< The Sound of WWII


Friday, December 30, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The second Gulf War, dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom, gave viewers an unprecedented opportunity to see faraway combat as it happened. But though it was the first time people on the home front saw war in real time, it wasn't the first time they heard it. In World War II, CBS chief Bill Paley dispatched Edward R. Murrow and his team - who came to be called "Murrow's Boys" - to London to cover the city under siege. Highlights from those historic radio broadcasts have been compiled on a CD that accompanies a book called World War II on the Air, coauthored by Mark Bernstein. Advances in technology changed not only how war is waged but also how it's covered. So back in 2003, we asked Bernstein how did radio change the face of war journalism?

MARK BERNSTEIN: Well, I think it brought to war journalism and to journalism generally an immediacy that had not previously been available. In August of 1940, Edward Murrow was standing in Trafalgar Square in London which was under blackout. It was being bombed, and he was standing at the entrance of a bomb shelter, and Londoners were going past him into the shelter, and he took his microphone and put it down at street level and recorded the sound of British people in their very unhurried way taking shelter from bombs. And then this went, you know, to Kansas and Nebraska and Florida and wherever, and you would hear 4,000 miles away the sounds of actual human beings taking shelter from war. [CLIP PLAYS] [SIRENS]

EDWARD R. MURROW: This - is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens. A searchlight just burst into action off in the distance. There's another searchlight. You see them reach straight up into the sky and occasionally they catch a cloud and seem to splash on the bottom of it. One of the strangest sounds one can hear in London these days - or rather these dark nights - just the sound of footsteps walking along the street, like ghosts shod with steel shoes. [CLIP UP AND UNDER]

MARK BERNSTEIN: He said it was not the purpose of radio to take the story to the listener, but to bring the listener to the story, and in, I think, the clip you just heard you get pulled to that event and you, to some, extent experience it for yourself.

BOB GARFIELD: Murrow was famous for painting dramatic word pictures. He was also famously a non-journalist - at least before he got his job with CBS. He had no print experience to draw on. What effect did his fresh eyes, say, have on his coverage and on other journalists who followed him?

MARK BERNSTEIN: He had a sense that what happens on the radio has to happen differently; that very much you have to write for the ear. And he felt it was an advantage that he had no journalism background to speak of, because the people he hired who had journalism background like Eric Severeid and Charles Collingwood and Howard K. Smith and others, in a sense, had to be retrained to write for the new medium.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you about the relationship between these reporters and the U.S. military. That relationship is notably testy today and has been for a good many years. How did they get along back in 1944?

MARK BERNSTEIN: Well, it would get down to cases. Eric Severeid had a kind of - somewhere between frustration and contempt for the military mind, or at least for the minds of officers who he felt were always, you know, misrepresenting everything to him and thwarting him. Murrow, who was enormously charming, got along well with just about everybody. He and Collingwood, incidentally, both wore British, not American, uniforms for much of the war, which they did to one-up the Americans. That was a way of saying, "Well we've been here since 1939. You know, where have you been?" The British, I think, realized in time that Murrow's telling of the story of London during the Blitz and the story of England standing up to Hitler had enormous propaganda value in the United States and they progressively censored him less, and in September of 1940, they allowed him to do live coverage from rooftops of London of the bombing of London. The approval for that came actually directly from Winston Churchill who many, many years before had been a war correspondent in the Boer War and had a sense of what was a really good story and how it would play. [CLIP PLAYS]

EDWARD R. MURROW: Now you'll hear two bursts a little nearer in a moment. [BURSTS OF ARTILLERY FIRE] There they are. That hard stony sound. [END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD: Edward R. Murrow was one of the two most famous American reporters in Europe during the war. The other was Ernie Pyle who spent the entire war with G.I.'s, slogging through with the riflemen to report on their victories and their defeats and their personal dramas. Edward R. Murrow didn't do a lot of that, but he did do some of it. There was one extraordinary period when he went on bombing missions with the American Army Air Corps.

MARK BERNSTEIN: His ostensible reason for doing so was that he wanted to be able to report on the war better by actually experiencing such a thing. I think it's likelier the case that Murrow did not feel that he was sufficiently at risk, as this much admired, much honored broadcaster, relatively safe in London while people elsewhere are fighting and dying in significant numbers on behalf of a cause and a war that Murrow himself very much believed in, and he basically badgered CBS and badgered the military in England to let him go on bombing runs over Germany. Eventually he got permission to go - this would be December 1943 - and he went on one run. Five hundred planes went out. Fifty were shot down. It was an extremely hazardous thing to do. He then got a very short note from Bill Paley. Three sentences. The first said, "I understand why you want to do this, and I guess you feel good now that you've done it, but please, please, please, please, please don't ever do it again." He did it 22 more times. [CLIP PLAYS] [SOUND OF AIRCRAFT]

EDWARD R. MURROW: Waiting to jump - there he goes - you hear them shout - 3, 4, 5 - 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 - 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 - every man clear. They're dropping just beside a little windmill near a church, hanging there, very gracefully. Seem to be completely relaxed, as I said a moment ago, like nothing so much as khaki dolls hanging beneath a green lampshade. [CLIP ENDS]

BOB GARFIELD: So there were embeds six decades ago.

MARK BERNSTEIN: Oh, sure. Richard C. Hottelet hung a tape recorder out a window in Aachen, Germany to record the sounds of a firefight in which he was sort of in the midst. Eric Severeid was on the first line of landing craft coming into the South of France in July 1944. Eric Severeid alone among all the correspondents was always telling everyone he was terrified. Everyone else was being sort of macho about it.

BOB GARFIELD: At the beginning of the war, the world got used to hearing Murrow live and in real time describe the events of the war that was surrounding him. Do you hear a qualitative difference between Murrow live and Murrow having had a chance to digest and think through the report he was about to give? [CLIP PLAYS]

EDWARD R. MURROW: Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you're at lunch or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio, for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. [CLIP ENDS]

MARK BERNSTEIN: I think, you know, one thing that is happening is that for half a dozen years, Edward Murrow has been talking about Nazism as the face of evil. And at Buchenwald on April, 1945, he, for the first time, encounters that living, dying face, and it is - and I think he commented on this at the time - basically more than he could cope with. [CLIP PLAYS]

EDWARD R. MURROW: It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. And it was built to last. [STATIC] I asked to see one of the barracks. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, 5 to a bunk. As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies. As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling towards the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it. [CLIP ENDS]

MARK BERNSTEIN: He talked later about, you know, if he was called upon to describe half a dozen pairs of children's shoes, he could do that, but confronted with a pile of thousands of children's shoes, he couldn't think of anything to say.

BOB GARFIELD: Mark Bernstein is coauthor of the book, with accompanying CD, World War II on the Air.