The concept for one of the greatest film documentaries ever produced originated in the mind of Henry “Pete” Salomon, Jr. (1917-1958). Having worked for NBC radio before the war, he was assigned to the Secretary of the Navy’s Public Relations Office when he joined the US Navy in 1942. After producing a popular radio program called Victory Hour, Salomon became a member of Lieutenant Commander Samuel Eliot Morison’s staff. Morison was then working on his epic 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, and assigned Salomon to carry out research for the project. Salomon spent the next several years, all the way to 1948, traveling all over the Pacific, including Japan, to conduct his research—and earned a naval commendation for his efforts.
After retiring from the service in 1948, Salomon began work on developing the concept for a “telementary” that would chronicle the US Navy’s war-winning efforts in all theaters of conflict during World War II. The visual source material for this was overwhelming: thousands of reels, amounting to millions of feet of film, in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and even India. After approaching longtime friend Robert Sarnoff at NBC, Salomon was able to secure approval in January 1951 for creating a television series, with a budget of half a million dollars and a designated team to cull 60 million feet of film for what would eventually be a 26-part television series utilizing some 60,000 feet of film.
The title of the documentary: "Victory at Sea."
As Salomon began devising the themes and writing the narration for each half-hour episode, NBC executive Pat Weaver approached Broadway composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), already famous for his award-winning work on Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I. “If you were approached to do some work for the United States Navy,” Weaver said, “we’d like your assurance that you wouldn’t refuse to consider it.” A little taken aback, Rodgers replied, “Well, of course I wouldn’t refuse to consider an offer from the United States Navy.”
As it turned out, Rodgers only agreed to compose the musical themes for "Victory at Sea" on condition that neither he nor NBC earned any money from the series’ initial run—a condition to which the network, rightly anticipating massive later profits on future runs—agreed. Although Rodgers was fresh from his work on The King and I, and used to writing music set to lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, he delved into the new project right away and greatly enjoyed it. Yet although Rodgers was the “big name” and creative inspiration behind the magnificent music, he was not really responsible for writing it in the form that millions of Americans would hear over the coming years.
That distinction belonged to American composer Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981). A lifelong musician and composer from Kansas City, Missouri, Bennett had cut his teeth on military music during World War I, when he had directed an army band. After that war he moved to Broadway, where he collaborated with great American songwriters and composers like Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. He orchestrated the music for Broadway shows like Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, and Kiss Me Kate, and then joined Rodgers and Hammerstein to orchestrate Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. He was a natural collaborator with Rodgers on "Victory at Sea," and in fact he composed the vast majority of the 13-hour score. Bennett then timed the music to match the documentary film, even incorporating sounds of gunfire and airplane engines, as well as jungle sounds. He also conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra recording.
"Victory at Sea" aired on Sunday afternoons beginning on October 26, 1952, with actor Leonard Graves, who had also worked on The King and I, providing the narration. In an era when television was beginning to dominate American households, which now included millions of veterans just starting to raise families but harboring powerful memories of their military service, the series was a smash hit. The narration and film footage were reminiscent of wartime newsreels, but shocking scenes of combat at sea and on land and the soaring music elicited an entirely new and powerfully emotional dimension of the war experience.
In the year after its first broadcast, “Victory at Sea” won numerous awards, including a Peabody and an Emmy, and a George Washington Medal from the Freedoms Foundation. Rodgers also received a Distinguished Service Award from the US Navy. His theme for “Beneath the Southern Cross,” a favorite of series theme music devotees, was given words by Hammerstein and became the hit song “No Other Love.” In many ways, though, it was Bennett’s score, recorded by RCA and released on two LP records, that had the most enduring influence and became a fixture in millions of households.
The score’s most famous fan was US Navy WWII veteran Richard M. Nixon, who was known to play it at very high volume after political victories and made it echo down the halls of the White House during his six years as president of the United States. Portions of the score were played at Nixon’s funeral. Still played by many orchestras and radio programs on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, the guns and strings of “Victory at Sea” continue to resonate in the twenty-first century.