by Tim Deforest
For nearly as long as man has been waging war, he’s been taking those wars to sea. And whether on land, on sea or in the air, war leads to drama, tension and heroism—elements that can be used to create intense and engrossing stories.
Classic radio gave us many exciting tales about naval warfare. Because of the time frame covered by old time radio, the bulk of these stories are set during the Second World War. But radio also gave us stories about battles at sea from throughout history. Radio took us aboard the first ironclads of the American Civil War and to the decks of wooden ships manned by iron men. There are stories set aboard large battleships, tiny patrol torpedo boats, and submarines lurking beneath the seas.
The CBS mock-news show You Are There once took us back in time to sail with Sir Francis Drake as he battled the Spanish Armada in 1588 (August 11, 1947). In another episode, the show reported on the first battle between ironclad warships as the Confederate Merrimac fought the Union Monitor (December 26, 1948).
You Are There: Drake Defeats Spanish Armada (August 11, 1947):
You Are There: Monitor and Merrimac (December 26, 1948):
The American Civil War not only introduced ironclad ships to naval warfare, but also saw the use of primitive submarines. In the episode “Red Lanterns on St. Michaels” (August 11, 1941), Cavalcade of America broadcast a fictionalized version of a true historical event—a Confederate submarine’s attack on a Northern ship.
Cavalcade of America: Red Lanterns on St Michaels (August 11, 1941):
On June 14, 1953, Escape took us back to the early 19th Century, aboard an American warship as it cruised the Caribbean in search of a privateer. This episode, titled “Clear for Action,” is an excellent example of how effective storytelling could be during radio’s Golden Age.
William Conrad plays the commander of the American Navy frigate Panther. He’s assigned to track down and eliminate a French warship that’s been attacking American shipping in the Caribbean. But France and the United States aren’t actually at war, so he can only actually attack the Frenchie in self-defense or in defense of another ship.
It’s a tricky mission, but (after effectively dealing with a British ship attempting to press-gang some of his crew) the captain soon comes up with a plan. With the help of a merchant captain—and his pretty daughter—he lays a trap for the French privateer.
Conrad is superb in the role of captain. He exudes an air of authority and obviously expects to be obeyed, but it’s also obvious that he has earned the respect of his crew. Listen to it and take special note of his relationship with his two deck officers—to the way he switches back and forth from using their first names to using a more formal mode of address depending on the situation. And take note of how well actors Ben Wright and John Dehner, playing the two officers, quickly manage to endow their characters with individual personalities.
Then take note of the sound effects, most especially the creaking rigging in the background in nearly every scene. “Clear for Action” is a pretty straightforward adventure tale and breaks no new ground in storytelling—but it’s a wonderful example of just how well the cast and crew of Escape told stories.
Escape: Clear for Action (June 14, 1953):
Escape jumped forward to the 20th Century with two supeb stories about submarine warfare. “Up Periscope” (August 8, 1951) is set in China during the 1930s. The protagonist is an American who—discharged from the Navy for medical reasons—takes a job with the Chinese government. He’s given command of a World War I-vintage submarine in operations against the invading Japanese. He must deal with both an old, unreliable vessel and an untrained crew.
Escape: Up Periscope (August 8, 1951):
“Pressure” (March 22, 1953) is set aboard an American sub during the war as it stalks a Japanese surface ship and then endures a devastating depth charge attack.
Escape: Pressure (March 22, 1953):
Lux Radio Theater took us to war at sea several times. Its adaptation of the movie Captain Horatio Hornblower on January 21, 1952 brought Gregory Peck back to the character he played in the film-- a British captain serving during the Napoleonic Wars who must battle a ship much larger than the one he commands.
Lux Radio: Captain Horatio Hornblower (Jan 21, 1952):
"The African Queen" (December 15, 1952) was set during the First World War (with Bogie recreating his role from the movie and Greer Garson subbing for Katherine Hepburn), while “Destroyer” (March 3, 1944) featured Edward G. Robison as an aging sailor who comes out of retirement to serve during World War II.
Lux Radio: African Queen (December 15, 1952):
Lux Radio: Destroyer (April 3, 1944):
The Man Behind the Gun was a wartime show meant to honor the average soldier, Marine and sailor. It did several shows about the Navy, with this author’s personal favorite being the exciting “A PT Named Prep Joe,” broadcast on February 12, 1944.
Man Behind the Gun: Pt Name Prep Joe (Feb 12, 1944):
Suspense provided us with one of the few stories about naval warfare set after World War II. “The Log of the Marne” (October 22, 1951) is set during the civil war in China and is an excellent and exciting story of a British gunboat trapped in a river and under siege by the Communists.
Suspense: Log of Marne (October 22, 1951):
Battle Stations: Battle of the Atlantic (August 5, 1943):
Now Hear This: Operation Submarine (July 8, 1951):
Whether you are trading broadsides with an enemy ship-of-the-line in 1806, trying to survive an hours-long depth charge attack while aboard a submarine in 1943, or gaping at the sight of the first ironclad ship in 1862, old-time radio will take you through these battles, with your imagination adding visuals to the intense sounds of war at sea.
For these episodes and more, see also the compilation:
Tim DeForest has been geeking out on various elements of early 20th Century pop culture for most of his life. He is the author of several books on old-time radio, comic strips and pulp fiction. His first book—Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America--was published in 2004. Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Fiction and Literature on the Airwaves, was published in 2008. Tim also maintains a blog about comics, radio and pulp fiction.
Tim has also written magazine articles on military history and the American West. He regularly teaches several Bible studies and has served as a short-term missionary in Haiti and south Sudan.