This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.
The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and other radio networks all covered the last hours of World War II in Europe in depth, and these recordings are preserved in the Library of Congress, where they are available for listening in the Recorded Sound Research Center in Washington, DC, when the Library reopens it’s doors.
CBS’s coverage of the day before Victory in Europe Day, “VE Day,” and the day itself, are the focus of this post and its sequel.
The recordings feature broadcast legends Edward R. Murrow and Bob Trout, as well as other CBS journalists less well known but no less worthy, including Allan Jackson, Jane Murrow and Quincy Howe, among others. All had covered the war in Europe since it began with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. Some, like Murrow and Trout, had been covering the events leading up to that day for more than a year. They would have a lot to remember and a lot to say.
The term “VE Day,” meaning “Victory in Europe Day,” had been coined in the Fall of 1944, when it appeared that the collapse of the Third Reich was imminent. But in December the Germans unleashed the Battle of the Bulge and a series of other futile but costly engagements that added nearly six months to the war in Europe. As the Allies closed in, the full extent of Nazi horror became apparent as dozens of concentration camps in which millions had been murdered or now laid dying were liberated. The war in the Pacific against Imperial Japan would continue, but VE Day represented a major step towards total victory and achieved the liberation of millions. At the same time, these and other developments weighed heavily on the delegates to the San Francisco conference where the United Nations charter was being forged. VE Day was much to be savored and celebrated.
On May 7, 1945 at 2:41 am, local time, about 75 miles from Paris in a schoolhouse in Reims, which served as General Eisenhower’s headquarters, representatives of the remains of the Third Reich surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. All present knew that the war in Europe would now end, though the terms specified that the surrender only took effect 42 hours later, at 11:01 pm, May 8. Would it really take that long to reach forces on every battleground in Europe? Perhaps, but there were other issues still in play, and the seventeen war correspondents in the room were instructed to hold their stories for the time being.
About 11 ½ hours later the German government announced the surrender over a radio station they controlled. The news spread quickly and was broadcast generally by 8:25 am, Eastern War Time. The station was in Flensburg, territory surrendered to British forces two days earlier, and Associated Press correspondent Edward J. Kennedy concluded that the embargo was moot, as the German government would not have acted without the approval of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Kennedy filed his story, which was read over American airwaves at 9:36 am, EWT.[i]
The networks had plans for national and international hookups when this day came. They’d even been tested in the wake of President Roosevelt’s death in April. Regular programming was suspended and correspondents stood by in Europe, the United States and the Pacific, but no announcement from any Allied government or SHAEF was forthcoming.
In New York, Bob Trout anchored the CBS broadcast from the network’s Studio 9 at Madison Avenue and East 52nd Street, which had become a second home for stateside broadcasters. Shortly before 11:00 am, after many summaries of the known facts, he yielded to Harry Kramer in Times Square, broadcasting from a perch on the Hotel Astor’s marquee. In spite of the uncertainty, the streets were jammed for blocks around and Kramer said “celebrating seemed like the only logical thing to do.”
CBS correspondents reported Chicago and Washington, DC as fairly quiet, though word was spreading. Trout reported the arrest of Dutch Nazi leader Anton Mussert in newly liberated Holland, and then switched to Gene Ryder, the CBS correspondent in Guam, where it was midnight. Ryder reported that:
“A few lights search the bright night and the big planes are coming in from Okinawa with their loads of wounded [NB: the horrific 83 day battle for Okinawa was less than half over]. I doubt if over 10% of the servicemen here on Guam know that VE Day is here. … a few people on night duty are fishing shortwave broadcasts out of the static and the most common expression you hear is ‘well, that’s one less war.’ …If it were noontime, I think the same would hold true…
“…I think that maybe the answer to this sober lack of excitement here lies in those C-54 sky ambulances setting down one after another here on Guam, evacuating Okinawa wounded to rear echelon hospitals. Yes, the planeloads from Okinawa are sobering things, even more so in this hour of triumph over the Germans.”
Trout reported on further confusion. German forces resisting an Allied offensive and a partisan uprising in Prague, Czechoslovakia, had declared Flensburg radio to be an “enemy station,” and that they had only stopped fighting the western powers: “In our area, the struggle against Russia will continue until the Germans of the East are saved, and the way back to the homeland is secured.”
Back in New York, CBS news analyst Quincy Howe debunked the new, conciliatory tone of the Flensburg broadcast, which he said was “setting a new line for Germany, [and the German government] is now talking the language of…the United Nations and the San Francisco Conference.”
After a report from the Pentagon, CBS started filling time with live music. First came the Columbia Symphonic Band, conducted by the Russian born Alexander Von Kreisler with a set that included Edwin Franko Goldman’s wartime composition “The Four Allies.”
At noon, Edward R. Murrow signed on from London with the first clarification in more than two hours: Prime Minister Churchill and President Truman wanted to make an official announcement, but Marshall Stalin did not. It would emerge that Stalin was suspicious of the surrender language, and also determined that an official surrender ceremony be staged in Berlin the following day. Soviet forces also remained busy in Prague and on the Danish island of Bornholm, where German occupiers had refused to surrender, prompting a bombing by Russian planes.
Douglas Edwards then spoke from the streets of London, where flags were flying and sidewalks were jammed. Sandbag defenses were being dismantled. Janet Murrow reported that a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force told her: “It makes me bitter, it really does. And we have to do a full day’s work. Never mind, as soon as my young man gets back to civvy street, I’ll be gettin’ married. If we can find a house, of course.” Elsewhere, a travel agency was advertising tours of Berchtesgaden, site of Hitler’s mountain retreat.
In Kansas City, Gene Dennis spoke to Mrs. James J. Shannon, who prayed for her six sons and one son-in-law on active duty in different theaters and service branches. Allan Jackson summarized the known facts yet again from Studio 9.
Bob Trout excelled at extemporizing thoughtful broadcasts when they were needed and must have felt that reiteration and music were insufficient to the occasion. With the help of the newsroom files, he eased into ten minutes of shared and personal history.
He read a narrative montage of excerpts from seven speeches given by Winston Churchill from November 1939 to July, 1941, then added his own recollections of the war’s first days in the CBS newsroom, and his days covering President Roosevelt’s speeches around the country years earlier:
“…[In 1936} The president spoke at Chautauqua in NY…[on] a tour of inspections of flood control projects throughout the country, so the audience at Chautauqua and the radio audience throughout the country was very surprised, when suddenly in the midst of his speech, this is what Franklin Roosevelt said:
‘We are not isolationists, except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.’ He acknowledged that ‘so long as war exists on Earth, there will be some danger that even the nation which most ardently desires peace may be drawn into war.
’‘I have seen war,’ he said. ‘I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of the line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.’
Trout continued, “And the next year, in 1937, in October, when President Roosevelt stopped in Chicago to dedicate a new bridge and the crowds gathered to hear the usual conventional sort of speech which is customary in such a setting, the president suddenly launched out with this warning against the aggressors:
‘…It seems to be unfortunately true,’ said the president, ‘that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.’
Finally, Trout tied these threads together by evoking the roots of the United Nations, a phrase newly coined by the President in January, 1942, when Trout was in England:
“… the Daily Herald of January 6th, the London Daily Herald said: ‘President Roosevelt has christened us. He has coined a far better title than “Grand Alliance.” In his message to Congress, he has referred to the 26 countries as the “United Nations.’”
Trout then cautiously directed his audience towards the postwar optimism that many would assert hopefully in the days to come: “Now, as you know, the 26 have grown to 49 and they’re meeting in San Francisco to decide how to preserve the peace that is still to be won in the Pacific but that has now been won Europe.”
It was just after 1:00 pm. The Jubilaires, an African-American quartet, sang a set of timely spirituals: “Down by the Riverside,” “When I Come to the End of My Journey,” “Go Down Moses,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” and “There’ll be a Great Big Jubilee.”
Next, Ruby Newman and his Orchestra glided through arrangements of the wartime songs: “When the Boys Come Home” “When the Light Go On Again All Over the World,” “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and “This is Worth Fighting For.”
At 1:34 pm, CBS announced that regular programming would resume at 2:30 pm. No official announcement of VE Day would be forthcoming that Monday. Journalists write the first draft of history, but sometimes they need a second draft, and Tuesday would be different.
In the next Now See Hear blog post CBS coverage of the following day, which was the official Victory in Europe Day, will be discussed.
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] Kennedy lost his position at the Associated Press. One year later, he learned the Flensburg broadcast had actually been ordered by SHAEF. His account of the surrender and aftermath is in Ed Kennedy’s War: V-E Day, Censorship and the Associated Press (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2012)