Andrew A. Rooney set out from his hometown in the Albany, N.Y., area to nearby Colgate College, ready to play football and have a good time -- until fate, in the form of World War II, intervened.
Rooney was drafted and sent to basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C. His most memorable achievement there, he noted, was managing to heist a chunk of ice back to the barracks on a hot night so that he and his cohorts could enjoy canteens full of cold water.
The unit soon had a cold shower of reality when they were shipped out to Europe. Because Rooney had a smidgen of education and a very brief amount of Army writing experience, he was assigned to "detached service" with the newly created Stars and Stripes newspaper. Housed in the vacated Times of London offices (that venerable journal had moved underground), the busy military newsroom covered events as diverse as VIP visits, unit softball games, and -- oh, yes, combat. Rooney was detailed to the 8th Air Force and spent so much time observing its preparations, maneuvers, and landings that he co-authored his first bestseller, "Air Gunner," during that time.
It was while Rooney was attached to the 8th that he witnessed a death terrible in its inevitability. A call came in that one bomber's ball turret gunner was trapped. Operating in the bomber's belly, ball turret gunners rotated their plastic "cages" for maximum target capability. On this particular aircraft, the rotational gears had jammed and the gunner could not return to a position where he could exit into the plane.
The bomber was losing altitude fast and would have to make a crash landing. Everyone — crew, observers, and especially the ball turret gunner — knew what was going to happen. The pilot ordered the crew to ditch everything to keep the plane in the air for a few more precious minutes, but still the wheels could not be brought down. "We all watched in horror as it happened," Rooney writes in "My War." We watched as this man's life ended, mashed between the concrete pavement of the runway and the belly of the bomber."
And then young Sgt. Rooney went back to his city desk and his work. "I returned to London that night shaken and unable to write the most dramatic, the most gruesome, the most heart-wrenching story I had ever witnessed," he recalls. "Some reporter I was."