A man in uniform and a woman are drinking milkshakes.

'Paging Uncle Sam’ and finding Cy Cress

4 Aug 2020
After a career in radio and eight years working with archived sound recordings, I still think it is some kind of magic to be able to hear the past.

After listening to Paging Uncle Sam – a variety show featuring American troops stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War – Sarah Johnston dug a little deeper into one of the speakers. She managed to learn more about Cy Cress and his generous legacy to journalism in New Mexico.

Archiving radio broadcasts is an exercise in capturing that most ephemeral of things: sound waves. At some point in the past, as they were flying through the air at hundreds of metres per second, these waves were picked up and recorded by a device onto a carrier (a vinyl disc, a magnetic tape or a digital file). That can then be tucked away in an archive, thus hopefully allowing us to reproduce those sound waves at some point in the future and listen again to how the past sounded.

As I’ll describe below, the chances are incredibly slim that a moment is recorded, catalogued, understood and later heard again. Such a moment, however, happened recently.

I produce a weekly ‘Ngā Taonga Sound Archives‘ segment every Wednesday afternoon on RNZ’s Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan. I try and find a topic with some current relevance, such as an anniversary or subject which is in the news. I then select excerpts from related recordings in the Archives and talk about them with Jesse.

Hero image: An American Marine enjoys a milkshake with a New Zealand woman in Auckland’s New Ritz Bar. (U.S National Archives)

A woman is standing in front of a microphone wearing headphones. She is smiling. Behind her is a sign that reads ' RNZ'

Sarah Johnston in the RNZ Christchurch studio.

Marines in New Zealand

Early June saw the anniversary of the arrival in 1942 of the first United States military forces who were based in New Zealand for two years during World War II. Our boys were already overseas fighting in North Africa, and when Japan entered the war in December 1941 and began advancing through the Pacific, fears were very real that New Zealand could be invaded. It was no doubt a relief to many when American troops began arriving and setting up camps around Auckland and on the Kāpiti Coast north of Wellington.

A group of marines are leaning out of a train window and smoking cigarettes

U.S. Marines on board a train soon after arriving in New Zealand in June 1942. (Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: F 322651/4).

The presence of these young men had a huge impact on the life of New Zealanders on the home front, especially in Wellington and Auckland. The NZ History website sums it up beautifully:

‘For the host people, now nearly three years into the anxieties and deprivation of wartime, the arrival of thousands of well-fed young Americans with smiles on their faces, charm in their hearts and money in their pockets was like a Hollywood romance come briefly to life’.

Along with this fantastic Spectrum documentary of one woman’s memories of Wellington during the war years, we hold recordings of radio broadcasts made in New Zealand with the Americans between 1942-44.

‘Paging Uncle Sam’

Paging Uncle Sam was one such programme. It featured musical performances and messages home from U.S. forces, co-hosted by announcer Dudley Wrathall from Auckland station 1ZB, and Americans Stanley Levitt and Andy Schultz. It was recorded in front of a live audience in the fabulously Art Deco 1ZB Radio Theatre, inside the new Broadcasting House which had opened just a year earlier in Durham Street West, Auckland, in 1941.

A big band onstage with a man at a microphone

The 1ZB Radio Theatre. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 915-Album-148-19)

When the first episode of Paging Uncle Sam was recorded on several lacquer discs and sent to the Archives, the details on the disc labels simply carried the name of the programme and nothing more. None of the names of the 22 men who speak and sing in the 27-minute programme were noted anywhere. It was only by listening to the recording that we could learn these names, add them to our online database and make them discoverable for future researchers.

Who’s on the Air?

The men are introduced by one of the American radio hosts and then perform or come to the microphone. Each say a few words, and their greetings are evocative of wartime America: they tell ‘Mom and Pop’ that they are ‘having a swell time in a swell country’. Some sound painfully young. U.S. Navy Yeoman Second Class Lewis C. Smith of South Carolina sends greetings to ‘My friend Mr Coleman at the corner drug store.’ Another sends love to ‘My sweetheart, Dorothy’.

As sound cataloguers we often have to guess at names from many different backgrounds. In Paging Uncle Sam we hear James Dalbijoux of Wisconsin, George Delgato of California and Joseph Kantendreit of Ohio, possibly reflecting French, Mexican and German roots.

To verify speakers’ names and identities we can search for them on authoritative databases such as the National Library or the United States Library of Congress. However, unless the person was well-known enough to appear in newspapers or other publications, they can often be impossible to pin down – especially nearly 80 years later. But sometimes, especially with an unusual name, a random Google search can turn up the goods.

This was the case with one of the young American soldiers who spoke to announcer Dudley Wrathall that day in 1942. After a song in Spanish from George Delgato, young Cy Cress of Colorado comes to the microphone. You can hear his excerpt below.

Excerpt from Paging Uncle Sam - Episode 1, 1942.

He banters with announcer Dudley Wrathall about his time in New Zealand, describing his travels through the central North Island and the challenge of Māori places names: Whakarewarewa, Ōhinemutu and Ngongotahā. There is some of the typical ‘What do you think of New Zealand?’ line of questioning and chat about our slang, currency and table manners, all of which Cy handles with flair, until Dudley asks him ‘What do you think of New Zealand girls?’ To the audience’s amusement, Cy declines to answer, saying he has a ‘sweetheart back home’. He then sends greetings to his family and his sweetheart Mary-Ann, and that’s it – two and a half minutes of Cy Cress’s life, gone out into the ether – but also (fortunately for us) captured and etched into the grooves of a lacquer disc in the 1ZB studio.

An old newspaper clipping with the headline 'American Servicemen Novel Radio Programme'

Article from the New Zealand Herald, 28 Dec 1942. (Courtesy Papers Past)

Cy Cress During and After the War

Like so many other young Americans, Cy would soon leave New Zealand to fight in the Pacific. These young men fought in battles like Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands or Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati). The Pacific War was a brutal campaign that took thousands of lives.

There was something about his confidence in front of the microphone which interested me, and as I worked on our catalogue description of this recording, I searched the internet for ‘Cy Cress, Colorado’ to see if I could identify this nearly 80-year-old voice.

I immediately came across multiple news items from media in New Mexico, about a quiet, self-made millionaire who had left a $US1 million donation for scholarships to the Journalism School at New Mexico State University in 2017, when he passed away at the age of 96. The university’s student magazine had a feature about Floyd ‘Cy’ Cress, who had worked as a freelance journalist and travelled the world, but by living frugally had amassed an estate which allowed him to leave the generous scholarship.

Making the Connection

Professor Christa Slaton of the university was quoted as having met Cy many times over the years as he planned for his bequest and had developed a friendship with him. ‘He was sharp as a tack with a great sense of humour,’ she noted. He was also very modest and had insisted that neither his name nor his scholarship be revealed until he had passed away.

I emailed Christa, sent her the link to our recording, and asked did she think the young man recorded in New Zealand in 1942 was ‘her’ Cy Cress? She replied that not only was she sure it was him, but that he had remembered his wartime experiences in New Zealand very fondly:

‘He told me that there were two places outside the United States that that he considered as retirement locations—New Zealand and Costa Rica,’ recalls Christa. ‘I had also spent some time in New Zealand, and we shared our mutual appreciation of the beauty of the country, the kindness of its citizens, and the fascination we had with its indigenous culture. He told me that Bing Crosby recorded a song during the war that had been written by a Māori. The song is “Now Is the Hour.” I found the song in iTunes on my iPad and played it for him. His eyes glistened as he sang along with it.

‘I don’t think he ever married. When he decided to leave his estate to his caregiver and to our university, he had no remaining relatives. He is one of the most memorable donors I have ever met.’

An older man, Cy Cress, is surrounded by university staff.

Cy Cress (centre) at the time of his scholarship donation, with bank and university staff. (Scoop magazine - ‘NMSU Cy Cress’ donation helps students pay for college)

Thanks to Cy Cress’s generosity, 30 journalism students a year are now enjoying scholarships to study at New Mexico State University – and the discovery of his recording from 1942 has sparked not just this blog but also follow-up stories by NMSU journalism students. As a former journalist, I think Cy would enjoy knowing that he is still providing great news content!

Striking an Archival Connection

Being able to find and connect an overseas speaker in a 1942 recording with their subsequent life is a rarity. The odds are stacked against us being able to hear the millions of past radio broadcasts today in 2020. For a start, it is important to realise that most radio in the pre-digital era was never recorded. It simply went out live and was then gone forever. If it happened to be considered worthy of recording, that record then had to make its way to an archive. Again, many broadcasts never did. Recordings on reusable formats like magnetic tape were simply erased by thrifty broadcasters and the tapes reused again and again and again.

Once in an archive, the contents of the recording have to be listened to and described, in order to make them ‘discoverable’ in a catalogue. Most archives always have an enormous cataloguing backlog – it is a time- and labour-intensive business.

The chances of any one moment in radio not being recorded, not being archived, or not being fully described are quite astronomical. So when an archived radio moment is discovered and able to be given meaning and significance for listeners today, it is rather special.