Betty Wason · 2002
By Tom Davies
Betty Wason was an unlikely war correspondent. As a girl growing up in Delphi, Ind., she studied classical violin and painting and had enrolled at Purdue University to become a dress designer.
After graduating from Purdue in 1933, her first job, the only one she could find during the Great Depression, was selling yard goods in Ayres Department Store’s basement in Indianapolis. She later gained her first broadcasting experience doing a program for a radio cooking school in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I was young and adventurous and wanted to see the world. I had no money, so I decided I would become a journalist,” Wason said in a 1997 interview.
She showed more than a little of what she called “bravado” when she started looking for her first job.
“I went around to New York editors announcing I was going to Europe and would like to be their correspondent,” she wrote. “At Transradio Press, a brand new wire service for radio newscasters, the president, Herbert Moore, asked where I expected to go, I said boldly, ‘Wherever things are happening!”‘
With that, she became a pioneering woman in radio journalism.
She was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, working for Transradio in 1938 when the Nazis took over the government. She showed her news instincts by accompanying Hungarian troops as they entered Czechoslovakia and then traveling to Rome for Neville Chamberlain’s meetings with Mussolini.
The paychecks from Transradio, however, were not enough, so Wason returned, discouraged, to New York. Her determination and a stint creating promotional recipes for Welch’s Grape Juice soon had her back to Europe, where she checked in regularly with CBS’s Berlin correspondent.
Wason was soon on her way to Norway after Nazi troops began their invasion. She made a daring crossing into Norway, eluding the border guards, hitching a ride in a truck across the mountainous terrain and hiding in the woods to wait out an air raid. She found out how badly the Allied defense had gone by interviewing wounded British soldiers, then hitching rides and walking on the return trip to Stockholm for her broadcast.
All that hard work didn’t guarantee support from her bosses at CBS. They asked her to find a man to read her texts.
“Later it was widely acknowledged that the men at the top in the broadcast business were prejudiced against women’s voices over the air,” Wason wrote in 1995. “They said women weren’t authoritative enough or sufficiently knowledgeable to handle serious subjects.”
She left Sweden in the spring of 1940 in search of the next big story and landed in Greece after stops in the Balkans and Istanbul, where the British apparently thought her a Nazi spy and the Russians thought she was a British agent, said Nancy Caldwell Sorel, who included Wason in her book “The Women Who Wrote The War.”
“I don’t think she was anything of the sort, but she was kind of a free-spirit who thought she could go where she wanted and do what she wanted to do,” Sorel said.
With the Italian army expected to invade Greece, CBS again hired Wason and she also became a stringer for Newsweek. But soon after Mussolini began his attack in October 1940, a cable came from CBS: “Find male American broadcast 4U.”
She again found a man willing to become her surrogate voice and during the six months Wason was the only CBS correspondent in Athens, her pseudonym announcer (a young secretary at the American embassy) began each broadcast: “Hello Columbia. Hello America. This is Phil Brown in Athens speaking for Betty Wason.”
She remained in Athens through the winter, sometimes making five broadcasts a day, and refused to leave in the midst of the story in April 1941 as the Germans began air raids on the city. Wason made the final broadcast on the eve of the German entry and the next day walked into the German headquarters to ask permission to broadcast again. She reported that all Americans in occupied Athens were safe and that the city had been spared.
The United States was still neutral in the war, but she was stuck in Athens for several weeks with the Nazis no longer allowing her to broadcast. Wason left Athens, along with Wes Gallagher of the AP and George Weller of the Chicago Daily News, on a Lufthansa plane for Vienna, where they were detained as suspected spies until their identities were verified. They were later taken by train to Berlin under Gestapo guard.
The male correspondents were soon released, but Wason was held another week “for reasons never divulged except that the police wanted to know more about me,” Wason said.
After a CBS executive intervened, the Gestapo released her.
Wason was busy on her return to the U.S., with many requests for lectures and press interviews.
“Everyone made a fuss over me but CBS,” Wason wrote. “When I went to see (news director) Paul White, he dismissed me with, ‘You were never one of our regular news staff.’ Then what, 1 wondered, had I been doing for CBS all that time in Greece?”
Wason made a long career in broadcasting and writing. She wrote more than 20 booksmany on her favorite topic of cooking continuing until the age of 86 when she completed a book about the disease macular degeneration that robbed her of much of her vision.
She also was women’s editor for the Voice of America, an editor at McCalls and Women’s Home Companion and spent six years as moderator for “Author Rap Sessions” on NBC. She lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and Portugal while working as a freelance writer and in public relations. She moved to Seattle, Wash., in 1985 to be near her daughter and grandchildren. She passed away in February 2001 at the age of 88.
Her most successful book was her chronicle of the Axis invasion of Greece.
“‘Miracle in Hellas’ was a resounding success,” Wason wrote. “But the tough struggle to make it as a woman correspondent, ending with the cruel rebuff by CBS, cooled my desire for more overseas war reporting.”