In 1959, a reporter named Cornelius Ryan published The Longest Day, about the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy known as D-Day. In the Columbia Journalism Review this month, author Michael Shapiro argues that Ryan’s book, now largely forgotten, was nothing short of revolutionary.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1959, a reporter named Cornelius Ryan published The Longest Day. That day was June 6th, 1944, the invasion of Normandy known as D-Day. The book, an immediate success that sold millions of copies around the world, was soon overshadowed by its Hollywood adaptation, starring Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Henry Fonda and, inevitably, John Wayne.
JOHN WAYNE AS LT. COL. BENJAMIN VANDERVOORT: Do you read me?
RED BUTTONS AS PVT. JOHN STEELE: Loud and clear, sir.
JOHN WAYNE AS LT. COL. VANDERVOORT: All right. One more thing. Your assignment tonight is strategic. You can't give the enemy a break. Send 'em to Hell!.
[SOUND OF AIRCRAFT]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In The Columbia Journalism Review this month, author Michael Shapiro argues that Cornelius Ryan’s book, now largely forgotten, was nothing short of revolutionary. It was, he said, one of the first modern examples of literary nonfiction, and a flat-out triumph of diligent reporting.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Now, we're talking about the Allied invasion of occupied France. There was a lot of people involved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he interviewed:
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Hundreds upon hundreds of people, but remember, this begins in the mid-1950s. You cannot Google names.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] You cannot put in a search for “D-Day survivors.” So he starts putting ads in newspapers, in magazines, in trade journals around the world, saying, if you were there, get in touch. And people get in touch, Americans, British, Canadian, German. And what he begins to do is methodically,– and I cannot underscore that word enough – methodically ask people, first with a questionnaire that he sent out to them, and then sitting down with them one by one or with his assistants one by one, if he didn't speak the language: What did you do that day? Were you ever injured? Were you ever shot? Did it hurt? Now, we look at this and go, well, everybody does that. I mean, you reconstruct a scene in journalism. That’s sort of part and parcel of what we do all the time. Not back then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's roll back a little bit here, and let's start, first of all, with that day, June 6th, 1944. At the time, Ryan was a newspaper journalist who was covering the war for The Daily Telegraph in London.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that he went to D-Day. twice?
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: First he flies over. Then he flies back to England. And as soon as he gets back to England, he gets on a boat and he sails back. So he is literally at Normandy twice that day. He had just turned 24. And what he'd discover is the story of his life, the beginning of the end of the war in Europe. And he goes back to a life as a reporter, eventually becomes a magazine writer, eventually moves to New York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So around 1957, 13 years after that day, he gets the idea to reconstruct it almost hour by hour, if he can.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: I think the only analogy that comes to mind when you think about this kind of reporting is imagining filling a 55-gallon drum with an eyedropper. There is no fast way to do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that you brought some of his questionnaires here.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Yeah. I picked one out of random here. This is from a, a man named John F. Dulligan , who, if his relatives are listening, he was in the Second Battalion of the 26th Infantry of the First U.S. Infantry Division. And he was at D-Day as a captain. And Ryan asked questions like: What time did you land? What was it like on the landing craft going over? Did you have any friends who died? Do you recall any incidents, such as sad or heroic or simply memorable, which struck you more than anything else?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did he respond?
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: “The beach!” he responds with an exclamation mark. “ It was a mess. Landing craft were hung up on the underwater obstacles. Some of the craft were burning. A big craft was in roaring flames and exploding. The exits to the beach were blocked.” And it goes on and on and on. But even better, “Do you remember anything that seems funny now?” You'd think, why would you ask this question? “Even though it did not, of course, seem amusing at the time, we were packed in tight and huddled in a crouch below the ramp on the sides of the landing craft. Several men were sick on the way in to the beach. One boy, who was getting splashed from behind, growled, ‘Use the goddamn’ – he writes “GD” – ‘bag.’ Someone growled, ‘The GD bag is full.’
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Everyone laughed, and” – he underlines this several times – “relaxed.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, that is gold for a journalist.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: And you know what? This is not in the book. He had so much stuff, he didn't even need this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, as you wrote in your article, it was, what, some 1480 people got in touch with him.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And probably one of the richest veins from which he drew was the aide to Field Marshall Rommel, himself.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: That's right. One of the interesting questions was, how did they win, how did the Allies win that day, because it was, by no means, a sure thing that was going to happen. And the Germans had their most decorated field leader, Erwin Rommel, the hero of North Africa, in charge of the defenses, except Rommel wasn't there that day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Ryan got a lot of very detailed information from that aide, Hellmuth Lang, including a description of Rommel’s office in a castle in Normandy, and Ryan used that information to set the scene for one of the early chapters. Could you read from it?
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Sure. “In the ground-floor room he used as an office, Rommel was alone. He sat behind a massive Renaissance desk, working by the light of a single desk lamp. The room was large and high-ceilinged. Along one wall stretched a faded Gobelin tapestry. On another the haughty face of Duke Francois de la Rochenfocuald looked down out of a heavy gold frame. There were a few chairs casually placed on the highly polished parquet floor and thick draperies at the windows, but little else.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That could almost be a, a crime scene report.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: It could either be a crime scene report or the beginning of a Gothic novel. Every detail here is earned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You note that Ryan was instrumental in adapting the screenplay -
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - for the blockbuster film. Do you have a favorite scene?
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: There’s a character named Dutch Schultz who is on the boat coming across the English Channel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dutch Schultz, the mobster?
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: No, Dutch Schultz, the guy. And he has all this money. He’s been winning poker at this spectacular rate. And he decides that if he has all this money, he’s going to die; he’s going to get killed. And so, what he does is he sits down and he goes - how long is it going to take me to lose all this money?
ACTOR: How’d you make out?
RICHARD BEYMER AS DUTCH SCHULTZ: Huh?
ACTOR: How’d you finally make out the game?
RICHARD BEYMER AS DUTCH SCHULTZ: I lost.
ACTOR: Now we’re both jumping clean
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: The movie is quite faithful to the book. Obviously, Ryan, having worked on the screenplay, makes it so. It’s a series of connected set pieces, set piece after set piece after set piece. All these little dramas are happening in this great inexorable wave, carrying all these forces to the same place. He has a great, great sense of tempo, back and forth, big, small. General, foot soldier, American, British, German, French resistance, back and forth, back and forth, because you know what’s going to happen at the end, and yet, you get very quickly caught up in the narrative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you end your piece with a seeming visit to his graveside.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: The reason I wrote the piece is that this was the first grownup book I ever read. And I spoke to the curator of the Ryan Collection, which is at Ohio University, and he said, by the way, you know his tombstone says:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporter.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: And I said, I have to check. And here’s a difference between 1957 and 2010. I could google it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you so much.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Shapiro is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and author, most recently, of Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself.