'God Bless America' muse honored World War II effort in Charm City

August 24, 2008|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Jack Hook, longtime secretary-treasurer of Local 40-543 of the American Federation of Musicians, trombonist and connoisseur collector of old-time radio shows, sent me a tape the other day of singer Kate Smith's performance on WCAO radio in Baltimore during World War II.

"I bought the tape some years ago of wartime radio broadcasts from Radio Yesteryear, and nowhere on the liner notes does it mention Kate Smith singing in Baltimore," Hook said the other day in a telephone interview from his Towson office.

"Of course, I grew up in the war years, and every time Smith sung 'God Bless America,' it gave me goose bumps, especially when she hits those high notes. It still does," he said, adding, "During the broadcast, she honors a young war widow from Baltimore and every time I listen to it, I wonder if she could possibly still be alive."

Smith, who was known as "The Songbird of the South," became one of America's most popular entertainers. She began her Broadway career in Honeymoon Lane in 1926, and five years later, launched her national radio career with her trademark "Hello, everybody!"

In 1938, she gained enduring fame on the night of Nov. 11 - Armistice Day - when she introduced a new song over network radio, "God Bless America," that Irving Berlin had written expressly for her.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Smith during their 1939 visit to the U.S., he said, "This is Kate Smith - this is America."

During the war years, Smith traveled some 90,000 miles across the country singing "God Bless America" and selling U.S. war bonds. In one 18-hour marathon on the CBS radio network, she sold $107 million in bonds, and by war's end, had sold more than $600 million worth of bonds used by the government to finance the war.

On March 19, 1943, Smith arrived in Baltimore to christen the 10,500-ton Liberty ship SS John Howland, which was built in 32 days.

The vessel, the 107th Liberty ship to be built at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard, was named for the head of the pediatrics department at Johns Hopkins Medical School and director of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, who died in 1926.

"The singer, wearing a fur coat and orchids, was greeted loudly by the men, many of whom were seated high on cranes and construction frames overlooking the officials' stand," The Sun reported.

In response to their repeated pleas, Smith gave a rousing performance of "God Bless America" in the chilly late-winter air.

"Each completed ship holds something personal," she said at the shipyard. "In each is the purpose, the will to achieve, the will of the men and women of America to take steel and wood and paint and assemble them into a ship for our country."

After the Howland slipped down into the chilly Patapsco, Smith joined other members of the launch party and Bethlehem executives at a dinner at the Belvedere Hotel.

Later that evening, she traveled to Polytechnic Institute, then on North Avenue, for an 8 p.m. airing of her nationwide radio show, The Kate Smith Hour, broadcast from the school's auditorium.

The program also inaugurated a campaign of the War Manpower Commission that was recruiting women for civilian and war plant services.

Guests included several thousand Baltimore war workers who had perfect attendance records and had been invited to Poly for the broadcast.

Later in the show, Smith brought to the stage Jacqueline Gloria Precht, 19, whom she described as "Baltimore's youngest war widow."

As the orchestra played "One Dozen Roses" softly in the background, Smith introduced Precht.

"Usually at this point, we salute a hero of battle. Tonight our spotlight turns on a young woman whose name belongs beside those heroes on our roll of honor," Smith said in a copy of the broadcast that Hook had provided me.

"Here beside me is pretty brown-haired Jacqueline Gloria Precht, a war widow at the age of 19 who works proudly as a solderer in the radio division of Bendix Aviation here in Baltimore, Maryland.

"This young girl was stunned when the Navy announced last November the death of her husband, a naval gunner in the merchant marine. Six other members of her family are now in war production work, and Jacqueline sought war work immediately after hearing that her husband had been killed in action.

"She has become a valuable contributor to victory, and America is proud of Jacqueline Precht."

In conclusion, Smith said, "We salute her now, we offer her our thanks and as a memento of the occasion, we offer a dozen roses, the symbol of our spotlight for workers, fighters and marchers to victory."

And then Smith broke into a powerful singing of "God Bless America," as the audience stood and applauded Precht, standing quietly on the stage.

Precht's husband, Charles Eugene Precht of Halethorpe, was a member of the naval armed guard aboard the steamer SS Mary Luckenbach.

The Luckenbach, part of Convoy PQ-18 bound for Murmansk, Russia, was attacked on Sept. 14, 1942, by German warplanes off North Cape, Norway, which detonated the cargo of high explosives.

All 41 of the ship's crew and 24 Navy armed guardsmen, including Precht, died.

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