‘V-Discs’…

One of the interestingly beneficial side-effects of working in the field of German military musical history is just how often it overlaps other archival fields; as was just the case some years back when I was in a German archive and laid my hands on a group of 78rpm records on a label marked ‘V-Disc’ which, upon further examination seemed to contain a vast selection of WW-II era American music as obviously enjoyed by the GI’s in the front-line of the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) between D-Day June 6th 1944 and the Fall of Germany in May 1945….

But the story of these rare records goes back to the Summer of 1942 where, across the Atlantic, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike seeking royalties from the recording industry to compensate their members who were now perceived to be losing work as a result of alleged competition from these new recordings. Dragging on for over a year, it drastically reduced the production of new commercial recordings whilst also cutting off a vital supply of new records being sent out to help entertain the troops now fighting overseas.

However Robert Vincent, a lieutenant & sound-engineer with the US Army Special Services Division, suggested to his War Department that music could be specifically recorded for the Armed Forces and so in July 1943 he was transferred to the music section of American Special Forces in New York where he set about seeking support from the striking musicians together with a waiver of all royalty fees from their record companies & unions.

In return, the US War Department gave a full assurance that all such recordings that were produced under this scheme would be for military personnel only and, after hostilities had ceased, all 78 rpms manufactured would be deemed ‘military surplus’ and so destroyed, along with all of the original master-recordings…

Original known as ‘Special Services Recordings’ Robert Vincent’s secretary coined the name ‘V-Discs’ (the ‘V’ standing for both Victory & Vincent), and this became the official terminology for these recordings when shipped to US Armed Forces serving in foreign theatres! With the sole purpose of providing morale-boosting ‘music from back home’ for the GI’s serving overseas, a variety of entertainment was sourced: from commercial recordings & radio broadcasts to movie sound-tracks & specially commissioned performances from clubs & theatres across the United States.

Technically ‘V-Discs’ were cut with as many as 136 grooves per inch so that more than 6 minutes of music could be included, as opposed to the standard 4 minutes per side. But the most striking difference was that, with the raw material within schellack in short supply, by 1943 ‘V-Discs’ were actually manufactured in vinyl… amongst the very first such records ever to be made!

The first shipment of 1,800 boxes each containing 30 copies of these special ‘V-Discs’ were shipped from RCA-Victors’ New Jersey pressing plant in October 1943 and eventually some 8 million discs containing over 3,000 differing performances from various American artistes would had been manufactured by the time of war’s end and the programme’s rapid cessation some four years later in 1949…

Although most V-Discs were officially destroyed as agreed with the US music industry, a number found their way back to America in the kit-bags of returning GIs in 1945 or, as with this collection I happened upon, were left behind in a civilian house in Wurzburg in Southern Germany at war’s end… my only sadness being that, with such a heavy-handedness with the needles in the field when played by the troops, their quality was so bad that even our star audio-engineer Simon ‘Woody’ Wood could not digitally re-master them into a unique and broadcast-quality addition to The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014