Reader’s Digest, June 1942 issue “The Fight of the Chetniks”
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The Chetniks on the Air: Broadcasts on American Radio
By Carl Savich
Draza Mihailovich and the Chetnik guerrillas created an unprecedented sensation and frenzy in the U.S. in 1942 and 1943. This is reflected in their appearance in all phases of American media. They were featured on magazine covers, newspapers, comic books, and a major Hollywood movie. It was not long before they were featured on American radio.
The U.S. Treasury Department, the Radio Section of the War Savings Staff, made a radio recording, program 101, Treasury Star Parade, “The Chetniks”, starring Orson Welles and Vincent Price with David Broekman and His Orchestra and Chorus. The script was written by Violet Atkins. The record was made by the Allied Record Manufacturing Company of Hollywood, California. It was produced by William A. Bacher, the first producer of the show, who was a writer and radio producer whose credits included Maxwell House’s Showboat and Campbell’s Hollywood Hotel series produced in 1942 and 1943.
Created by the U.S. Treasury Department to stimulate sales of war bonds and stamps, Treasury Star Parade was produced in New York and Hollywood and syndicated to radio stations across the U.S. The program recruited major writers for radio such as Arch Oboler, Neal Hopkins, Violet Atkins, and others to write “patriotic” scripts based on the scenario “if Hitler won the war, America will have to expect…”
The radio series featured major American actors from Broadway and Hollywood such as Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Lynn Fontanne, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Hull, Fredric March, Alfred Lunt, Vincent Price, and Orson Welles. Actress Jane Froman was a frequent contributor to the show. These actors and many others donated their time in producing 15-minute performances to support the war effort. Musicians such as Bing Crosby, Kay Kyser, Bob Crosby, Harry James, Xavier Cugat, Fred Waring, and Ted Lewis, were also on the show.
Treasury Star Parade was broadcast three times a week. The radio program was syndicated to more than 800 radio stations in the U.S. The 15 minute episodes sought to “personalize” the war, to bring it home and into the living rooms of average Americans, by producing melodramatic and highly emotionally-charged dramatizations of the war. The objective was to shock and galvanize average Americans and to draw listeners out of their secure shells and comfort zones. The scripts were meant to make Americans experience and feel viscerally the trauma, anxiety, fear, and psychological terror of war. Average American citizens were to experience the war via the radio to simulate what U.S. troops underwent in combat. The U.S. Treasury Department also sponsored the Treasury Salute radio program to stimulate the sale of war bonds and stamps, to buy “more than before”. Treasury Salute featured biographies of members of the U.S. military forces and dramatized real events. In the 1950s, the radio program became known as Guest Star.
In Treasury Star Parade Program 101, “The Chetniks”, broadcast in 1942, Vincent Price was the narrator while Orson Welles played Dushan, a Yugoslav who recounts the German bombing and invasion of Belgrade on Palm Sunday on April 6, 1941. He describes the Chetniks and guerrilla leader Draza Mihailovich on whose head the Nazis placed a reward of 10 million dinars. Dushan’s wife Jovana is killed in the bombing. He recounts how the Serbian Orthodox had endured 500 years of “slavery” under the Ottoman Turks. Dushan joins the Chetnik guerrillas under Draza Mihailovich. They are determined and steadfast in their resistance to Nazi occupation.
“The Chetniks” is a “story of unconquered Yugoslavia”. Dushan is a leader of Chetnik guerrillas. Their “destiny” is “to free Yugoslavia”. In the opening scene of the radio drama, Chetniks are sworn in and take the oath or pledge. Their goal is to free Yugoslavia of the Nazi occupation troops “and God lives again in Yugoslavia”. When you join the Chetniks you are regarded as dead, striking your name from the list. Chetniks carry a gun, a cartridge, a knife, and a vial of poison.
Jovana is Dushan’s wife. At a fair, in a flashback, a pledge by Jovana and Dushan is made to each other and to the land of Yugoslavia. Dushan as a child herded sheep. They both grew up as Yugoslavs after the creation of the new country following World War I.
Dushan recounts that “we were the free generation” that was “growing with free Yugoslavia” that was “fed on the history of the old and the new Yugoslavia” with “500 years of unceasing war against slavery … and 25 years of freedom as dear as our blood.” On his marriage day, Dushan went to Belgrade where he was a shopkeeper. His wife Jovana, 19, pregnant, was killed during the German bombing of April 6, 1941. She had asked: “Why should war come to little people like us?” The German bombing was on “Palm Sunday when the Nazi planes came to Belgrade.” Welles pronounces the name of the city as “Belgrad”. He and others join “Draza Mihailovich’s ‘island of freedom’”. He says that “200,000 free men live now in the mountains”. He states that “this is our army, Draza Mihailovich’s army”, an “army of shadows”, “yes, Mihailovich’s Chetniks”.
Dushan recounted the Belgrade coup and the rejection of the pact with Nazi Germany by the Yugoslav people. The Yugoslav people said “no, no, no” to Adolf Hitler. Dushan emphasized the determination of Yugoslavs to continue the resistance to Nazi occupation: “If a people desire freedom, weapons will grow in their hands.”
After the radio play concludes with a fervent and emotional crescendo, Vincent Price then makes a call for war bonds and stamps. “This is your country—keep it yours.” He suggests that each person donate 10% of their income to buy bonds and stamps and 10% more if they can afford to.
The show was not without controversy, however, because the government was involved in radio programs that were meant to sell a particular agenda. The program had the approval of the Office of War Information (OWI). The program presented World War II as a just war fought by a democratic nation of citizen-soldiers who were free and equal. This was misleading. The members of the U.S. armed forces were conscripted. The Army was divided based on race. The U.S. policy towards the Japanese was racist. Thousands of Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and placed in internment camps. The show emphasized “American values” of fair play and support for the underdog.
Many criticized the show for being “jingoistic” and relying on “propaganda” techniques. But Treasury Star Parade was no different than the other major dramatic productions of World War II, such as Casablanca (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) in terms of style or technique. Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein’s screenplay for Casablanca relies on emotion and “patriotism” and “nationalism” to an equal if not greater degree than does “The Chetniks”. The screenplay for Mrs. Miniver by James Hilton, George Froeschel, Claudine West, and Arthur Wimperis, based on the character created by Jan Struther, is almost identical to “The Chetniks” radio play by Violet Atkins. A central scene in Mrs. Miniver is the destruction of a church by Nazi bombers. Similarly, in “The Chetniks”, Dushan and Jovana witness the bombing of a Serbian Orthodox church in Belgrade. Neither Casablanca nor Mrs. Miniver is an objective, unbiased analysis and examination of all sides to the conflict. Instead, a single, biased perspective or viewpoint is proffered. Mrs. Miniver won six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Casablanca won three Academy Awards including Best Picture. “The Chetniks” radio play has to be seen in this wider context as a reflection of a drama set during a global war, World War II.
A second radio play on Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks was produced by Radio Reader’s Digest. On September 27, 1942, a half hour segment entitled “Fight of the Chetniks/The Lost Gold Piece” was broadcast on the radio series Radio Reader’s Digest starring Vincent Price, Joseph Schildkraut, and Henry Hull. Radio Reader’s Digest was on CBS on Sundays, 9:00-9:30 pm, sponsored by Campbell Soup. The host was Conrad Nagel until December 10, 1944 when he was replaced by Quinton Reynolds. The announcer was Ernest Chappell. Robert Nolan was the director. The orchestra was under Lynn Murray until December 3, 1944 when replaced by N. Van Cleef.
The radio program was based on an article in the June, 1942 issue of Reader’s Digest. The article was entitled “The Fight of the Chetniks” by Major Erwin Christian Lessner (1898-1959), reprinted from Free World. Lessner had been a decorated Austrian officer in World War I, a major who had received nine decorations for valor. He had fled to the U.S. after the Nazi takeover. Lessner recounted the Chetnik guerrilla movement led by Draza Mihailovich:”The most elusive foe the Nazis face is Draza Mihailovitch, who … today is famous as leader of a crafty and dauntless army of 100,000 Chetniki. … Their skill and bravery have aroused the admiration of the world.” He recounted how the Nazis offered a reward of “50,000,000 dinars—about $1,000,000” for the capture of Draza Mihailovich. Lessner recounted Chetnik guerrilla attacks on Shabac and Uzice in Serbia and assaults on Dubrovnik and Kotor in Dalmatia in 1941. He noted that the Chetniks control “almost 20,000 square miles of their country”. He described Draza Mihailovich as a proponent of guerrilla warfare who sought to wage an “invisible war” against the Nazi occupation troops. He concluded: “The Chetniks are in a position to serve the United Nations cause out of all proportion to their numbers.” At the time of writing, Lessner reported that Draza Mihailovich and his forces were attacking Sarajevo. Finally, he stated that “organized resistance continues throughout Serbia and none of the incredibly cruel reprisals visited by the Germans upon the innocent Serb population has affected the fighting ardor of the redoubtable Chetniks.”
Reader’s Digest represented grassroots America. Their appearance in that publication was indicative of the fact that Draza Mihailovich and the Chetniks had achieved widespread popularity among the general American public. They then were on the air, on American radio, being broadcast into the living rooms of America.
Lessner, Erwin Christian. “The Fight of the Chetniks”. Reader’s Digest, June, 1942, Vol. 40, No. 242, pp. 37-40.
MacDonald, Fred. Government Propaganda in Commercial Radio: The Case of Treasury Star Parade, 1942-1943. The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp. 285–304, Fall, 1978.
Smith, Kathleen E. R. God Bless America: Tin Pan Alley Goes to War. University Press of Kentucky, 2003.