Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps” by Rebecca Robbins Raines

During 1940 President Roosevelt had transferred the Pacific Fleet from bases on the West Coast of the United States to Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, hoping that its presence might act as a deterrent upon Japanese ambitions. Yet the move also made the fleet more vulnerable. Despite Oahu’s strategic importance, the air warning system on the island had not become fully operational by December 1941. The Signal Corps had provided SCR-270 and 271 radar sets earlier in the year, but the construction of fixed sites had been delayed, and radar protection was limited to six mobile stations operating on a part-time basis to test the equipment and train the crews. Though aware of the dangers of war, the Army and Navy commanders on Oahu, Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, did not anticipate that Pearl Harbor would be the target; a Japanese strike against American bases in the Philippines appeared more probable. In Hawaii, sabotage and subversive acts by Japanese inhabitants seemed to pose more immediate threats, and precautions were taken. The Japanese-American population of Hawaii proved, however, to be overwhelmingly loyal to the United States.

Because the Signal Corps’ plans to modernize its strategic communications during the previous decade had been stymied, the Army had only a limited ability to communicate with the garrison in Hawaii. In 1930 the Corps had moved WAR’s transmitter to Fort Myer, Virginia, and had constructed a building to house its new, high-frequency equipment. Four years later it added a new diamond antenna, which enabled faster transmission. But in 1939, when the Corps wished to further expand its facilities at Fort Myer to include a rhombic antenna for point-to-point communication with Seattle, it ran into difficulty. The post commander, Col. George S. Patton, Jr., objected to the Signal Corps’ plans. The new antenna would encroach upon the turf he used as a polo field and the radio towers would obstruct the view. Patton held his ground and prevented the Signal Corps from installing the new equipment. At the same time, the Navy was about to abandon its Arlington radio station located adjacent to Fort Myer and offered it to the Army. Patton, wishing instead to use the Navy’s buildings to house his enlisted personnel, opposed the station’s transfer. As a result of the controversy, the Navy withdrew its offer and the Signal Corps lost the opportunity to improve its facilities.

Though a seemingly minor bureaucratic battle, the situation had serious consequences two years later. Early in the afternoon of 6 December 1941, the Signal Intelligence Service began receiving a long dispatch in fourteen parts from Tokyo addressed to the Japanese embassy in Washington. The Japanese deliberately delayed sending the final portion of the message until the next day, in which they announced that the Japanese government would sever diplomatic relations with the United States effective at one o’clock that afternoon. At that hour, it would be early morning in Pearl Harbor.

Upon receiving the decoded message on the morning of 7 December, Chief of Staff Marshall recognized its importance. Although he could have called Short directly, Marshall did not do so because the scrambler telephone was not considered secure. Instead, he decided to send a written message through the War Department Message Center. Unfortunately, the center’s radio encountered heavy static and could not get through to Honolulu. Expanded facilities at Fort Myer could perhaps have eliminated this problem. The signal officer on duty, Lt. Col. Edward F French, therefore sent the message via commercial telegraph to San Francisco, where it was relayed by radio to the RCA office in Honolulu. That office had installed a teletype connection with Fort Shafter, but the teletypewriter was not yet functional. An RCA messenger was carrying the news to Fort Shafter by motorcycle when Japanese bombs began falling; a huge traffic jam developed because of the attack, and General Short did not receive the message until that afternoon.

WWII: american hams come to the aid of the US Army Signal Corps

Jeff Davis, KE9V, recently posted a link to a YouTube video which is an RCA public service announcement from WWII encouraging military-aged males who are also radio hams to join the Army (or Navy) and use their radio skills in service of their country. It is a great piece of film and well worth watching.

The accepted wisdom is that the great patriotic groundswell of support to the US entry into WWII also included large numbers of hams, who rushed to fill the ranks of the US military – answering the call to apply their technical and operating skills to support the military’s wartime radio communications requirements. The reality of what happen is a bit different.

In 1941, the US had approximately 58,000 licensed hams. As the Army looked forward to swelling its ranks in preparation for the upcoming conflict, the Signal Corps surveyed all the licensed hams and discovered that the majority of hams were ineligible for service. The survey results showed that most hams were too old for service, married, or had a physical condition that prevented them from joining.

The situation in 1941 differed greatly from WWI were the average age of the radio amateur coincided with draft age. In WWI, the vast majority of hams served in the military (with most enlisting in the Navy). During the inter-war years between WWI and WWII, the age of the radio amateur slowly rose – beyond that of the draftee.

For those hams that were qualified for wartime service during WWII, entering the Signal Corps and using the radio skills presented another challenge. The military relied on the potential recruit to self-identify their technical skills. And even if the recruit actively attempted to get placed in the Signal Corps, they often ended up in other positions that failed to make the full use of their radio skills. Like any large bureaucracy, the system was flawed and slow to adapt. Of the 58,000 hams, 12,000 found their way into uniform – a little over 20%.

I have nothing but the highest respect for those who have served their country and I am certain there were hams who tried serve and found they were ineligible. When I originally researched this segment of amateur radio history, I was very surprised to find out only 20% of hams served in WWII. It is interesting how the passage of time warps how we perceive the past. It would be nice to think that the WWII ham community served a critical role in bolstering our wartime communications, but the reality is different. On the positive side, many non-hams who served in WWII dealing with radio communications gravitated towards ham radio after the war and helped swell the ranks of licensed amateurs.

The future is an abstraction, the ‘present’ but a fleeting moment, all else history

Today I got the opportunity to conduct another phone interview with a radio amateur who served in World War II. The gentleman has been a licensed ham for 72 years and still has an active license. I found his name in a pre-World War II QST. He’d written a letter after he’d answered the call to duty and had been sent to Fort Monmouth, NJ to undergo training in the Signal Corps. His letter to QST laid out the process of what a ham would experience once he made the jump from the civilian world into the Army. I wanted to ask him about his experiences during training, had there been other hams in his unit? Did his amateur radio skills help him become a better Army signalman? Where was he sent after Fort Monmouth? Europe… the Pacific? The gentleman had served his country along with our greatest generation and I wanted to honor his service by hearing his war stories. Unfortunately the years had eroded his memories and he couldn’t recall much more than that he had been in the Army for five years and had briefly served at Fort Monmouth. He immediately recalled his holding of an amateur radio ticket for 72 years and it was heartening to think that amateur radio had played a major part in his long life. I sincerely thanked him for his service to our nation but was somewhat saddened by the fact that his wartime experiences are lost in the shadows of history.