Local radio pioneer holds a treasure from World War II, and its mystery is about to be revealed
Gordon Greb sat excitedly at his kitchen table while a television crew bustled around him. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been on camera, though.
Greb, a radio pioneer who also worked as a reporter at NBC, CBS and ABC, to name a few, was seated next to the piece of equipment that started his career. He smiled while opening the 1938 Silverstone radio that his parents bought him when he was a preteen, showing off the microphone that he used to make his first recordings.
Despite the fascinating life and career of Greb himself, who lives in Chico with his wife of more than 50 years, Darlene, the TV crew was interested in something altogether different. The object of their shoot wouldn’t have been there, however, if not for Greb’s radio career.
When Greb was working as a recording engineer at the Fort Dix radio station in New Jersey during World War II, he happened upon a record that struck a chord with him. The songs, and the voices, he said, could have made it on mainstream radio.
“It’s outstanding,” said the gray-haired, enthusiastic Greb. “I’d never heard this music before, and never since.”
Greb held onto that record, which is made of glass, for more than 60 years. During that time, he said, he wondered what happened to the GIs who recorded it, as they had shipped out before it came into his possession.
“The service had a vast reservoir of talent,” said Greb, mentioning that jazz legend Glenn Miller formed a band while in the military. “It sounded like it could really be an opera star—a baritone.”
What makes the record unique, aside from the quality of the music, Greb said, is the content. One of the songs is the Army’s general orders, put to music. “It’s almost as though the composer has the star singing the tax code. It’s the general orders, which is the instruction manual—and it’s good,” Greb said.
There is also a 10-minute drama and civilian recruiting transcription. The most interesting entry, however, is an all-soldier performance of a musical called “Hi Yank.”
“The narrator explains this is a blueprint show,” he said. “I’ve never heard the term ‘blueprint’ used—what does that mean?”
He supposes that this record could have served as an instruction manual of sorts for entertaining the troops.
“During the war it was important to keep morale up,” he explained. “For men and women of my age, they’re thrilling songs. It represents that spirit of my generation.”
It just so happens that Darlene’s favorite TV show is the PBS series History Detectives, which just started its sixth season. Like Antiques Roadshow, the experts on the show look at unique or very old artifacts and, through extensive research, track down their history. When Greb wrote to History Detectives about his record, they were immediately curious, and asked him to send it to their studio in New York.
The camera crew showed up at the Grebs’ Chico home in June to record a segment for the show. Energetic host Elyse Luray flashed a wide smile when talking about Greb’s record.
The recordings, she said, tell a story about military morale, and how much effort the U.S. government put into entertaining the troops, who often sat for hours and hours with nothing to do. What “Hi Yank” is, she said, is an instruction manual to teach servicemen how to entertain themselves.
“People don’t think the government thinks about depression and morale, but it does do that,” she said.
Luray traveled to the Library of Congress, as well as to a number of military bases, on her quest to discover the story behind the record. She wouldn’t divulge any of her findings, though, not even to Greb.
“When they do find out, it’s going to be a surprise to me,” he joked.
The show’s purpose, Luray said, is to take pieces of history and learn from them. Each hour-long episode includes three mysteries unveiled. The mystery of Greb’s record is scheduled to air Sept. 15.
“We teach American history in an educational but fun way,” Luray said. Through objects that bear historical significance, people can learn all manner of things about our country’s past.
“The object has a good story to tell,” she said of Greb’s record. “But it’s not necessarily about the object. It’s about emotions, especially with what’s going on in America today, and Iraq. We can learn from the past.”
Greb agreed that the songs on the record are just as poignant today as they were in the 1940s.
“If I had been able to play this after 9/11, I would have brought this down to KCHO,” he said. “It’s about the duty of Americans when facing an enemy force.”