FOX19 EXCLUSIVE: Cincinnati "liar" recalls broadcasting role during WWII
CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The greatest compliment Clyde Haehnle may have ever gotten was when Adolph Hitler called him a liar.
Haehnle was among those working in West Chester at the Voice of America's Bethany Relay Station during World War II, a time when democracy itself was in danger of being defeated across the world by Hitler's tanks and air force. Even though Haehnle and his colleagues were 4,425 miles away from Berlin, they still had a major impact on the Allies' war effort. Hitler may have had his Luftwaffe bombing London into oblivion. But when it came to air superiority of the broadcasting kind, nothing could match the power of the VOA and its six 200-kilowatt transmitters.
And unlike Hitler's propaganda machine, the VOA was broadcasting the truth.
"(President Franklin D. Roosevelt) felt we had to do something very radical," Haehnle recalls, sitting inside what used to be VOA's master control rooms in West Chester. "And one of the things they did when they first formed the Voice of America, they decided they were going to tell the truth. And no propaganda whatsoever."
That meant, at first, the shortwave radio signals emanating from the Bethany Station were carrying grim news that the war was going badly for the Allies.
"Even the worst news was broadcast," Haehnle said. "The idea in that was, if we tell the truth, when the truth turns they'll believe us. And it worked."
But Hitler didn't like the truth. So he tried a little psychological warfare. Trying to convince his own people that all was not lost, he called those who worked at the Bethany Station "the Cincinnati liars."
"What did you think about that?" FOX19 asked Haehnle.
"We were proud," he said.
It wasn't an easy job, broadcasting to the world. Hitler may have been evil but he was certainly no fool. He and his Nazi government tried to jam the VOA's signals.
"He jammed it and we fought the jammers for years during the war," said Haehnle. "There were all kinds of tricks to jump the jammers. One of them was jump frequencies."
In other words, quickly change the channel your broadcasting on before the jammers could find your signal and shut you down again. Sometimes VOA engineers might only get 15-minutes or so before they were jammed again. But that gave them enough time to "get in and sell the freight," as Haehnle puts it.
But how many people in Europe were listening? No one could be sure until the VOA broadcast a request to French farmers, whose country was occupied by German Nazis. In 1943, according to former transmitter plant supervisor Dave Snyder, the VOA asked them to burn their harvest.
"And in doing so it would prevent the harvest from going on train cars right into Germany to feed the Germans and to feed the German army," said Snyder, who worked at the Bethany Station in its later years. "And so on a certain day, there was smoke from one end of France to the other end. And they realized that, yes, these farmers --- everybody --- is listening to the Voice of America."
Cincinnati even produced a star for the Voice of America --- Robert Bauer, who was already broadcasting in German on WLWO Radio from a studio downtown.
"Well, Robert Bauer actually got a knock on his door at his apartment and said you're now a sergeant in the Army and was given a uniform and shipped off to (the) New York studios," Snyder said. "So even though he wasn't a U.S. citizen at the time, he had the ability to speak so beautifully in German that they took him to the Voice of America studios, yes."
Bauer, a native of Austria, had another talent.
He could "perfectly mimic the Fuhrer," Snyder said. "He could say something with his Austrian accent and sound exactly like the Fuhrer."
Finding broadcasting stars in Cincinnati was pretty common in radio's heyday.
"Back in the 1930's, Cincinnati was behind (only) New York and Chicago in producing network national programs," said Mike Martini, a Cincinnati broadcasting historian and announcer. He's also one of the people who is instrumental in preserving the VOA facility in West Chester as a museum.
Martini showed FOX19 around the part of the museum dedicated to Cincinnati's commercial broadcasting history. It includes pictures of famous Hollywood performers like Eddie Albert of "Green Acres" fame, who performed as part of a musical group here early in his career. And of course back in the 1940's, Cincinnati was listening to the Clooney Sisters, decades before sightings of their famous nephew here would make news.
Among Martini's prized collections in the museum is the set used by Larry Smith and his puppets during their popular kids show on Channel 19 in the 1960's and 70's. Clips of some of those old shows live on through YouTube.
It's no wonder that when Haehnle worked meticulously for weeks drawing a map of how the VOA's signal from the Bethany Station reached far-flung spots around the globe, he put Cincinnati at the center of the earth.
Working in the shadows of the mighty transmitters here and learning you'd gotten under Hitler's skin, it must have felt like it was.
The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting at 8070 Tylersville Road in West Chester, Ohio, is open for public tours on the third Saturday of every month.
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