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YLFH Interview

Drexel Peterson Interview
June 26, 1974

Roger Natte: I suppose I ought to start out wth just asking your part in the “Letter From Home" project was all about?

Drexel Peterson: I kind of got to put it together in my mind again because the "Letter From Home" started in world war II, the same week that I came to this radio station, KVFD, to work. It was the last part of October in 1943 and I was new to everything. I'd done a little broadcasting before But I was new to Fort Dodge and to people, especially to the "Letter From Home, of course. But as I was not able to be in the service and that was the reason I was here, about every friend I had in the world was interested in it, greatly interested. But it did start that week with the first letters and we also started a daily broadcast and that was my part of it. The daily broadcast, that was a Monday through Friday thing, five days a week and it was during the noon hour. It was 12:45, thinking we would catch an awful lot of people at home or wherever they were and more people were at home at that time of day then there are now during the noon hour, but that was the time set for it and it ran who knows how long. I can't even remember when the letter stopped. I'm sure you've got those dates now but it had to be in late forty—five, or was it?
RBN; Forty—six.

DP: Forty-six! Yes, we still had people all around the world, and so my part was to run that program after I had been here a few days and it evolved into a daily broadcast. At first we had a little music in it and we had an opening letter. This was a part of it. It was a kind of daily column. Now I do things like this but they're a little bit different. But the program started off with a letter to Dear Joe. Of course, this didn't go to him but this was ]ust to get you into the program and get people interested in it. It wasn't long, a couple of minutes, maybe three some times, depending upon what you had to talk about. But this was a daily affair, what's going on in Fort Dodge today. Here's what we're doing; and what we're thinking about.

RBN: This was aimed at the servicemen or was it aimed...?

DP; It was aimed at local consumption, of course, because the servicemen didn't get it. I'm just telling you what the program was like, but we did this. I started out, I'd write a little something up every

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morning, a little mish mash of activities in Fort Dodge and thoughts for the day, this kind of thing and it was a letter to Joe.

RBN: well part of this script... part of the collection that Mr. Breen gave the college inc uded a package of what they called the script from the "Letter From Home."

DP Really? I didn't that they had even been saved. we did have a file.

RBN: This is what you're referring to then, this initial letter..,?

DP: That was strictly for consumption at home because it was a gimmick in the program. You had to ave something to talk about. Then we talked about, of course, the letters going out to Joe, himself around the world and women in the service. We didn't have as many women as we do now. But then at first, when it first started we would read an excerpt from a letter, like this from a service man or woman around the world, just a little bit. Immediately, practically, we got into an interview with a local area service man or woman back on leave or furlough.

RBN: Now was this part of the original concept then? This interview?

DP; Yes it was, and eventually the interviews became the whole thing, the whole thing... we stopped the daily journal type of thing after a while and I think we cut out all the music except an entrance theme because we had so many people to interview, and this,of course, was the interesting part of it for me.

RBN; Now was it easy to get men to come on and interview or talk?

DP; well, of course it was like interviews always are. It's easy to find people. It's not always as easy to talk them into going on the air. It's easier now than it was then. But a lot of these were fellows home from where have you and some of them would say, I've nothing to talk about. I don't want to go on the air. I'm afraid to for one thing. I don't like to talk, and I have nothing to say. I haven't done anything." well, you know they have, even if they've done nothing but just gone through boot camp or something some place they learned something and they would tell where they were. I would tell them, well, I only want three minutes. 0 ay, so they'd come down. we'd talk ten minutes, you know, no problem. Then some days we'd have to have two or three because they d pile up in the hall. But it was fun.

RBN: About how many did you interview over the...

DP: well, I've always figured that it had to be about .... I would say that

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eventually most of the interviews were suggested to me. People would call and say, "Do you know that so and so is home from India or is home from Alaska or Texas? And I think you ought to have him on the air." I'd put his name down and where do you find them. And then we'd find them.

RBN: I'm too young for this period. Did you have that many coming back from overseas, let's say in 1943-44?

DP: Well, of course, the war was pretty well along in '43. Yes, because some came from quite good distances. The later you got into the war, of course, the more you had from the more exotic places. But we did have them and with very interesting stories. we can get to some of that maybe but as for helping to get the letter out I didn't know how much of this you'd gone into but... People gave you items that they wanted to go into the letter or what they thought you should know about. Everybody was an unofficial correspondent. This way the whole community... There wasn t anyone around here that didn't know about the letter from home. Then in the actual logistics of the thing... getting it out... The basic format of the letter, the opening letter and all that, which was sort of a weekly column, was written by Ed Breen. Practically all of them. Then it came time to get it printed. Then he got the excerpts from the letters from the people all over, put those in there and " came up with the layout, a paste up, I guess, and then this was typed and done and gotten to the printer because they were printed letters. And they were brought back here imediately and I think it was on a Tuesday that they were — a Tuesday evening— that addressing of the envelopes was done. You couldn't use an address—o—graph cause t ey changed addresses all the time. Every week the list was as long as two or three arms. No use. So it was all done by typewriter or some by hand and the basis for all the help was in the wa Tan Ye Club in Fort Dodge, the women's service club here. The most faithful group I have ever seen or known in my life. They used to be down here on Tuesday nights and the place was full. Every typewriter we had on wheels was moved.. some of them were out in the hall and around the various offices, and some would bring a typewriter even, a portable if they had one or anything. And some sat at tables and addressed by hand cause it got as high as, I think, fifty-five hundred letters a week. Something like that. Think of that addressing ]Ob every Tuesday night end you wonder now if people would do it again. I'm sure they would with a same effort being put out

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everywhere. People are the same,'but it was a magnificent effort.

RBN; Now part of the collection included what appears to Be posters. At least there was something; on poster board wnth the name of a place like Guam on it and apparently letters —things- were pinned to this or stuck to this. Do you know anything about this?

DP: well, that may have been a local promotion. Is that what you mean?

RBN; I'm not sure. I didn't...

DF: I don't recall now. There were at times exhibits in downtown store windows, theater lobbies, etc. of Letters From Home. That might include posters from around the world with envelopes or something; from servicemen to show that here's what we're hearing and if you're not in on this, if you're not interested... we weren't trying to make any money, nobody did. You lost. But interest was what you wanted, involvement, and that's what we got.

RBN: Now was this display in the windows, was that a continuing type of thing?

DF; I don't think so. Some might have been. I would assume that they were in the stores or business places of the actual sponsors. we had several sponsors. They ran six to eight to ten who underwrote the cost of the letters and they weren't after publicity really, but they did make some displays.

RBN; Do you have any idea at all the cost of this? Ed didn't remember.

DP: You know, I can't tell you now. That's a fact. He would know far better than I, but it was so far back, of course. The station's contribution was its Eeople in getting this thing out each week because it took considerable amount of boo work and typing and this kind of thing that was going on and, of course, Ed's time.

RBN: Fort Dodge was one of the few places in the country which carried this out,

DP: Yes, there were a few other letters. I can't recall what their names were. I know that there was one or two out East. There was another tried here in Iowa. It didn't go. I think they didn't have the real drive that it takes to keep it going and then none were as successful as this. we've been told that for many years and were back then.

RBN; why do you think the Fort Dodge project or program had the success that no other place had?

DP: well, a combination of" several things. Fort Dodge has an unusual spirit about it many ways when it is crystallized and

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it has a great stubborn streak here and the issue being forced by Ed Breen on this. Really he gets the credit for it, because he pushed, he worked hard. worked every minute on it, all the time, And in my estimation, I mean, the entire credit has to go to him because if you don't push it,crystalize that public interest it won't go, nothing will. But he did it.

RBQ: In talking to Ed and even reading the letters I was very impressed. For one thing there was this nostalgia about it. Also in reading them you obviously get a better picture of Fort Dodge and the war effort than you'd ever get from a most any other thing, probably because they were set up not with the idea of describing what was going on for posterity but to tell the people of that time what the soldiers of that time...

DP: what was going on, this is a fact. Fort Dodge was most successful. 1 don't know if these things are documented any Elace very well. But this was a very successful town and area for such things as ond buying, scrap drives. Fantastic here. People couldn't understand the success. Well, part of this all must go to this mobilization of public interest, I think, and I think the"Letter From Home" had something to do with it. Fantastic!

RBN: That was something that I didn't mention, I can see some point there.

DP: I really believe it. I really believe it and because everything that was done at that time just seemed kind of to go together. This is kind of a story of a war mobilization effort, you know, and it's very difficult as they tell us now. I think half of the people in the world can't remember world war II or some such a figure as this. People tell us that study ages. And there is no way to explain it entirely because the effort was so all out in so many ways.

You mentioned cost of the letter. I can't remember where one time there was any question about the cost or "This is costing; too much,’ or "This is a problem." Really there just was no question.


RBN: You mentioned that the wa Tan Ye Club was involved in this and Ed mentioned that they were paid some twenty-five dollars a week,

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DP: Oh, there was some money, yes, but I can't imagine what that was. You know it was a drop in the bucket.

RBN: That's what Ed thought but what about...

DP; But you see, none of the people who came here to work ever got paid. This was for their treasury which went for their charitabie public service efforts.

RBN: And this was to Mary Domver with the Red Cross project over...

RBN: And do you know anything about her project? It was overseas, wasn't it?

DP: Basical1y it went to her.

DP; This I don't recal1 now too much. Yes, Mary Dolliver of the o1d Do11iver fami1y here and so wel1 known to everybody. I remember she appeared on this "Letter From Home" dai1y broadcast on different occasions when she was back. She was Red Cross. She did have some sgecific Rrograms overseas that she mothered and made work, and the wa Tan Ye clu was be ind those. I'm g1ad you reminded me of that. That was where, as far as I know, most of that money went because they didn't want the money.

RBN: I suppose if I would go talk to a 1ong time member of wa Tan Ye they wouid probabiy be able to give me some idea...

DP: Might. Might be able to l that one up a 1ittle bit. But that's basicaiiy where it went.

RBN: Now this whole thing to me is... Maybe it's because I came along a bit later. It's extremely exciting. can you tel1 me or was there any special incidents‘ that come to mind, some high point of the whole project?

DP: Oh! Now...

RBN: You mentioned ear1ier some of the interviews with the servicemen. You said you couid go back.

DP: Well, I suppose that this was the part that I did basical1y. Not too many contributions to the letter that went out each week. oh, some suggestions and this, but I did not write it. I may have, one or two, I don't remember. But that was just not it. I was to take care of this daiiy thing and keen it going here in the city and the area. People were interested in it and, of course, we had servicemen in and some women. Di course, most of them would be from Fort Dodge or very c1ose, but some would come from quite a 1ittle distance. we weren't driving as much in those days but we did have some from towns outlying here, if they would get here. So we did some of this and wanted to but you

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didn't say, "would you drive forty miles today?" People just wouldn't do it in those days. But we had some. I thought a lot of them were very interesting. Mary Dolliver, for instance, was always interesting. We did have some other people who happened into town who had some thing to do with the military. I mean you know of somebody with some special job was here, a colonel or a general or somebody, and we could get him we'd talk to him too, even though he was not a hometowner. This didn't ma e any difference. Basically it was fun to visit with these men every day, find out where they had been, what they were doing, and I got so that I could recognize the uniform, of course, immediately. I can't any more. I don't know what they are any more. I have no idea. But world war II, we knew all the uniforms, the insignia, the pins, the collar pins they wore, every rank and grade and all this: You got so you knew them all and that was kinda fun. Really you didn't have to go into anything. We didn't talk before we went on the air, Just enough to get the guy sett ed down in the chair, you know. "And I see that you're in the engineers and have been in the European theater, where at over there?" and we'd get to talking about it. And they would talk about the war. Not too much. This was not... Rarely did we talk about actual fighting except maybe air corps missions. It was air force, army, navy air force, it was then. we'd talk about the missions they would have, where they had been, how many missions, and what they had seen, and what it was like, and some had been shot down. we eventually even had some returned prisoners on. Everybody with a different story. One old friend of ours here in town, I finallg talked him into going on the air. This was rather late but he's died since then ut it was on the infamous death march on Bataan in the Phillipines and I'll never forget visiting wnth him about that. He didn't want to talk about it, there was no question about it and it was just pure main strength and awkwardness that I got him to do anything. You know he didn't want — I didn't blame him for not wanting to talk about it but everybody was intensely interested in that. I wanted to hear it. "How could you eat a grasshopper, John? How could you eat grasshoppers?" And he would answer this way, “I was hungry." You know I couldn't discuss the taste of grasshoppers, He wouldn't talk. But this kind of thing. You'd get some funny answers and some that weren't funny at all, of course. But I remember one young fellow. He was so glad to be home. He was smoking a big cigar in there. We were on the air.

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I said? "How many missions did you fly out of Italy?f He'd been in Italy. And he gave me some odd number, you know, like it was — it didn't stack up unth the figures that the others... It was an awful lot of missions, more than most. It got up to, I mean, like sixty-seven or something like this he'd been on, and I said, "How come you stopped there?" And he just looked at me and says, "Hell, man, they were shooting at me." And that was my answer, you know. But when it finally got on to that he said no more,because they could stay on if they wanted to, you know. But these kind of things. And there were some things, of course, they couldn't talk about.

RBN: Ed mentioned a case that he thought was kind of a high point that involved the service man who sent the draft, money draft, to the radio station for ten dollars and the station was going to use that money to buy a bouquet of roses for this serviceman's wife who was going to have a baby down in Jefferson, and he picked this out as kind of a high, point of his.

DP: Now that did happen and I'm sure there may have been others. we did get requests, that's rig t, to pass along a message if I'm not able to, or in case my letters don't get through too well. This kind of thing. I'm sorry that it's hard to remember now things you might call a high point. I can't. It was such a continuing effort and a day by day thing; that it didn't get to be routine really because every story is different and every letter was dif erent, but naturally you had to prepare for the next day and so you forgot the day before.

RBN: I didn't ask Ed this, were there any difficulties in getting this thing off the ground initially?

DP: You see, I was not here even in the few weeks preceding that time when he was setting it up and I don't know. He always said no, that there really wasn't and I'm sure this was true. And people wanted on there. one thing you might be thinking about was sponsorship to underwrite this thing, to see that it went on, buy paper and ink and the printing ]0b each week was one thing. There never was any want for that from the first day. I would assume there was no problem that I know of. And the list started out rather small and just ballooned into a great size, to send letters and every week send letters to so and so and just tacked on to the list and away they went. And of course, we heard from people around the world and still do now days. Fellows who say "You know no other mail got

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through but the "Letter From Home." I don't know. They were recognized by service postl people, you know. But this was important. we didn't exoect this at all. And yet they tell us and this wasn't just one but this came from a l around the world — Pacific, Europe, Africa, wherever. "Your letters come through faster than anybody elses, faster than I hear from my wife." we still hear it from people who say, "I'll never forget as long as I live."

RBN: Did the program ever receive any official recognition at all from the government or any agencies in the radio industry?

DP: You know, I don't recall now. I'm sure that there must have been, I'm sure that there must have been some. You get plaoues and awards in this business for everything that you do, you know, for even showing up regularly.

I know there were good wfishes from high officials in service, the various branches of the service. Yes, kind letters saying this is a great thing you're doing and it's a great morale booster and all this. I cannot remember now that we pot a thing from the Secretary of war. (laughter) I don't remember. It we did it's somewhere in the stack.

You know that we got things from all over the world. You're familiar with that. Probably one of t e greatest collection of patches, sleeve patches that's ever been made. Oh, Fantastic! I remember shortly after we started the program on the air we got one of the best known songs of world War II. In the early part of the War was 'Lili Marlene" and somebody sent a copy back here from over there in Italy or up in the North part, and it was in German. I remember getting it. I remember singing it. I was doing a singing Erooram at the time. "Lili Marlene!" This came from a service man and that is pro ab y in the pile somewhere:

RBN; You mentioned earlier that you always introduced this program with kind of a theme song. was it a theme song that carried on through or was it... What I'm trying to do is to sound out what the program....

DP: No, it was only an identifying theme and I can't remember now what it was. Just an identifying theme. Like we do with most things, you know, this is "Your letter From Home," and if people are around the house some place they come a little closer and listen. It was all it was, that was all it was. It finally developed into purely and interview program unth ad lib introductions or I'd say I have a letter here or two that I simply must read a part of it to you. And we've heard from so and so and so and so today and here's what they had to say and then go into our

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interviews. And lots of times the person you'd be interviewing would say "I know him." You know, this kind of thing. ‘where's he?“ and we d talk about it. "He's in the Philippines.“ "For Heaven's sake! I'm in North Africa." It was interesting. People sti l talk to me about interviewnng them and it was thirty years ago, so it's kind of fun.

RBN: Do you recognize all of them?

DP NO, I don't. No, No! My, they've all put on forty pounds. Lost that much

RBN: well, I think I've retty much sounded you out on the things I'm interested in. Is there anything: else you might be able to add to this?

DP: I don't really think so. Now I know you're looking mostly for facts. Those are so hard to come by.

RBN: what about reactions?

DP; I think my reaction is now, and I think maybe I've conveyed this, it was one of the most interesting things and rewarding things that I ever got into in this business and I've done most everything in it. This one really sticks in your mind. we all remember it, who worked on it and are reminded of it, of course, every few weeks by somebody who Just happens to mention it in Eassing.. That is the amazing part of it. That's why I think it's so rewarding to t ink, well, I had a little part in it. And of course it serves to remind you that was the most prodigious all out war effort that anybody had ever seen in the country going on all around us, and the "Letter from Home" was just a part of it.

RBN: Thank you.

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