03 Oct History in Audio Form: The D-Day Broadcast of George Hicks
“Here we go again; another plane’s come over, right over our port side. Tracers are making an arc right over our bow now. … Looks like we’re going to have a night tonight.” The sound of anti-aircraft fire fills the night air of the English Channel. In the excitement the normally unflappable reporter lets go a shout of enthusiasm, revealing beyond a shadow of a doubt what side he supports in the ongoing battle. “Give it to them, boys!”
A few seconds later he narrates an attacking German plane going down in the channel. Victory had been won—for the moment, anyway.
It was just minutes after midnight on June 7, 1944. The reporter was George Hicks, a famed broadcaster for NBC’s Blue Network (a forerunner of today’s ABC). He had been assigned as a pool reporter aboard the USS Ancon, a communications ship off of the coast of Normandy.
His mission: report on the top-secret invasion codenamed Overlord. His equipment: an innovative sound recorder known as a Recordgraph, preserving sounds on a long-forgotten medium called Amertape. The Recordgraph was more reliable and portable (sort of—it weighed 50 to 75 pounds depending on configuration) than any previous recorder. For news reporters or anyone trying to preserve the sounds of an event, the Recordgraph was simply groundbreaking.
The US Navy acquired several Recordgraphs early in WWII, intending to record the sounds of battle and communications between ships. But as D-Day, the most anticipated operation of the war, drew nearer, the Navy agreed to loan some machines to the press. For the first time, civilians on the homefront would actually hear combat in (almost) real time.
Hick’s acclaimed broadcast became one of the most famous of the war. Imagine for a moment you are in 1944, and a loved one has been stationed in England. He may be part of the invasion that was announced a few hours ago, so you’ve been following the radio reporting all day and night. But you’ve heard almost no specifics, because so little is known about the progress of the battle, even by the military commanders.
Then, just before midnight on D-Day, a broadcast recorded some eleven hours earlier reaches you, by way of Hicks’ Recordgraph and shortwave radio to your local station.
You listen to his encouraging report, heartrate increasing. It’s hard news narrated, complete with a German air attack turned away. He’s there on the spot watching it happen, and for a moment you are as well. You’re still concerned about your brother/son/father who may be in combat, but for the first time all day you feel something new: Hope. Success seems less remote. As Eisenhower said earlier in a recorded message, “The free men of the world are marching to victory.” You just heard it happening.
It’s little wonder Hicks’ iconic D-Day broadcast from aboard the Ancon was called at the time “the greatest recording yet to come out of the war.” In 2012, it was enshrined in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
This week, the National D-Day Memorial accepted a significant donation from Bruce Campbell of Florida: an archive of documents, photos, and objects reflecting the career of Albert Stern, an innovator in recording technology for most of the 20th Century. Stern’s firm, the Frederick Hart Co., produced and marketed the Recordgraphs of WWII, and in his archives are original Amertape recordings of Hicks’ D-Day broadcast, as well as numerous other wartime reports. It is a veritable treasure-trove of history which adds immeasurably to our collection.
You’ll be hearing more about Mr. Campbell’s donation in the future, but for now you can also read about it in this article from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/01/antique-audiotape-was-mystery-then-researcher-got-it-play-it-was-dispatch-d-day/?fbclid=IwAR2zVwTAsTKpp9JSVBXcTGADAgJ1_8S-ZXj7C-_hh0Pq_cv3ypsW-nHebYA