John Shearer: Remembering "War Of The Worlds" In Chattanooga

Thursday, October 31, 2013 - by John Shearer
Write-up in Chattanooga Times describes fear after "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938
Write-up in Chattanooga Times describes fear after "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938
- photo by John Shearer

Seventy-five years ago this Halloween, many Chattanoogans were still trying to come to grips with an event that had briefly scared them – a Martian invasion.

At least that is what a number of people thought had taken place.

Many who had listened to radio station WDOD the previous night – Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938 – had been frantically following the apparent news flashes about men from Mars landing in New Jersey in an apparent attack.

What a number of people did not hear were the several disclaimers that young radio personality Orson Welles and his colleagues were simply doing a radio broadcast adaptation o f H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” As a result, many in Chattanooga became at least briefly distraught, as listeners did throughout the United States.

Here is how the Chattanooga Times described the event in the next day’s paper: “Chattanoogans, along with their credulous brothers and sisters all over the country, felt the shivers and chills of Halloween ghost stories 24 hours ahead of time last night when a ‘fairy tale’ radio broadcast apparently convinced them that the nation had been taken over by strange men from Mars and that fatalities had already ranged from 40 to 7,000.”

The Times’ article went on to say that the paper had received a number of inquiries the night before. One woman caller said her mother had fainted from fear, while another woman raced up the Times’ three flights of stairs in what became the Dome Building before frantically running into the editorial offices asking what was taking place.

“We’ve been trying to build planes to take us to Mars, but they’ve beat us to it,” she excitedly said. “What shall we do? Where can we go?”

As was documented on a special on the “American Experience” this week on PBS, the Mercury Theater of the Air show where “The War of the Worlds” debuted had been a minor radio show before the edgy broadcast that night over the Columbia Broadcasting System.

What made it seem realistic in that era when radios were a main form of evening entertainment was that the broadcast sounded just like the radio news flashes about Adolf Hitler’s latest move or the Hindenburg passenger airship disaster in 1937.

And since Americans were also on fearful edge over the economic woes of the last nine years, they were extremely vulnerable and gullible, although many still failed to believe a Martian invasion had taken place.

As everyone soon found out, it was not an alien invasion, and all that ended up being captured were people’s imagination through the creativity of Mr. Welles and his staff, who were initially ridiculed by government officials.

But for a few minutes, many Chattanoogans thought a bad situation had occurred.

As the Times reported, one young man called the Times during the show to ask if any meteors had fallen near Chattanooga. He was told to go to bed and that he could verify in the next day’s paper that nothing had happened.

To that, he replied, “There won’t be any morning paper. It’s the end.”

After the show ended and he realized it was just a show, the young man called the paper back and admitted that he must have been out of his head to believe that stuff.

However, he added, “It was so real I could almost smell the poisonous gases from those terrible meteors.”

One caller from Waldens Ridge wondered if the event was some kind of “communist uprising,” while another thought it must have been an oil explosion in New Jersey.

The infant Chattanooga News-Free Press reported that at least two Chattanooga churches halted services after hearing the news of an apparent alien attack and then went to their knees in prayer.

One of the two churches quickly learned it was just a ploy, and the pastor quickly followed up with a stinging sermon on the sin of radio and called for a board of censors to control radio broadcasts.

The News-Free Press, the afternoon paper, added that some people still thought an invasion had taken place as late as the following morning.

The News-Free Press also reported that a party had been taking place at a downtown apartment when word of the “attack” was heard. As a result, the gathering quickly broke up.

Other reports of hysteria around town also floated into the newspaper, which reported that many people were reluctant to discuss whether they had been duped and that the paper learned most of the stories from friends of those involved.

WDOD program director Frank S. Lane said the next day that the station, which was then located on the 10th floor of the Hotel Patten, had received a few calls during the program, but not as many as in other parts of the country.

“It was just one of those unfortunate things,” he said. “In spite of the fact we announced at the half hour when we broke in for the station identification that it was all fiction and wasn’t happening, many failed to catch it.”

He added that the station had received only three calls from listeners protesting the broadcast.

As Chattanoogans celebrated Halloween the following night – including at a big Works Progress Administration-coordinated and Chattanooga Jaycee-sponsored event that drew thousands to downtown – normalcy seemed to return, even though it was Halloween.

The WPA event included a parade and, yes, one man dressed as a Martian.

While the police did not have to worry about Martians, they did have to keep an eye on fellow Chattanoogans. Among the Halloween pranks and acts of vandalism were destroying a corn field in White Oak, writing with soap on store windows, putting a makeshift fence across an Elder Mountain road, and piling lumber on another road.

Among the more-constructive use of energy by local young people that week was by the undefeated 1938 University of Tennessee football team under Robert Neyland, a squad that was getting ready to play Vanderbilt.

Among the Vol players that year with Chattanooga connections were Notre Dame High graduates Carl Hubbuch and Pryor Bacon, Baylor School grad Jim Cowan and the swift McCallie alumnus Bob Andridge.

They would have been a pretty good group with whom to go to battle against any foe, whether it was Vanderbilt or the men from Mars.

Thankfully, as many Chattanoogans still breathing a sigh of relief realized, no one would have to do battle against the Martians.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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