Mickelson had received orders from Bill Paley (his boss’s boss). I saw I was not to question him too closely.
Paley had been only an honorary colonel in World War II while Robert Sarnoff, the head of RCA-NBC, had been a full general. Two years earlier Sarnoff-NBC had done a twenty-six part series on the exploits of the United States Navy called Victory at Sea. It had been brilliantly produced and edited, with a score by Richard Rodgers. Paley-CBS called it Victory at NBC and in retaliation commissioned a series on the exploits of the United States Air Force called Air Power.
Air Power had not yet flown. A production staff of twelve, editing rooms, and tens of thousands of feet of stock footage were on 45th Street, unused. After a desk was reserved for the Air Force officer who acted as liaison, the staff became eleven.
I later learned Ed Saxe had recommended my predecessor for the job. Saxe was the CBS Vice President who had helped set up the administrative structure of the CIA. My CIA-approved predecessor had developed a brain tumor and had to be replaced for health and financial reasons. Mr. Paley wanted Air Power to be broadcast as soon as possible and the correspondent had to be Walter Cronkite, who had just become the anchor of the CBS Evening News. I asked if I might have Charles Collingwood. He and I had worked well together for almost three years. Or, given the time pressure, Edward R. Murrow, the most distinguished war correspondent in the history of radio.
Cronkite, said Sig’s face. I learned later that CBS News was trying to get rid of Murrow’s boys. They were radio and they were World War II. Airtime had changed. Portentousness was giving way to sincerity.
Walter invited me to visit his home. He showed me a volume of the stories he had filed as a correspondent in Europe. He didn’t ask about my war experiences. I didn’t like to talk about combat and he had seen almost none. Once, he had jumped in a ditch under fire and there had been other close calls, he told me. I nodded. “Scary.” I suppose had I shown more admiration, even servility, he might have become friendlier, but things would worsen between us for the rest of my professional life at CBS News.
There was the matter of the Cold War. I learned much later that one of my principal researchers was a government plant. George Vicas never admitted it to me, although we became good friends. He spoke perfect Russian and his research papers were balanced and thorough. (In the 1980s the CIA sent him to Russia to make films in Russian to teach proper jurisprudence procedures to ex-Soviet court officers.)
Air Power was the first documentary series to be sponsored fully by one advertiser. They sent no memos or suggestions. If they had problems with the more controversial programs, I did not hear about it. The problems were between the correspondent, the Pentagon, and me.
The first film, the pilot to the whole series, was titled Target Ploesti. Ploesti was a Rumanian oilfield essential to German rolling and flying stock.
On August 1, 1943, 177 Air Force bombers in a surprise raid took off from North Africa to destroy the oilfields from low altitude. The target was 2700 miles away. The lead navigator made a mistake and flew directly over the German Air Defense Command headquarters in Bucharest. All surprise was lost. Ploesti was the worst defeat ever suffered by the United State Air Force. The footage of the raid was breathtaking. The bombers came in at one hundred feet, and cameras recorded the fighting. One bomber broke up directly before a camera and plunged into an oil refinery tower. No one could have survived the explosion.
The word “oil” was the key to the whole film. When Cronkite read my script he pronounced it in two syllables.
“Walter, one syllable. Oil”
“That’s what I said. Oy-yul.”
“Oy-yul. That’s the way I say it; that’s how I say it.”
The tone was fierce, the glance dismissive. For that matter he dismissed the whole production, and never once came to the editing rooms. He was not yet the most trusted man in America. When later I had serious troubles with the Pentagon, I sent several drafts to his office for comment, but they were never acknowledged or returned. Walter was never made available to me. I turned his voice-over recording sessions over to an associate. He read what I wrote, without changes.
Cronkite never tried to contact me. Instead, as if Air Power were a theatrical production, he sent his two agents, Jap Gude and Tom Stix, to see me and to plead that I give their client more attention. One of the agents was drunk. I asked why Walter wouldn’t come to the office and help me.
“Do you know who he is? Walter is the star of the show.”
“If your client is the start of the show, why won’t he help me with the Air Force brass? They hate what I’m doing.”
“Cronkite is the anchor on the evening news, and that keeps him in New York all day long.”
“Tell him it’s his name on the front credits and get out of here.”
Target Ploesti became a shouting match when I presented it for comment to the public relations head of the Air Force. Robert L. Scott was an Air Force ace who had made many kills in World War II. He was a Flying Tiger, an authentic hero and a general who had written God is My Co-Pilot, later made into a movie.
I explained the architecture of the series. “The Air Force rises from defeat to victory, sir. You lose at Ploesti, you lose at Schweinfurt, and we lose at Pearl Harbor. We rise and win the war. Honesty is good dramatic construction.”
General Scott would not look at me. The projection room had a half dozen commissioned officers seated in it.
“Why would CBS put a foot slogging enlisted infantryman in charge of this series? What ever happened to the other producer? I flew him for a weekend in Mexico City. I thought we put somebody helpful in that office.”
God did not fly in the pilot’s seat. Scott had the stick and rudder; God was in the right seat where He could only be the co-pilot.
The Air Force was to be the star of the show. They had an agent, too. I found our liaison Air Force colonel rifling my desk. He was looking for the proposed outlines for other chapters. I took his keys from him and told him to get out of my sight. He left me a script written by my predecessor. It was marked “approved script” and signed by an assistant to Colonel Scott. Its theme was that the United States Air Force made no mistakes at Ploesti. I took the revisions to the head of CBS News. No self- respecting journalist or documentarian could accept their propaganda. Either CBS controlled the final scripts or the Air Force did.
Our lawyers were called in. The contract did not specify who had the final word. The assumption was that the series would follow NBC’s prize winning Victory at Sea. Both the network and the military would work together in common purpose. However in Victory at Sea the United States Navy never suffered a defeat after Pearl Harbor. It did take losses now and then. Ploesti was a defeat, not a loss.
Sig Mickelson, then President of CBS News, read the Pentagon’s version of the raid. He asked for time to work it out. It was never worked out, merely compromised. Fifteen years later in a broadcast I supervised, The Selling of the Pentagon, this conflict became the basis of the argument of whether the First Amendment guaranteed television the same rights as the print press.
Ploesti was an example of the paradox of war: How many should be asked to die for a target? Normally a ground force calls off an attack when casualties reach five percent. Elite corps like the Marines or SS will go to fifteen percent. The USAF took thirty percent in long raids deep in German territory. One out of three planes was lost on this August 1943 mission. Over 800 airmen were killed, wounded or missing. It was estimated that to stop the flow of oil from this source, at least seven more missions would have to be launched.
There were fifteen drafts of Target Ploesti. It was screened five times at the Pentagon and rejected each time. After the last screening Colonel Pitchford, the new liaison officer, was comforting.
“Look, here’s the deal,” he said. “The Air Force will transfer Scott off the project. The series is more important than he is. You’ll have another session. Make a change or two and wait.”
I compromised. I wrote a summary page explaining that the loss of oil helped us defeat Germany. Pitchford’s counsel was right. “The last page is Pentagonese and unintelligible.”
Cronkite read what was written and showed up late for the small banquet in the Pentagon.
Sometime later I went to see my brother, Leon Wolff, 2d Lieutenant United States Air Force, retired.
After my broadcast, Leon wrote a book on Ploesti, Low Level Mission. It was not a success but it was a far more detailed account than mine. But the record couldn’t be straight for either of us. For the next thirty years the Army hid the documents we should have seen. We both got it wrong. There is still the suspicion that the Germans had been tipped off by their intelligence agents in Libya.
The military reckoned that the value of the target was worth the number of the deaths. That’s a reckoning they never make in public.
The Air Force had put at my disposal an old twin-engine bomber with a crew on a standby basis. Colonel Pitchford was more given to wine and women than spying or propaganda. He was in the midst of divorcing a wife and on his way to a retirement and the real estate business. He came with an enlisted woman who was his aide.
The A-20 had a bomb bay that extended into the fuselage and was covered at the top. A mattress could be placed on the top of the bomb bay. I never used it, but the Colonel did and his Air Force lady did.
This twin engine plane had a second mattress in the plastic nose. While the pilot flew at low altitudes I could lie on it and watch America go by, a few hundred feet beneath me. I buzzed the nation, coast to coast.
It took two and a half days in those propeller-driven times. That low-level mission changed my professional life. It made me skeptical about unity and the co-axial cable, and satellite America.
America is a continent, not just a country. Television and mass marketing have forced us into a sense that we are small. It is so easy to switch pictures from coast-to-coast and border-to-border that in our collective mind the size of our continent is forgotten. We think of ourselves in terms that make us Lilliputian. We are not quintuple England or eight times France: all one has to do is fly low and slow from one coast to another. The United States is vast and varied and unpredictable.
I was astounded, and I still am.
In these jet days, when the flight attendant asks us to draw the shades so we can see a movie, I rebel. I keep the shade open and look down at our history; the land is our story. In the east, the patterns of agriculture curl and twist in the same manner as old Europe. In Indiana and Ohio come the squares of farming, subdivided land grants; the work of Thomas Jefferson. Each land grant tied to an educational institution. The squares are less subdivided in the Midwest. They stretch on and dissolve into the rivers and mountains that recall Lewis and Clarke. The deadly deserts of the Hopis and Navajos. The Rockies and then the Pacific. And as vast and diverse as the geography are the people. We are not one. We are a diverse multitude. In unity there may be strength, but in diversity there is survival.
Air Power DVD, Amazon.com