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Dunkirk: Radio Brings World War II Stories to the Home Front

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The following is a guest post by: Rosemary Hall and Rebecca Thayer, working this summer at  the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

“If we fishermen and boatmen get together, we can give Adolf’s subs a run for their money.”

-Captain John Bogan, 1942

The withdrawal from France. Prints and Photographs, NYTWT&S Collection. item/2003652919/

The Library of Congress’ collections are many and varied, and the cliché is true, you never know what will turn up. As a case in point, a collection of old-time radio recordings that we are processing happen to contain several interviews directly related to the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk. Due to the recent public interest in this historic event, these interviews really caught our ear.

We, the People in the Golden Age of Radio

We, the People creator Phillips H. Lord.  Radio Mirror 6, no. 2, 1936.

Phillips H. Lord, famed writer and producer of the Golden Age of Radio, believed that every American should “realize [their] responsibilities and obligations in building a strong nation.”[1] Each of Lord’s programs centered around this patriotism. When Lord’s new program We, the People launched in 1936, it was no exception, and the current of pride and duty that ran through the show only grew when America went to war in 1941.

We, the People was a human interest radio show that advertised itself as a program for true stories of people across the United States and even the world. It ran on both the NBC and CBS radio networks from 1936 through 1951 and continued as a television program until 1952.

In 1942, We, the People was a CBS radio show hosted by Milo Boulton and sponsored by the Gulf Oil Company. Ordinary people came  on the show to tell their stories to the nation. These stories could be funny, inspiring, or heart-wrenching. Each episode contained  several guests reading short, scripted interviews with the host. Guests not only included regular people but also famous and prominent people such as Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Joe Louis, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In several 1942 episodes, guests relayed their experiences at, about, or in reaction to the harrowing Battle of Dunkirk of 1940.

Sunk, Evacuated, Captured, Released, but He Still Believes the French Fleet Will Never Be German

Milo Boulton (right) interviews guest Jim Doncan on the set of We, the People. Radio Mirror, 27, no. 6 , 1947.

Milo Boulton, one of the hosts of We, the People interviewed Michel Burnham, a sailor in the French navy, for the June 28, 1942 episode. He arrived at Dunkirk only a few days before the evacuation, after the British escort ship he had been serving on as an interpreter was sunk. Only a third of the crew survived the swim to shore, and then almost immediately had to evacuate at Dunkirk. Burnham was running for his ship when he was stopped and directed to take a different one. It turned out to be a  lucky switch for him, since the original ship he was to take was “blown completely to bits” with few survivors. But Dunkirk was only a small part of Burnham’s varied wartime experiences. He spent only two days in England before leaving to rejoin the French navy, but was then taken prisoner by the Germans. Burnham, along with almost 12,000 French sailors  in prison camps, was released in order to staff the French fleet in support of the Germans. Instead Burnham made his way to the United States, declaring, “I am sure that Hitler’s only chance of using the fleet is to man it with German crews. Today, French sailors and soldiers everywhere, they… are waiting to fight back beside the British and Americans, not against them. And when that day comes, I will be beside them, too.”

Captured by the Gestapo, She Never Gave Up Hope

Elizabeth Haden-Guest, originally of East Prussia, shares a dramatically different perspective on Dunkirk with We, the People’s London host Bob Trout in the May 3, 1942 episode. Haden-Guest, while being held captive by the Gestapo with her 5-year-old son Anthony, learned first-hand of the German reaction to the brutal battle. While, without a doubt, the British and French suffered the largest physical casualties, the Germans suffered major casualties to morale. Haden-Guest tells Trout that after escaping to London and seeing British soldiers, she can “see why the German soldiers are terrified there will be orders to invade England.” When asked to clarify her meaning , Haden-Guest responds that, while being held captive, German officers and soldiers of the 456 Infantry Regiment told her directly, “Dunkirk was the worst thing we’ve ever been through; and wherever you found a dead Tommy, there was one of ours next to him. If we are ordered to invade England, none of us will ever come back alive.” In keeping with Phillips H. Lord’s constant patriotic message, Haden-Guest tells the listeners of We, the People that she is “more than ever convinced of our victory” because of the weakened German morale.

Inspired by Dunkirk, American Boatmen Did Their Part

Thousands of British troops’ lives were saved at Dunkirk when private boatmen and fishermen from England rallied to their aid, risking their own lives to support their troops and the war effort. Two years on and Americans have followed suit, not ones to be patriotically outdone. Captain John Bogan, in the July 5, 1942 episode of We, the People, shares his experiences as Fleet Commander of the Volunteer Rescue Fleet in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Volunteer Rescue Fleets are just as they sound; in Bogan’s own words: “When the Coast Guard gets an S.O.S., or an S.S.S., sub sink ship, they call and advise me to get one or more of our 30 boats on the scene as soon as possible.” With the large number of attacks off the coast, the Coast Guard, operating as a service to the Navy, could not cope alone. Captain Bogan tells the story of his first mission, where two men were saved after their ship was hit by a torpedo. The Volunteer Rescue Fleets no doubt saved many more lives as the war continued. Captain Bogan ends his interview with a call to all fishermen and boatmen to aid in the war effort through rescue work, patrol work, or any other way they can: “If we fishermen and boatmen get together, we can give Adolf’s subs a run for their money.”

Here is the committee who decides which letter writers are to appear on We, the People. Radio Mirror 7, no.6, 1937.

Fueling the War Effort, One Story At A Time

By hosting guests such as these on his program We, the People, Phillips H. Lord was doing his own part to further the war effort on the home front. Such harrowing first-hand accounts as these brought  the war into the homes of average Americans across the country. With the addition of the program’s patriotic advertisements for Gulf Oil Company and frequent pleas to collect rubber, scrap, and other materials, listeners were reminded of their obligation to their country and the war effort. At the same time, the effect of having regular people on the show created a special connection with listeners; it left them empowered, knowing that even average citizens like themselves could make a difference.

The concluding words to each episode of We, the People created a unique, American community fueled  by average citizens (while encouraging listeners to tune in next week!):

“You’ll hear these experiences and many others, experiences you can hear only when we, the people, speak!”

We, the People is part of the Recorded Sound Section’s Office of War Information (OWI) Collection. The OWI collection includes over 50,000 instantaneous lacquer discs from 1942-1945. The Library has over one 150 broadcasts of We, the People. Come listen to these and others in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Fifty broadcasts are currently available, with more coming soon. You can search for these broadcasts and others in the Library’s main online catalog and the Recorded Sound Section’s online catalog, SONIC.

[1] Coast Guard statement, Phillips H. Lord Archives, WOR Collection, Library of Congress

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