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History Book: Alien invasion broadcast turns 85

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WORLD Radio - History Book: Alien invasion broadcast turns 85

Plus, a prison break by helicopter in Ireland and rescuing whales from arctic ice


Orson Welles, center, talking to reporters on Oct. 31, 1938 Associated Press

JENNY ROUGH, HOST: Today is Monday, October 30th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Jenny Rough.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next, the WORLD History Book. This week, an international attempt to rescue three gray whales in Alaska. And fifty years ago, a prison break in Ireland that would become legend.

But first, a radio broadcast causes mass panic. Here’s WORLD Radio intern, Emma Perley

EMMA PERLEY, INTERN: On October 30th, 1938, families across America tune in to listen to the dramatized version of H.G. Wells’s book, War of the Worlds.

AUDIO: I'm speaking from the roof of the broadcasting building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn people to evacuate the city as Martians approach.

The fake news bulletins describing a Martian attack, toxic gas, and chilling interviews with apparent survivors sound frighteningly real.

AUDIO: Now they're lifting their metal hands. This is the end now. Smoke comes out, black smoke drifting over the city.

While the drama was planned in advance, producing War of the Worlds is a frantic process. Narrator Orson Welles and his colleagues at the CBS Mercury Radio Theater work through the night to finalize the script in just a few days.

AUDIO: We men as men, we're finished.

Welles makes last minute edits before air-time, adding new elements and directing the crew as they rush around to comply with his demands.

AUDIO: We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope to learn that we didn't mean it. And that both institutions are still open for business.

The next morning, front page headlines accuse Welles of inciting mass panic. Listeners nationwide allegedly believe they are about to be thrust into interplanetary war. Here’s Welles in an interview with the press.

AUDIO: I know that almost everybody in radio would do almost anything to avert the kind of thing that has happened. Myself included. Radio is new and we are learning about the effect it has on people.

Over time, it is revealed that newspapers exaggerated the effect War of the Worlds actually had on listeners. The popularity of the broadcast catapults Orson Welles into Hollywood fame. He goes on to direct, produce, and star in the classic Citizen Cane.

Next, 50 years ago on Halloween, three Irish Republican Army prisoners escape from a Dublin prison by helicopter.

SOUND: [Helicopter and intro guitar]

Seamus Twomey, J.B. O’Hagen, and Kevin Mallon are captive in Mountjoy Prison. They were imprisoned for their roles in a bombing campaign. Conflict rages between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The IRA fights to free Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom but is rebuffed by the British military and those loyal to the crown. Audio here from prisoners who witnessed the helicopter heist.

AUDIO: Immediately the alarm was ringing and bouncing around the place. The helicopter just swooped in. And it turned and it came around and it kind of hovered. Just floated in, up the yard. And of course, bedlam broke out.

Armed IRA soldiers land the hijacked helicopter in the small prison yard. Twomey, O’Hagen, and Mallon army crawl to the aircraft in the confusion.

AUDIO: If he touched down, it was for a second or two. The three of them were in, in a flash.

The incident is a huge embarrassment to the Republic of Ireland government. The Wolfe Tones, an Irish rebel band, write a song about the infamous escape that tops the music charts in the Republic of Ireland.

MUSIC: Early one morning as the branchmen they were sleeping / A little helicopter flew across the sky / Down into the yard where some prisoners were walking / “Get ready for inspection” says the warder in the Joy / And its up like a bird and its over the city / “Three men are missing" I heard the warder cry / “Sure it must have been a bird that flew into the prison Or one of these new Ministers” says the warder in the joy ...

The Republic of Ireland government launches a massive manhunt for the fugitives and tightens security at Mountjoy Prison. While Mallon is quickly caught, O’Hagen lives on the run for two years until he is caught in 1975. And Twomey is not found until 1977.

And finally, on October 28th, 1988, the world watches as many attempt to rescue three grey whales stuck in the Alaskan ice.

AUDIO: For 20 days, the whales had survived by bobbing up and down, gasping for air, from a series of holes cut through the arctic ice by eskimos.

On October 7th, a local inuit hunter finds the whale pod trapped in an ice pack in the Beaufort Sea. Using a chainsaw, he attempts to cut holes for the whales to breathe.

SOUND: [Chainsaw, whales breaching]

As word spreads throughout the inuit community, local biologists visit the whales and their calf. Audio here from a wildlife biologist at the site.

AUDIO: Someone put out a plea for help and it got picked up by the press. And now the world is watching.

Media, scientists, and the inuit community flood the site to help. Soon the rescue effort is dubbed Operation Breakthrough. The two mature whales are named Bonnet and Crossbeak, with a nine month old baby named Bone. The United States requests help from two Soviet Union icebreakers to clear a path. Audio here from Audio here from Channel 7, WXYZ.

AUDIO: Putting aside their differences, using Russian icebreakers, flying both the American and Soviet flags, they smashed through the ice, rescuing one of nature’s most magnificent creatures, the whales.

Unfortunately, the calf dies on October 21st. But the others are finally freed one week later.

AUDIO: These two giant grey mammals, tasting the open seas, freedom—escaping the chilling grip of an arctic ice ridge and death that held them prisoners for almost three weeks. Tonight, scientists and eskimos alike are happy and thankful.

The plight of the whales inspired the 2012 feature length film, Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.

AUDIO: You have whales in trouble and you didn't call me? I didn't call you because there's nothing you can do. There's always something you can do.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Emma Perley.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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