05/07/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

The Story That Made Walter Cronkite Famous

On February 26, 1943, Walter Cronkite was an obscure wire service scribbler, just one of dozens of expatriate American journalists trying to describe the war against Hitler from bomb-ravaged London. Forty-eight hours later, thanks to his searing eyewitness account of an Allied aerial attack on a Nazi U-boat pen, he was instantly transformed into Walter Cronkite, Famous Correspondent.

Cronkite went on to document D-Day, crash into Holland with the 101st Airborne, and elude S.S. storm troopers at the Battle of the Bulge, but it was that first bombing run over the North Sea that branded him one of the European war's leading journalistic lights. His career - and with it, the course of mainstream American journalism - would never be the same.

Along with Stars and Stripes' Andy Rooney, the New York Herald Tribune's Homer Bigart, and five other reporters, Cronkite was a charter member of "The Writing 69th," the fraternity of American journalists trained by the Eighth Army Air Force in early '43 to fly along on combat missions. That February morning, Bigart and Cronkite both took off from the 303rd Bomb Group's base at Molesworth. Their respective B-17s emerged unscathed, but Rooney's Flying Fortress absorbed a direct hit from flak, although it was able to safely land at its airdrome in Thurleigh. A B-24 carrying the New York Times' Robert Perkins Post was shot down near the mission's objective, the Kriegsmarine base at Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Post was killed, a tragedy that abruptly disbanded the Writing 69th: the duty was far too dangerous.

As they were being driven back to London following the raid, Bigart asked Cronkite if he'd thought through a lede. "I think I'm going to say," mused Cronkite, "that I've just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 26,000 feet above the earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting gunfire..."

Bigart, who prided himself on his taut writing style, stared at Cronkite, incredulous that his friend would resort to such overwrought prose. Purplish or not, Cronkite's story (the New York Times headlined it "Hell 26,000 Feet Up") got huge pick-up in the States and dominated the British tabloids. It was so successful, in fact, that for the next half-century Bigart and Rooney felt obliged to give their pal unmerciful guff about it.

In truth, much of Cronkite's narrative that day was stirring: "The first impression of a daylight bombing mission is a hodge-podge of disconnected scenes like a poorly edited home movie, bombs falling past you from the formation above, a crippled bomber with smoke pouring from one engine thousands of feet above, a tiny speck in the sky that grows closer and finally becomes a Focke-Wulf peeling off above you somewhere and plummeting down, shooting its way through the formation."

There was no rest for the weary: CBS Radio's John Charles Daly insisted that the UP reporter share his raid observations on a live hook-up to New York, Cronkite's first time ever on CBS. But the circuit failed after a few moments. Cronkite then had the sad job of penning a tribute to Post, who had been officially declared missing.

Once his stories cleared censors and moved onto the wire, Cronkite's boss at UP, Harrison Salisbury, insisted on a celebratory - and very liquid - lunch at the Savoy. After a brief respite it was off Jack's Club, a favorite correspondents hangout. Then, Cronkite informed his wife Betsy in a letter, they joined other revelers in watching jitterbuggers at the Opera House in Covent Garden.

They capped off the marathon party with a stop at the Cocoanut Grove, a nightclub where they repeatedly toasted Cronkite's safe return. "As usual," Cronkite laughed to Betsy, "everybody got drunk but Cronkite."

The sober but bushed Cronkite was again rousted out of bed Sunday morning by UP's London bureau, this time to respond to a story idea from UP-New York. He then hustled over to the Army Officer's Club outside Hyde Park just before it closed for lunch.

As he entered the club, he sensed heads turning his direction. Soon a palpable buzz filled the room. Walter Cronkite was no longer just another reporter. He had, literally overnight, become the toast of London. Every Sunday paper in England, it seemed, had played his bombing raid story on page one, under "great, glaring headlines," he told Betsy.

Suddenly everyone was deferring to him, even his hotel's "snooty elevator boys who hadn't bothered saying hello before began ingratiating manners, the teller at the bank where I cash my check bowed and scraped, the telephone at the hotel rang all day with congratulations some from persons I knew and more often not... Honestly, it was the damndest performance I've ever undergone."

Cronkite had no idea that he would spend much of the rest of his life in the limelight.

Fortunately for the history of broadcast journalism, it found someone who could handle its glare. Walter Cronkite became a national icon, the rock on whom America leaned in moments of crisis. It was more than just his Midwestern decency; underneath the comforting presence viewers could sense Cronkite's steely resolve. It was a trait he learned that February morning when the Writing 69th's formation attacked Hitler's U-boats at Wilhelmshaven.

Timothy M. Gay is the author of Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany With Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle [NAL/Penguin, $26.95].