Recordings give life to infamy of Dec. 7, 1941
J. David Goldin holds one of his 16-inch glass disc recordings that were made in Pittsburgh during the 1940s. His home archives include thousands of various recordings.
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Pittsburgh residents listening to their radios in the middle of a chilly Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7, 1941, had their choice of five programs on the AM dial.
Four stations were playing music and the fifth offered poetry readings.
One person, a mystery man named Robert Dixon, had a couple of favorites. He liked Bernie Armstrong, the music director at KDKA, who played the organ from 4 to 4:30 p.m. at 1020-AM. And on WCAE 1250-AM, the Pittsburgh Symphony Concert featured Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and Beethoven's Third Symphony.
Mr. Dixon recorded them both.
"Imagine," said J. David Goldin, a rare-record collector and the founder of Radio Yesteryear. "He's sitting in his home recording these programs, and the bulletins about Pearl Harbor come in."
"Japan's game became crystal clear today. Her desire was war, war with the United States. The peace talks now appear to have been just a subterfuge, an attempt to gain time for her fleet to sail within battle range of American bases in the Philippines. The blow struck the American public with lightning-like suddenness. Entirely unsuspecting and apathetic to the brewing war clouds, the public entered another calm weekend ..."
-- news bulletin heard over Pittsburgh radio station WCAE
Today, these rare recordings are housed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where they are part of the Miller Nichols Library's Marr Sound Archives, used by researchers, teachers and history buffs to follow the American experience as reflected through recorded sound.
"One of the things we're known for is incorporating audio into our digital online library projects. It provides young people with primary source material, sound recordings of the day," said Chuck Haddix, director of the archives. "The 'Voices of World War II' site is our most ambitious. It is driven by the audio."
The first Web page of the project, started in 2001, was the Pearl Harbor page, with sound bites from news bulletins of the Japanese attack on the American fleet stationed in Hawaii. Other additions, including President Franklin Roosevelt's "Infamy" speech and coverage of World War II, were added over the years, along with music from the era.
"It's a very popular site," Mr. Haddix said. "There's nothing like it up on the Web that allows users to experience the war as those who lived through it did. Through radio. There's a real immediacy to radio."
There are 12 audio clips in the Web site's Pearl Harbor section. Five of those excerpts were recorded in Pittsburgh, by a man named Robert Dixon.
"The Japanese have drawn first blood. The attack was a complete surprise. At Pearl Harbor, only minimum forces of the Army and Navy were on Sunday morning duty. A pall of heavy black smoke hung over Pearl Harbor. ..."
-- news bulletin heard over Pittsburgh radio station WCAE
None of the people involved in the "Voices of World War II" project knows who Robert Dixon was. But he was passionate about recording, and those recordings have provided a few clues.
Mr. Dixon made almost 14,000 recordings, all on 16-inch black glass discs that cost $3 apiece during the 1940s. Each grooved disc, similar to a long-playing phonograph record, could store 15 minutes of sound on each side.
"They're really one-of-a-kind," Mr. Goldin said of the recordings he donated to the project in 2001. "If they broke, they'd be lost forever. Nobody else recorded these. Not even KDKA."
The discs, sealed in more than 150 wooden crates that were labeled with dates and nailed shut, were found years ago in the basement of a Pittsburgh-area house by a real estate agent who sold them to a rare-record dealer in Maryland. That dealer later sold them to Mr. Goldin, who transported them to his Connecticut home on July 4, 1992.
"Most of these crates had never been opened," said Mr. Goldin, who has spent decades collecting rare recordings. "[The discs] were recorded once and never listened to again. They're all in mint condition. And none of the discs have labels on them. He wrote notes on the paper sleeves. He'd write 'KDKA 9:30 p.m. Charley McCarthy Show. Part One' or 'Democratic National Convention, 1942, Part 17.' That kind of thing."
Mr. Goldin said most of the recordings were of national network broadcasts, such as "The Jack Benny Show." Only about 15 percent were of local Pittsburgh programming, sponsored by Duquesne Beer or the Otto Milk Dairy.
Therein lie some hints as to who Robert Dixon was. Mr. Goldin, who has listened to many of the discs, said Mr. Dixon rarely interjected his own voice into the recordings. On a few occasions he mentioned his wife or spoke to guests to whom he was showing his sound equipment. Only once did he identify himself, and he never said where he lived. It was the local programming, the clarity of the signal, and the story of where the crates were found that placed him in or near Pittsburgh.
"I picture him in a private house, in the basement in all likelihood," Mr. Goldin said. "Pittsburgh is hilly, so he probably had an outside antenna, a wire rising up to the roof.
"And this guy was a professional. He knew what he was doing. And if he was an amateur, he never would have used 16-inch discs. He was an audiophile way before his time."
He probably was much more than a hobbyist, perhaps even an engineer, Mr. Goldin said. And this collection was more expensive than most hobbies. Not only were the discs costly, but the equipment -- much of which must have been state-of-the-art -- wasn't cheap, either.
"And he took care of it," Mr. Goldin said. "This machinery was temperamental. If it hadn't been maintained, the sound would be flawed."
"They were cared for very well," Mr. Haddix said of the recordings. "They were not exposed to extreme heat or humidity variation, which would have caused them to break down. They're in good shape.
"Whoever he was, he liked big bands," Mr. Haddix said of Mr. Dixon. But big bands were all the rage, so he was not unique in that regard.
The recordings, however, are unique.
"As to the watch over the Japanese community, it's interesting that we learn that on the Atlantic coast in New York and in Norfolk, special watch, police watch has been put over the Japanese, there are very few Japanese there to watch. Here on the Pacific coast, where there are more Japanese than anywhere else, so far, we have no word whatever of anything untoward having happened. I think we can take the word of the local San Francisco consulate general that the Japanese community has been totally surprised by this action and so far there is no indication here whatsoever that any sabotage has broken out or that any Japanese spies or saboteurs were warned in time to go into action. ..."
-- news bulletin heard over Pittsburgh radio station KDKA at 4:30 p.m. local time
"People got their news through radio in those days," Mr. Haddix said. "Newspaper, as well, but radio had that immediacy. People spent World War II glued to their radio because that's how they got their news.
"[Mr. Dixon] was documenting history. It's a way we remember. It brings the history to life. It's not a word on a page. It's a voice from the past."
"It's strange how a piece of Pittsburgh wound up in Kansas City," Mr. Goldin said. "And whoever Robert Dixon was ... gee, I'd love to know. Who was he and why in heck did he record these things? God bless him."
To hear the reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor the way Pittsburghers heard them 66 years ago, go to library.umkc.edu/spec-col/ww2/index.htm.
First Published December 7, 2007 12:00 am