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IN THE DAYS AFTER U.S. TROOPS threw open the gates of the notorious Buchenwald death camp in April 1945, one of the soldiers who visited the site was 26-year-old Sgt. Andy Rooney, who was stunned by what he saw. He was also overcome with shame, remembering that when he had been drafted four years earlier as a junior at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., he had flirted with the idea of declaring himself a conscientious objector. "It all flooded in on me," says Rooney, 76, sitting in the office familiar to millions of 60 Minutes viewers, "and I thought, 'My God, how could I ever have been so young and so wrong?' "

As it turned out, after Rooney decided he wasn't a pacifist and reported for duty, the only hand-to-hand combat he encountered came in basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., when a bullying corporal challenged the "college guy" to fight and quickly discovered that a liberal arts education can include learning how to apply a paralyzing full nelson. But Rooney would see plenty of action in his four years of service. From braving flak on B-17 bombing runs to rolling into Paris in the vanguard of the army of liberation, Rooney had a front-row seat to history.

Or at least a seat in the press box. After arriving in England with the 17th Field Artillery Regiment in July 1942, he answered a call to help staff the Army's London-based daily newspaper, Stars and Stripes. What Rooney witnessed as a front-line reporter forms the basis of his new memoir, My War (see excerpt page 210). "There are long periods of my life that are a blank," Rooney writes. "But the years 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 are the ones I remember best."

Despite initial insecurity about his slender experience among a seasoned press corps (a summer job at his hometown paper in Albany, N.Y., loomed large on his résumé), the rookie reporter quickly graduated from writing up medal ceremonies to covering the Eighth Air Force. Among the others assigned to the bombing beat: Rooney's future CBS associate, Walter Cronkite, then a United Press correspondent. Cronkite recalls Rooney as "a real GI's correspondent. He experienced about as much front-line exposure as a guy could get."

Covering the air war had introduced Rooney to combat's brutal reality—young pilots interviewed one day didn't turn up at breakfast the next—but he was unprepared for the death toll of D day. Arriving a few days after the slaughter, in which the casualties numbered 10,000, Rooney saw row upon row of dead U.S. soldiers on Utah Beach covered with blankets, with just their boots exposed. "I remember the boots," he writes. "All the same on such different boys." The invasion also drew Rooney into some of the war's most dramatic moments, including the crucial battle of St. Lô (he won a Bronze Star for his reporting, but, Rooney says, "I was just looking to get a good story in the paper") and riding into Paris with the French Seconde Division Blindée.

At war's end, Rooney returned to the bride he had taken shortly before being shipped overseas, Marge Howard, a Bryn Mawr graduate whom he had known since they were teenagers. Within months of his arrival, the Rooneys, who eventually reared four children, were bound for Hollywood. During the war, Rooney had written The Story of the Stars and Stripes with his colleague Bud Hutton, and MGM wanted them for the screenplay. The project didn't pan out, but Rooney was hooked on show business. He went to work writing for such radio and TV stars as Arthur Godfrey and Garry Moore before teaming up with Harry Reasoner in 1962 on CBS documentaries. After stints at PBS and ABC in the early 1970s, he joined 60 Minutes in 1978 and was soon anointed the show's resident grouch. It is a misleading image. As My War and Rooney himself make clear, beneath that prickly surface lies the soft heart of a World War II veteran still awed by the everyday heroism he witnessed and still haunted by the horrific loss of life.

Many of Rooney's friends were among the dead, among them Obie Slingerland, one of his closest pals at Albany Academy, a prep school where they were football cocaptains. Slingerland, a pilot on the aircraft carrier Saratoga in the Pacific, died in action in 1943. Rooney, covering the air war from London, desperately hoped that the news from the other side of the world was wrong, but finally accepted that it wasn't. "The heart knows something the brain doesn't," Rooney says. The same could be said for a reluctant draftee whose brain said stay home in 1941, but whose heart told him to go to war.