The American Forces Network began broadcasting in a cellar in Hitler-blitzed London and went on to become a way of life in Europe. Both the humble origins and later successes were recalled Saturday night in Arlington when about 100 old friends exchanged warm, dulcet-toned greetings at the network's first reunion.
Norman Schwinger, who did sound effects for radio dramas, told of the perils involved in live radio in the late '40s.
"One day I had to make the sound of water for a very serious presentation -- the script called for sounds of water in the background. So I took off my shoes and stockings, rolled up my pants and kicked around in a big tub of water.
"Then I had to run across the studio to the mike. When the guys saw me sloshing across the studio, they began to laugh. It became infectious and pretty soon everyone was breaking up, including me. Needless to say, the show was a disaster."
Schwinger remembered the time an American officer was sent from headquarters to shape up the GIs working on AFN and give the place a military look.
"He called muster each morning, had us marching around, and would take us to the rifle range, but it was no use. We had been living like civilians too long. Guys would show up in the morning only having caught an hour's sleep or less, and get into formation wearing loafers, sport shirts and scarves.
"He gave up after a couple of weeks."
The network had its first broadcast on July 4, 1943, when Gen. George C. Marshall said, "The purpose is to keep Americans in uniform one of the best informed sources in history." Hourly news and bulletins, stateside music and, eventually, major sports events were featured.
John Vrotsos, one of the original 13 station workers, was greeted by everyone as he walked in.
"I was a corporal in the Army and had some radio experience back in Dubuque, Iowa, in civilian life," Vrotsos said. He did general assignment reporting for Stars and Stripes in Belfast. Then, "Word came to Stars and Stripes that the Army was starting a radio station and the Stars and Stripes would have to handle the news service, so I was sent to London.
"I remember it was very primitive; we were near the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.] and we borrowed a lot of used equipment from them."
Vrotsos remained in the military for close to five years before becoming a civilian employe with AFN in Frankfurt.
When Dick Rosse, now a correspondent with Mutual Broadcasting, thought back to his days in Frankfurt, he had a gleam in his eye.
"We were in a beautiful German castle outside of Frankfurt. It was marvelous being an American in Germany in the '60s. The dollar was at an all-time high so you saw a lot of Jaguars and TR-3s in the parking lot.
"Most of the personnel were single and, like show-biz personalities anywhere, they were lionized by the local Germans."
The station had a wide audience among the Germans, many of whom learned English from the broadcasts.
"I interviewed a German film star many years ago," Rosse said. "I complimented her on her English."
" 'It should be good,' she said. 'I've been listening to AFN all my life.' "
When radio people get together they all have their share of "Uncle Don" stories. (Uncle Don became infamous in broadcasting circles when he finished reading the comics to a New York audience of children one Sunday morning and said on a live mike, "That should take care of those little b-------.")
A few at the reunion recalled the night Robert Sunde was trying to sign off and "The Star-Spangled Banner" began to play. Sunde, thinking he had a dead mike, swore loudly at the technician. The words he used that night were in dispute at the reunion.
AFN used to drop in a little blurb promoting the Army, saying, "The Army needs quality, not quantity." For weeks broadcasters reversed "quantity" and "quality," Sunde said.
Another inside gag that went undetected by the brass for several months was a sign-off mentioning "bicycles" instead of "kilocycles."
Though virtually unknown in America, the network has been a significant presence in Europe for years. The station in Frankfurt puts out 150,000 watts, more than any of the U.S. superstations, and reaches into Scandinavia and Greece.
About eight or nine years ago AFN went into television and has since moved from the castle to a modern office building in downtown Frankfurt.
Tommy Southall, a master sergeant and a field engineer for AFN, brought some old tapes of broadcasts and played them at the reunion. But most were occupied with seeing old pals, remembering their younger days tooling along the Autobahn in TR-3s or hobnobbing with Marlene Dietrich and occasional visitor Jayne Mansfield -- and wishing it could have gone on forever.