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Earwitness to History: the Marine Corps Combat Recordings

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This blog post was co-written with Megan Harris, reference specialist for the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress.

Namur, Feb. 1-2, 1944
Battle of the Marshall Islands, Namur, Feb. 1-2, 1944. U. S. Marine Corps

What you’ve just heard is from the Marine Corps Combat Recordings, an amazing and vivid accounting of the war in the South Pacific during World War II. Not only are these recordings one of the most historically significant collections in the Recorded Sound Section, but the Library played a key role in their creation. According to notes made by Robert W. Bloch, Staff Sergeant, UMSC, in 1953:

The idea and basic work for the collection of the Marine Corps records at the Library of Congress can be credited to Dr. Harold Spivack, Chief of the Music Division of the Library, and Brigadier General Robert Denig, wartime director of Marine Corps public information. Plans were formulated to give a few Marine Corps Combat Correspondents recording devices to take into the field. The correspondents were to attempt to record some of the choral rituals and music in the islands of the Pacific that the Marines would visit in their island-hopping offensive campaign.  Actual recording began late in 1943 and continued through the occupation of Japan in 1945.

Fred Welker (l) and Keene Hepburn (r), Marine Corps Combat Recording correspondents
Fred Welker (l) and Keene Hepburn (r), Marine Corps Combat Recording correspondents. U. S Marine Corps.

Needless to say, the original concept of the program of recording rituals and music was given a lower priority and documenting the war became the more prominent focus. The recordings included briefings sessions, interviews with troops, on-the-scene accounts of battles, and personal messages from servicemen for their loved ones back home.

Original recordings made in the field were done with either the Amertape filmstrip or Armour wire recorders. Upon receipt at the Library of Congress, the recordings were dubbed onto sixteen-inch discs at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute, the standard broadcasting speed.

An article in a 1944 issue of Radio News highlighted the recording facilities at the Library of Congress.
An article in a 1944 issue of Radio News highlighted the recording facilities at the Library of Congress. U. S. Marine Corps.

Amertapes were a film-type format with sprocket holes and a series of sound grooves running down the center of the film. Sometime after World War II, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., the reporter featured in many of these recordings, arrived at the Library and helped transfer the audio from the Amertapes to acetate discs.  For many years, this was the playback medium used by the Library. The discs were later transferred to magnetic tape by Library audio engineers.

The Collection contains over fifteen hundred discs in addition to the thousands of feet of original filmstrips and wires made between 1943 and 1945.

Looking through the documentation about the Collection, equipment lists for what became known as “Battle Broadcasting” included all types of gear correspondents carried with them onto the battle fields. Recording amplifiers, cardioid microphones and stands, twenty-five foot mike cables, acetate coated aluminum-based 16-inch discs, steel playback needles, Type 1-C Presto cutting heads as well as hammers, soldering irons, screwdrivers, stop watches and even a jeweler’s glass was only a small fraction of the heavy and bulky equipment they used. To be able to cover the action, recorders were often mounted into vehicles or specially built ammunition carts.

Correspondent Alvin Josephy interviewing soldier. U. S. Marine Corps

Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Guam and Okinawa were just a few of the islands where  recordings were made. Combat correspondent Josephy, a former director of news and special events at station WOR in New York, won the Bronze Star for his unique and complete description of D-Day coverage on Guam. His reporting began in a Navy transport the night before the launch and he described the general feeling of the approaching battle.  Continuing at dawn, Josephy chronicled the forthcoming battle preparations, the spirit of the men and even what the weather was like.  He concluded with his approach to the shore, a tense half mile as he waded to the beach through heavy fire, and the battle on the  front lines.

Alvin Josephy and the other Marines that produced the Marine Corps Combat Recordings were part of a larger effort to document the war as it was happening.  Norman Hatch, a Major with the 5th Marine Division, shot motion pictures of troop movements and battles. Hatch’s footage of the Battle of Tarawa was so gripping that it was included in the film, With the Marines at Tarawa, winning the 1944 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary Short Subject.

Other military photographers, including Charles Restifo and David Quaid, captured moments of the war using still photography. Even visual artists were put to work: both the Navy and the Marine Corps created combat art programs. However, the Marine Corps Combat Recordings are unique in how they captured not only the sound of combat, but also the individual voices of soldiers, sailors, and Marines serving in the Pacific.

In documenting the lives of servicemen, the Marine Corps Combat Recordings go hand-in-hand with the Veterans History Project, which also preserves the personal experiences of those who served. Take, for example, the oral history of Army Corporal Aaron S. Fox, who served in the Pacific and took part in the invasions of Guam and Iwo Jima. Enlisting at the age of 17, he was trained as a forward observer for artillery, and then assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, which was getting ready to depart for Guam. Interviewed in 2006, Fox offers a vivid description of what it felt like to go over the side of a troop ship into a Higgins boat, and then to arrive on the beach under fire.

Strangely enough, when you’re 17, not that you don’t have any fear, you think that nothing can happen to you or your mother will raise hell… I did not have any fear at that moment… it was like watching a movie. It was almost like an out-of-body experience, if you will… and after that the excitement wore off and the misery of trying to survive in that jungle took over.

Iwo Jima battle , February 21, 1945
Battle at Iwo Jima, Feb. 21, 1945. U.S. Marine Corps

Fox did indeed survive the Guam jungle, though an even worse ordeal was yet to come–the battle of Iwo Jima, which he terms “a nightmare.”

Taken together, the Marine Corps Combat Recordings and the oral histories held by the Veterans History Project create a symphony of source material. While the Combat Recordings offer the sights and sounds of the war as it was happening, VHP’s oral histories offer retrospective reflections, and situate experiences within the large picture of individual lives and what came after the war.

Both the Marine Corps Combat Recordings and VHP collections are available to the public.  Within the Veterans History Project holdings, over 15,000 individual narratives have been digitized and are available on the VHP website.  To view non-digitized collections, please contact [email protected] to request a research appointment

The Marine Corps Combat Recordings were all digitized as part of a three year project with the Marine Corps History Division. Researchers can listen in the Recorded Sound Research Center. And in case you were wondering, correspondents did manage to record native songs and poetry, bringing them back for Dr. Spivak after all.

Comments (6)

  1. Mr. Fox’s comments came home to me. My older brother was in the Third Division, 9th Regiment. He was on Guam, Bouganville and Iwo Jima. I lost him in 1993. We only spoke twice of his WW II experiences. As a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and the US Air Force I never experienced combat but served with many that did. Such as a Master Sergeant that was on Wake Island and Marines that walked out of Chosin. I played a pickup basketball game against a Colonel, who later became the first African-American air force 4 star general, “Chappie” James. He was one of the famous WW II “Red Tails” and a great gentleman in that setting. Just reflections.

  2. A photo caption of the Battle of Iwo Jima has a date of February 21 1946. A bit confusing as the war ended in 1945 unless this means the photo was tsken in 1946. Otherwise this is a great article.

    • Thank you Tim, you’re right! I’ve made the correction.

  3. My uncle, Maj. Laurence D. Gammon, USMC was the CO of the unit Alvin Josephy was assigned to at the last minute before offloading from the transport for the invasion/recapture of Guam. This unit, 3RD Div, 3RD Reg, Weapons Co, was written about in a book entitled “The Long, The Short & The Tall, (chapt Another Little Island). There also exists the audio for this event, from which the transcript was used for the written account. He was the only brother from my dad’s family not to return from the war. The Marines are AWESOME; not to diminish my nephew’s contribution currently serving as a US ARMY captain flying Blackhawks in a medivac unit OR my dad who is a WWII US Navy vet: LST 1040, 212, 12 & Normandy participant. THANK YOU all service vets!!!

  4. Are there any known live recordings from The Battle of Tarawa?

    Thank you.


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