Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
World War II Radio Letters: a real-life shortwave story – Part II
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
That so many people have been moved by Part I has been heartwarming. Since writing it, there have been further developments. Tecsun Radio Australia asked (and was granted) permission to reproduce the article for Anzac Day (April 25), when all fallen personnel in all wars are remembered in Australia.
In addition, I became aware of two books – World War II Radio Heroes Letters of Compassion and Waves of Hope (thanks, Bill Hemphill!) – that are all about World War II radio letters. We’ll get to those books in just a bit.
But first, I wanted to tell you something you might find surprising: I did not set out to write about how shortwave listeners had reassured my Mom that my Dad was alive during WWII. Not at all. In fact, in my 50 years as a writer, I found the process of how this came to be written, well, a little strange.
The night before, I had drifted off to sleep thinking about a radio and antenna comparison I had been fooling around with during the day (and which I plan to write up in the future). But in the morning – Holy Smokes! – completely out of the blue, my mind was seized by the following thought: Wasn’t it a shortwave listener in New Jersey that first informed my Mom that my Dad was a prisoner of War? (It turned out that wasn’t quite correct.) It’s in a scrapbook in the basement . . . go find it!
Now, I had not thought about those old scrapbooks in at least two decades, maybe more, but I could picture a particular scrapbook in my mind. Rooting around in the basement, I found it, but it didn’t contain anything about my Dad going missing in action or my Mom being informed he was still alive. Maybe I was wrong, I thought.
Back upstairs in my easy chair, the thought would not leave me alone, kept nudging me: Go find it. More digging in the basement produced the right scrapbook with the right information. Reading it, I found tears running down my face at the kindness of strangers.
As I completed writing World War II Radio Letters Part I and sent it off to Thomas, it struck me as curious that, in all my years writing about radio subjects, I had ever seen an article, or even a mention, of the shortwave monitors of WWII. I thought perhaps no one had ever written on the subject, but I was wrong.
I was poking around the internet and came across World War II Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion Second Edition by Lisa Spahr. It is a 212-page 10-inch by 7-inch book that details her discovery of her grandfather’s WWII trunk, which contained dozens of letters and postcards from shortwave listeners who wrote to Spahr’s great-grandmother to let her know that her son had been captured and was a prisoner of war.
The book, which contains photos of the original correspondence from the SWLs, chronicles her attempt to contact those shortwave listeners or their families, her discovery of the Short Wave Amateur Monitors Club – which turned the monitoring for POWs names into an organized effort – and a lot else besides. If you enjoyed my first post on this subject, I am pretty sure you will enjoy this book.
The other book – Waves of Hope by Ronald Edward Negra – is about how his mother, Agnes Joan Negra, was a shortwave monitor during WWII who sent out more than 300 letters and postcards to families to inform them that their loved ones were captured and still alive. This is a larger format book (8.5 inches by 11 inches) running to 124 pages that reproduces the letters that Agnes received back from grateful families after receiving the news from Agnes. At the time of this writing, Agnes is still alive, about to celebrate her 102nd birthday!
I found Waves of Hope to be a moving and compassionate book, and I think any SWL will appreciate having it on his or her bookshelf.
At the end of it all – the strange process of writing the story, the response of the readers, the books telling the story of WWII radio letters – I come back to the place I started as a grade school boy. It was then that I discovered monitoring the radio can be an almost magical activity . . . and you never know when something you heard may touch another’s life in a profound way.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
A real-life shortwave story
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
On July 25, 1943, a Royal Canadian Air Force Wellington bomber took off from England to fly a mission over Nazi-held territory in Europe. It never returned to base.
A Wellington aircrew getting ready.
On board was an American Lieutenant, tailgunner on the aircraft. He had flown at least 19 missions, and now his status was unknown.
On July 30, a letter was sent to his wife. It began:
Before receiving this letter you will have had a telegram informing you that your husband, Lieutenant John Chapman Elliott, is missing as a result of air operations. I regret to have to confirm this distressing news.
John and the air crew took off on an operational sortie over enemy territory on the evening of the 25th July and we have heard nothing of them since. However, it is decidedly possible that they are prisoners of war or are among friends who are helping them to make their way back to this country . . .
Status unknown . . . “we have heard nothing of them since.” An agonizing psychological limbo. Do you mourn or do you hope? How do you live in that middle space?
The exact timing of what happens next isn’t clear, but in September two things happened.
A telegram arrived:
Mrs. J C Elliott =
Report received through the International Red Cross states your husband First Lieutenant John C Elliott is a prisoner of war of the German Government . . .
Notation in the scrapbook above the telegram (in my Mother’s hand) reads:
The finest Telegram and the loudest words in the life of Phyllis Nancy Elliott
On or around the same time, postcards and letters arrived from around the country. From Northville, Michigan; Green County, New York; Grand Rapids Michigan; Auburn, Maine; Burlington, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Boston, Massachusetts, shortwave radio listeners wrote to Mrs. Elliott to tell her that they had heard – on a broadcast from Berlin, Germany – First Lieutenant John Elliott is a prisoner of war, and offering words of comfort or explanation:
Wishing you best of luck in his safe return to you,
I am a patient at the above sanatorium and as I have a quite powerful radio receiver I am taking this means of doing my bit for the boys in our armed services,
Hoping this may comfort you in knowing that he is alive and alright,
Hope this cheers you up.
Hope this will relieve your worries . . .
Words cherished and pasted into a scrapbook.
My Dad later told me what happened. Their Wellington bomber was badly shot up, and the pilot informed the crew that it was time to bail out.
My Dad cranked his tail turret around so that the door opened into the air. He flipped backward out of the aircraft. For a little while, one of his electrically-heated flying boots caught on the door frame. Hanging upside-down, he kicked the boot off, pulled the ripcord on his parachute, and landed with green stick fractures in both legs. He hobbled around Holland for three days while trying to avoid the Germans. He was captured and spent two and one-half years as prisoner of war.
Lower right: My Dad.
When the war ended, he was repatriated, and in 1946, your humble correspondent showed up. The photos are of actual postcards and letters in an 80-year-old scrapbook kept by my Mother and passed down to me.
And so, dear reader, never belittle your hobby of listening to the airwaves, because you never know when something you heard may be able to offer comfort in times of trouble. I know it certainly did for my Mother.
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…