Radio - wartime relief

Radio swept the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, providing news and entertainment to a broad swath of Americans at a time when TV was in its infancy. Radio, then a wonderful new technology, benefited troops stationed in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack, including Jim Muri and his best friend in the 22nd Bomb Group ranks, Merrill Thomas “Jo Jo” Dewan.

By February 1942, when the pair arrived at Hickam Field as members of the 22nd contingent aboard a ship convoy from San Francisco, they could get some relief from the devastation caused by the attack they saw everywhere. 

Hey buddy, Jim might have said to Jo Jo on an evening in early spring 1942, let’s see if we can pick up the Glenn Miller band on the radio. Or Kate Smith.

Muri and Dewan could choose from several radio stations broadcasting from Honolulu, including:

KGU-AM, Hawaii’s first commercial broadcast station, which went on the air on May 11, 1922. The 500-watt station occupied the 833 kHz frequency, the only AM broadcast frequency licensed then. KGU moved around on the dial, to 1110 and then to 940 before settling at 750 ion January 1933. By then, KGU’s power had increased to 2,500 watts. KGU was the NBC (National Broadcasting Company) affiliate in Hawaii; its transmitter was located in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper building.

KDYX-AM, KGHB-AM, KGMB-AM, sponsored by the competing Honolulu Star-Bulletin, began broadcasting as KDYX on May 11, 1922. That call sign ended in 1924, and the station became KGHB. The station’s name lastly became KGMB, which eventually was a 1,000-watt station originally located at 1320 kHz. Finally, KGMB took the 590 frequency.

Muri and Dewan could listen to some of radio’s biggest names as they prepared for battle against the Japanese. According to the Star-Bulletin (Oct. 25, 1941), KGMB kicked off “a brilliant new season of radio’s favorite shows.” The lineup included Al Pearce and His Gang along with “the beginning of the return march of such outstanding stars as Kate Smith, Helen Hayes, Edward G. Robinson, Ona Munson, Mr. Meek and other CBS personalities.”

It wasn’t just radio’s professionals who got air time. Soldiers stationed in Hawaii got a chance to exercise their pipes and play their musical instruments, too, in early March 1942.

“A half hour after you’ve turned out the lights (due to blackout rules) next Saturday night, twirl your radio dial to KGMB and catch the army’s first half hour Victory Jamboree!” the Star-Bulletin said in an invitation to its readers on Feb. 26, 1942.

The story said Lt. Col. W.W. Jenna, Hawaiian department recreation and morale officer, put out word that his office wanted talent — and he got an impressive response.

“He was flooded with letters — 157 of them,” the newspaper reported.

The correspondents included a soldier who formerly sang with the La Scalla opera company. Another letter-writer was program director of the Brooklyn Broadcasting Co. before he entered the service, and other soldiers offered hillbilly routines. One private said he could “make a saxophone cry in six languages.”

Jenna filed the replies for the future, and then Nita Benedict, KGMB staff announcer, approached him with an idea: “How about a Victory Jamboree — soldier talent only?

“Put it on the air for the service men and civilians. Write a skit, get the man with the wonderful sax. Civilians in Honolulu would like to hear the army’s talent,” Benedict said.

Thus, the Victory Jamboree came into being, an event sponsored by the Hawaiian Electric Co. and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association. Auditions were held before a studio performance at 12:30 p.m. on the day of the show, to which the public was invited. The show aired from 8-8:30 that night.

Muri, Dewan and their friends in the 22nd could have listed to that broadcast and other programs on console-style tube radios then common in many homes and other living quarters. Or they might have tuned in after buying a relatively affordable, relatively portable radio such as the Philco model 40-81T. This compact four-tube radio, with a handle for easy carrying, was introduced in 1940. It ran on batteries and cost $17.45.

Did radios like this make it to Midway before the battle? Who knows? Perhaps some of the Army airmen, Navy flyers and Marines sent to Midway in April and May 1942 brought along radios. If so, the sets would have provided welcome entertainment to young men waiting and wondering when war would become real to them.

It’s likely that Honolulu radio stations had the broadcast range to reach the Midway atoll, 1,100 miles away at the far northwest end of the Hawaiian island chain. Historical events support this theory. First, in July 1937, KGMB’s signal was used in an attempt to direction find and locate aviator Amelia Earhart, whose plane was lost in the South Pacific during her around-the-world flight. Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, as the Japanese navy approached Pearl Harbor and prepared to attack, the enemy fleet used signals from KGU and KGMB for direction finding and navigation towards Hawaii.

The U.S. Army understood the value of civilian radio for its purposes, too. KGMB broadcast during limited hours of the day but honored requests from the army to go on the air during off periods to help bombers flying in from the West Coast navigate to Hawaii.

While there’s no conclusive way to say Dewan or Muri had radios of their own in Hawaii or, in Muri’s case, in Midway, a May 8, 1942, entry from Dewan’s diary (later turned into a book by his son, Tom) offers a clue that the men likely listened to the radio even if they didn’t own a set themselves.

By the time of the diary entry, the pals had been separated. Dewan and the main body of the 22nd flew to Australia where their missions involved preventing Japan from conquering more of New Guinea than it already had overrun. Muri had been held at Hickam, and in three weeks, on May 29, 1942, he, his crew and three other B-26 pilots and their crews would get orders to fly to Midway for their date with history.

Dewan had arrived in Australia on May 2 and had just been sworn in as a first lieutenant, Muri’s rank at the time. Dewan’s group flew to Townsville in northern Australia and then to “a little old field way back in the woods,” he wrote in his diary.

Camped on the banks of a large stream, Dewan’s group enjoyed a “swimmin’ hole” where the men could also bathe, wash clothes and fish.

“The boys built themselves an Officer’s Club way back in the woods,” a log building with a bar where the men took turns as bar tenders, selling beer, scotch whiskey and soft drinks.

“We have electric lights in it and bought ourselves a radio for it,” Dewan said, describing the makeshift club as a place to relax, listen to the radio, have a drink and play cards at log tables.

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