Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr. is not a name that most people would associate with the State of Texas, but he had Texas roots. Walter, Jr. was born November 4, 1916 to Dr. Walter L. and Helen Lena Fritsche Cronkite in Missouri. The surname Cronkite is thought to be derived from a similar sounding Dutch name. However, traditional genealogical sources show that this particular Cronkite family had resided in the United States as far back as the middle 1600s with similar spelling, though for a time it was spelled “Cronkhite,” with an h after the k. Dr. Cronkite was a dentist like his own father had been. The family moved to Houston, Texas when Walter, Jr. was ten years old when Dr. Cronkite had accepted an offer to teach at a local dental school.
Walter attended elementary, junior high and high school there, graduating from San Jacinto High School, no longer in existence. In addition to Walter, Jr. other well known San Jacinto graduates included heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley, race driver A. J. Foyt, Jr., the actress known as Gale Storm, along with many others.
Cronkite attended, but did not graduate from, University of Texas at Austin. While at the university, he worked on the campus newspaper and took classes in journalism. Also during that period, he worked part time for several local print news outlets did some sports reporting for local station KNOW. He left college during his third year in 1935 to begin his long career in broadcasting.
He then got an early job as a radio broadcaster in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for radio station WKY. By 1939, Cronkite had found his way to New York City where he was working for United Press. By then, World War II was ramping up in Europe, Asia and the Pacific and was daily news in the United States.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States military began allowing news correspondents to be embedded with military units. One of his early postings was to depart in 1942 with the Battleship Texas. By then, the venerable warship was nearly thirty years old as she sailed to North Africa to support the Allied invasion. The Texas was old, but saw action throughout the war. When she arrived off North Africa, the Texas bombarded the coast at Port Lyautey, now known as Kenitra, in Morocco. Port Lyautey was a thirty to forty mile drive up the coast from Casablanca. Cronkite began reporting back to the readers in the United States and came back to Virginia aboard the Texas as she returned stateside.
As the war ramped up, correspondents began to request to accompany air crews on bombing missions in Europe. Cronkite was one of a few early journalists to be allowed to fly B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bomber missions from the United Kingdom. Under the Geneva Convention, war correspondents were not supposed to be armed, but according to historians Cronkite and others received at least rudimentary training on how to identify enemy aircraft and operate the aircraft machine guns. Cronkite and others were nicknamed “the Writing Sixty-Ninth” after a famous World War I outfit known as “the Fighting Sixty-Ninth.” Cronkite wrote of firing at German fighters with the nose gun of a bomber as he covered the missions with airmen generally younger than himself.
As the Allied invasion of France approached, Cronkite expected to remain in London, but was posted on a bomber the day the Normandy invasion began. He accompanied Allied forces to French soil, once the coast was taken. Thereafter, he filed reports from Europe and Britain and was posted with the 101st Airborne by the fall of 1944.
On September 17, 1944, a Sunday, Cronkite accompanied Allied troops into Holland in a Waco glider, towed behind a C-47. It would be the second such invasion of Holland, with the first being its invasion by the German Luftwaffe some four years earlier. This time, the Dutch waved as thousands of Allied parachutes appeared overhead. Cronkite filed a report that afternoon that was quoted in the United States newspapers the following day. Where his airship landed, opposition was relatively light, he said. Most of the troops he was with were veterans of the Normandy invasion. Quoting Cronkite, “Some of our gliders and some C-47 tow planes went through anti-aircraft fire to reach their landing places, but our dive-bombing [P-51] Mustangs and our vast aerial support silenced the enemy guns one by one.”
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The Germans responded three months later with an offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge in which Hitler tried to split the Allied forces. In terms of casualties, it remains the most costly battle in modern warfare with 100,000 United States Army casualties. Because of this, it was a limited success although the German war machine would be ultimately defeated. In this historic battle, Cronkite was embedded with troops serving under Lt. General George S. Patton who led the high-casualty but successful counterattack against the German offensive. Cronkite finished out the war with the troops in Europe. After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, he reported on the war trials in Nuremberg, Germany.
After a posting in Moscow for about two years, Cronkite returned to the United States and began his legendary career on television in its early days, with CBS. He became a trusted news personality and his ratings would top the highest rated news broadcasts. Cronkite was well known for his reporting on key events in American history, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the first trans-Atlantic video broadcast via the Telstar satellite, countless events in the United States space program including the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis. He retired from broadcast news in 1980. CBS had a mandatory retirement age of 65 at the time. He closed his final broadcast with his traditional expression, “And that’s the way it is…” followed by the current date. As most would already know, Cronkite continued to be involved in many other aspects of broadcasting, doing voice-overs, narrating special reports and documentaries, hosting live events, and the like. He was quite active for the next two decades.
Cronkite died at the age of 92 on July 17, 2009 from complications of cerebrovascular disease and is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.
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