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Monday, March 3, 2008
Beachhead News

Tom Riordan

Editor’s note:

The following commentary was written by Tom Riordan, an SPJ member since 1943, who served in the U.S. Army’s 45th Division during World War II. Riordan later became a reporter at the Pontiac Daily Press, where he met Ty Cross, a Detroit Times newsman who in wartime helped produce a truly remarkable “community” newspaper: The Beachhead News. The piece below is based largely on the stories Cross told Riordan, some of which contain dialogue that cannot be verified through historical records. Nonetheless, the story of the Beachhead News — and the men who produced it each day — is a remarkable one.

Early on in our current desert war, the following headline appeared in daily newspapers across the United States:

“U.S. soldiers are hungry for news from back home”

The story beneath it pointed out that thousands of troops had little access to American publications.

A GI from New York, when he arrived in the desert kingdom, had one question: “Are the Mets still in first?”

Reading this had me asking myself: Why isn’t the military putting out a modest four-page paper for our troops? We’re spending millions every minute every day. Couldn’t we each morning produce an old-fashioned “community newspaper” just for our guys and gals?

My thoughts spun back almost a half century to World War II’s Anzio Beachhead in Italy and my favorite “community” newspaper story. It first went to press in early 1944, six months before the invasion of Normandy.

For American GIs, the European conflict centered on a bitterly slow push through southern Italy. Rear echelon generals, 10 miles behind the front lines, got the idea to make an amphibious landing southwest of Rome. Once on ground, they would attack the German forces from the rear, taking Rome in a lightning thrust.

The end run by sea took place Jan. 30, 1944. Three battle-hardened infantry divisions (the 3rd, 36th and 45th) that were fully supported by artillery and armor roared on the beach at sleepy Anzio.

Nary a German showed up to meet them.

U.S. troops seasoned from bitter fighting in Sicily and Salerno were surprised and delighted. They immediately recognized a tactical advantage when they saw one.

“We’ve got to keep moving,” the GIs agreed.

But the brass hats made a serious goof. They elected an ultra-conservative general to direct the Anzio beachhead invasion. To his surprised staff, he ordered the troops to dig in. Maybe in a week or two, they would go on the attack after he had a chance to assess the situation.

The force of nearly 2,000 began to dig in, surely fearing a dangerous defensive operation.

The German army, discovering three American divisions at their nearly naked rears, sprung into action. Tiger tanks, 88mm artillery batteries and infantry units marched up to terrain overlooking the American positions. They easily sealed off the beachhead. Operating from high ground, they could look onto U.S. positions and see what dogface GIs were having for breakfast.

Back in Naples, the U.S. brass gulped. They knew they blew it. Their next move was to relieve the timid beachhead commander. But by then, it was impossible for the new guy to mount any sort of immediate breakout. Anzio soon turned into a four-month nightmare for Allied troops. They were under constant attack.

When Gen. Lucian K. Truscott arrived to take over the Anzio operation, he discovered the morale of his battered GIs bobbing at about a 2 on a 10-point scale.

“For starters,” he told his second-in-command, “what we need on this beachhead is a good local newspaper. One produced on Anzio. For just our troops.”

Truscott ordered his staff to contact the forces in Naples to summon reporters from Stars and Stripes. He also asked for a couple of peace-time reporters and printers.

And damned if the top brass in Naples didn’t OK the whole deal.

A week later, a Linotype, Miehle Vertical printing press and imposing stone bolted to the floor of a 6-by-6 army truck arrived at Anzio. Boxes of 12-by-18-inch flat-cut newsprint filled all open areas. The Stars and Stripes commanding officer had also sent along a Linotype operator, pressman, reporter and truck driver.

He told the men they were on special assignment as they boarded the landing ship tank in Naples harbor. Four hours later, the truck rolled onto the shore of the Anzio beachhead with the befuddled newspaper crew.

An officer directed the group to a place near headquarters and told them dig in. He explained that the next day, the men would prepare to produce a newspaper for the troops at Anzio. As he finished, the nightly German artillery shelling began.

“Like hell, we will,” shouted one of the group. With that, he and his pals dashed back to the LST, jumping aboard as its giant doors were closing for the return run to Naples.

When told of the unexpected staff desertion, Gen. Truscott ordered his staff to pull the “201” personnel files for all the men on the beachhead. They were to identify anyone with any type of newspaper experience.

Several days later, about 25 men stood at attention in front of their new commanding general. After putting the troops at ease, Truscott went on to lay out his plan.

“I want a weekly newspaper, reporting what’s happening on this beachhead, written and printed here. The good, the sad, especially those wild things you do. Like your recent Anzio Derby, holding a race with mules instead of horses.

“Your 201s say you have done something around newspapers. Tell us what you did.”

One by one they responded. Several had been carriers, others bundled papers. A couple sold ads. These men were excused and sent back to their units.

Two of them told the general of careers as printers and pressmen in small commercial print shops.

“Now we are getting somewhere,” the general smiled. “You stick around.

“Are there any reporters here,” he asked.

“Yes, sir. I spent a year as a reporter at The Detroit Times,” volunteered Pvt. Ty Cross, from an artillery outfit. Another enlisted man stepped forward and saluted, saying he had done news reporting for his college paper.

A second lieutenant raised his hand. “I never did any reporting, but I worked in the business office of my small hometown daily.”

He was named the paper’s managing editor.

“The first thing my staff and I will do, with your permission, is visit as many units on Anzio as possible, signing up guys who are willing to help feed us stories,” he said.

Cross knew a GI in map-making, who fashioned a logo. The staff began to establish news-gathering networks of unit correspondents. Signal Corps combat photographers happily provided pictures from around Anzio.

The four-page GI paper soon was regularly going to press.

On May 23, 1944, beachhead troops hammered a hole in the German line and roared onto the offensive from Anzio to capture Rome.

Cross thought he now would be going back to his old artillery crew. He and his staff figured “no more Beachhead News.” But they were in for a surprise when Truscott ordered them to continue reporting and “boosting morale.”

“Keep on producing your paper. And don’t change its name,” he said.

The Beachhead News was a truly great community newspaper (albeit with a mobile readership). It continued to be regularly issued and avidly read. It recorded the Aug. 15, 1944, invasion of Southern France. It closely followed GIs of the 5th Corps as they battled through southern France’s Rhone Valley into Germany.

The Beachhead News reported the Gis’ progress, including unit and individual heroics, often with knee-slapping humor — like the time Cpl. Roland Van Buren of St. Louis casually walked into a large thicket to relieve himself. There, he stumbled upon a dozen Germans who immediately surrendered to him.

On May 8, 1945, Beachhead News staffers were relaxing in Bavaria when President Harry Truman announced that Germany had surrendered. That quickly split off some guys, who were headed for the South Pacific and the invasion of Japan. Others, with enough months of service in Europe, stayed in occupation. A few lucky GIs who had earned enough “points” headed home.

At that point, this truly magnificent example of a community newspaper had gone to press exactly 150 times.

Cross eventually returned to the Detroit Times, where I met him while working as a rookie reporter with the Pontiac Daily Press. We were covering the same story.

“Are you the Ty Cross who helped put out the Beachhead News?” I asked.

“Yup,” Cross replied with a wide grin.

“Great paper. I read it regularly. I was in the 45th Division,” I said.

At that moment, we became longtime friends.

Ty eventually moved into public relations with Consumers Power Co. in Jackson, Mich., where I was with the Jackson Citizen Patriot.

He soon was writing speeches for the board chairman and the president, making them sound like regular guys — like his general friend on the Anzio Beachhead.

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