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Back Story: World War II Sun program found, will be rebroadcast

For 70 years, two reddish-colored 16-inch vinyl records rested undisturbed in a large cardboard box in the publisher's vault in the basement of The Baltimore Sun building.

The box was shipped by Railway Express from the Newark Phonograph Record Co. in New Jersey to "WFBR, Radio Centre, Baltimore" and was covered with several labels: PLEASE RUSH. BROADCAST RECORDS. KEEP AWAY FROM HEAT. STAND ON EDGE.

Further information on the box explained what they were. The two records, each 30 minutes long, were copies of a Dec. 25, 1943, Christmas broadcast that was sponsored by The Sunpapers.

It featured soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division and Army Air Forces as well as women from the Red Cross sending messages to loved ones at home. It was broadcast from two bases "somewhere in England," through arrangements with the Army Special Services and the British Broadcasting Corp.

The one-hour live trans-Atlantic Christmas Day broadcast was aired locally by WFBR and nine other radio stations across Maryland as well as stations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. It started at 5:45 p.m. British War Time, or 12:45 p.m. Eastern War Time in Baltimore.

The program was the brainchild of Sun war correspondent Lee McCardell, who was assigned to the 29th Division and had suggested it in early 1943 to Paul C. Patterson, president of the A.S. Abell Co., publishers of The Sun, when he had visited England.

Patterson left all of the arrangements to McCardell and two other Sun war correspondents in England: Holbrook Bradley and Thomas O'Neill, chief of the newspaper's London bureau.

The show allowed men and women serving in the armed forces and the Red Cross, mainly from Maryland, to say hello to the folks back home gathered around Philcos, Zeniths and Atwater-Kents. It was hosted by Hollywood movie star Ben Lyon, an Army Air Forces colonel.

While McCardell fretted over the broadcast and was ever fearful of mistakes, it was a smashing success, with The Sun's switchboard jammed at its conclusion. The next day the paper printed a full transcript for those who had missed it.

In a post-broadcast article, McCardell wrote, "You can have your radio. I never want to have anything to do with it again. Please God: I am just a reporter."

Paul McCardell, The Baltimore Sun's researcher, found the box last year and showed it to Steve Sullivan, the newspaper's multimedia editor.

"We never lost it; we just rediscovered it," said McCardell, who is no relation to Lee McCardell. "For 70 years, no one did anything with it."

McCardell and Sullivan began talking to editors hoping to plan a 70th anniversary rebroadcast as well as possibly locating some of the 55 men and women who took part as well as their families.

They still hadn't listened to the recording and had no idea to its quality but heeded another labeled warning: "Use with 21/2 ounce pressure on needle point. 33.3 speed."

They called radio stations, which no longer had the equipment required to play 16-inch records, when McCardell thought to call the Library of Congress. The library recommended Aaron Coe, owner of Archival Sound Labs in Bethesda, who made three audio CD copies.

"On the first pass, we thought it might cost lots of money to make copies, but he did it for $61.50," said Sullivan.

"I was so nervous about those records that I wouldn't entrust them to the mail, so I drove them to and back from Bethesda," recalled McCardell.

Then the two men started the hunt for those who had appeared on the broadcast that day. They were aided in their quest by Glenn Johnston, an archivist at Stevenson University who also teaches a public history course.

"We gave Glenn lists of names, and he and his group started digging into them," said Sullivan, who said the effort turned up two original broadcast members.

He located Charles Irwin, 95, a lifelong Bel Air resident and retired banker who sang "My Postman's the Man in the Moon," which had been written by Capt. Thomas Van Arden Dukehart, who could not participate in the program. Instead, Dukehart had Irwin sing the song as his wife and son Tad listened from their home on Longwood Road in Roland Park.

The other person was Sarah S. Woods, 98, a former Red Cross Doughnut Girl who now lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

There was still a great deal of uncertainty about the outcome of the war in 1943. The Allied landings in France were six months away and would be followed by the costly march across Europe that culminated in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

"It is an historical nugget," said Sullivan, who added that after hearing the recording many times, it still moves him to tears. "It is about a generation that is largely no longer here anymore."

"It brings a time and people back to life," said McCardell. "It was hidden for 70 years, but now it has a voice again."

To mark the broadcast's 70th anniversary, WYPR-FM will air the program in its entirety at noon Dec. 20, during the first hour of "Midday with Dan Rodricks," with a rebroadcast scheduled for noon Christmas Eve.

The show will also be available on baltimoresun.com on Dec. 20. You can hear the entire show, see video interviews with family members of some of the show's participants and an interview with Charles Irwin. There will also be a photo gallery and stories from The Sun archives about the show. You can find the presentation at baltimoresun.com/1943show.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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