Thursday, July 30, 2009

Listening to D-Day on the West Coast
“Sat Up All Night By The Radio”

The Allied landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944 have been called radio’s finest hour, and the archival recordings of CBS’ coverage and that of NBC comprise an exciting historical record of how radio presented this important event to the American audience.

However, one often overlooked aspect of D-Day radio in the United States is the difference between how and when the news was received on the East Coast versus the West Coast. It's an interesting broadcasting event from an historical and a geographical perspective, and worth taking an anecdotal look back.

D-Days: June 5 and June 6
As the first unconfirmed word that the invasion was underway reached network studios in New York, it was nearly 1:00 am Eastern War Time (EWT) on the morning of Tuesday, June 6. At this time, it can be safely assumed that the majority of radios in the Eastern War Time Zone were switched off and their owners fast asleep. On the West Coast, it was a different story, as it was not quite 10:00 pm Pacific War Time (PWT) on the night of Monday, June 5—within the block of programming that would now be called prime time, when the audience in the Pacific states was perhaps among the largest of any time of day.

What Was On The Radio?
On NBC's West Coast regional feed, a serial drama called Hawthorne House was on the air live from San Francisco (it had begun at 9:30 pm Pacific War Time). On the East Coast, NBC was carrying a performance by the Three Suns live from New York.

For a description of what CBS was broadcasting, we turn to page 11 of From D-Day to Victory In Europe, a promotional book of radio transcripts published by the network in 1945:

Now it is a little after 12:36 (AM, Eastern War Time, Tuesday, June 6, 1944). On the outer air over the swing shift and sleeping America there is music. Lennie Conn’s orchestra, out at KNX in Los Angeles, is piping in a program to the network; Lennie and The Boys are putting a good deal of schmaltz into Forget-Me-Nots in Your Eyes.

For further illumination, we turn to pages 88-89 in another book from CBS (still in promotional mode in 1950) called The Sound of Your Life. This excerpt amplifies the earlier account through the experiences of a hypothetical, radio-loving family called the Smiths:

If, like the Smiths, you were living East of the Rocky Mountains on June 5, 1944, you probably got a better night’s sleep than the folks who lived in the Far West. (For Westerners that was the night World War II began to be the War-of-the-Long-Waits.)

On the East Coast it was already 12:48 a.m., June 6. In Indiana it was 11:48 p.m., June 5, and the Smiths had gone to bed. But in the Rockies it was 10:48 p.m. and on the West Coast, a wide-awake 9:48. Over CBS Ned Calmer cuts in on a program of popular music to say: “A bulletin has just been received from the London office of the Associated Press which quotes the German Transocean News Agency as asserting that the invasion of Western Europe has begun. This report—and we stress it is of enemy origin with absolutely no confirmation from Allied sources—says that American landings were made this morning on the shores of Northwestern France . . .”

Instantly the nation (where it is awake) is electrified. And then the vigil begins. Nothing new is added for the next two hours and 44 minutes. Every little while another announcer takes the microphone, edges up to the report, points out its unofficial source, and backs away. Major George Fielding Eliot gnaws the bone awhile; then even he gives up.

In the Mountains it is now 1:32 a.m., June 6. On the Coast, a yawning 12:32. Five seconds later the real news breaks. A voice [Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy] from SHAEF in London: “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”

Graveyard Shifters and Insomniacs
Both NBC and CBS were on the air with first (unconfirmed) word of the invasion just before 1:00 am EWT (June 6)/10:00 pm PWT (June 5)--which would likely have been compelling enough to keep a fairly large West Coast audience tuned in, and late enough to have missed all but graveyard shift workers and insomniacs on the East Coast. Just under three hours later, both networks carried the official SHAEF confirmation at 3:32 am EWT/12:32 am PWT--and it's no stretch to assume that the percentage of West Coast listeners who heard the official word (who had stayed up to follow the news) would have been much greater than the percentage of East Coast listeners who heard it.

Thus, it's also fair to assume that greater numbers of West Coast listeners followed more of the continuous network coverage on NBC and CBS versus East Coast listeners who woke up on Tuesday, June 6 and turned on their radios to find a story that was already in progress and well underway (and for which they'd missed the "opening act").

In effect, West Coast radio listeners on D-Day were the first Americans to experience what would later come to be called "wall-to-wall coverage" of a significant news event, a media practice that would become increasingly common and taken for granted as the 20th century progressed.

"No Idea As To How Large An Audience We Have"
CBS' Paul White wrote of the minutes after the official announcement of D-Day in his book News On The Air, including his anecdotal sense that large numbers of people were tuned in to their radios all over the country--not just on the West Coast:

As 4 o’clock [AM, Eastern War Time] nears we’ve no idea as to how large an audience we have. But we know it’s almost certainly the biggest ever to be listening at that hour. Stations around the country wire in that lights are on all over the city, that men are coming out into the streets and bellowing, “Turn on your radios!” In many war plants the night shift workers are told the news; they listen for a moment, their jaws tighten, and they go back to work a little harder and a little faster. Power companies report an unusual load for electric current. (from page 336)

What About The Blue Network and Mutual?
Other than a brief mention in John Dunning's Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, I've been unable to find any account of what news or other D-Day coverage the Blue Network or the Mutual Broadcasting System was carrying at this time. Perhaps because the recordings of the CBS and the NBC coverage have long been in circulation, and because both CBS and NBC produced promotional materials describing their coverage, historians, other researchers and writers have tended to only focus on these two networks. If you can share any insight regarding D-Day on the Blue Network or Mutual, please contact me via my profile or post a comment below.

READ ALL ABOUT IT!: D-Day In Seattle
In Seattle, newspaper accounts shed some light on how the news was received late on the night of June 5 and early on the morning of June 6--with church bells ringing, factory workers pausing briefly before returning to work, and downtown revelers showing steely resolve:

Boeing Silent Moment, Then Work Resumes
Seattle Times, June 6, 1944
Riveting guns clattered last night against the glistening skins of Flying Fortresses in Seattle’s great Boeing factory. Electric drills hummed. Hammers, handled with the deft touch of sure, skilled hands, clanged artfully against metal. The night workers of the graveyard shift were on the job—as they had been for years of nights—relentlessly turning out bombers for the destruction of Hitler’s crumbling empire. Then, at 1 a.m., loudspeakers came to life all over the plant. “Confirmation has been received,” came a solemn voice, with an undertone of excitement and jubilation, “that the invasion of France has started.” The guns, the drills and the hammers were stilled. A hush like that of a cathedral descended over the thousands of overalled men and slacks-clad women. For a moment they stood, in spontaneous recognition of the solemnity of the moment. Then, breaking the spell, men and women shook hands, slapped each other on the back, as if to say: “Let’s get on with it!” They picked up their tools. The night workers of the graveyard shift were on the job.

Seattle Takes News Calmly; Action Breaks War Tension
Seattle Times, June 6, 1944
The sheer force of the biggest news of the war was running like a heavy tide through Seattle today. There was no wild excitement, no shouting, no cheering crowds. The news of invasion was too big, its import too great. The breath of expectancy was being let out with a deep relief that the end of waiting had come. “Folks just seemed to accept it, said Police Patrolman Joe Edwards, who witnessed the initial reactions on his night beat around Second Avenue and Yesler Way. “The thing was too serious to comment on. Folks wanted a little time to digest it.” “Nobody paid much attention to the first German report,” recalled James Stayron, employee in a restaurant at 602 Seneca St. “Then the real report came through, and it sort of hit you hard. It was like letting out a breath you’d been holding a long time. You were worried, but way down inside you felt good.” Soldiers and sailors at U.S.O. centers and the Army-Navy Y.M.C.A took the word calmly. The battle was one they might presently be in. On this early morning of D-Day, sleep was more important than talk. Meanwhile, church doors were swinging open as early a 6 o’clock this morning. The churches stood waiting in the dawn, ready to receive those who would come to pray for those others who were going ashore along the northern coast of France.

Prayers for Invasion In Seattle Churches
By E.J. Mitchell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1944
Clamor of church bells heralding the long-awaited invasion of Western Europe by Allied armies awakened Seattle’s devout early this morning. From the dome of the First Methodist Church in the early morning hours came the amplified chimes of the church organ playing the sacred battle cry to Christendom with such hymns as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” and “Lead On, Oh King Eternal.”

Seattle Churches Join in Prayers for Invasion Forces
By E.J. Mitchell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1944
Church bells and chimes pealed the call to worship, and many churches were immediately opened for public prayer, shortly after midnight, when the official news was flashed to Seattle that the fateful hour had struck.

The Sagacity of Hope: Bob Sat Up All Night
Of all the contemporary accounts and other evidence of how D-Day was experienced differently on the West Coast, entertainer Bob Hope perhaps best expressed the West Coast view of D-Day in the introduction to his NBC program the night of June 6, broadcast from an air base near Van Nuys, California:

What has happened during 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, the flashes, the voices coming across from England, the commentators, the pilots returning from their greatest of all missions . . . newsboys yelling on the street . . . and 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 the camps the past two or three years . . . The sun came up and you sat there looking at that huge black headline, that one great black word with the exclamation point, “Invasion”. Click here for complete audio of Hope's June 6, 1944 program.

East Coast Bias?
I've spoken with more than a few radio history enthusiasts who live on the West Coast who believe that written radio history favors the East Coast. Specifically, the work of Erik Barnouw, notably his three-volume set of American broadcasting history (A Tower In Babel, The Golden Web, The Image Empire) published by Oxford Press. This same series has been criticized for being CBS-centric (Barnouw worked for CBS in the 1940s), elevating Murrow and company and relegating NBC's World War II broadcasting to distant also-ran status. I believe there's an element of truth to these feelings.

While I can't necessarily refute Barnouw's findings, I do believe that significant work remains to uncover and document radio's development--that much from the West Coast and elsewhere can be added to the narrative (beyond simply criticizing the work of another writer/researcher) to make a more complete picture. And I think that's pretty exciting . . .


NBC H-Hour Pamphlet (PDF)
NBC produced a promotional pamphlet following D-Day called H Hour that includes a chronology of events and a summary of NBC Radio broadcasts of June 6 and June 7, 1944. I haven't been able to track down a facsimile online to share, but it's worth hunting for. Please send me a link if you come across it posted somewhere or I may scan mine and post the PDFs someday. UPDATE JUNE 2010: The first 10 pages of the pamphlet are now posted here.

D-Day Radio Special from 2004 (AUDIO)
For audio of a one-hour D-Day radio special presented by Feliks Banel (that's me!) on KBCS 91.3 FM in 2004, follow this link to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog from the 65th anniversary of D-Day in 2009.

D-Day Radio Program from June 2009 (AUDIO)
I was guest on the hour-long KOMO AM-FM (Seattle) program Beyond the Headlines with Charlie Harger talking about D-Day in June 2009 (note: the program was also rebroadcast on June 6, 2010). Click here for complete audio.

Related Books
For a list of best books about radio (including radio's role in D-Day), click here for an earlier post from I STILL Love Radio.

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