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Prisoner of War: a voice from the past

During World War II, hundreds of short wave radio listeners brought comfort to family members of prisoners of war.

Among those on the receiving end was the family of Penticton museum volunteer Mona Thornton.

In the case of Thornton, she had old recordings sent to her mother made on cardboard paper with her father’s voice, a captured Canadian soldier, broadcast on Radio Tokyo in 1943.

So last year, she approached members of the Peach City Community Radio Society with the hope of digitizing the delicate 78-r.p.m. recordings.

“I was fascinated by this unknown effort by people to send thousands of cards and letters to worried families who had no word of a captured soldier’s fate from official military sources,” said Craig Henderson, a volunteer with the nonprofit radio society.

On Feb. 19, Henderson and Thornton will give a public presentation about shortwave message relay during World War II and the effort to recover Joseph Frenette’s voice from the delicate vintage recordings.

The talk is part of the Penticton Museum’s Brown Bag lunchtime series from noon to 1 p.m. at the  library-museum auditorium, 785 Main Street.

In 1943 and 1944, when Thornton was a toddler, the recordings were sent to her mother in New Brunswick from total strangers.

Her mother also received letters from shortwave listeners in Pennsylvania and Washington-state reporting that they had heard the voice of Frenette, or had heard mention of his name on Radio Tokyo.
 
Frenette was a member of Canada’s Royal Rifles, defending Hong Kong against Japanese attack. Hong Kong fell on December 25, 1941 after a 17-day battle.

For almost a year, his wife  had not heard officially from the military whether  he was dead, missing or among the 1,200 Canadians taken prisoner.

The first word of his capture came to her from one of the civilian listeners in the U.S.A., late in 1942.
 
As Henderson did more research he realized that during the war there were hundreds of shortwave civilian monitors in North America tuning into radio broadcasts from Berlin and Tokyo.
 
“I certainly was aware, as a post war child, that there were great civilian efforts from rationing to metal recycling and war bond sales, but it was news to me that citizens in North America were listening to enemy radio stations to get word on the conditions of prisoners of war,” he said.

Henderson admits he was nervous about finding the right equipment and a person with the right experience to help digitize the old recordings.

“These recordings were very delicate and over time could be damaged, so we knew just putting them on a 1960s’ record player would not be an appropriate way to do this,” he said. “Fortunately we found Mickey Clarke, a former record store owner, who had the right needles and knowledge to achieve what we needed.”

In December, Clarke was successful in extracting the long lost voice.

At first, there was overwhelming crackle and radio interference, but then there it was, the voice of  Frenette from a P.O.W. camp wishing his wife and baby girl a Merry Christmas, 1943.

Thornton said she cried when she heard the recording.

“It took me back to that time and place where he was in a Japanese prison camp, because it was too much for me realizing the conditions the P.O.W.s went through," she said.

Her father returned home from the war in 1945 and resumed his normal life.

In addition to speaking at the museum, Henderson will post a one-hour radio documentary about her story and  P.O.W. shortwave message relay during World War II later this week, and will be able to be heard online.



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