Twenty-five years ago, a man in Mattituck, New York, came across a collection of audiotapes in his basement and put them aside for a rainy day. Years later, when he finally investigated the tapes, he found that he was in possession of original recordings of some of the most important broadcasts of World War II.
As Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, the man, 63-year-old Bruce Campbell, now of Loxahatchee, Florida, decided to donate the collection of tapes and assorted artifacts to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Most notable in the collection is a dispatch recorded by American war correspondent George Hicks on D-Day.
Hicks, the London bureau chief for the Blue Network (a predecessor of ABC), was reporting from the U.S.S. Ancon. The Ancon, which served as a communication ship in the D-Day invasion, was among 5,000 ships that traveled across the English Channel to France carrying troops, supplies and in this case, a bold journalist toting a tape-recording machine called a Recordgraph.
The ship was stationed off the coast of Normandy when the Nazis began to attack the Allied troops from the air. The recording captures the sounds of gunfire, aircraft and shouting interspersed with Hicks’s commentary. At one point, Hicks and others aboard exclaimed “we got one!” as a German plane fell from the sky in a fiery blaze, according to the Post.
Hicks’s D-Day broadcast is known as one of the best audio recordings to come out of World War II, but only copies of the recording were available before Campbell’s discovery of what appears to be the original tape. The Post describes the report as “iconic and frightening,” and Campbell echoes the sentiment.
“I’m listening to this, and I feel like I’m standing on the battleship with this guy,” Campbell tells the Post of the first time he heard the audiotape. “It made my hair stand up. … This is the original media and masters it was actually recorded on.”
In full, Campbell’s basement trove yielded 16 audiotape recordings of Hicks and other famous World War II journalists, including Edward R. Murrow. The collection also included pieces of the Recordgraph machine that was used to make the recordings. That makes sense because, as it turns out, the artifacts belonged to the previous homeowner, the late Albert Stern, who was the vice president of the very company that manufactured the Recordgraph.
The Recordgraph system was first developed by Frederick Hart & Co. in the late 1930s and used to record audio on loops of cellulose acetate film called Amertape. Without a functional machine to play the antiquated tapes, Campbell initially had no clue how to listen to them. But after some research, he got in touch with a British electrical engineer and audio expert named Adrian Tuddenham. Campbell traveled to Bristol, England, in 2004, and with the help of a device created by Tuddenham, he finally heard the D-Day dispatch.
Hicks’s distinctive voice is instantly recognizable in it: “Here we go again; another plane’s come over!” he narrates. “Looks like we’re going to have a night tonight.”