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9:01 pm
Sun January 5, 2014

Dad's Message Recorded At War, A Gift Given Decades Later

Originally published on Sun January 5, 2014 3:55 pm

At 71, Margaret Ann Wolf Harris heard her father's voice for the first time in her adult life.

Her dad, Sgt. Cody Wolf, died in World War II when his plane was shot down over Germany on Jan. 11, 1944. But a couple of weeks before his death, he contributed to a Christmas broadcast, produced by war correspondents of the Maryland newspaper The Baltimore Sun.

Wolf recorded a message in which he mentioned his baby girl, Margaret Ann. Harris, who was 17 months old when her father was killed, heard the recording for the first time 70 years later when it was rebroadcast on NPR member station WYPR.

Wolf told the interviewer he'd been thinking a lot about Catonsville, home to his parents, wife and "my 16-month-old daughter, Margaret Ann."

"It was so wonderful," Harris tells NPR's Arun Rath. "And it was not a sad thing at all. It was just a wonderful experience to know that I could hear that voice and that my father said my name. That was the most poignant part."

The story of this unique reunion starts in The Baltimore Sun library. Researcher Paul McCardell was rummaging through the paper's library and found a black box, tied in rope. Inside the box were vinyl record albums.

"It was beautiful," says multimedia editor Steve Sullivan. "It was a pristine copy of this 1943 radio show."

The hour-long broadcast was like a time capsule — full of recordings from servicemen and Red Cross workers from the Mid-Atlantic region, who were stationed in England.

Determined to get the broadcast back on the radio, McCardell and Sullivan contacted Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, who also hosts a show on WYPR. The station aired it on Dec. 20 and 24.

"It's kinda charming," says Rodricks. "And it's also a little bit chilling to think about. These men are 6-7 months away from the invasion of Europe, and many of them in the broadcast have been through several bombing missions over Germany."

Harris' father was one of more than 50 service members and aid workers to record a message to family members back home.

When she heard the broadcast, Harris contacted Sullivan and McCardell at The Sun via email. She wrote:

"I am the daughter of Sgt. Cody Wolf. Today I heard my father's voice for the very first time. You have sent me a very treasured Christmas present. There are no words to explain how I felt when I heard my father speak about me. I was only 17 months old when he was killed.

"I am 71 years old and today I was his 'Margaret Ann.' "

Before hearing the recording, she says, she'd never really imagined what his voice sounded like.

"And when I heard his voice, it was very typical of his family," Harris says. "It was very of the time — very calm and very reassuring voice. Kind of like the Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper era."

The recording is a treasure for the whole family.

"It's something I always knew, but to hear the voice — so wonderful," says Harris. "And my grandchildren heard the voice and my daughters, and they all heard my father speak, which was a terrific Christmas present for our whole family."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Finally, we have a late Christmas present for you, but it's a story worth waiting for: A woman whose father spoke to her nearly 70 years after he died in World War II. The story begins about a year ago in a library at The Baltimore Sun.

PAUL MCCARDELL: One day I was looking for something else, and I noticed this black box. And it was, like, tied in rope.

RATH: Researcher Paul McCardell cleared away decades of old papers to free the box. And there, he found vinyl record albums. The paper's multimedia editor, Steve Sullivan, wasn't sure if they'd found gold or just a dud.

STEVE SULLIVAN: But it was beautiful. I mean, it was a pristine copy of this 1943 radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good afternoon, everyone. We're about to bring you a full hour special broadcast direct from England. This broadcast is a Christmas present from the Sun Papers of Baltimore so that you may hear the voices of your service men and women overseas.

RATH: The show was like an audio time capsule left on a shelf and forgotten decades ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And just to show you that we're in the Christmas mood, let's have the whole gang kick off with "Jingle Bells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELLS")

RATH: McCardell and Sullivan had to get this back on the radio. They contacted Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks who also hosts a show on NPR member6station WYPR.

DAN RODRICKS: Knowing what it takes to pull off a remote broadcast even today, I'm very impressed at the quality of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELLS")

RODRICKS: We aired it on December 20 and again on December 24.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELLS")

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now to be under way with our program this afternoon...

RODRICKS: This was just a bunch of guys from Baltimore or different places in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia just speaking in their own voices, a little bit scripted, but all accurate and based on interviews with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I used to be a brakeman on the B&O.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And if you were back in the States today, where would it be?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd be right back there in West Virginia, would be having turkey for dinner, probably a wild turkey that either Dad or I shot with the old squirrel rifle.

RODRICKS: I mean, it's kind of charming. And it's also a little bit chilling to think about these men are six to seven months away from the invasion of Europe. And many of them in the broadcast had been through several bombing missions over Germany. So these men had been through a lot, and some of them were about to go through a great deal.

RATH: Including one man whose name jumped off the broadcast for a woman named Margaret Ann Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I believe we have another gunner here, Sergeant Cody Wolf of Catonsville, Maryland.

RATH: Cody Wolf was her father, a father she never got to meet, and a voice she had never heard in her adult life. One of Margaret Ann Harris' friends heard the show live on WYPR and told her to go to a website where it was archived.

MARGARET ANN WOLF HARRIS: And it still didn't register in my mind that I was going to hear my father's voice until I heard it online for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What kind of a Christmas have you been having, Sergeant Wolf?

SGT. CODY WOLF: Not too bad, but I've been thinking a lot about Catonsville.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You have a family there?

WOLF: My parents, my wife, my 16-month-old daughter, Margaret Ann.

HARRIS: It was so wonderful. And it was not a sad thing at all. It was just a wonderful experience to know that I could hear that voice, and that my father said my name. That was the most poignant part.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now you're an aerial gunner.

WOLF: I'm a (unintelligible) gunner, one of the new crews like Sergeant Mane(ph) here.

HARRIS: No one expected my father to be on that broadcast at all. He had just arrived in England a few weeks prior. That broadcast was Christmas Day, and he was killed in action January 11.

RATH: How did he sound? Did you have a concept in your head of what your father sounded like?

HARRIS: Never. I never had thought of it. And when I heard his voice, it was very typical of his family. It was very of the time: very calm and very reassuring voice, kind of like the Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper era. And it was a safe voice, I guess because I'm his daughter. It felt a voice that would protect you.

RATH: Obviously, you've lived almost your entire life without your father. He passed away when you weren't even a year-and-a-half old. What is it like now at this point in your life to have this connection with him?

HARRIS: To hear him say my name and to know that I was treasured by him is just - it's just an awakening. It's something I always knew. But to hear the voice, so wonderful. Now I can hear him say other things. And my grandchildren heard the voice, and my daughters, and they all heard my father speak, which was a terrific Christmas present for our whole family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That was Margaret Ann Harris of Catonsville, Maryland. She heard the father she lost in World War II for the first time this past Christmas season. If you'd like to hear that 1943 broadcast, you can find a link at our website npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.