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VE Day – This Is Not A Drill

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

As detailed in the previous blog post, VE Day – Take One, Monday, May 7, 1945, was a day of confusion and restrained celebration for CBS Radio and the news media in general. Tuesday, May 8, however, brought clarity and all out jubilation.

Speaking simultaneously from Washington, DC and London, England, President Harry S. Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill validated the news of German surrender that had leaked out the day before. As others would throughout the day, they praised the Allied victory but admonished the public that there was still the war in the Pacific. As for Stalin, he would get the next day, Wednesday, May 9, (which would become the official VE Day for Russians) the staged surrender in Berlin that he’d been holding out for.

Immediately following, at 9:17 am, Eastern War Time, CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood was finally allowed to air his account of the German surrender at Reims. He delivered it with gusto over some thirteen minutes, speaking freely and sometimes bitterly:

“Colonel General Gustav Jodl, the German plenipotentiary, is a typical, stiff-necked, Prussian professional soldier. He is ugly, and his face is ravaged by what appears to be some kind of skin disease, but he is as straight as a gun barrel and the embodiment of what we think of as Prussian arrogance…”

“…Then the Germans come in. Jodl’s face is like a death mask; drawn, unnatural looking, and with every muscle in it clenched. Admiral Friederberg is more relaxed, but he too is not enjoying himself. Jodl’s aide bobs about like a headwaiter in a restaurant.”

Col. General Gustaf Jodl, German Chief of Staff under the Doenitz regime, signing the document of unconditional surrender. (Charles Collingwood can be seen operating recording machine in the back).  Prints and Photographs Division

After a description of the signing, Collingwood administered a quietus to the enemy, adding a memorable documentary touch enabled by his portable recorder[i]

“The German Third Reich, which had once made the world tremble, had collapsed in bloodstained fragments. Colonel General Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German Army, asked General Bedell Smith’s permission to speak. He stood up stiffly, like a man holding himself in against some unbearable pain. In a strangled voice, like a sob, he said: “With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victor’s hands. In this hour, I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.”

Collingwood then played Jodl’s statement in German. For those listening at home, and not already celebrating outside, it must have been a striking moment.

 

Other official statements followed throughout the morning and afternoon, interspersed with reports of the continuing action in the Pacific, descriptions of the postwar moods and scenes in Europe and the growing celebrations throughout the country. There were hookups in Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, D.C., tiny Lincolnton, North Carolina, General Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas, and other cities. Nearly everyone who spoke said that the war in the Pacific was yet to be won and celebrations should be brief and muted. CBS’s Ed Kemp stuck to this script when he reported from Detroit, but the festive sounds of singing and cheering in the background gave the game away and he noted that bars had been closed as a precaution.

There were ironic moments. From New York, Bob Trout reported that the German High Command, the so called “Pocket Reich” in Flensburg, had announced that the greeting “Heil Hitler” was now banned. In Copenhagen, Danes were reported to be ready to join in the VE Day festivities, though they had been celebrating since May 5th when German armies in Denmark, the Netherlands and Northwest Germany surrendered to Field Marshall Montgomery of England. Bill Downs of CBS filed this report from the site of that surrender in Germany:

“This VE day has started out very quietly here in Lüneburg in the British sector. The convoys continue to roll through the narrow streets and the long, long lines of surrendering Germans, and liberated Allied war prisoners and slave laborers stream back to the rear areas. The people of Lüneburg are going about their business as if it were just another day. It may be VE Day for the Allies but its Surrender Day for the Germans. The people I saw this morning look like they’re trying to ignore the whole thing. The shops are opening up and already the long lines at the food stores are collecting. Ex-Nazi hausfrauen with their baskets and string bags are beginning a life of queuing that has plagued all of Europe since the Nazis went on the warpath.

“…no doubt tonight the bottles of French champagne which we find in every rich German’s wine cellar will make their appearance. But meanwhile the army is too busy to celebrate Victory in Europe Day. The millions of German soldiers must be kept moving to the concentration areas. The liberated Allied prisoners must be evacuated and somehow the slave laborers who look to us for help, must be housed and fed, but I have an idea that there will be a hot time in Lüneburg tonight.“

A series of prepared speeches by the most prominent military leaders from locations around Europe followed. Each extolled the accomplishments of the armies that they had led, and several speeches are notable in that they were addressed directly to the soliders under their command. “In thinking of the heritage of glory that you have achieved, do not be unmindful of the price you have paid,” General George S. Patton admonished his Third Army. “Throughout your victorious advances, your line of march is marked with the graves of your heroic dead, while the hospitals are crowded with your wounded.”

Somewhat later, CBS may have needed to cover a failed hookup, and Charles Collingwood in Paris was given the microphone again. He turned out to have another vivid description of the scene at Reims, nearly as long as his first, and he delivered it with the same verve. He dwelled on other details this time:

Lieutenant Ivan Cherniaeff, Aide and Interpreter, and Major General of Artillery Ivan Alexeyevich Susloparov, May 5, 1945 during surrender negotiations at SHAEF Forward Headquarters, Reims, France. US Army photograph, Library of Congress.

“…Throughout the whole proceedings, the Russians maintained the least solemn air of them all. They obviously enjoyed the spectacle of the proud and booted chief of the Wehrmacht surrendering the shattered particle of his forces.  There was a Russian general, colonel and a lieutenant. This lieutenant who acted as interpreter really stole the show.[ii] He is a most amazing looking man. Not a hair on his head and with eyes that burned a hole at everything they rested on. He exuded inscrutable menace” in the best Peter Lorre tradition. Never for one moment did he remove his terrible gaze from the German general and admiral opposite. His expression told a long story about how the Russians feel about the Germans. I freely predict that when you see the newsreels of the surrender at Reims it will be the little Russian lieutenant who dominates the scene.”

In mid-afternoon, the scene switched to England, where it was evening and little restraint was reported.  In jammed Piccadilly Circus, the usually dour Edward R. Murrow laughed along with the crowds of English and Americans, and joked about spam with a French chef. At the end of the London segment, CBS anchor Phil Cohen repeated words that journalist Templeton Peck, chief officer of the American Broadcast Station in Europe (ABSIE) had spoken to the European radio audience earlier that day:

“…We speaking to you now are Americans. Our dead lie with yours…in fighting for their own freedom, they died for yours too. And so may we all think today of all Americans who lie with Britons, Russians, and your compatriots who lay beneath crosses on the hillsides of Europe. Whoever you are, think of these Americans as being your dead too. The cause that brought them into battle was the simple proposition that your freedom is inseparable from their freedom and that your enslavement held the threat of their ultimate enslavement.”

This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon on CBS, which was generally restrained and dignified. King George the VI of England spoke, echoing and expanding upon Peck’s words:

“Armed or unarmed, men and women, you have fought and striven and endured to your utmost. No-one knows that better than I do, and as your King, I thank with a full heart those who bore arms so valiantly on land and sea, or in the air, and all civilians who, shouldering their many burdens, have carried them unflinchingly without complaint…

“… in defending ourselves we were defending the liberties of the whole world…[o]ur cause was the cause not of this nation only, not of this Empire and Commonwealth only, but of every land where freedom is cherished and law and liberty go hand in hand.”

From the Washington, DC Navy Yard, the combined Army-Air Corps, Marine Corps and Navy bands, 276 musicians in all, played the “Star Spangled Banner.” An interfaith service was heard from New York, followed by a Central Park concert featuring the New York Philharmonic.

Edward R. Murrow, [194-?]. Prints and Photographs Division

At 6:30 pm., Eastern War Time, Edward R. Murrow was heard again. It was now past midnight in London, and Murrow’s tone was more characteristic of his most famous transatlantic broadcasts. It was neither a call-to-arms or a celebration of victory, but a sorrowing look back and sober assessment of the road ahead:

“…London is a curious town. Nothing seems to surprise it, not even buzz bombs. There are little streets where you may meet anyone. And tonight, it’s easy to imagine that old friends are walking there. Some of the boys you watched jump at Remagen. Flyers you watched go down in flames over Berlin or a dozen other targets. And you wonder what’s happened to the American boys who used to stand on those street corners far from home and rather lonesome. The soldiers who waited and trained for D-Day, and who since demonstrated that they were not living on the reputations made by their grandfathers. The price of victory has been high. We don’t yet know just how high— how many twisted minds and bodies— how much loss of faith and hope. The first task is to bury the dead and feed the living.”

 

 

Learn more about the Library’s Radio Collection and other coverage of World War II in the guide to the The National Broadcasting Company at the Library of Congress and how to conduct further research in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Fewer CBS Radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s have survived than from other networks. The Library of Congress is fortunate to have in its holdings many significant wartime broadcasts including roughly 12 hours of news coverage from May 7 and May 8, 1945. The Library also holds many broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and other noted CBS correspondents from other dates. Any inquires to dig deeper into the history of radio or other audio collections may be directed to the Recorded Sound Research Center or the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.

[i] Collingwood may have employed the film-based “Amertape” recorder, which he and others had used since the D-Day landings. Magnetic recording tape, a German invention, was not yet available outside of Germany.

[ii] This was Lieutenant Ivan Cherniaeff, who worked for General Suslaparov, the Russian signatory at Reims.