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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Douglas Brinkley on Walter Cronkite’s “most memorable reporting assignment”

Guest blog post by Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, editor of Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957–1960, and author of the new book Cronkite

If I were to choose the turning point in Walter Cronkite’s career, it was when a ghastly tragedy occurred in the Heart of Texas and he ambulance-chased to the scene. Two months after starting at United Press, Cronkite was assigned to work at the Dallas bureau for a brief spell, on loan from the Kansas City desk. On March 18, 1937, at 3:05 PM on a beautiful spring day, Cronkite was at his Dallas desk when there was a natural gas explosion at a consolidated public school in New London, Texas, causing 295 deaths, a majority of them children. A gas leak at the two-story school, a steel-formed building only a couple of years old, had caused a bomblike detonation that blew the edifice to kingdom come. Balls of rolling gas shot into the Texas sky like a fiery orange tornado and caused the ground to shake for miles around.

Located in the northwest corner of Rusk County, New London was surrounded by ten thousand oil derricks; eleven had been fatally erected on school grounds. Governor James Allred called up the Texas Rangers, the Texas Highway Patrol, and the Texas National Guard to pull out bruised and battered survivors. The New London boom’s echo, it was said, had been heard a hundred miles away, in the stockyards of Fort Worth. Some students miraculously walked out of the rubble unscathed, dazed and confused but spared serious injuries.

Cronkite received a dispatch from the Houston UP bureau confirming the explosion, and off he raced in his Dodge to New London with Bill Baldwin, the manager of the UP bureau in Dallas. Just how horrific the tragedy was became vividly apparent when he saw a line of cars, ambulances, and trucks parked at the funeral home in Tyler, all unloading corpses. Makeshift morgues had been erected in Henderson, Kilgore, and Overton to accommodate the dead. Cronkite flashed a United Press badge for access to the disaster zone. He hitched a ride on a fire department searchlight vehicle that had just arrived from Beaumont to help out in the impending nighttime rescue efforts. Cronkite searched for eyewitnesses who saw the school’s roof blow off. “It is not easy,” Cronkite quickly learned, “to approach someone in such distress to seek answers to the questions that need asking.”

Nothing in his University of Texas journalism classes or the Missouri Method had prepared Cronkite for this story. Oil roughnecks had rushed to New London from the Permian Basin to look for lost children, to collect the charred and crushed bodies of the young. Cronkite’s harrowing eyewitness UP dispatches offered emotional images of what the reporter saw—and yet kept the reporter out of the articles. His eye for ironic detail—such as a surviving school wall with a blackboard on which someone had written, “Oil and natural gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessings”—was superb. One of his UP reports read, in part, as follows:
OVERTON, TEX., MAR. 19 [1937]—(UP) 
Take oil from this town and nothing would be left. The last census showed its population to be a little more than 500 yet 3,000 persons receive their mail at the general post office. 
It is the capital of the East Texas oil field, the richest in the world, whose forest of derricks stretch [sic] 90 miles across the Texas hills on a line one to 15 miles wide. 
Week days, its few streets are dotted by the toughest migratory workers in the world—the men who go from field to field where oil is gushing, who work hard and dangerously and live hard and gaily.

Saturday night, dressed in their silk shirts and pleated trousers, a week’s pay in their pockets, the men come in for what diversions the town affords. They are strong men and hard men.

Today they were in town on another mission and beneath the flamboyant shirts, knotted shoulder muscles bent beneath unseen weights. Faces were heavy-jawed and screwed tensely. They stood about in small knots, looking not into passing faces but toward their feet. They gathered at the curbs. From a distance they seemed to be chatting. But closer, the passerby heard men weep, heard rasp-like voices oddly strained in unaccustomed efforts to be tender.
Decades later, even after he was credited with helping end the Vietnam War, Cronkite called the New London tragedy his most memorable reporting assignment. Sleeping at the Overton Hotel, calling CBS Radio News in New York from a pay phone to offer a nationwide listening audience a detailed eyewitness report, twenty-year-old Cronkite earned his spurs that sad March week.

Also of interest:
  • Learn more about the New London School Explosion at the museum’s website
  • Read an interview with Douglas Brinkley about Cronkite on the Bookish blog
  • Read LOA’s exclusive interview with Douglas Brinkley about Jack Kerouac
  • Eyewitnesses recall the 1937 New London School Explosion

Related LOA works: Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969 (includes a transcript of Cronkite’s February 1968 telecast “We Are Mired in Stalemate”)

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