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On D-Day, West Coast radio listeners ‘sat up all night by the radio’

Bob Hope visited Seattle's Victory Square at Fourth and University in September 1942 on his way back from entertaining the troops in Alaska; his summary two years later of the experience of listening to D-Day coverage on the radio on the West Coast was spot-on. (MOHAI)

Next week will mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy to begin the liberation of France and eventual defeat of Nazi Germany, and bring an end to World War II in Europe.

D-Day, the June 6, 1944 landing on the northern coast of France with tens of thousands of American, British, Canadian and other Allied troops – along with thousands of pieces of equipment and tons of supplies – is justifiably regarded as the greatest military operation in the history of mankind.

Thousands of aircraft and ships were used in the operation, and thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines were wounded or gave their lives in the long-planned, and long-anticipated, effort to gain a foothold in Nazi-occupied Europe.

75 years after D-Day, local WWII veterans earn French Legion of Honor

It’s a story that’s been told in epic movies such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, and the 75th anniversary will be commemorated in France, as well as at war memorials and cemeteries in England, Canada and the United States. This year may be the last major anniversary that most of the remaining D-Day veterans will be alive to see.

In addition to what it meant as a great turning point in world history, D-Day is also unique in how it was broadcast by American radio networks, as CBS, NBC and what would become ABC pooled their reporters, engineers and other resources, and cooperated closely with military officials to present, for the first time, what would now be called “wall-to-wall” coverage of a developing major international news event for American audiences.

It’s something we take for granted now in the age of the internet and cable news, but this kind of media coverage can be traced back to D-Day.

Even more distinctive and worth recalling is how Americans west of the Rockies, in particular, experienced this new kind of radio broadcasting, since, because of the timing and because of time zone differences, most Americans east of the Rockies slept through the initial hours of the event and the ground-breaking radio coverage.

News reports at the time suggested that, because the news broke just before 10 p.m. Pacific Time on the evening of Monday June 5, 1944, a lot of West Coast people stayed up to listen to their radios to find out what would happen next. In Seattle, that meant KIRO for CBS coverage, and KOMO for news from NBC.

On NBC’s West Coast regional feed, a serial drama called Hawthorne House was on the air, live from San Francisco (it had begun at 9:30 p.m. Pacific War Time). KIRO had Lennie Conn’s Orchestra, live from Los Angeles via CBS-owned station KNX.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in June 1944, nearly every American was related to someone or knew someone who was serving in the military in Europe. It’s also no understatement to say that news of D-Day was anticipated for months before it happened, and that when the news finally arrived, it was met with a mixture of welcome and dread.

A CBS promotional pamphlet published after World War II went into detail about the West Coast D-Day radio phenomenon, using a fictitious “Smith family” in the Midwest to illustrate the D-Day homefront experience:

On the East Coast it was already 12:48 a.m., June 6. In Indiana it was 11:48 p.m., June 5, and the Smiths had gone to bed. But in the Rockies it was 10:48 p.m. and on the West Coast, a wide-awake 9:48.

Over CBS Ned Calmer cuts in on a program of popular music to say: ‘A bulletin has just been received from the London office of the Associated Press which quotes the German Transocean News Agency as asserting that the invasion of Western Europe has begun. This report—and we stress it is of enemy origin with absolutely no confirmation from Allied sources—says that American landings were made this morning on the shores of Northwestern France . . .’

Instantly the nation (where it is awake) is electrified. And then the vigil begins.

The official announcement that D-Day was, in fact, underway came at 12:32 Pacific Time on the morning of June 6, 1944.

Here’s how CBS described in their promotional pamphlet what happened in the minutes and hours leading up to the big moment.

Nothing new is added for the next two hours and 44 minutes. Every little while another announcer takes the microphone, edges up to the report, points out its unofficial source, and backs away. [Military analyst] Major George Fielding Eliot gnaws the bone awhile; then even he gives up.

In the Mountains it is now 1:32 a.m., June 6. On the Coast, a yawning 12:32. Five seconds later the real news breaks.

A voice [Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy] from SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force] in London: ‘Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by stong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.’

What Colonel Dupuy read, and what radio listeners, particularly those west of the Rockies heard, is known as “Communiqué Number One.” It was so short, Dupuy actually read it twice in a row; it’s almost as if the Gettysburg Address and Paul Revere’s midnight ride were all rolled into one monumental, static-filled moment of American history, world history, and radio broadcasting history.

The West Coast D-Day radio phenomenon has been studied only minimally by scholars, so perhaps it’s fitting that the best summary of what happened nearly 75 years ago comes from comedian (and tireless entertainer of generations of troops) Bob Hope, who broadcast a truncated version of his weekly show for NBC on the evening on June 6, 1944 that was heard in Western Washington on KOMO.

Hope was no media scholar, but he maybe he should’ve been. The “Thanks for Memory” crooning wisecracker brilliantly summed up the West Coast perspective on D-Day radio exactly as he had lived it only hours earlier, at home in California.

What has happened during these last few hours not one of us will ever forget. How could you forget?

You sat up all night by the radio and heard the bulletins, the flashes, the voices coming across from England, the commentators, the pilots returning from their greatest of all missions . . . newsboys yelling on the street . . . and it seemed that one world was ending and a new world beginning . . . that history was closing one book and opening a new one, and somehow we knew it had to be a better one.

You sat there, and dawn began to sneak in, and you thought of the hundreds of thousands of kids you’d seen in the camps the past two or three years . . . The sun came up and you sat there looking at that huge black headline, that one great black word with the exclamation point, ‘INVASION!’

Thanks for the memory, Bob.

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