While President Obama announced the end of the war in Iraq last week, there is still great concern that the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops is not really a good thing. In that region, weak governments tend to create vacuums for greater threats. In this case, a very determined Iran could take control of a weakened Iraq, adding to its already tremendous oil reserves - not a good outcome. So after Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq, Americans over the past 60 years have yearned for clean and victorious endings, like the one we experienced in World War II. But even in that global conflict, clean endings didn’t come without a great price.
On the evening of May 8, 1945, Americans tuned in to the CBS radio network as millions did every night during the war. A lot had happened in the previous 24 hours. The fighting on Okinawa was intense; B-29s continued to bomb Japan and Germany surrendered. The war in Europe was over. After six excruciating years and tens of millions dead, the guns fell silent and humanity breathed a sigh of relief. Norman Corwin captured that moment in time brilliantly with a radio broadcast appropriately entitled, “On a Note of Triumph.”
Sometimes it only takes a small news item to remind us how really close we are to great historic events that seem long past. Norman Corwin died Oct. 18. He was 101 years old. He was one of the greats of radio’s golden era. Of all his work - and it was impressive - the May 8 broadcast stands out.
Although its musical score seems dated today and the announcer sounds more like an old-time actor, Corwin’s genius lay in his ability to speak to the common men and women who won the victory and achieved the triumph. Throughout the 1930s, much of the world had been tricked by German propaganda into believing that the Germans really were a master race. Their very effective films and photos depicting huge rallies with rows and rows of soldiers and tanks and planes made the rest of the world question whether Hitler’s Nazi military machine could really be defeated. Now, six years later, the master race was broken, its cities destroyed, its evil leader dead by his own hand. It had come at a terrible cost, but it had been done.
“Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men this afternoon. This is it, kid! This is the day,” the announcer exclaims.
But there was also a heartbreaking moment in the broadcast that still sounds raw in its honesty. Two radio actors wonder aloud if they should knock on the door of neighbors who lost their sons in the conflict. Should they include them in their celebration or would it be wiser to leave them alone? Corwin understood that there were Americans from Maine to California who were pondering the same question at that very moment. There were more than 350,000 families who experienced this news as bittersweet.
The war with Japan would last another three months and thousands more would die, but as a country, we haven’t experienced this kind of finality in the decades since. We also forget that even with an unconditional surrender, American troops have remained in both Germany and Japan to this day. Those clean endings still require long payments.
If there is a postscript to Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph,” it may have come a little over two years later from another radio legend. On the CBS Radio evening news on Oct. 10, 1947, a relatively ordinary night, Edward R. Murrow told a brief story to America of a U.S. Army cargo ship that came into San Francisco that day. There were thousands of cargo ships that went in and out of the bay during the war, ferrying material and men. But this one was different. Its contents consisted of 3,000 brown and steel caskets, bringing home some of America’s war dead, those ordinary men that Corwin focused on.
Murrow’s script noted that there were a lot of people waiting at the Oakland Army base to start unloading. There were longshoremen and reporters and army officers. And they couldn’t help but notice a large sign that had been erected years before, now fading. “It was meant for the cheering soldiers who started coming home after the Japanese surrender. It was not without meaning today. The sign read: ‘Welcome home. Well done.’ “
Warren Kozak is the author of “LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay” (Regnery, 2009 and out this week in paperback).