by Norman Gilliland, Wisconsin Public Radio
During World War II the big concern for most Americans and British was straightforward: At the front and at home, what can we do to defeat Germany and Japan?
In radio dramas of the war years, news from the front was relatively rare. Even on the "day that will live in infamy," bulletins about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were short and sporadic, partly because the concept of covering breaking news via broadcast was still new and partly because sponsors controlled the shows they bankrolled and the networks were reluctant to interrupt them.
Occasionally radio shows of the times would dramatize the events at the front. Lux Radio Theater, which produced radio adaptations of recent movies, made a major contribution with its 1944 version of the 1942 blockbuster Guadalcanal Diary. Both the radio and film versions employed a shrewd turn of casting by featuring William Bendix, well- known as the loveable, bumbling namesake of the radio comedy The Life of Riley. Putting a somewhat more dignified version of the Riley character into uniform and into harms way in the Pacific in a dramatization of recent headlines gave punch to both versions of Guadalcanal Diary.
One thing which radio shows of 1941-45 give us in generous proportions is a day to day sense of what Americans were doing--and could do--on the home front.
So, for example, in the episode of Duffy's Tavern from January 12, 1945, Archie produces a play to raise money for the War Bond effort. The master of malapropisms is a highly unlikely playwright and the star of his homegrown play is equally improbable, the suave, sinister Boris Karloff. In the incongruity, of course, is the essence of the comedy.
We get a sense of what was being done to promote homeland security (before that phrase was in common use) in the serial intrigue Adventures By Morse, which in 1944 had its heroes, Captain Bart Friday and sidekick Skip Turner, investigate an enemy intrusion into the Pacific Northwest.
In an April 27, 1945, broadcast of This Is Your FBI--a series based on true cases--listeners were told about the capture of escaped German POWs in the vicinity of Galveston, Texas--the apprehension being made possible by observant civilians and fast-moving law enforcement officials.
What could kids do for the war effort? Be strong and healthy by eating the right cereal. Collect cereal box pictures of enemy planes in order to spot any airborne intrusion. Help Mom to save fat, paper, and scrap metal--all of which could be used to defeat the enemy.
Why should anyone listen to these shows today? Probably not to indulge in nostalgia. Certainly not for most of us, who were not even suggested, let alone listening to the radio during World War II. I would suppose two reasons, the first being that most of these vintage dramas, simple as they are, have an almost magical way of getting us to use our imaginations. And so they are a slightly addictive pleasure in their own right. On top of that, for those of us who are interested in history, especially the everyday history of the way people lived and thought at a time before our own time, these old radio shows are a walk in the past.