(Originally published January 25, 1944)
Lee McCardell, who is now in Italy covering war activities in that theater for the Sunpapers, is not only an able reporter and writer – he is also one of the world’s greatest worriers.
McCardell was the main “arranger” of details on the British end of the Sunpapers’ Christmas broadcast, which brought the voices of many servicemen and some Red Cross women from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania across the Atlantic for holiday greetings.
Just before he left Britain for Algiers, McCardell wrote to his colleagues on this side of the Atlantic about his activities up to and including Christmas Day. His letter, received a few days ago and dated December 29, is offered here as a good description of what a reporter contends with in “arranging” coverage of a specific event in wartime. The letter follows:
“Price Day (Sunpapers war correspondent) is here – arrived Sunday. For the last three days, I’ve been briefing him on the USAAF in Britain, and within the next few days he’ll take over my old beat. Tom (Thomas M. O’Neill, head of The Sun’s London Bureau) is throwing off another of his persistent colds. I saw Bradley (Holbrook Bradley, Sunpapers war correspondent), just up from the country and he seemed to be okay. I’m gradually recovering and, if all goes well, will be filing under a new date line soon.
“That broadcast . . .! Price tells me that even before he left you had had your tough moments. And as the deadline approached I can well imagine you had some more.
“We Sweated – And How”
“But we sweated it out over here, too; AND HOW! If I ever write a book it will be about that broadcast, with several chapters devoted to British Broadcasting Co. Of course, I may have it all wrong – that is, I may have taken the assignment too seriously. And you may not be interested to hear about it, or at least about our end of it. But just in case you are, here’s my part of the story:
“Without having the slightest idea as to what I was letting myself in for, I suggested some sort of a Christmas radio broadcast back to the States when Mr. Patterson (Paul Patterson, president of the A. S. Abell Co.) was over here last summer. I didn’t hear anything more of it until some time after he had gone home, and the office cabled me about our booking.
“I went round to the radio section of the public relations office at the European Theater of Operations, talked to the section chief and was assured that nothing could be simpler. He also gave me to understand that his office would do that work. Knowing the army, I didn’t believe him, but I did think he might be helpful later on. I also talked to Bob Vining (Commander Robert Vining, then navel press chief in London), the Red Cross and various other people. It didn’t look like a particularly tough assignment.
About the BBC
“Our woes began when we made our first contact with the BBC. Like all British organizations, the BBC likes to write letters. It hates to telephone. It never cables, as far as I know. The BBC never says ‘It can be done’ or ‘It can’t be done.’ Instead, it says, ‘Oh, something terrible has happened! But we might be able to straighten it out.’
“As you know, the hour was booked by The Sun through the A.T. & T. The A.T. & T. contracted with the British General Postoffice for the actual transmission. The British General Postoffice arranged with the BBC for the actual pickup of the program over here. And the BBC is the baby with whom I had most of my misdealings.
“Beginning the first of October, or shortly thereafter, I received weekly telephone calls from the BBC – they did telephone me occasionally – telling me that something had gone wrong with previous arrangements.
“To begin with, they got the time screwed up, 1649-1749 (12:49 to 1:49 Eastern War Time) instead of 1645-1745. I finally straightened that out through the General Postoffice.
Change And Change Again
“Then they came through with a plea to have our booking shifted fifteen minutes in deference to considerations of ‘high policy’ involved in a two-way block booking. You heard faint echoes of these troubles in certain plaintive cables which I sent back to the office. Then the BBC changed its mind, withdrew its request. By that time they had the hour screwed up again – back to 1649-1749. And it was not until early in December that we finally got the program nailed down for the proper hour.
“I might say that I had most of my dealings with the BBC through an ‘American division,’ which delegated our particular broadcast problems to a Mr. F--. He was not a man who inspired me with confidence. I suspected he was head doorman at an ice plant before he went into radio work.
“My contacts with the General Postoffice were through a Mr. . . I forget his name. He slipped into the office one day like a bill collector. I remember that he was a little man who carried an umbrella. Once he wrote me a letter. Perhaps I have both of these gentlemen wrong. Perhaps they are highly efficient in their own offices. But they are not what we would call ‘heavy’ men.
“Meanwhile, the army had advised me not to attempt to work up the program until the first of December – sound advice which wasn’t altogether necessary, because we didn’t know where anybody would be on Christmas Day.
“At that time it seemed impractical to attempt to broadcast from any army post, so we tentatively reserved a large security studio in the Criterion Theater – a studio from which we would be able to broadcast even though an air raid might be on at the time. We also made an informal survey of available talent.
“Three weeks ago I went down into the country to line up my foot soldiers. The week before an order had been published starting that London would be out of bounds for American soldiers not actually stationed here on Christmas Day, an order which meant that we would have to obtain special travel orders for anyone coming to London to take part of the broadcast.
“That would not have been an insurmountable difficulty. But I discovered on reaching the area where the troops we are interested in were billeted, that the whole outfit had been alerted to move on Christmas Day in connection with a training exercise. In as much as they are located a full day’s journey from London, this didn’t look so good.
“We also ran into the Christmas party difficulty. All bands were booked for Christmas parties, and we were told definitely that we could not take away any of their music.
“I spent a week – a miserably cold week, riding in jeeps, literally burning the seat out of a pair of breeches trying to get warm one night against a gas grate – touring a remote portion of rural England through which troops were scattered. Quite by accident I discovered that the gymnasium of a British garrison at which one unit had been quartered was wired for broadcasting.
“Long ago the BBC had used a British band there. And after an anxious day or two of dim telephone conversations over the English party lines I persuaded the BBC to broadcast a part of the program from this gymnasium.
“Next came the problem of transporting many of the soldiers whom we needed to this garrison. We finally arranged that, too. I forgot to say that we had learned in the meantime that some of the troops would not be on the move Christmas Day.
“That took care of the ground forces. The air corps was another problem. The fields in which we were interested are in an entirely different part of England. It would have been impossible to get both air and ground forces to the garrison gymnasium in question. Again we had a tacky break. We found that one of the fields had a direct line that we could use for broadcasting. And after some more complicated negotiations we arranged with the BBC to have the air corps part of the program piped out of this field.
The Busy BBC
“I say we arranged this and we arranged that. We had only the word of the BBC. During the two weeks before Christmas the BBC rang us up almost daily to tell us that ‘something terrible had happened’ and that they were ‘afraid’ they couldn’t go through with it.
“Sometimes it was a matter of equipment. Sometimes it was a matter of technical crews – they were so busy with other programs scheduled for Christmas Day that ‘they couldn’t possibly’ transport necessary equipment over the long distances involved.
“If I were permitted to name the geographical locations involved, it would be easy for you to understand this. As late as December 20 there was still great uncertainty about one station. And to solve our difficulties it was necessary to invoke the name of ‘Haley.’ Haley is the editor in chief of the BBC, a close friend of Mr. Patterson and other Sun people, and former general manager of the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News.
“On the afternoon before Christmas, when we met our final crisis – what appeared to be a final and definite decision on the part of the BBC that it would be impossible to broadcast from the airfield – Haley was reported ‘out of the country on a confidential mission.’ But, thank God, he has a secretary – and a good one.
“She went over the heads of the department with which we were dealing, put the bee on the man who bosses the BBC lines and circuits, and he, God bless him, granted us a special dispensation.
“Both the United States Army and the BBC were amazed by the power and prestige exercised by the London Bureau of the Baltimore Sunpapers on this occasion. Even after the line boss had given us the all-clear signal, they told us it couldn’t be done.
“It would interfere with an army broadcast.
“It would interfere with the King’s message.
“It didn’t, in the end. But they said it would.
“Then came the scripts. The army had given us to understand that they would do that for us. When we told them that we had definite ideas as to whom we wanted on the program and what sort of a program we wanted, they told us we’d have to work it up ourselves. They couldn’t guarantee us the sort of local talent that we wanted. It was too much trouble. The navy also folded up on us.
Not So Simple Joe
“I got Bradley started off on the foot soldier script, which he worked out with a special services officer and Jean Lowenthal.
“Bradley did a swell job, too. He ran into all sorts of mine fields and came through. I went out to the airfields to get the flyers. But last Sunday night I had the Air Corps’ scripts in shape. And Wednesday night Bradley arrived in town with the foot-soldiers’ script. These had to be edited, censored, checked for police, approved for security, mimeographed and distributed to various agencies. Maybe that sounds simple. But try it some time in London when there’s a war on!
“By Friday morning we were set – as far as scripts were concerned. But I was mighty jittery about the airmen in our script. They were going off on missions almost every day. And every night I had to recheck by telephone – by British telephone – to make sure they had come home safely.
“The British telephone system normally operates in wartime like a local company on the lower Eastern Shore during a record-breaking blizzard. My long years of apprenticeship as a rewrite man on The Evening Sun stood me in good stead.
“Meanwhile, there was the matter of that alternate program you wanted. And, Pal, I know how much you must have wanted it – faced with the possibility of having to talk for an hour. We got that off to you early last week. But unfortunately we headed our cable and wireless dispatches with an embargo, ‘NOT to be published before 1645, December 25,’ and when the overworked wireless and cable companies saw that, they stuck our dispatches on the hook – they didn’t see any reason to rush them.
“Toward the end of the week the cables were jammed – paralyzed with the Government priority stuff. Western Union was running 15 hours behind time. It was profanity – sheer profanity – shouted at them by the Baltimore Sun via telephone at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning that finally moved our stuff.
“I never did receive an acknowledgement as to whether you received the stuff. But early in the morning of December 24 they assured me that everything had cleared – that they had even duplicated part of one dispatch in their eagerness to serve us. I trust they reached you in time, although that doesn’t seem to have mattered now.
Sleepless Christmas Eve
“Bradley went back to the country Friday. O’Neill was all tangled up with Sergt. James Weinberg’s Christmas party. Weinberg asked that Baltimoreans send gifts for British children and he later gave a party for them.
“I was calling all over England to make sure that certain pilots had had their proper orders, that they would pick up certain Red Cross gals at prearranged rendezvous. The Red Cross had not been too helpful – and they wanted to censor the script in so far as it involved their people. I have no recollection of having gone to bed at all Friday night (Christmas Eve). In fact, I remember nothing but telephoning and telephoning and telephoning with the exasperating assistance of a lot of the cheerful rural telephone operators who wanted to carry on informal and unnecessary conversations. Never in my life have I encountered so many busy lines.
“At 10 o’clock in the morning I was at the airfield – cheered but not altogether convinced by the news that no planes had been lost in the Christmas Eve mission over the rocket coast.
“At noon I called Bradley. One of his quartettes was missing but he was otherwise in fairly good shape. The BBC crew had arrived and was setting up. (The previous day the BBC had set us crazy with inquiries about microphones, feeding arrangements for their men, and control men at remote points.)
“Early in the afternoon Bradley had marshaled all but one of his men. About 2 o’clock mine began to show up. By 3:30 they were all present and accounted for – most of them seeing the script for the first time. We went through a series of dry runs. Bradley had five rehearsals. We had four, did a lot of cutting and last-minute revision, as far as that was possible within the restrictions of censorship.
“I had personally interviewed all but one of the men on the air force program, and that one turned up with an impossible stammer. Ben Lyon (Maryland-born former film star who acted as master of ceremonies) was sweating blood. We threw out the orchestra. It was too lousy.
“The BBC moved in a couple of tons of equipment – so much that they had to set up in a mess hall some distance from the room in which the microphone was located. At 1700 GMT (1 P.M. Eastern War Time) we were going through our last rehearsal. We had tried to keep the lads from drinking – at least from drinking too much. But one of our key men had slipped in several quick ones to bolster him up. And when his turn came Ben had to ask and answer most of the questions himself.
“At 1705 we could hear Bradley’s band swinging it – but there was no cue! We hadn’t been able to hear any of the first 20 minutes of the program – only the last few moments. Ben and a BBC man were listening frantically with a pair of earphones.
“People were shouting, ‘Where’s the cue? Where’s the cue?’ and a substitute pianist we had run in at the last moment was asking ‘Just when do I begin?’ when a runner arrived from the mess hall to tell us, ‘You’re on the air!’
“Well, it sounded like hell to me, particularly the key man whose belly was full of quick ones. But somehow we got through.
“I’m not sure what you heard. Because doors were opening and closing. The air corps was coming in and going out. Guys were shouting: ‘Oh, . . . I ruined it!’ Ben Lyon was standing on his head, waving his feet for silence. I was cold sober. But I couldn’t tell you just where I was or what I did.
“At 1735 I Died”
“I have vague recollections of having run up and down long corridors, tripping over miles of electric cable, shoving people into strange rooms and closing doors on them. It was a madhouse. Engineers on telephones, swearing at London, London swearing back over that lost cue and insisting that they had faded things to cover up nicely. I don’t know. At 1735 I died.
“Major Kenneth Reecher, of Hagerstown, revived me with a stiff drink that was not water. I reached for the earphones, lying on the floor by that time and being walked over by the air corps – the earphones, not McCardell lying on the floor. And I heard Bradley’s band. Then someone pulled the plug and it was all over as far as we were concerned.
“Driving back to London, Ben didn’t say much, except that he felt five years older than he had that Christmas morning. I felt a hundred and five. For I was sure we had fluffed it. I went to his house for many drinks and a Christmas dinner and cried on the incomparable Bebe’s shoulder, lost consciousness a second time, made a speech (I’m told) and stumbled home, a mile and a half across blackout-out London, on foot. The underground had stopped running. There were no cabs.
“O’Neill was sitting up with the corpse at the office. At 1 A. M. he was still without word from Baltimore. I knew we had bungled it. All day Sunday I kept calling the cable offices, hoping to hear the worst. Price Day arrived shortly after breakfast time. We wandered around all day, me trying to forget.
Kind Words From The Bosses
And Monday morning, when Baltimore finally came through with three magnificent (delayed) acknowledgements from Swanson (Neil H. Swanson, executive editor of the Sunpapers), Mr. Patterson and Harry C. Black (chairman of the board of the Sunpapers) . . . I still don’t believe it. They just try to be nice. I haven’t yet worked up nerve enough to go around to the BBC and listen to the recordings which they tell me they made.
“You can have your radio. I never want to have anything to do with it again. Please, God; I’m just a reporter. If it did come through you can thank the BBC, which, I must admit, did handsomely by us in the bitter end. I guess it’s just one of those great organizations that I can’t appreciate.
“Don’t Be Too Harsh”
“Until Bradley got back to London this afternoon I had been out of touch with him since noon Christmas. He had been out in the field somewhere, beyond reach of even the British telephone system. He, too, looks much older. And he tells me he didn’t have a very merry Christmas. I thought that maybe, when it was all over, I could get good and drunk and go to sleep again. But I seem to have lost the knack. Maybe I’ll feel better when I get to Africa. I couldn’t feel any worse.
“So, whatever the truth may be regarding the outcome of the Sunpapers Christmas broadcast, don’t be too harsh in your judgment. Pal, we done our best. May there never be another! Yours. LEE.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun