This is such an amazing story, Fred, and the CBC did a fine job putting it together. Thanks so much for sharing.
Editor’s note regarding WWII history: Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m an avid WWII history buff, in that I read, view, and especially listen to many accounts of the Second World War era, the glory days of radio. I’ve traveled and lived in several of the countries that were, at that time, among the Axis Powers, some of my close friends are from or reside in these countries now, and feel much as I do about this history: that this was a devastating war which we must not forget or romanticize, and from which we can learn about ourselves as human beings, hopefully with the view of preventing such chilling events from ever being repeated. As we have readers and contributors from all over the world in this radio community, I sincerely hope that WWII-related articles are regarded in this light of understanding. The takeaway? Times have changed. I firmly believe that a deep understanding of our shared history makes us all better people.
Soldiers coming ashore in Normandy, France. (Photo: National Archives)
Today, as many know, is the 75th anniversary of the World War II battle in Normandy, France, known to history as D-Day. “Operation Overlord,” as D-Day was code named, without doubt, was one of the key turning points of World War II.
But many may not know that D-Day was also one of the first events that brought continuous news coverage via radio on the home front.
“In addition to what it meant as a great turning point in world history, D-Day is also unique in how it was broadcast by American radio networks, as CBS, NBC, and what would become ABC pooled their reporters, engineers and other resources, and cooperated closely with military officials to present, for the first time, what would now be called “wall-to-wall” coverage of a developing major international news event for American audiences.
It’s something we take for granted now in the age of the internet and cable news, but this kind of media coverage can be traced back to D-Day.”
But the widely-covered event was originally top secret. So secret, in fact, that news agencies in the US first learned about Operation Overlord via not Allied news, but Axis news sources. Thus the information was delivered with caution, since the source wasn’t the War Department of Allied Forces.
A little after 3:30 AM (Eastern War Time), the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in London produced Communiqué #1, a short statement read twice by Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy, confirming that Allied naval forces, with the support of the air forces, and under the command of General Eisenhower, began landing Allied armies that morning on the northern coast of France.
Here is the actual recording via the Miller Center at UVA:
How would Christmas Eve at the Front have sounded on a radio back in 1943? Something like this…
Christmas Eve, 1943: America’s third in WWII.
On this day, exactly three-quarters of a century ago, America tuned into a special live broadcast that would not only engage American listeners, but also every major network in the US at the time: CBS, NBC, and Mutual Broadcasting Company. The simulcast program, “Christmas at the Home Front,” starred troop entertainment veterans Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, as well as numerous others including screen actor Lionel Barrymore–also well-known for his regular portrayal of the miserly Scrooge in NBC’s annual radio drama “A Christmas Carol”–and featured an address by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This broadcast also included live audio feeds from North Africa, Italy, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia, China, India, Panama, Alaska, Pearl Harbor and even Navy ships in undisclosed locations. Keep in mind, this was 1943. These audio feeds weren’t carried over the Internet or a satellite network, they were shortwave radio signals from remote sites–signals that were bounced off of the ionosphere and back to the studios where they were incorporated in a live radio show. No doubt, this holiday special required months of planning to orchestrate and perhaps even a leap of faith to execute.
Being something of a WWII radio buff, I’ve listened to this recording a few times in the past. And after receiving Bill’s message about it recently, I listened again; the audio obviously came from a recording at NBC studios, very pristine considering the recording’s age and the number of times it’s likely been copied or changed formats, but also with demarcated track switches, not exactly as it would have sounded on the air at the time.
Radio broadcast with entertainer Bob Hope, 1943. Source: Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress
So I did what any self-respecting radio geek would do: I fed the recording into an AM transmitter to recreate the sound as it might have played on American radios of the time, and made an off-air recording of the entire broadcast.
Hopefully now, with the help of this recording, you may be able to imagine what families on Christmas Eve in 1943, huddled around their radios, might have experienced as they strove to feel a little closer to loved ones serving in the war, while enjoying a little light entertainment and absorbing the latest message from their president.
But it’s also meaningful to note that times have certainly changed since 1943. Without a doubt, it’s often easy to be lulled into a nostalgic appreciation of that time, and former times generally, made all the rosier by the present knowledge that the outcome of the war was, in many respects, favorable to us. But those who know history know the truth: that war is hard, that our struggles both here and abroad were real, and that people died–as many as 85 million. When the drama was over, the fallen did not rise again to play in another film; they were gone, forever. This is the grim shadow that lies beneath the warmth of entertainment broadcasts like this one.
Fortunately, our civilization continues, and will always view the war and the political circumstances surrounding it through the fading glass of advancing time and hear it through the crackle of increasing distance. And fortunately, our then-enemies are now among our strongest allies. We have a diverse and international audience here at the SWLing Post, so I hope this recording is recognized for what it is: simply a moment in entertainment history that the passing of time allows us to enjoy, during a war the likes of which we hope never again casts such a shadow over us. One such was enough.
Now sit back, close your eyes, and set your time machine’s dial back to Christmas Eve, 1943…
Imagine you’ve just turned on the family console radio, the frequency dial gradually warming with its familiar glow, and have tuned to your local NBC station; soon, the voices of well-known entertainers begin to fill the parlor and the rest of the household, their tasks or play momentarily abandoned, quietly join you there to listen…
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. (Source: WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain)
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Michael Guerin, who writes:
Interesting article from the US Naval Institute on the role of radio intelligence before and during the December 7 attack.
“The key to the success of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor-specifically, what enabled the Pearl Harbor Striking Force to reach its launch point undetected (and totally unsuspected) by the Americans-was Tokyo’s radio denial-and-deception actions. Significantly, these activities simply were not just a “bag of tricks” meant to bemuse U.S. naval radio intelligence. Rather, they constituted a function of the change in Japanese strategy and were meant to convince the Americans that there had been no change from defensive to offensive intentions.”
The General Electric Co. was truly among America’s premier broadcasting companies.
In addition to developing much of early broadcast technology and building a trio of high-power AM stations in the early 1920s — WGY Schenectady, N.Y.; KOA Denver; and KGO Oakland, Calif. — GE was also the country’s pioneer shortwave broadcaster.
GE’s initial shortwave station, 2XI, first broadcast in 1923, and in 1924 it was used to relay WGY’s programs for to KOA and KGO for rebroadcast in the western U.S.
By 1925, there were two experimentally licensed shortwave stations in Schenectady: W2XAD and W2XAF. A third GE station in San Francisco, W6XBE, was added in 1939.
That was the year that the Federal Communications Commission allowed the country’s experimental shortwave stations to relicense as commercial operations, and these three GE stations received the call signs WGEA, WGEO and KGEI, respectively.
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