The world of 1943 was so simple. Most homes had a radio receiver as their only communications media. Getting news about WWII boiled down to radio broadcasts and “Movietone Film News” if you were a movie-goer. On Christmas eve of 1943, the USO in conjunction with armed forces radio decided to bring the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby USO show to families across the United States. These special radio broadcasts united Americans with their loved ones deployed around the world.
The night before Christmas 1943, millions of Americans are sitting before their radios, their dial lamps offering a bit of cheer, awaiting a show scheduled to begin at the top of the hour. It was one of those rare media events, usually reserved for President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.”
But on that one winter night, all four major radio networks- CBS, NBC-Red, NBC-Blue, and Mutual – devoted their airwaves to a single program featuring several amateur singers and musicians, along with jokes and sketches. The radio broadcast, “Christmas at the Front,” gave U.S. audiences a real-time glimpse of soldiers and sailors deployed around the world that holiday season and allowed those service members to speak to their folks back home via the fastest-growing mass medium of the day.
Technicians had worked for months to pull off a feat thought impossible only a few years before, bringing live voices from various worldwide spots to a single point and rebroadcasting to eager listeners at home. The first Trans-Atlantic telephone cable was still a decade away; communication satellites were the stuff of science fiction. This big show depended on relatively new technology and the vagaries of shortwave signal propagation.
It was the idea of the U.S. Military, which believed real-time broadcast would be a tremendous morale boost for the fighting forces and their families back home. And when it became time to pick the show’s primary host, the choice was obvious.
Bob Hope’s network radio show commanded a large weekly audience at the time. His first film was the “Big Broadcast of 1938,” in which he introduced his theme song for hundreds of Hope’s USO shows between 1941 and 1991.
However, the first voice heard in the “Christmas Eve at the Front” broadcast is not Hope, but actor Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual radio production of “A Christmas Carol” made it appropriate that he be part of the show. He promised to take listeners “By the hand to the side of your loved ones fighting in every corner of the globe” – including Italy, North Africa, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia and China (where it was already Christmas), India, Panama, Alaska, Pearl Harbor, and even on some of the ships of “our Navy”.
Barrymore then introduces Hope, whose name is synonymous with joy, to the GI. When greeted with loud applause, Hope quips, “Thanks relatives” After a few zingers, the most challenging part of the new production begins.
The first stop is Algiers in North Africa. The signal takes a bit of time, but an unidentified voice says it is just after 3 AM as he reads from a prepared script. He tells listeners that this will be a typical day for the men working there. Next, a soldier from Sheffield, Alabama, comes on the mic and says in a deep Alabama drawl about how he and his fellow soldiers spent Christmas eve so far from home.
It is difficult for us today – accustomed as we are to high-definition live communications from anywhere on earth to imagine how impressive this short, wavering presentation was to millions sitting in their living rooms around the country. Indeed, most had heard Edward R. Murrow as he dramatically described the Nazi bombing of London live as it happened, using a shortwave transmitter. But the voice the audience heard tonight was an ordinary guy, a soldier, whose transmission wraps with, “We return you to America.” There may have been wishful thinking in those five simple words.
Bing Crosby, Hope’s usual foil and movie partner, joins the broadcast then, along with the Army Air Force orchestra with a quick chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Except for atmospheric noise and some fading, most of the remote shortwave transmissions were surprisingly listenable; others were difficult to understand as some transmission paths did not work. Nevertheless, Hope, Crosby, and the crew handled it smoothly, ad-libbing until they could verify that there would be “no bit” from that corner of the globe.
Despite expected technical hitches, this historic broadcast almost certainly accomplished its goals. Families felt a bit closer to their loved ones – more than 3.5 million Americans were deployed overseas at the time of the show – on this special night of the year.
As noted, Hope was not finished with his efforts to make wars a bit more tolerable for those who were bravely fighting them. He entertained the troops, at home and in war zones, for more than 60 years, performing in more than 200 USO shows for men and women in uniform. Hope lived to 100, and in October 1997 U.S. House Joint Resolution 75 was signed into law giving him honorary veteran status for his humanitarian work with the military.
“Christmas at the Front” can be heard today in its entirety below – blemishes and all.