Jimmy Mack got an eyeful...of a young lady..on VE Day in London
Jim McDowell (image courtesy of Facebook)
When the European half of World War II officially ended 70 years ago today, a man who would become one of Indiana's great broadcasters was caught off guard by the news as he served his country in England. Jim McDowell would be caught off guard even more by what he saw moments later during the impromptu celebration.
"She was stark...nekkid," laughed McDowell, 92, when I spoke to him at his Broad Ripple home. He was talking about a "beautiful young English girl" giving out hugs to a growing line of soldiers and sailors that snaked through London's Piccadilly Circus as news of Germany's surrender circulated among the crowd. The woman was wearing a fur coat...and nothing else. "When we first got in the line, I thought 'well, I bet she's saying thank you fellas.' Then, we got closer to her and realized...there was more to this hug than a thank you!" What McDowell saw when it was his turn for a “hug” remains clear -and bare - even now. "What a moment! It only lasted 10 seconds, but I still remember that moment."
McDowell is better known to a generation of Indianapolis radio and television fans as Jimmy Mack. He was a medic during the war, stationed with the 231st Hospital Group in England for 2 1/2 years. He also sang and played upright bass in his hospital unit's swing band, the Gable Gators - the unit's commanding officer being the namesake. The band was the reason McDowell happened to be in London on what turned out to be VE Day. "We played a lot of (shows) all over the area of the 8th Air Force, which we served in our hospital, B-17 and B-24 bombers flying missions to Europe," McDowell said. The band had a scheduled performance on May 8, 1945 at a Red Cross club at Rainbow Corner, next to Piccadilly Circus, "The streets were filled with people, and we wondered what in the world was going on. Then, somebody shouted 'Germany surrendered!' Oh wow, we didn't even hear that before we went to London."
The Lincoln, Nebraska native has copies of all the letters he mailed from England to his then-fiancé Peggy in Indy. They met while Jim was getting his Army medical training at Camp Atterbury and while Peggy sold records and sheet music at Pearson’s Music Store, 128 North Pennsylvania Street. Jim was a frequent customer because the Gable Gators were already a band - McDowell says they played shows at the Camp and Fort Harrison, as well as on WIRE radio (now WXNT 1430-AM) and on the Camp’s own radio program, “Meet The Yanks”, which aired on WIBC-AM (1070 The Fan today). Those letters to Peggy help Jim remember meticulous details of his service. Much of his description of VE Day to me was taken from a letter dated the day after, May 9. And in case you were wondering, the answer is yes, he did include details of the “hug” from the mostly threadbare woman.
Most people, McDowell included, knew the end of the war was near - Adolf Hitler had taken his own life at least one week prior to VE Day. But news of the final German surrender was still a pleasant surprise, since war news among service members was hard to come by. "All the guys and girls who came through our hospital weren't supposed to talk about where they had been or what kind of action they had," McDowell said. "The 8th Air Force guys came to our dances, we played music for them, but they never, ever talked about getting in the plane and going out tomorrow morning, flying over Germany and ‘hope I get back.’ They weren't allowed to discuss that."
McDowell became a broadcaster at his Army hospital – he and a friend did two shows a day at the unit’s small radio station. He would be a broadcaster after coming home, often with Peggy’s help either on the air or behind the scenes - she had a degree in radio-speech from Butler University by the time Jim left England in January of ‘46. After Jim graduated from Chicago’s Columbia School of Broadcasting, they worked as a team on radio shows in Michigan before returning to Indianapolis in 1958. That’s where Jimmy became a star of the early days of rock & roll, hosting "Teens and Tunes" on WISH-AM (later WIFE and currently WTLC-AM) as well as WISH-TV's 'Teen Twirl', one of the country’s ubiquitous local teen dance shows. Jimmy Mack held several radio and TV jobs over the next three decades, and he landed in the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in October 2009, nominated for the Hall by Peggy and inducted a week after she died at age 86.
When talk turns to the war, Jimmy is a gregarious young man again, recounting his bus trips from the Camp to meet up with Peggy and promptly falling asleep in her car; “they never let us sleep during training,” he complained. He has told countless people about the time he met the most famous band leader in the world, Glenn Miller; then-Major Miller had his massive Army Air Force Band in England at the time. I did a piece on Jim and Glenn when the current Glenn Miller Band passed through Indy during the summer of 2014, but the gist of the story is that McDowell was introduced to Miller inside the men's latrine - a restroom - at an Officer's Club in England where McDowell's band played a gig after an earlier concert by Miller's band. An enlarged picture of the musical men standing in the restroom, Miller holding his ever-present cigarette, is part of a large collection of Miller memorabilia that Jim likes to show off.
Luckily for us, Jimmy McDowell also has clear memories of the end of the European war; to be sure, a noticeable lack of clothing on an anonymous young lady probably helps keep those memories more alive than others. Jim also keeps a CD compilation of the sounds of VE Day close by. He hopes that somewhere in the background of one of the tracks on the disc is his voice, reveling with thousands of others who had finally awakened from years of the nightmare of war. "I circled it on the inside (liner notes), and it says here 'May 8, 1945: The crowd celebrating at Piccadilly Circus. That was my crowd!"
My chat with Jim McDowell at his home in Broad Ripple, as we talk about VE Day:
We have told Mr. McDowell's story before - he was a medic during World War II stationed in England. He also sang in his unit's band. His band was scheduled to play in London when they heard a commotion outside - it was VE Day at Piccadilly Circus. I went to Jim's house to look back 70 years later.