Sunday, June 07, 2009

Radio Memories: Listening To D-Day

Every Sunday we take a small break from current events of the day to listen to echoes of days gone by, hoping to discover something about our own times through the crackling static and fading voices of radio’s earliest days… the days when radio, not television, shaped our understanding of the world, through radio drama, the theater of the mind.

Yesterday of course marked the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, and I thought that this would make an ideal subject for this week’s Radio Memories post. The entire broadcast day from that fateful Tuesday in 1944 has survived; it makes for riveting listening today, letting us share the memory of a nation waking to the big news, holding its breath, checking their maps and saying a prayer for the success of the mission pursued by fathers, sons, brothers, family, friends and neighbors on the far-away beaches of Normandy.

Radio offered its listeners an intimacy that production circumstances deny television today. Most radio drama was broadcast live; actors would show up a few hours before air time to rehearse their performances in plays that had been written, often re-written, right up to the day of their broadcast. They could easily incorporate important stories of the day into their work, having characters comment on the news that the listeners themselves were following in-between their choice of radio theater, such as the war’s sudden beginning in the Pacific, the last days of war in Europe… and the beginning of the end: D-Day.

I've selected a trio of highlights to give a sense of how that day played out on radio. As you can imagine, regular programming was put largely on hold that day, as a flood of news bulletins tried to encapsulate history in the making.

We start with the noon broadcast of Kate Smith Speaks, a popular daily 15-minute chat show for women, hosted by the singer famous today for her stirring delivery of the unofficial US National Anthem, God Bless America. She puts her listeners thoughts into words as she offers a moving prayer for the troops overseas, "a prayer for victory".

Then comes a fifteen minute clip of CBS' six o'clock news broadcast, summing up the major news points of the invasion up to that time. (The time slot had yet to assume the daily compass point it was to offer for generations to come, displaced only recently by unsleeping cable networks and global online news resources.)

The final word goes to comedian Bob Hope. His Tuesday night variety show skirted the edges of prime time, broadcast as it was at a 10:00 pm time slot in those wartime days. It would have brought down the curtain on quite an emotional day for his listeners, and undoubtedly even more so for Hope.

Here was a man who devoted his legendary tireless energy towards criss-crossing the continent in order to entertain the troops. From May 1941 onward, he broadcast week after week from an airfield here, a training camp there; as we heard in an earlier Radio Memories post , he had even spent much of his 1943 "summer vacation" in-between radio seasons playing for the military stationed in the warzones of North Africa and Europe. And shortly after this Tuesday June 6th broadcast he was scheduled to begin his 1944 summer tour of the Pacific Theater. Had anyone met more American G.I.s, one-on-one, than Bob Hope? Shaken their hands, looked into their eyes, met their smiles with one of his own? Was there a single air base, naval base, or army camp that he didn't perform in during the war?

The disruptions of a news-heavy day of programming cut his usual Tuesday thirty minute show down to a mere six minutes, yet these six minutes broadcast on the sixth day of the sixth month of 1944 offer much heartening insight to the modern-day listener, plagued as we are with a world seemingly in decay, trying to imagine what it must have been like to experience a day when the world could be felt to be changing for the better.

In his three-minute introduction, Bob Hope reminds listeners of his day, and those finding his broadcast in our own time, what it was like to experience radio's coverage of the D-Day invasion:

Folks, this is Bob Hope speaking from a P-38 airfield out here near Van Nuys California. We looked forward to being with these men and doing our regular show here, but of course nobody feels like getting up and being funny on a night like this.
But we did want to go through with our plans and visit these fellas because these are the same kind of boys that are flying those 11,000 planes in our big effort.

What’s happened in these last few hours not one of us will ever forget. How could you forget. You sat up all night by the radio, and heard the bulletins and the flashes, the voices coming across from England, the commentators, the pilots returning from their greatest of all missions, newsboys yelling in the street… it seemed that one world was ending and a new world beginning. That history was closing one book and opening a new one.

And somehow we knew it had to be a better one. You sat there and dawn began to sneak in and you thought of the hundreds of thousands of kids you’d seen in camps the past two or three years; the kids who’d scream and whistle when they’d hear a gag in a song.

And now you could see them all again on 4,000 ships on the English Channel, tumbling out of thousands of planes over Normandy, and the occupied coast. In countless landing barges crashing the nazi gate and going out to do the job that’s the job of all of us.

The sun came up and you sat there looking at that huge black headline, that one great black word with the exclamation point: “Invasion”. The one word that the whole world has waited for.

That all of us had worked for.

We knew we’d wake up one morning and have to meet it face to face, the word in which America has invested everything these thirty long months, the efforts of millions of Americans building the planes and weapons, the men in the shipyards and the men who took the stuff across. Little kids buying war stamps and housewives straining bacon grease. Farmers working around the clock. Millions of young men sweating it out in camps and fighting the battles that paved the way for that headline this morning.

Now the investment is paid, for this generation and all generations to come.

And folks what a wonderful thing it is that no matter the price, the reward will be greater than the sacrifice. We hope that thought can go along with a prayer tonight, the prayer of a whole nation: God Bless those kids across the English Channel.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Red Skelton: Vacations
Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

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