected the image of a nerdy librarian. And although his diffident, self-effacing demeanor masked a mordant wit, it rarely flashed to the surface in those early years. Worst of all, Bigart was afflicted with a severe stutter, a dreadful handicap for a reporter.

But when he was finally given a shot at adult assignments in 1934, he proceeded to make his mark as a perceptive reporter and a painstaking, incisive writer, whose copy stood out even at the Tribune, a paper renowned for its stable of gifted wordsmiths.

By 1942, Bigart was in London, covering the U.S. Eighth Air Force, which was gearing up for an extensive bombing campaign of German targets.

Two of his colleagues would later go on to celebrated careers in another medium; United Press correspondent, Walter Cronkite, and Sergeant Andy Rooney, who wrote for the military paper, Stars and Stripes.

Covering the air war through the grim winter of 1942-43 was, in so many ways, a challenging assignment. For one thing, the decisions to order the bombers into action were usually made at the last minute, which meant that reporters had to be ready to move on a moment’s notice.

This was the drill: An Air Force officer would call them at their London press offices and inform them (in appropriately coded language) that a mission was imminent. The newsmen would then dash out to the street, hail taxis to the rail station and catch the next train to the designated rendezvous site. There jeeps would be waiting to take them to the bases, where the reporters would wait for the planes to return from their mission.

At the time, the Luftwaffe, which had inflicted so much destruction on London during the Blitz, was still a commanding presence in the skies over Europe, and Germany’s powerful anti-aircraft guns were an additional menace to Allied bombers.

As a result, there was a high rate of attrition during that first winter of U.S. engagement in the European war. On a typical mission, 25 per cent of the planes that took off across the English Channel were shot down, and many of those that did make it back to their bases were badly damaged with seriously wounded crew members on board.

At first, the reporters happily mingled with the American fliers when they ran into them in pubs and other social settings. But as time went on, they began to steel themselves against the temptation of getting too close to the young airmen who were putting their lives on the line every time they flew across the Channel.

At 35, Bigart was several years older than the other reporters on the air-war beat. Cronkite, for example, was 26 and Sergeant Rooney was 23. When they first encountered Bigart, the younger newsmen didn’t quite know what to make of this myopic, wimpy-looking guy with the terrible stutter.

But they soon came to regard Bigart with respect and affection, and never more so than on the day they were permitted — for the first time —to phone in their copy directly from the air bases. Prior to that welcome change, the correspondents had not been allowed to file their stories until they returned by train to London.

Still, the new freedom had its downside. Because the connections to London were faint and marred by static, the reporters had to shout, repeat words over and over, and, at times, even spell them out phonetically. For Bigart, such a tedious, drawn-out procedure would have been sheer torture.

So, when his turn came, he quietly asked the sergeant on duty to file his story. The sergeant agreed to do it, but only after he asked Bigart why he didn’t dictate the copy himself. Rising to his full dignity, Homer stammered: “Be-be-because, damn it, I’m d-d-d-deaf!”

Bigart’s coverage of the air war made such an impression on his editors at the Trib that he soon was given other demanding assignments. From London, he moved on to battlefields in Italy, and then, when all became quiet on the European front, was sent to the Pacific to report on the final months of the war against Japan.

He was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945 when the biggest and bloodiest war in world history came to its formal end. Shrugging off the solemnity of the occasion, Bigart began his story of that event with a jaunty lead: “Japan, paying for her desperate throw of the dice at Pearl Harbor, passed from the ranks of the major powers at 9:05 a.m. today when Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the document of unconditional surrender.”

That also was the year Bigart was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize. Then in 1951, he bagged a second Pulitzer for his dispatches on the Korean War. Over the years that followed, he took on many other major assignments, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the early phase of the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam.

And by then, his reporting had indeed become the stuff of legend.

Bigart himself was keenly aware of his reputation and, in his understated way, was fiercely proud of it. Once, when a younger colleague asked him what his reaction was when he received the news that he had won a Pulitzer Prize,

Homer replied with a sly smile: “Wh-wh-which one?”