Cornelius Ryan, Irish American journalist and author mainly known for his writings on popular military history, dies in Manhattan on November 23, 1974. He is especially known for his World War II books The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day (1959), The Last Battle (1966), and A Bridge Too Far (1974).
Ryan is born in Dublin on June 5, 1920. He is educated at Synge Street CBS, Portobello, Dublin. He is an altar boy at St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street and studies the violin at the Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. He is a boy scout in the 52nd Troop of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and travels on their pilgrimage to Rome on the liner RMS Lancastria in 1934. He moves to London in 1940 and becomes a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in 1941.
Ryan initially covers the air war in Europe, flying along on fourteen bombing missions with the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). He then joins General George S. Patton‘s Third Army and covers its actions until the end of the European war. He transfers to the Pacific theater in 1945 and then to Jerusalem in 1946.
Ryan emigrates to the United States in 1947 to work for Time, where he reports on the postwar tests of atomic weapons carried out by the United States in the Pacific. He then reports for Time on the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This is followed by work for other magazines, including Collier’s Weekly and Reader’s Digest.
Ryan marries Kathryn Morgan, a novelist, and becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1951.
On a trip to Normandy in 1949 Ryan becomes interested in telling a more complete story of Operation Overlord than has been produced to date. He begins compiling information and conducting over 1,000 interviews as he gathers stories from both the Allies and the Germans, as well as the French civilians.
In 1956 Ryan begins to write down his World War II notes for The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day, which tells the story of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, published three years later in 1959. It is an instant success, and he assists in the writing of the screenplay for the 1962 film of the same name. Darryl F. Zanuck pays the author U.S.$175,000 for the screen rights to the book.
Ryan’s 1957 book One Minute to Ditch! is about the successful ocean ditching of a Pan American Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. He had written an article about the ditching for Collier’s in their December 21, 1956, issue and then expanded it into the book.
Ryan’s next work is The Last Battle (1966), about the Battle of Berlin. The book contains detailed accounts from all perspectives: civilian, American, British, Russian and German. It deals with the fraught military and political situation in the spring of 1945, when the forces of the western allies and the Soviet Union contend for the chance to liberate Berlin and to carve up the remains of Germany.
This work was followed by A Bridge Too Far (1974), which tells the story of Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated assault by allied airborne forces on the Netherlands culminating in the Battle of Arnhem. It is made into a major 1977 film of the same name.
Ryan is awarded the French Legion of Honour and an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Ohio University, where the Cornelius Ryan Collection is housed in the Alden Library. He is diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1970 and struggles to finish A Bridge Too Far during his illness. He dies in Manhattan on November 23, 1974, while on tour promoting the book, only two months after publication. He is buried in the Ridgebury Cemetery in northern Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Four years after his death, Ryan’s struggle with prostate cancer is detailed in A Private Battle, written by his widow, from notes he had secretly left behind for that purpose.