One of the most popular patriotic songs is “God Bless America.” It is commonly sung at athletic events as well as many others. In major league baseball, ever since the 9-11 attacks, the tune is played in stadiums during the ‘seventh inning stretch.’ There are many stories beneath the surface about this popular tune that deserve our attention.
The author of this song, words and music, is the late Irving Berlin. He was not a native born American but instead, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Berlin was a long-lived composer of both music and Broadway shows. Among many, the musical tribute to sharpshooter Annie Oakley “Annie Get Your Gun” was his invention. Better than most, he understood the essence of American exceptionalism which he captured in “God Bless America” – a synthesis of patriotism and prayer.
In the 1930s, a young woman from North Carolina became very popular on the radio networks. Kate Smith, who had earned the reputation as the ‘southern songbird,’ was looking for a signature song to end her broadcasts. She chose Berlin’s “God Bless America”and introduced it to her audience on Armistice (now Veterans) Day 1938. But there was a twist to her version. Because of the dire situation in Europe with Hitler’s rise, Kate added a preamble to the song that today, is largely forgotten.
This is how Smith introduced what was to become her own song: “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free/Let us all be grateful for a land so fair/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” With that introduction, she would launch into a full throated version of “God Bless America.”
“God Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam. God Bless America, my home sweet home; God Bless America, my home sweet home.”
Decades later, American aviators were being shot down over the skies of North Vietnam and imprisoned as POWs. For years, they were kept in solitary confinement. To communicate with their fellow Americans, the POWs developed a ‘tap code’ to communicate through the thick cell walls from one cell to the next. A 5 by 5 matrix contained 25 of the 26 letters of the alphabet; they deleted ‘q’ which could be substituted with a ‘k’ without much loss in translation.
The prisoners tapped constantly from their cells where they were confined for 23 hours every day … for years. They later joked that you would think that the prison was infested with woodpeckers since the tapping went on constantly. As their numbers grew, new prisoners would be introduced to the tap code, especially in the Hoa Lo Prison which carried the nickname “Hanoi Hilton.”
One of the early POWs was a Navy A-6 squadron commander Jeremiah Denton from Mobile, Alabama. As a senior officer, Denton, a devout Roman Catholic, formed a chain of command and tightened discipline and esprit among the captured aviators. One of the rituals introduced into Hoa Lo was church every Sunday. At 9 a.m. each Sunday, the tap code alerted everyone that church was about to begin. At the first signal, each POW would recite the Lord’s Prayer. Next, they would face the east toward their homeland and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The service would conclude with the echoing tap, GBA – God Bless America. That same acronym, GBA, was used every night at taps before the prisoners turned in for the night. They did this, year after year, every night without fail. They never lost faith.
Finally in early 1973, an armistice was signed and the POWs returned to their homeland. When the first C-141, the Hanoi Taxi 66-0177, touched down at Clark AB in The Philippines on February 12 carrying the first forty returning Americans, the senior officer Jerry Denton stepped off the aircraft first. He was greeted by Admiral Noel Gaylor who asked Captain Denton if he wanted to make any remarks to the crowd of well-wishers.
He stepped to the microphone and briefly offered this: “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander-in-chief and to our nation for this day. God Bless America.”
These are three American heroes: Irving Berlin, Kate Smith and Jeremiah Denton. They served their nation in different ways offering their unique gifts to honor their home and God. They recognized that we live in a unique land blessed by the hand of God. We should never forget their example nor allow a small minority to separate us from our values.