In the 1990s, I began collecting rare World War II radio news broadcasts. My expectation was that many such recordings would be archived by the big networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. If those sources didn’t pan out, surely the then still living war correspondents would have copies of their historically important work. I was mainly interested in the broadcasts of CBS correspondents Eric Sevareid and William L. Shirer — remaining members of “Murrow’s Boys.”
To my surprise, the networks had almost nothing — two or three audio tracks they were retaining to play when the two aged newsmen passed away. My search options were few, again this was the early ’90s and prior to internet search engines. Plan B: I wrote personal letters to Sevareid (through CBS) and to Shirer (through his publisher Simon & Schuster.)
The two men replied but, to my disappointment, they had almost nothing on tape from the wartime years. That was too bad, because there was one audio track I really hoped to find. When France was overrun by Hitler’s troops, Sevareid had broadcast an eloquent eyewitness description of the tragedy: “Paris died like a beautiful woman in coma.” I wanted those words in his voice, not a written transcript of what Sevareid had said.
In pursuit of information, I studied textbooks on war correspondents and the timeline of wartime events. I ordered catalogs from companies that sold old time radio shows. Ultimately, the best collection of WW II audio in the country was at the University of Washington. During the war years, KIRO radio in Seattle had recorded most of the CBS evening news broadcasts. Eventually the station donated the collection to the university. U.W. staff, organized by an archivist named Milo Ryan, had gone through thousands of recordings and created a catalog titled “History in Sound.” The catalog was a lifesaver for a researcher, but the descriptions within were condensed down to a few words. It took considerable effort to prepare a list of what I suspected to be among the most significant sound recordings.
With a cassette recorder in hand, and after five trips to Seattle, I finally had copies of the news broadcasts that were on my list. Immediately, I sent Sevareid and Shirer copies of their material. At a later date, I will describe my correspondence and interactions with William L. Shirer. For the remainder of this article, my focus will be on Eric Sevareid.
Eric Sevareid was born in Velva, North Dakota in 1912. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1935. That was just in time to become a correspondent for the new medium known as radio. Radio news had yet to be invented when Sevareid joined CBS. He was a key figure at the network from 1939 (as the war in Europe began) until his retirement in 1977. Most baby boomers will best remember Sevareid as the longtime television news analyst and commentator on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
During the early days of the war in Europe, Sevareid reported from France (until the country surrendered) and then he moved to the London office. Shortly thereafter, Sevareid returned to America for a few years. But as the allied offensive gathered steam in the early ’40s, Sevareid went back into the danger zones: Africa, Italy and Burma. Sevareid was an innovator. During the war years he and Murrow’s Boys were not simply reporting on the war, they were giving birth to the field of radio news analysis and commentary.
One of my prized recordings is Sevareid’s October 1940 report from London. Edward R. Murrow provides an introduction, then Sevareid contrasts the sudden collapse of France to the fighting spirit and tenacity of Winston Churchill’s Great Britain. By locating this recording, I had achieved one of my goals: It includes, in Sevareid’s own voice, the descriptive words I had been seeking: “Paris died like a beautiful woman in coma, without struggle, not knowing or even asking why.”
I have kept this tape to myself since the ’90s, other than I did send a copy to Sevareid, and the BBC received one as part of a tape exchange. Regardless, it has never become an accessible archival item that historians or the public could locate. A month ago, I decided that I should share it. The recording is important: In Sevareid’s opinion, it was one of his most significant broadcasts. My thought is it should be preserved, not someday lost in my metal filing cabinet in the basement or in an archival folder at the BBC.
I have now uploaded the recording to YouTube. Anyone, who doesn’t care for the era appropriate photos that back the sound track, can simply close their eyes or copy the sound. Either technique reverts it back to the shortwave transmission that was sent from Europe to the United States back in 1940. (Many overseas broadcasts came into American networks by shortwave radio, where they were recorded and then rebroadcast by the networks.)
Some of the letters I received from Sevareid are humorous. In one he thanked me for the cassette recordings and then said he would listen to them “just as soon as his wife got her cassette player fixed.” Here’s a faded copy of one letter from Sevareid.
Eric Sevareid, one of the forefathers of radio and television news, passed away in July 1992 — one year after he sent this letter. In the future, I will write about my interactions with the famous author (The Berlin Diary, The Nightmare Years, etc.), and CBS war correspondent, William L. Shirer. That post will be here at Puget Sound Media: It will include rare archival audio, photos and copies of letters from Shirer.
To read about Lorne Greene, a pioneering Canadian network anchorman during WW II and later an actor in the U.S. , please click here.