A Reel Story of World War II
Fall 2015, Vol. 47, No. 3
A Reel Story of World War II
The United News Collection of Newsreels Documents the Battlefield and the Home Front
By Phillip W. Stewart
© 2015 by Phillip W. Stewart
A while back, I had a conversation with a young independent film producer lamenting the lack of specific World War II newsreel footage she needed at the National Archives.
Told by a number of her colleagues that the Universal Newsreel film collection had "tons" of World War II–related footage, she went to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and started perusing video copies in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video research room. She didn't find much, however, and went home dejected.
Somehow, she tracked me down to share her disappointment in Universal's lack of coverage of certain critical early wartime events. After she told me what she was looking for, I explained the probable reason why—fire. Back in 1978, a nitrate film fire destroyed almost three years of Universal releases that documented 1941–1943, the exact timeframe she was interested in. After that sank in, she wondered if I could suggest a plan B.
"Yep," I said, "United News . . . also known as the United Newsreel."
This motion picture newsreel covers the Allied activities of the war (and one year of postwar events) from June 1942 through September 1946. Each weekly release contains one to nine news stories and averages a bit over nine minutes in length. It has the added bonus of a complete and "swell" propaganda-type narration.
At any rate, the conversation continued for a while, but you get the idea. If you are looking for World War II–related moving images, in glorious black and white, with a wartime patriotic audio track, make sure you check out the National Archives' United News newsreel collection.
The Backstory of the Reel Story
What follows is a story of how this newsreel came to be and how to find and use the film now to help tell future generations about the Second World War.
In times of war, the manipulation of thought and emotion is considered essential to generate a high level of morale, commitment, unity, and focus within soldiers, their families, and the “home front” in general. About a month after World War II started, President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the need to convey to the American populace a more accurate understanding of six crucial aspects of the conflict: the issues of the war, the enemy’s goals and characteristics, the concept of the Allied coalition, the importance of domestic production, the role of civilians on the home front, and the realities faced by the fighting men.
To make this happen, Roosevelt established the Office of War Information (OWI) by Executive Order 9182 on June 13, 1942. This order consolidated the functions of the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, and the Division of Information of the Office for Emergency Management. The Foreign Intelligence Service, Outpost, Publication, and Pictorial branches of the Office of the Coordinator of Information were also transferred to OWI.
In other words, OWI became the official arm of government propaganda. All of the activities previously covered by the above-mentioned offices, as well as over 3,000 employees, were placed under the direction of Elmer Davis, formerly a prominent CBS radio newscaster. Davis was keenly aware of the need to interpret the President's war aims onto the silver screen in order to make the motion picture an indispensable weapon of democracy.
OWI's Reach Extended Around the World
The OWI's Domestic Branch coordinated the release of war news for distribution on the home front via its Radio Bureau. It also managed two photographic units that documented the country’s mobilization, war plant production, and women in the workforce. The branch's Bureau of Motion Pictures, through its Hollywood Office, provided a liaison with the American motion picture industry. Its job was to help coordinate the production, distribution, and exhibition of theatrical films that advanced the government's war aims.
Through its Overseas Branch, OWI launched a huge information and propaganda campaign abroad. Part of this vast effort was the production and distribution of the United News newsreel designed primarily to counter enemy propaganda and advance the Allied cause. Under the direction of the Overseas Motion Picture Division, United News was produced cooperatively by five major American newsreel firms, reportedly in 16 languages. It was not only distributed to Allied, neutral, and not-so-friendly nations scattered all over the globe, but also parachuted behind enemy lines in a German-language version. It also found its way to American audiences through non-theatrical distribution to groups like community organizations, libraries, and educational institutions.
The exact roles, arrangements, and agreements that produced the United News newsreel seem lost in the fog of history, but snippets of anecdotal evidence and some applied logic would suggest the following scenario. In mid-1942, and at OWI's request, Paramount Pictures (Paramount News), RKO Radio Pictures (Pathé News), 20th Century-Fox (Movietone News), Universal Studios (Universal Newsreel), and the Hearst Corporation (News of the Day) voluntarily formed a private, nonprofit, fully government-funded organization, named the United Newsreel Corporation.
Each newsreel company, with War Department approval, was permitted to send two civilian camera crews to the major fighting fronts. Once the 35mm film was exposed, the original footage was gathered and combined with motion pictures filmed by military combat cameramen. All of these reels were sent to the War Department for evaluation and to be censored, as necessary.
Military Review Produced Time Lag
When it was finished with its review, the military would make copies available of the approved footage to all U.S. newsreel companies, including United News headquartered in New York City. As you might imagine, with shipping times and wartime priorities, this process could sometimes take weeks or even months to complete. As a result, war-related stories released to the public were seldom considered timely.
In the meantime, United Newsreel partners would document motivational and informational stateside stories and send them to New York City where OWI personnel would review the film for content, censor it as needed, and release the approved footage back to the partners for their use. At that point, war front and home front scenes would be selected as needed to visualize the United News stories set for the next issue.
Integrating "canned" music and sound effects, occasional wild sounds, a rare sound-on-film speech segment, and an OWI-written narration in the appropriate language, the corporation manufactured 16mm prints and distributed them through the established overseas outlets of the partner companies. Further distribution was made through military and diplomatic channels in areas and to audiences not served by established nongovernment networks.
As the war continued, congressional opposition to OWI's domestic operations curtailed almost all stateside funding, and by 1944 it operated mostly abroad, where it helped to maintain Allied confidence and to undermine enemy morale. At the war’s end, President Harry S. Truman cited OWI for its "outstanding contribution to victory" and promptly abolished it, effective September 15, 1945.
The relatively short history of the OWI is marked by political intrigue, overstepped authority, and an extraordinary drive to do its part to help shorten the war. This history makes for some fascinating reading.
But the United News story doesn't end with the cessation of hostilities. In recognition of a job well done, it continued production of a weekly newsreel for oversees audiences. As soon as OWI ceased to exist, the United Newsreel Corporation reorganized into a new company, United Newsreel International, Inc., with the same partners, under the direction of the U.S. State Department. This arrangement allowed United News to provide a key component in the successful informational programs used in the occupied territories through June 1946.
Locating United News in the National Archives
According to the online National Archives Catalog (NAC), 258 1,000-foot reels of 35mm film along with boxes of production files and notes were transferred to the National Archives from OWI and State Department files sometime before 1955. The collection was officially cataloged as:
Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926–1951
Series: Motion Picture Films from "United News" Newsreels, 1942–1945
National Archives Identifier: 38905; Local Identifier: 208-UN
Creator(s): Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch. New York Office. News and Features Bureau. 12/17/1942–9/15/1945
(The dates don't agree with what is written in the above historical narrative, but I can’t comment on why or how things were cataloged 60 years ago.)
Altogether, 267 United News items are listed in the catalog. But when a duplicate story and a misidentified reel are subtracted from the list, the collection contains 265 historically significant World War II newsreels.
Each release is listed by the title of the first story in the reel. Assuming that my arithmetic is accurate, there are 1,220 individual newsreel stories in this collection. Of these, approximately 1,002 document wartime-related topics, while 218 cover postwar events. If you break it down by year of release, there were 171 stories produced in 1942, 273 in 1943, 333 in 1944, 292 in 1945, and 151 in 1946. There should be a few more, but three releases appear to be missing from, or were never transferred with, the collection.
While the individual story titles within a given issue are not listed in the National Archives Catalog, the "Scope & Content" section for each release gives a brief summary of the content. About a third of the newsreels also have online transcripts.
The subject matter of the United News stories runs the gamut of the life and times of the people, places, and events of a war-torn world. All major (and some minor) fighting fronts are covered, in the air, on the ground, and on the sea.
Allied Unity Stressed in United's Reports
The unity of the Allied nations, under the banner of "United Nations," is highlighted regularly, as are stories regarding the perils of Fascism and Nazism, especially during the first two years. Home front stories focus on multiple points, including military training, civilian war production, women in the workforce, war bond drives, and many other subjects. Postwar stories include coverage of the establishment of the United Nations Organization, the war trials, reconstruction efforts, famine relief, and anything atomic, just to name a few. Basically, if it happened and wasn't classified, it's probably shown in the United News newsreel.
For some reason, there are two separate sequential numbered groups applied to this collection: #1-212 and #1001-1051. Each appears to be in chronological release order. The first group documents June 1942–June 1946 and features stories from all the war fronts. The second group covers June 1944–May 1945 and focuses predominately on the European Theater from D-day to the German surrender.
Based on image content and script vocabulary, I believe the first group contains those issues that were released to American and other English-speaking audiences. The source of the newsreels in the second group proved elusive until I discovered a short reference to a "London Edition." These issues were produced in collaboration with the British Ministry of Information, the Free World Newsreel, and London-based representatives of exiled governments. Since all the stories in this second group feature a preponderance of Commonwealth moving images, storylines, and language (except, of course, for the one narrated in French), I believe that these reels are the surviving releases of the United News London Edition, intended for viewers in the United Kingdom. Based on a review of all the stories in the entire collection, there appears to be little overlap of story titles or shared footage between the two groups.
A Sample Transcript Illustrates Breadth of Film Coverage
To give you a better idea as to the scope of the subject matter covered in this newsreel, below is a representative "as recorded" transcript (with story titles added) of United News #95, released on March 24, 1944. The title of this reel is listed in the National Archives Catalog as "U.S. BOMBERS IN FIRST DAYLIGHT RAID ON BERLIN [ETC.]" It contains seven stories and is approximately 10 and a half minutes long (RG 208-UN-95, NAI 39002). Much of what you will read below is "propaganda style" English, and the spaces between blocks of narration are filled with music and/or sound effects.
U.S. BOMBERS IN FIRST DAYLIGHT RAID ON BERLIN
NARRATOR: Leaving trails of steaming vapor in their wake, United States bombers bound for Berlin to destroy armament industries in and around the Nazi war capital. In their first daylight mission over the heart of Hitler's fortress, American bombers, combined with British Air Forces, are pounding Germany with raids around the clock.
One propeller out a bomber limps home. In all, 68 American planes failed to return. But the next day and the next, American bombers returned in follow-up raids.
Today, squadrons like these in ever-increasing numbers are taking the war home to Germany itself.
AMERICANS HOME FROM NAZI PRISONS REPORT ON WAR
NARRATOR: Back from her fourth wartime journey of mercy, the Swedish exchange ship "Gripsholm" arrives in New York harbor. Aboard are 663 Americans, home from Nazi internment and prison camps.
Wounded soldiers, war correspondents, and diplomats are among her passenger list. They bring firsthand news of conditions in Nazi-occupied countries. Douglas MacArthur, nephew of General MacArthur, was attached to the American Embassy at Vichy.
Ralph Heinzen was Paris correspondent for an American news service.
RALPH HEINZEN: We're very glad to get home. We've been thirteen months interned in Germany and thirteen bad months for the Germans as well as for ourselves. Because in those thirteen months Germany has lost the war. They know they're whipped, but they're wondering how they're going to get out of it. Last year, Hitler has lost tremendously his prestige, particularly as a military leader. All through Europe, there's a very fierce underground warfare going on against Germany. In every occupied country of Europe, but particularly in France, there is this mighty organization of courageous patriots who are waging a war day and night against the forces of occupation.
AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE NEWS
NARRATOR: A transport plane lands at a Caribbean port. Aboard is Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, wife of the President, making the first stop in her latest tour of American Army outposts.
With General Shedd, commanding garrisons in the Puerto Rican theater of operations, she reviews troops on guard in the Caribbean.
In Australia, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, wife of the Allied Commander in the Southwest Pacific, sponsors a new destroyer built by Australian workmen.
MRS. MACARTHUR: I christen thee "Bataan," and may God bless you.
NARRATOR: And His Majesty's Australian Ship "Bataan" goes down the ways, dedicated to avenge the gallant fighters in the Philippines whose heroism will never be forgotten.
NAZI PRISONERS VOLUNTEER FOR WORK IN U.S. CAMP
NARRATOR: Nazi prisoners of war at a camp in northern United States. In full accord with the Geneva Convention, prisoners are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed. Although prisoners are not required to work, many volunteer as lumberjacks, for which they are paid 80 cents a day. A snow-shoveling detail. Prisoners keep their own camp in order.
By doing work like this in the shoe shop, captives are able to buy cigarettes and other luxuries.
War prisoners receive the same rations as American soldiers or an equivalent in their own type of food, if they prefer.
These Signal Corps pictures show a fully-equipped recreation room provided for the captives, who even have their own band. America scrupulously observes the principles of humanity in her treatment of war prisoners.
ITALIAN REFUGEES MOVED TO SAFETY BY ALLIED POWERS
NARRATOR: Officers of the Allied military government draw up plans for the evacuation of thousands of homeless civilians from Italian battle areas. At one large estate, more than 10,000 Italians found refuge from fighting zones.
Along every road in endless procession, refugees stream toward collecting stations set up by the Allied military government. Many helpless families made homeless by the German seizure of their country were forced north during the Nazi retreat. Stripped of most of their possessions, only a few were adequately clothed or fed until the Allied 5th Army landed.
Moving these helpless people from the ruins of their shattered homes is one of the great rescue achievements of the war. The real tragedy is the plight of the very young. The world into which they were born has been a world of suffering and sorrow.
Now the Allied authorities opened the way to a new haven, a haven where they may wait in safety for the day of peace. As quickly as possible, Army trucks take them to ports of embarkation.
Here, giant LSTs, landing ships built to carry huge 30 ton tanks, take on their trucks and their human cargoes for transportation to Naples, a hundred miles down the coast.
Sanctuary in Southern Italy. Here, many Italians find new hope and new lives in liberated territory.
* * *
For the sake of brevity, I only included five of the seven stories in the above sample. To watch and listen to the entire release, go to the listing in the National Archives Catalog or go to the National Archives YouTube page.
A Research Tip for Using the National Archives Catalog
If you would like to investigate the United News collection, go to the National Archives Catalog home page at www.archives.gov/research/catalog/. Type "38905" (minus the quotes) into the search box, and click "search." On the results page, look for "Motion Picture Films from 'United News' Newsreels, 1942–1945." It should be in the first position on the list. Clicking on the title will take you to the collection's series catalog page. Scroll down a bit until you see "Includes: 267 item(s) described in the catalog" and click on "Search within this series." You'll see a multipage list of the United News issues, in ascending catalog number order. If you click on the blue film frame to the left of a newsreel title, you will be able to watch that reel. As of this writing, 93 issues have been digitized for your viewing pleasure.
It should be noted that the quality of the newsreel you'll see and hear is known as a "reference video." It's a digitized copy made from an analog U-matic videotape format copy recorded in 1984 of the 35mm original film. The resulting images are usually a bit fuzzy, grainy, contrasty, and the sound is, at times, over modulated. Compounding this is the fact that these reference videotapes are now 31 years old and have been very well used. Just be aware that these reference videos are . . . what they are, and do not necessarily reflect the quality of the 35mm original footage held within the National Archives' film vault. I have seen a few stories remastered from the original prints, and the quality is superbly sharp with a well-mixed monaural audio track.
After you have completed your search, you may have found some releases or stories that the National Archives has yet to digitize and link to online catalog or its YouTube channel. Here are some options for viewing reference-quality copies.
Videos and/or DVDs of all the United News releases are available for viewing at the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video research room in College Park, Maryland. You can make your own copies, too, if you wish. If you choose to do this, it's best to send an email to the staff (firstname.lastname@example.org) in advance of your visit so they can make sure that playback equipment is available.
Another option is to hire a private film researcher to make reference copies of your selected titles and have them sent to you. For those of you outside a reasonable driving distance of College Park, this may be a viable cost option when compared to the price of an airline ticket. A list of researchers is available at www.archives.gov/research/hire-help/media.html?format=motion-pictures.
Over the last few years, the National Archives has partnered with video production and distribution companies that have produced a number of DVDs. Amazon.com is one of those partners and has the newsreels for sale and also available for video streaming.
If you happen to be a member of the educational company Alexander Street Press or the genealogy portal Ancestry.com, you have streaming access to the entire collection.
With the explosive growth of material on the Internet, and the fact that United News is not under copyright, some titles are now accessible as downloads or streaming video via various websites. Google Videos, Internet Archive, and YouTube come to mind.
Last, you may want to search the web by the story title. You never really know what's out there.
Wrapping Up: An Unseen Treasure
This country is truly fortunate to have such a rich collection of motion picture recorded history preserved in the film vault of the National Archives. However, with the possible exception of the Universal Newsreel, much of the moving image film collection is seldom seen by the general public and is, I believe, an underused historical resource. Only through articles like this one, readers like you, the enhanced use of the footage by media producers, and its increased application as a historical research tool can we ensure that the films are available for future generations. It is a collection well worth cherishing.
Oh by the way, that young producer I mentioned in the beginning—she found what she was looking for in United News. Her last email to me said, "doin' the happy dance, thanks!"
Phillip W. Stewart is an award-winning author and recipient of the J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award given by the Society of American Archivists for his work promoting motion picture film preservation and research at the National Archives. He is the author of 10 film-related books and a Prologue veteran, with three previous articles. His most recent book is titled WARFILMS: An Overview of Motion Pictures Within Military Record Groups Held in the U.S. National Archives. His website is www.pwstewart.com.