Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Floyd Gibbons: Early Radio's Answer to Indiana Jones

He was a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Indiana Jones. And he was one of radio's first newsmen. Like most of radio's earliest news reporters and anchors, Floyd Gibbons was originally a newspaper reporter.

My fascination with Gibbons began when I was working as the Radio Curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in NYC. I was going through some boxes in our warehouse when I found some rather interesting items. In addition to books, notes, letters, and other items, there was a small bag filled with what I later discovered were eye-patches. This put me in research mode and I discovered Floyd Gibbons, who would quickly become one of my heroes of early radio.

As a newspaper writer for the Chicago Tribune, Gibbons was known for an amazingly descriptive style...something that would carry over into his radio work.

His life is well documented in other places, but here are a few highlights:

  • As a young newspaper reporter, Gibbons covered 1916 Mexican Expedition (also known as the Pancho Villa Expedition), even though Pancho Villa declared that any "gringos" found on Mexican soil would be killed on sight. As a reporter, he gained Villa's trust and accompanied him on several battles and was able to bring important news back to the states.
  • In 1917, he was a passenger on the armed merchant cruiser (converted from an ocean liner) the RMS Laconia on it's final voyage across the Atlantic. On that voyage on February 25, 1917, the Laconia was torpedoed by the Germans. The boat sank and 12 of the 75 people on board were killed. Gibbons survived the attack and gained fame for his reports about the event. He later wrote a book about WWI called "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight," which begins with the sinking of the Laconia.
  • Despite that, perhaps his most famous episode came in 1918 as he covered the Battle of Belleau Wood in France. During the battle, Gibbons was right up front as the American troops advanced. Gibbons was shot three times, the third bullet ripping out his left eye. Gibbons even refused treatment until injured soldiers were treated. It was that injury that gave Gibbons his trademark eye patch for which he would be known in later years. You can read Gibbons' own account of the event here.

Later on, Gibbons made the transition to radio as both a newsman and commentator. His fast-talking and descriptive approach to the news was as interesting as his writing. Here is a clip from his reporting on the devastating flooding in the Connecticut River Valley in 1936, which he observed during a 300 mile flight up and down both sides of the river:

Gibbons even had a book series called the Floyd Gibbons School of Broadcast (of which I thankfully have a set), and also wrote The Red Knight of Germany, a biography of the Red Baron.

Gibbons was also a very popular voice on newsreels during the 20s and 30s, including the Oscar winning "With Byrd at the South Pole," and he eventually received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Sadly, Gibbons died at his Pennsylvania home in 1939 at the age of only 53. I was fortunate to have had the chance to listen to much of his work, and still have copies of each of his books. They sure don't make reporters like they used to!


Anonymous said...

thanks for the insight and acknowledgement to Floyd's talents. I am his great niece and when the internet was just a baby (that being right after Al Gore "invented" it) I posted a couple of his stories to Trenches on the Web. In the years following that original post I have heard from an amazing cross section of interested (and interesting) people looking for more info on Floyd. Thanks again :) Shelley

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