Bob Hope's Christmas 1944 Broadcast to the U.S. Merchant Marine Everywhere

Featuring Bob Hope and the crew of an American merchant vessel, steam up and ready to leave for a Pacific fighting front, an outstanding radio program was presented over the NBC coast-to-coast network at 11:30 AM on Saturday, December 23, 1944 under the auspices of the United Seamen's Service. It was arranged by A. B. Larsen, USS West Coast Publicity Representative.

The broadcast was opened with Bob Hope speaking from the NBC Studio, switched to an American merchant vessel somewhere on the Pacific coast and then presented conversations between Hope and members of the crew. It closed with the ship's departure. At intervals during the broadcast the voices of carol singers could be heard. Through arrangements made by the USS, the singers moved around a West Coast harbor in a motor launch during the holiday season, singing for the crews of the various ships in the port.

Bob Hope's introduction follows:

"This is Bob Hope speaking to you from Hollywood. Three days from now we'll be celebrating Christmas here in the United States. We'll gather around Christmas trees with our children and exchange presents with those we love. Merry Christmas with stars on the Christmas tree and stars in the eyes of our kids.... and stars in the windows of our homes. Blue stars for those still at home. Gold for the men who'll be spending Christmas with God. And silver stars for the ones over there, like the boys I'm going to introduce to you in a moment.
They're Z-men. Did you ever hear of Z-men? Sounds like a gag, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Z-men are the guys without whom General "Ike's" army and Admiral Nimitz' navy couldn't live. Five thousand seven hundred of them have died from enemy torpedoes, mines, bombs or bullets since our zero hour at Pearl Harbor.

Z-men are the men of the Merchant Marine. They carry a big wad of identification papers in a book called a Z book, so they call them Z-men. They're union men, too. They work for scale. Yeah, scale! Joe Squires worked for scale. He was a seaman on the S. S. Maiden Creek. He and Hal Whitney, the deck engineer, stayed aboard to handle the lines so the rest of the crew could get away before the Maiden Creek sank under waves thirty feet high. The crew was saved. They never saw Joe or Hal again. Did anyone ever make a wage scale big enough to pay for a man's life? Joe and Hal gave theirs voluntarily. So did 5,698 others. Did anyone ever devise a scale big enough to make men brave?

Listen, it takes nerve to go to work in a hot engine room, never knowing when a torpedo might smash the hull above you and send thousands of tons of sea water in to snuff out your life. It takes courage to sail into the waters of an enemy barbaric enough to tie your hands and feet and submerge you so you can drown, like a rat, without a fight. It takes courage to man an ammunition ship after you heard how Nazi bombers blew up 17 shiploads of ammunition at Bari and not a man was ever found of the crews. I was there about that time. I'll never forget it. Neither will men like Admiral King, who said, "The Navy shares life and death, attack and victory with the men of the U. S. Merchant Marine." Yeah, it's Merry Christmas Monday for a lot of us except the boys of the Army, Navy and Merchant Marine. Our Z-men will be on the high seas or in ports far away from home, like a crew you're going to meet right now.

Before this program is over you'll hear their ship leaving with another cargo for the war zone, a cargo like 500,000 tons of vital supplies and the 30,000 troops the Merchant Marine delivered for General MacArthur in the first three weeks on Leyte. Like the 70,000,000 tons it delivered to all the fighting fronts in 1944. Seventy million tons! Ninety percent of all the war supplies we used all over the world. These boys won't be in the United States for Christmas. so the USS - United Seamen's Service - is providing them with an early Christmas party which we're all invited to attend."

At this point Val Brown, NBC announcer, picked up the program from the flying bridge of the Liberty Ship. Gathered around him, near some of the guns manned by the Navy crews that guard these Liberty Ships, were some 42 Z-men, members of the crew and some of the 26 sailors who were gunners. They were having an early Christmas party because, in a few minutes, they were due to leave for the war zone with a vital cargo. The USS had provided gifts and a Santa Claus. Overhead was what in sea language is called a Christmas tree -- a pole 15 feet high with cross bars resembling branches. At the end of each branch was a red, green or white light used for signaling other ships at sea.

The men and their ship, commanded by a Captain only 30 years old and a mate aged 20, were all easterners. The captain was Roy J. Newkirk of Rincon, GA; the Mate was Donald C. Hall of Springfield, MA. Newkirk commanded one of the 17 TNT ships that were blown up by the Germans at Bari, Italy. Fortunately he was ashore at the time. Others interviewed by Bob Hope were Bob Dowden, Navy gunner of Indianapolis, Ind.; Henry C. Bowman, Jr., Navy gunner of Jacksonville, AK., who spent 15 days in a lifeboat; Bill Redham of Bound Brook, NJ, who identified himself only as a farmer; "Whitney" Judges of Chicago, bos'n, once torpedoed; Mel Wheeler of New York City, second cook, who announced that the Christmas dinner would consist of turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed peas, cranberry sauce, celery, hot rolls and butter, hot mince pie and coffee; Troy Strickland of Brunswick, GA, Chief Engineer; and Peter Sebold of Cumberland, MD, ordinary seaman, previously in the Navy.

The program closed with the choristers singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in the distance and the lowering of Santa Claus to the dock on a cargo net. The commands of Captain Newkirk were heard as the steam winches began hauling in the line with which the ship was fastened to the dock, then the blast of the whistle as the ship began moving out, and the farewell words of Bob Hope: "Bon Voyage, men of the S. S. Liberty Ship. Merry Christmas to you and to all the merchant seamen, wherever this Christmas finds you! Merry Christmas everyone."

Source: December 1998 Newsletter Midwest Chapter American Merchant Marine Veterans, and Fall 1999 "The Ugly Duckling" News Magazine of Project Liberty Ship.