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WFMU’s proto-podcasts from the Korean War

WFMU in Jersey City’s Beware of the Blog blog has some interesting audio artifacts from the Korean War: reel-to-reel audio letters from an Army doctor to his wife back in the states, circa 1954, just as the conflict was winding down. The surgeon who produced these ancient proto-podcasts worked at the 121 Evacuation Hospital in Yongdong Po, Korea, south of the Han River. It took in between 250 to 310 patients at any given time from all over the country.


As best I can pick up from the tapes, he is one Colonel Bill Reiber. Or Rieber? Whatever the correct spelling of his name, he had an excellent, baritone radio voice and was strikingly matter-of-fact about incidents that, one hopes, would raise considerable public alarm today. For example, he discloses:

“They brought one in just this afternoon about three o’clock. A soldier was shot by a guard. He was a colored soldier arguing with a guard and the guard shot him either accidentally or some other way. I don’t know.”

To the upper right is a picture of the 12 Evac Hospital from the U.S. Army’s Office of Medical History.

One has to peek around the corners of Reiber’s prose to get a sense of what he was experiencing. “There really isn’t too much to tell you about this doggon place,” he explained. “I’ve told you all there is. There isn’t much. I haven’t been to Seoul yet. There’s actually nothing to go over there for.” Indeed, the capitol of South Korea in 1954 was a devastated city. One million South Korean civilians had died in the conflict.

But he’s also a bit of a gossip. He mentions a “nice chat” with an officer:

“I took him down to supper in the field grade officer’s mess. It was very good to talk to him. He told me a little bit about the winding up there at PJ [police jurisdiction?] and about his family and so on and so forth and also said that his wife was expecting again, which anybody would suspect that knows, uh, them.

He’s still as fat as ever but if he’s got to walk to three meals a day from his office and his tent to the mess hall and back he’s going to lose some of that weight. I can assure you.”

You won’t learn a lot about the Korean War from these missives, but they’re engaging nonetheless. Helicopters can be heard flying by. The colonel repeatedly and charmingly uses the term “doggon” and “doggonit”. The WFMU post also includes his peacetime diaries. In the later 1960s Reiber audio narrated he and his wife Mary’s freeway trek from their home in Mount Holly, New Jersey to the home of their daughter in Gorman, Texas (it is from one of these tapes that I got a hint at his name). It is a fascinating audio time capsule from half a century ago.

I use the term “proto-podcast” guardedly; it’s a bit of an a-historical analogy; obviously these reel-to-reel diary-letters did not come with RSS feeds for download on your mobile device. It’s unclear whether they were intended for public consumption; probably not, but Reiber was a bit of a showman in his presentation and style. There’s a faint echo of Edward R. Murrow’s shortwave reports from Trafalgar Square during the Battle of Britain as the doctor comments on helicopters flying by.

One wonders how widely reel-to-reel audio tapes functioned as informal communication for family and friends back then.

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