Chapter 4: The First Months of the War Overseas (January–May 1942)
The springs and summers of other years, had been seasons for field maneuvers, for mock battles giving the Signal Corps an opportunity to try out its organization and equipment in pseudo warfare. This spring, in the year 1942, the field tests were real, with success and failure being measured in blood. From Washington to the most remote outposts of the United States Army, the realities of war were testing the men and equipment of the Signal Corps. Its losses in the Pacific theaters of war had to be compensated. Its obligations everywhere had to be met.
Toward Eastern Bastions
As the Signal Corps looked to Europe early in 1942, the paths were being blocked. Submarines infested the North Atlantic, beset the harbors and coasts of the Atlantic States, and then carried their destruction into Caribbean waters. Communications had to be at least established and secured before large-scale military movement against Germany could be begun, whether by sea or air. Looking toward England, the Signal Corps had already, before Pearl Harbor, dispatched men and equipment eastward to build aircraft warning and communication facilities in Iceland in order to bolster the North Atlantic sea and airways. On 25 January 1942 the entire 50th Signal Battalion joined thirty-nine of its men who had previously sailed to Iceland in August 1941 with Task Force 4. The battalion had wire to put in, and pole and cable lines to install and maintain in the bitter darkness of the northern winter.
At Reykjavik in Iceland a Signal Corps one-kilowatt transmitter, station WVHC, had been working with the War Department’s headquarters radio station WAR in Washington since November 1941. Adverse electromagnetic conditions and poor electrical ground conductivity of the terrain seriously hindered communications over this channel of the Army Command and Administrative Network (ACAN). By the summer of 1942 the one-kilowatt transmitter was shifted to a shorter circuit, to Northern Ireland, while the channel to WAR received a boost from a new ten-kilowatt transmitter, a BC-340. In March 1942 three 300-watt transmitters, BC-270’s,
arrived in Iceland to provide a local radio net over the island.1
Since radio was not entirely satisfactory in Iceland, the Army decided early in 1942 to stretch an independent wire network over the island. General Olmstead sent two Signal Corps officers to make a survey. Their recommendations developed into a project which the Chief of Staff approved in May with the request that it “be accomplished as promptly as possible.” The wire system was planned to make use of commercial carrier equipment, something new to Signal Corps construction units. It was so new in fact that Signal Corps men lacked experience in its use, and therefore they gave the job of engineering the proposed layout to the Long Lines Division of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Bell Laboratories. It would not be spiral-four and military C carrier, which were not yet in production, but commercial H and C carrier, which Western Electric would fabricate.
“Latitude 65°,” as this project became known, called for 1,000 miles of four-wire pole line extending through the northern and eastern sectors of Iceland. The four open wires would provide enough service in some areas; in others, where more circuits might be needed, the same wires would provide multiple circuits under H and C carrier operation. In the more populated southwest area, the planners sought to install about 350 miles of lead tape cable carrying from ten to fifty-one wire pairs, the cable to be buried except in places where lava rock forbade. Construction on Latitude 65° fell chiefly to three of the larger signal units on the island: the 26th Signal Construction Battalion, and the 50th and 54th Signal Battalions. The 50th, whose landing in January preceded by six months the arrival of the 54th and the 26th, at once started upon its first task amid the rigors of the frigid wind-ridden arctic winter, laying a ten-pair rubber cable over lava fields from the Reykjavik area to Patterson Field near Keflavik.2
Among the first Signal Corps units to arrive in Northern Ireland, the next great steppingstone toward the enemy in Europe, was the 63rd Signal Battalion. It sailed in January, to be followed in February by the 203rd Signal Depot Company. A group from the 161st Signal Photographic Company, Lt. Robert M. Lande and six men, arrived at Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 19 January 1942. Col. Floyd T. Gillespie and S. Sgt. Joel M. Hirsh of the 63rd Signal Battalion initiated signal services for the United States Army forces in Northern Ireland at Belfast on 28 January, a few days after the first large body of troops landed. It was nearly a month later before a depot of American communication equipment took form at Carrickfergus under the 203rd Signal Depot Company. At first, therefore, the Signal Corps men of this task force used Irish facilities, and only gradually substituted their own. They set up a radio station
to communicate first with Iceland and then with other points. On 3 March ten officers and 58 enlisted men of the 827th Signal Service Company reached London to set up facilities for the new preinvasion headquarters there.3
Until the headquarters for the United States Army Forces in the British Isles was organized, the American military and naval personnel comprising the special observers’ groups had occupied joint headquarters at 20 Grosvenor Square. At first they had depended upon British communication facilities and those of the American Embassy. But when the 827th Signal Service Company arrived, the men soon established a signal center at 20 Grosvenor Square, with the message center and teleprinter room located in flats 116 and 117 and the code room in a vault in the basement. Because neither time nor shipping space permitted the transport of U.S. Army equipment across the Atlantic, the 827th called on the British to provide the necessary equipment and office supplies. But by this time such
materials were very scarce in Britain, and to get the equipment needed the British General Post Office stripped some of its own installations and drew on stores of outmoded equipment and components. Working with an odd assortment of apparatus, some of it venerable enough to invite the interest of museums, the 827th managed within a few weeks of its arrival to have the Signal Center set up, and was handling a rapidly increasing volume of traffic.
By May the rate of increase in traffic and of expansion of the communications system was feverish: new officers were pouring into London, sometimes as many as three or four hundred landing in a single day; new headquarters were springing up; new circuits had to be installed at the rate of at least one a week. During this period of violent activity the officers at the Signal Center were obliged to perform the time-consuming labor of paraphrasing all messages received in code. They were submerged in shipping manifests, a particularly troublesome kind of message to decode. In May alone there were upward of 250 of these manifests, running as high as 5,000 items each, and the daily need of finding new ways of saying such things as “In the fourth deck we have guns and automobiles” taxed the highest powers of invention. Not until fall was the Signal Center relieved of the paraphrasing assignment.
New American equipment was on its way, in particular a powerful Press Wireless 40-kilowatt multichannel radio transmitter with which Signal Corps operators could call halfway around the world, now that they were free from the 10-kilowatt limitation formerly imposed by the Navy. In mid-July this direct ACAN radio link to WAR became established. Meanwhile, on 17 April, a Western Union channel to the Second Corps Area at Governors Island, New York, and to the New York Port of Embarkation went into operation. By the end of May, the Signal Corps had installed four additional teletypewriters, providing direct circuits to the Air Ministry, to U.S. Army Headquarters in Northern Ireland, and to the United States Bomber Command at High Wycombe.4
The northern route to Iceland and England might on any day be blocked, if not by submarine, then by German invasion of those island bastions. The southern areas guarding and flanking the Caribbean and Panama were vital also. To assure access to Africa and the Middle East, the eastward bulge of Brazil became strategically important. Signal Corps men had already been dispersed rather thinly along this route, serving especially the Army Air Forces, which was engaged in ferrying aircraft and transporting crews and supplies along a string of hastily established air bases. The 860th Signal Service Company, Aviation, went to Panama in April; the 73rd Signal Company to Puerto Rico in March. Other Signal Corps units, particularly aircraft warning and aviation types, had long preceded them.5 The 22nd Signal Service Company had landed in Trinidad in mid-1941. Later in 1942 others came there and also to Ascension Island lying in mid-ocean en route to Africa.
During 1942 men arrived in increasing numbers. Aircraft warning companies became battalions; signal platoons, air base, became signal companies. The 22nd Signal Service Company on Trinidad doubled its size within the year. Special units appeared, such as the 120th Signal Radio Intelligence Company coming in April and dividing itself between Panama and Trinidad in order to intercept clandestine Axis radio transmissions.6
By now radars such as SCR-270, 271, and 588 together with skilled radar men came increasingly to the Caribbean. So did radar critics, in the persons of high-ranking officers and prominent civilians, notably Watson-Watt and Secretary Stimson. The Secretary of War feared more for Panama than for Hawaii. Inspecting the Canal’s defenses in March 1942, he was told that the radar and intercept facilities there could not yet cope with aircraft once they had been launched from their carriers.7 Before the end of April four additional radars went into operation in Panama, and more were readied. In the second week of April two new SCR-588’s began operation, one at Fort Sherman and one near Rio Hato, Panama, both ahead of schedule. By April, too, radar protection along the south or Pacific approaches to the Canal extended for 510 miles. Along the north or Caribbean side, an area 450 miles from east to west and 150 miles deep was now covered. But over mountainous areas there remained gaps in radar coverage which the long waves of the early types could not fill. By May technicians, spare parts, and maintenance stores were arriving, all badly needed.8
The mushrooming of aircraft warning installations and of airfields throughout the Caribbean area was demanding and getting extensive wire nets supplemented by radio. Pole lines crisscrossed Panama; in Puerto Rico a cable went in between San Juan and Borinquen Field; in Jamaica, a cable provided communications between Kingston and Fort Simonds. By September 1942 the teletype system alone in Panama would embrace 22 wire nets and 96 machines, providing tactical, administrative, and weather nets. Tactical radio facilities appeared all over the Caribbean, too. By the end of March 1942 the Sixth Air Force was served by 20 radio nets.9
More radio than wire went to all the islands, including the big installations for Puerto Rico and Trinidad. At Trinidad military communications had been chronically confused and the despair of more than one Signal Corps report. One root of trouble was a fuzzy delineation of responsibility between the Signal Corps and the Engineer Corps for installing wire systems. A reassignment of functions in April was expected to mend matters.10 Earlier in the year, General Andrews of the Caribbean Defense
Command had written to General Olmstead commenting upon plans for radio on the island which had “evidently visualized that the Trinidad Base Command would be rather unimportant.” He added, “Actually, it is one of the most important areas in the whole Caribbean theater; much more so than Puerto Rico.” Olmstead assured Andrews that he was expediting a radiotelephone installation for Trinidad.11
Beyond Trinidad and to the east would soon develop many more Signal Corps activities, as yet hardly more than paper plans in Washington. Ascension Island, lonely, hitherto almost uninhabited except by sea birds, the British governor, and the Cable and Wireless station, was becoming a vital link along the South Atlantic air ferry route. When the advance echelon of Composite Task Force 8012 landed there early in the spring, it brought a communication detachment, one lieutenant and seven men, of the 692nd Signal Aircraft Warning Company. With them came the makings of a communication system which would serve the future military installations, the airfield, and the radar stations. While the men were completing the information center late in May, two SCR-271’s were on their way from the Lexington Signal Depot.12
Meanwhile, plans for large ACAN stations in Asmara, Eritrea, and in Basra, Iraq, were being realized. By the last week of May Press Wireless filled a Signal Corps order, in the record time of three and a half months, for a 40-kilowatt transmitter for shipment to Asmara to become the main station serving the U. S. Military North African Mission. At the same time transmitters were on order for the U. S. Military Iranian Mission: a one-kilowatt station for Basra together with four lesser transmitters, two 300-watt and two 75-watt.13
Toward Pacific Outposts
Everywhere throughout the Pacific area communications were in demand, especially in the Territory of Hawaii. Oahu, America’s first combat theater of the war, experienced its last enemy action on the night of 4 March 1942, when three bombs fell upon the outskirts of Honolulu. Interceptor airplanes failed to track the craft which dropped the bombs. Thereupon Maj. Gen. Delos G. Emmons, commander of the Hawaiian Department, demanded that the Signal Corps provide him at once with AI radars, SCR-540’s. He asked for three sets in order to equip a like number of swift A-20 attack bombers as night fighters, able to detect and hunt down enemy planes in darkness.14
From a theater of war, Hawaii was now fast growing into a huge base of supply. Men and material were accumulating
preparatory to movements ever deeper, in ever greater mass, into the far Pacific. The 9th Signal Service Company (later the 972nd Signal Service Company) maintained and operated communication facilities in Hawaii. At the same time the company furnished radio operators going out to Christmas, Canton, and Fanning Islands, and supplied operators for transports sailing between San Francisco and Hawaii and for boats plying between the islands of the Territory itself. In this the company was performing a service like that of the 17th Signal Service Company in Washington, which was the parent organization for all Army transport radio communicators operating out of Atlantic ports. Like the 17th too, the 9th Service Company quickly outgrew its authorized strength several times, growing toward 700. Organization charts did not catch up with it until late 1943, when it appropriately became a battalion.15
On 10 March 1942 Signal Corps men in Hawaii established a direct ACAN link from station WTJ, Fort Shafter, to a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) station near Melbourne, which served U.S. Army headquarters “down under.”16 This was the first entrance of Australia into the ACAN system, and not a moment too soon, in view of the approaching break in the Philippines. Writing in the dry laconic manner of a message center log book, Signal Corps men at WTJ, Hawaii, were soon recording the silencing of the Philippine radios. “WTA, Manila [actually, Bataan], was last heard by WTJ at 0701 HWT on 4 April, 1942. A circuit was established to WVDM, Fort Mills, P. I. [that is, the Corregidor transmitter], on 3 April, 1942, and WVDM notified station WTJ on 9 April that WTA was lost. Contact with station WVDM was lost 1807 on 5 May due to loss of Corregidor to the enemy.”17 Supplementing Hawaii’s direct link to Australia utilizing a ten-kilowatt transmitter at WTJ, lesser circuits of three- and one-kilowatts came into use, linking Hawaii with Christmas and Canton Islands, and so by relay with Suva in the Fijis and with Nouméa in New Caledonia, extending communications along the supply route to Australia and to the encampments preparing for the coming offensive in the Solomons and New Guinea. The Canton Island link, to station WVHT, was established on 14 May 1942, followed in July by the link to Christmas Island, WVHW, and by direct channels to Suva, WVHU, and to Nouméa, WVJN.18
Signal Corps groups, both large and small, were moving out in order to extend and build up communication facilities. In mid-February 1942 a task force landed on Christmas Island, about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. Lacking a signal officer, the task force commander appointed 1st Lt.
Robert Yakerson, an infantry communications officer. His Signal Corps force comprised 17 men, these being 5 wiremen, 4 radio operators, 4 switchboard operators, 3 truck drivers, and the section chief. Yakerson found that while he had enough wire equipment, he had very little radio, aside from an SCR-195 walkie-talkie, which he used for ship-to-shore contact. It was radio he needed most, but it was two months before he could get his orders filled.19
In March 1942 Task Force 6814 arrived at its destination, the islands of New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, lying south of the Solomons. On Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, troops went ashore along with the Provisional Signal Service Company (later the 809th Signal Service Company), which operated the base administrative radio station and the message center. But the bulk of the task force established itself on the large island of New Caledonia, chiefly at its capital city, Nouméa, where the 26th Signal Company provided communications with considerable effort, since the facilities already existing on this French possession were primitive. Headquarters on the 250-mile-long island were at Nouméa, at the southern tip. The main airfield was at Tontouta, 35 miles away, while a second airfield at Plaines des Gaiacs lay over 100 miles farther north. Beyond even that was a detachment of about a battalion of Australian commandos stationed in the extreme northern end of the island.20
When the first Signal Corps men landed at Nouméa, they viewed the situation, perhaps not with alarm, but certainly not with enthusiasm. The only telephone equipment available was all French and included some switchboards, a handful of field telephones, steel-stranded field wire wound on cumbersome wooden reels, a few rolls of rubber tape, and several reel units similar to Signal Corps RL-31’s. Even pliers were scarce; only one pair was allotted to each crew of eight men. The day after they landed they laid the first wire lines along the ground. Within three weeks, wires had appeared along every road and city street. By April, after American equipment began arriving, the business of wire laying became somewhat better ordered. One of the first field telephone lines which signalmen completed ran between La Foa, the advance command post, and Tontouta, 35 miles away over rough country. EE-8 telephones powered by 24-volt external batteries were at first unsuccessfully installed on the line. Teletype failed, too. Rain and dampness penetrated to the wire strands and short-circuiting the current limited the opportunity for any kind of communications to the hours when the sun was high. Poles also were a problem. Many of them quickly rotted. Many more were snapped, sideswiped by vehicles passing along the narrow roads. Until the poles were relocated, the La Foa command post relied upon its radio. Not till May 1942, when heavier wire, W—50, was used to replace the W-110-B first employed on the circuit, did La Foa and Tontouta enjoy dependable wire communications, both telephone and teletype. The task of tying together the military communication lines over the island, including a teletype circuit between Tontouta and Plaines des Gaiacs airfields, kept the 26th Signal Company
extremely busy with wire work. Besides, there were radio channels to operate, both the long ones which extended to Hawaii in one direction and to Australia and New Zealand in the other, and the shorter ones of the local net which connected with other islands nearby, Espiritu Santo and Efate. In all this the 26th Signal Company acquired much tropical experience which would serve the men well during their labors to come, on Guadalcanal and on through the Solomons.21
Early in 1942, when the war in the Southwest Pacific was at its gloomiest, General MacArthur and his staff arrived in Melbourne from doomed Corregidor. Headquarters officers now based their planning on a defense line running through Brisbane west-northeast, and called for extensive communications and radar installations. As for radars, there were none at the time in operating condition in Australia. There were two SCR-271’s, but they lacked receivers as well as other parts. Several SCR-268’s had gone to Java. They evidently had given little comfort to the Allies. According to one report, they had been shipped without instruction books, whose secret classification required special and separate handling.22 They may well have given comfort to the enemy, for although the Dutch gave assurance that they had destroyed the sets, the Japanese subsequently built radars quite similar to the 268. Actually, eight SCR-268’s had gone to Java about 1 February. Col. Calvert H. Arnold, then the theater signal officer, turned them over to the Navy for the defense of Soerabaja. Before Java collapsed, Ensign John D. Salisbury, USNR, supervised the installation of five of them for the Royal Australian Air Force to operate. The remaining three sets were in a Dutch depot. A surviving Dutch signal officer asserted that the Dutch completely destroyed the equipment, of which, he said they had made “very little use.” But Salisbury, who also survived, could give no assurance of their total destruction since none of the RAAF or Dutch officers who had been directly charged with the sets had escaped.23
As for the two SCR-271’s in Australia, the Signal Corps men at Brisbane patched them up and sent them with operators to the Samoa Islands and Tongatabu. Since some of the parts were missing, the men improvised substitutes while the headquarters made up a radar company using any troops within reach and training them from scratch with such odds and ends of equipment as were available.24 Some relief for the desperate equipment shortages was on its way, however. In early March G-4 in Washington sent word that 220 ship tons of spare parts and supplies for SCR-268’s, 270’s, and 271’s, as well as for aircraft and vehicular radio sets, were being assembled
for shipment to Australia. With luck this equipment should arrive in April, and with luck it did. Shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea, Signal Corps men installed two SCR-270’s near Brisbane, and subsequently an SCR-516 and some 268’s at Port Moresby in New Guinea. Toward early summer they got also an SCR-270 to install north of Townsville and, a little later, one for Darwin.25
As for communications, General MacArthur’s headquarters in Melbourne had at first only one link to Hawaii and it was an Australian transmitter located in an RAAF radio station. In mid-March this station began working on an hourly schedule with Fort Shafter.26 Meanwhile a Signal Corps lieutenant, Roger E. Dumas, with a team of 19 men, only one of whom had ever had any experience with fixed installations, was setting up an ACAN system for U. S. Army headquarters in Australia. Dumas and his men had arrived in February along with the 52nd Signal Battalion with a good deal less than all the equipment needed to carry out their mission. With Australian sympathy and assistance, together with “whatever could be scraped up ... and a considerable amount of improvisation,” they managed to establish a radio network. Its control station, WTJJ, Melbourne, presently began bringing McArthur’s headquarters into better communication with the various base sections and numerous island posts in the Pacific. Yet its transmitter was only one-kilowatt. An ACAN chart dated in May 1942 showed channels in operation from WTJJ to Hawaii, by way of Nouméa (WVJN) in New Caledonia, to Darwin (WVJK), to Townsville (WVJL), and to Sydney (WVJM).27
Transmission over all the channels was accomplished by hand-keying. There was nothing like what was wanted and necessary in the way of equipment. In some instances, supplies were exhausted temporarily; in others, the equipment requested had not yet been produced. For example, Colonel Arnold, the theater signal officer early in 1942, asked for ultrahigh-frequency keying equipment. He wanted two transmitters and two receivers with antennas and installation material. Word came back from Washington that specifications had not yet been completed and that the units would not go into production for nearly a year. An additional request for three one-kilowatt radio stations for high-speed operation, also for one one-kilowatt manually operated station, together with the radio teams needed to install and then operate the stations, brought the reply that no high-speed (Boehme) equipment would be available before June.28
Thus Colonel Arnold early in 1942 found himself trying to make bricks pretty much without straw. Not only was he desperately short of equipment to start with, but many of his men were taken from his Signal Corps
units also. Directly after their arrival in Melbourne in February, Arnold himself had embarked a considerable portion of his best signal specialists, together with such tactical equipment as they had, intending them to go to Java. But almost at once Java fell to the enemy and the ships carrying the men were diverted to India. Not only had Arnold lost these men, but he temporarily lost others of the 52nd as well who were detailed here and there in Melbourne as guards, dock workers, and military police. Signal specialists found themselves serving as janitors and chauffeurs. A few actually did signal work, operating the headquarters message center and switchboard. By mid-April the 52nd Signal Battalion was becoming a discouraged and disheartened outfit, chafing under the uncertainty of its mission, the continued dock details and fatigue duty, the cold wet weather, and the conviction that they were stepchildren. The morning report of each company showed that most of the men were either on detached service or on special duty. At first, the only infractions were minor, but as the weeks went by, courts-martial became frequent. There being no assigned battalion commander, a captain who was the senior officer present assumed command until 19 April, when Lt. Col. John C. Green was assigned to command. Battalion strength was down to 15 officers and 399 enlisted men by 31 May. Still another month passed before the 52nd Signal Battalion got replacements for the officers and men sent to India in February. After that would come the return of men on detached duty, and a 1,200-mile move to a new camp near Brisbane, Queensland, followed by a period of intensive training of teams for all phases of signal communications, designed to make the battalion a group of self-contained units, each capable of functioning independently in a combat zone.29
Meanwhile at Melbourne, Army’s radio, WTJJ, during its first weeks of operation into early May handled the last flow of messages from the besieged Philippines. Relayed through Darwin to Melbourne and then retransmitted by way of Honolulu to the War Department, this load ran to about 30,000 groups a day, both ways, and was carried on one duplex manual circuit. Total traffic in Melbourne during April and May averaged up to 40,000 groups daily. Yet there were no serious transmission difficulties during these early months. The only exception was delay of messages calling for air support during the Battle of the Coral Sea on 7 May; this was fought before sufficient facilities had been built up to accommodate a large volume of traffic.30
It was in February 1942 that Colonel Arnold dispatched to Java, he thought, some of his Signal Corps men from the 52nd Signal Battalion, together with a number of his Signal Corps teams, which had recently arrived in Australia. These officers and men never reached Java. At Fremantle, in Western Australia, they found themselves suddenly transferred to vessels which sailed on and on, westward, into the Indian Ocean. In mid-March the ships docked at Karachi,
a dusty port in the northwestern desert lands of India. On the very day of landing, seven of the Signal Corps men set up a message center while Teams C, J, and part of E went to work erecting a radio station. Team H hastened to New Delhi in central India in order to construct a station which would control the future radio network of the China-Burma-India theater.31
Back at Karachi the Signal Corps crews first installed a 300-watt BC-447 transmitter in an airplane crate, turned on the power, and made contact with New Delhi on 7 April. What was most wanted was a direct contact with home, with station WAR in Washington. The men had a powerful 10-kilowatt transmitter, but no generator for it. The one intended for it had been left far behind, on the other side of the globe, in the States, and local power supplies were uncertain at best. But the Signal Corps men did have a smaller one-kilowatt transmitter BC-339, together with a suitable generator. Erecting a rhombic antenna,32 they hoped to beam a sufficiently strong signal across the North Pole to reach down to WAR. On 22 April they succeeded.33 Station WVNA, Karachi, thus entered the ACAN system, although uncertainly because the direct circuit passed through the electrically unfavorable polar areas. This circumstance continued to hamper the signal even after the men at Karachi subsequently installed the ten-kilowatt transmitter and obtained a large 75 KVA generator from the Standard Oil Company of Arabia. In the following month Karachi established its next contact, uncertain as the WAR circuit; it reached to Chungking, where a Navy transmitter, taken from a Yangtze River boat, replied with a weak 300-watt output.34
During April and May 1942, other Signal Corps teams moved from Karachi to varied posts in India. The movement became especially rapid after the 835th Signal Service Company arrived on 16 May, when the Brazil docked at Karachi two months after sailing from Charleston. Men of the 835th, amazed to find that American troops had preceded them, commiserated with their fellow signalmen as they moved to their quarters in the heat and dirt of clay barracks at New Malir, in the desert about seventeen miles out of Karachi.35 Tasks of enormous proportions awaited them where there had been relatively little radio before and where such wire nets and equipment as already existed were old and unsteady. Communication nets had to be set up and maintained over a gigantic area from China across India and beyond. Teams and detachments would soon penetrate to all parts of the China-Burma-India theater: to Calcutta, Ramgarh, Chabua, and Ledo in India; to Kunming in China, and, in the opposite direction, to Asmara in Eritrea,
Africa. Team Seven left Karachi late in June for Asmara, in order to make the initial installation there of a very important relay station. Henceforth the unreliable direct circuit between Karachi and Washington over the Pole could be bypassed, relayed by way of Asmara over the equatorial regions of the earth, where transmissions can be radiated dependably at all times.36
Before the 835th Signal Service Company arrived in mid-May, the first Signal Corps teams on the Indian scene were already moving to what must have seemed the very ends of the earth. In April, Team L, 20 men, went to Asansol, a little to the northwest of Calcutta, to supply communications for two Royal Air Force squadrons which were operating against the Japanese in Burma. Team L at once put an SCR-188 into operation in order to maintain circuits while they began installing a 300-watt fixed transmitter. Three weeks later, before the job was done, they received orders to another Royal Air Force base, at Allahabad, halfway to New Delhi. Taking their 188 with them, they put it back on the air within a few hours of their arrival. As the Allahabad base became headquarters for the 9th Bombardment Group, demands mounted upon the team, the only communication men in the area. After they had set up the 300-watt transmitter, they were asked for wire lines. Although inexperienced in telephone and wire work generally, they learned about it, putting in and operating 30 miles of wire, 40 telephones, and 2 switchboards.37
Team I tossed a coin with Team J to determine which would win a comfortable assignment to Bangalore. Team I lost—and got the less desirable but the more important post, which was in Assam Province, lying on India’s eastern border, next to Burma, China, and Tibet. Before the team could complete the communication installations desired there, it was ordered to move into Burma itself to provide communications for Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, then at Lashio, the Burmese terminus of the Burma Road, which the Japanese were attacking. Team I arrived at a crucial moment in April just when the British and Chinese forces were crumbling. First the British, then the Chinese, abandoned Lashio, and retreated westward toward India as the Japanese advanced. The Signal Corps men stayed on, except for a detail of seven men who were to report to Stilwell’s headquarters at Maymyo near Mandalay. Even as the detail forced its truck through the retreating hordes that flooded the highway, it found that Maymyo too was already being abandoned. But the men pushed on to Mandalay and then turned northwards, under Japanese bombing, to Schwebo, where General Stilwell halted briefly. During their four days there, the seven men set up and operated a message center. On each day came air raids, none of which quite hit the center itself. As the Burma campaign ended, Stilwell called for air transport and it was the detail from Team I that sent the call. One plane flew in. Part of the detail boarded it; the rest remained on the ground and escaped on foot with Stilwell. At first their radio truck accompanied the Stilwell party; later it had to be abandoned in the jungle along with the rest of the party’s motor vehicles.38
The remainder of Team I had stayed at Lashio, which the Japanese now cut off from the west as they pushed to Mandalay. These isolated and forgotten Signal Corps men never received orders to retreat. But obviously they could not stay where they were. They now had only one escape route left, the Burma Road itself leading into China. They loaded their equipment, including a 300-watt transmitter, into broken-down trucks. Two sergeants in one of the trucks won out against the heated misgivings of a colonel who wanted to throw off the signal supplies and load some relatively useless equipment instead. After bad moments at first when they were pursued by the enemy, they reached Kunming early in May 1942. Their transmitter was the first large Signal Corps radio in that area of China. A month later the men received orders to move on to Chungking. The transmitter and some indispensable spare parts had been repeatedly saved by the stubbornness of their keepers. The equipment was literally worth its weight in gold in that land where light sockets cost $12 in gold and where many electronic items were unavailable at any price. This BC-447-A thereafter went to work on the circuit between Chungking and New Delhi, and for over a year it transmitted allied traffic in the area, messages relating both to the Burma Road and to the air transport passing over the Hump.39
Last Weeks in the Philippines
In the spring of 1942, Army’s last radio station in the Philippines operated on isolated Corregidor. Earlier, upon the evacuation of Manila, it had moved to Corregidor from its former location at Fort Santiago and Fort William McKinley. It did not last long in its first installation in an exposed location on Corregidor; indeed, it was bombed out rather quickly. The men then moved the station underground to Malinta Tunnel, Lateral Twelve. Two hundred feet of rock separated the equipment from the transmitting and receiving antennas atop Malinta Hill. Improvised antennas they were, which were repeatedly being knocked down by enemy fire during the final bitter weeks of siege.40 Radio transmitters collected from amateurs and commercial firms, together with other equipment which had been brought over when Fort Santiago was abandoned, kept the Corregidor installation on the air. Circuits to Brig. Gen. William F. Sharp’s headquarters on Mindanao, to Bandoeng, Darwin, and Honolulu had been quickly established. Early in February a Signal Corps officer went from Corregidor to Bataan to set up a high-speed radio station for the transmission of allotment, insurance, promotion, and casualty messages to Honolulu for relay to the United States. In two weeks he finished the installation.41
Signal communication on Corregidor had the task of keeping General MacArthur, the commander of the United States Army
Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), in touch both with the outside and with his own tactical units. Except for the Visayan-Mindanao Force and scattered resistance groups elsewhere, these units were concentrated in the Bataan peninsula. Aside from radio, their only connection with Corregidor was a telephone circuit. Between Corregidor Island and Bataan lay an old submarine telephone cable with but four good circuits remaining. Lest it fail, the USAFFE signal officer, Brig. Gen. Spencer B. Akin, ordered a new one laid. The Coast Artillery Corps owned a 26-quad cable, and, although some reels had been hit by enemy bomb fragments, enough of it was still undamaged for the job. Part of the telephone circuit followed the bay cable and the rest a pole line which slashed conspicuously through clearings on the forested peninsula. Not only because of this weak link but also because of an acute shortage of trained men, it seemed best that the island become the signals distributing point. Interisland traffic between USAFFE and its subordinate organizations, as well as the overseas station on Bataan, was controlled by the Corregidor station.
Now entunneled, with secondary communications to the troops, the headquarters on Corregidor lost direct contact with Hawaii and beyond and had to depend upon the Corregidor naval radio station for it. In a room at the rear of Lateral Twelve, three chief petty officers, succeeding each other in shifts, kept a wire telegraph circuit open to the Navy station on Corregidor, and the signal intelligence and radio operating sections moved in with them.
The signal men on Corregidor had cast about during January to see what was on hand and what communications they could establish with it. The equipment sent across the bay from Manila stood in a confusion of types, of manufacture, of size, of age, of condition, of design. Grime and salt spray had coated it. A radio electrician, William Gibson, a civilian employee of RCA who had volunteered to join the exodus, offered to take charge of it, and Colonel Teague, left without anyone better qualified, thankfully accepted the offer. Gibson did his best to put it in working order, causing sets of equipment to cohabit which had never been introduced.
This equipment was one source. For another, there were the fixed transmitters that had been used to work Honolulu. Colonel Teague, looking at them for the first time, found them to be old, and so large and heavy that they could not be removed from the buildings. Fortunately, each had a 1,500-watt exciter, and these he caused to be removed from the parent sets and transported into the Malinta Tunnel. There they were overhauled, and one of them became a transmitter to work Australia. The other was held in reserve. Two excellent and comparatively new low-powered transmitters had come from the plant of the Philippine Telephone Company. The men of the installing and maintaining crews were for the most part young and active (pain and starvation lay yet ahead of them). They were able to overhaul the good transmitters and put them to use for broadcasting southward to the Visayan-Mindanao Force. They brought the USAFFE Reserve station into the tactical net. They set up a receiving antenna by rigging a small aerial on Malinta Hill and leading it through a ventilator shaft into the operating room in Lateral Twelve. Within five days after they had arrived on Corregidor, they had used the other transmitter to set up a “Voice of Freedom” broadcasting station, placing the
aerial outside the hospital lateral of Malinta Tunnel, the transmitter just inside, and the microphone in the quietest place they could find: the rear of Ward 11.
It was when they received orders to set up a radio channel to Darwin that they showed the greatest energy and ingenuity of all. Considering the equipment available and the distance to be covered, they immediately saw that a large rhombic antenna was needed. A rhombic antenna is “directional” and provides the strongest signal with the least amount of power, and, in order to cross the thousands of miles to northern Australia, a properly oriented rhombic offered the best chance of success. Abetted by the Engineers, they determined the northern and western angles of the rhombus high along a ridge, the eastern angle in a ravine and the southern end also low, along the edge of the water. Some of the men went about seeking the four biggest poles on the island, while Teague with others attempted stopgap communications with Darwin.
During the brief period when the Manila RCA channel had worked Darwin, and just before it had to be destroyed, a call sign had been agreed upon. The men now perforated a tape with the sign, pasted the ends of the tape together to make an endless belt and then, affixing it to one of the machine transmitters, set it to issuing the call, over and over again. Feebly, the endless tape sent out its signal. It got no response on the first day of its use, or on the second; but on the third Darwin reported having heard it faintly, during the nighttime lull. What Teague wanted was something much stronger, which could be heard in the day. One by one the four heavy poles for the rhombic went up on the rocky and precipitous ground. The Engineers hauled into position a large gas engine-electric generator unit, bolted upon skids, to provide power for the transmitter should the post powerhouse be bombed out of operation. They covered it with concealing tarpaulins, directed the exhaust horizontally, and sandbagged the walls of its partial shelter.
Meanwhile, the “Australian” transmitter improved slowly, although it was still an unsatisfactory channel and, in the narrow darkness of Lateral One, was insufficiently protected even by a big “Danger—High Voltage” sign. Outside, at the new antenna, the men were rigging the wires. Weighting the end of the wire, they would heave it through branches and haul it down with a hand line. Often, it tangled and they had to climb the tree to free it. At last the rhombic was ready, the transmission lines were connected, and on the twenty-first of January the rhombic aerial tried Darwin. The result was a disappointment. For all their work, the strength of the signal was barely increased. At the other end, moreover, the Australian operators were still inexperienced, unaccustomed to worrying a weak signal along. If the rhombic were useful at all, it would be little better than what was already operating. The men had whatever satisfaction they could get from knowing that they had tried.
Corregidor, a beleaguered fortress, nevertheless maintained a broadcasting station and missed no schedules. Teague had two telegraph positions working and, counting the Australian transmitter, eight for radio.42
At the beginning of February the men built a broadcasting “studio,” which was doubly insulated both by Celotex and by its location at a point where Lateral One joined the main tunnel. Out of doors, the endless business of maintaining the aerials went on. Once during the course of the siege, an aerial which had been shot down by artillery fire was restored to use when an airplane bombardment threw it up over some trees: it came back into service because it happened still to be connected.
Even this limited maintenance, so concentrated as to be pinpointed on the target island, used up three and a half miles of wire. Supplies were dwindling so fast that by the middle of February a signal requisition for a whole division could be carried in the pocket of one man. Only such items as primary batteries and friction tape were on hand; there was no use in asking for anything else. For those transmitters on Bataan which depended upon gasoline-driven generators, there was always a delay in answering calls, because gas rationing made it crucial not to start up the generators until time to send out a message. The roads on Corregidor along which lay a section of the shallow-trenched submarine cable to Bataan came under enemy bombardment. The wire maintenance officer and a crew of three cable splicers worked at repairs night after night by the masked light of a lantern: 29 hits, 57 splices. At no time until the loss of Bataan, however, was either the radio channel or the wire circuit between the island and the peninsula interrupted. And throughout the ordeal, the Corregidor operators transmitted a million words a month, most of it coded, much of it sent manually, and all of it handled under what military understatement calls “adverse conditions.”
By the third week in March, MacArthur’s small party (including the signal officer, General Akin) had successfully escaped to Australia. Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright assumed command in the Philippines, United States Forces in the Pacific (USFIP), with Colonel Teague as his signal officer. On Corregidor, the only alternative to work was more work and, beyond that, waiting for capture. Efforts to strengthen the communications of the Visayan-Mindanao Force met with frustration. J. E. S. Stevenot, a lieutenant colonel, who had been commissioned from his civilian occupation as president of the Philippine Telephone Company, looked like a good man to become the southern force signal officer, but General MacArthur, now establishing his headquarters in Melbourne, put him on the list of those to be evacuated. From Australia, Akin sent, by name, for ten intercept radio operators. It was important not to let them be captured and tortured. Meanwhile, the hours of duty increased for men who were already weary. Teague himself helped out, so that the regular operators might take hurried meals or even so that they might go to the latrine. In Melbourne, by this time, MacArthur’s headquarters had two more men listed for departure from the island by the first means available. One of them, in civilian life the plant chief of the Manila telephone exchange, had already been captured; the second, formerly manager of the exchange, was located and evacuated.
Meanwhile, the troops on Bataan steadily weakened. As supplies dwindled, their meals were cut again so that during the month of March the men were getting barely a one-fourth ration. To the wounded were added
growing numbers of the diseased, and of the nervously fatigued, broken by the strain of bombing and by the inability to strike back. Maj. Gen. George M. Parker, commander of the II Corps, estimated by 15 March that the combat efficiency of his men was down to 20 percent. Each day it lessened.43
On 9 April, Bataan surrendered and the radio station of the erstwhile Luzon Force signed out of the USFIP net. The telegraph and telephone circuits between Bataan and Corregidor closed, too, and crews cut the submarine cable, first at the point where it emerged from the water on Bataan, then at the Corregidor end. They drew the cable up from the water, cut it with a hack saw, sealed it with molten lead at both ends, then buried the shore end to conceal it, and sank the seaward end as far as possible out in the bay.
Now the certainty of capture canceled the hope for relief. Habit still suggested requisitions for more supplies but discipline dictated the destruction of those on hand. On 22 April Colonel Teague asked the signal officer in the Southwest Pacific for items to be shipped to Corregidor in case the island held out; and on the same day, the message center started burning its files. On the first of May, the signal office burned more files, at the same time that everyone was wearily planning the possibility of resisting for another month—one more month being six months after December, and six months being the period for which prewar calculations had supposed that the Philippines could survive without reinforcements. Enemy bombers and shore-based artillery were steadily blowing up the aerials, and the big rhombic was now gone. Some of the older radio sets failed, and not even improvisation could repair them, although all radio channels still remained open. Transmitting tubes “gassed.” Finally, a week before the fall, everything was listed on a destruction plan; the Engineers agreed to explode the permanent installation of the Philippine-Hawaii channel, and the signal officer estimated that three hours would be enough to accomplish the destruction of all the rest of the communication equipment. Just at that point, a requisition was filled: a small shipment of vacuum tubes was flown in.
In anticipation of the collapse, General Wainwright composed three messages: one, labeled “Washington No. 1,” to the Chief of Staff in Washington, one to General MacArthur in Melbourne, and one to the commanding general of the Visayan-Mindanao Force at Del Monte, Mindanao. These penciled messages he handed to his signal officer, Colonel Teague, who in turn prepared two others, both to the Chief Signal Officer: a “Washington No. 2,” which would report that the cryptographic machines had been demolished, and a “Washington No. 3,” which would inform him of the destruction of the cipher strips. All five of these Teague taped to his chest to hold in readiness, and to guard against their transmission by accident. During the
interim, the men continued the transmitting of insurance and allotment authorizations. Made famous by newspaper dispatches which described it, this pathetic duty almost incredibly taxed all of the available channels. The longest message extended for more than 20,000 words. One of the men who began to send it—manually—worked at it steadily for eight hours, went off duty, returned 16 hours later, and found it still being transmitted; only a few priority messages had interrupted the sending meanwhile. All of this traffic was moved doggedly out, and none of it was ever garbled.
On 6 May 1942, Corregidor fell. Teague did not get the three hours which he had looked for. He got only one hour and 23 minutes. But it was enough. At 1037 Wainwright’s chief of staff ordered Teague to send the final messages. From his chest Teague uptaped the envelope containing the coded messages. Shuttling back and forth between headquarters and the message center, telephoning, pausing for instructions, listening to other instructions, the men worked rapidly and efficiently. One by one, the final messages went to their destinations. At 1105, just as M. Sgt. Richard K. Sakakida began broadcasting in English and Japanese the first of three hourly announcements of the capitulation, “Washington No. 1,” Wainwright’s message to General Marshall, was brought out. It would go via Fort Shafter, the relay station at the headquarters near Honolulu. But Fort Shafter was not listening. The call tape got no response. They tried a manual call, and this time succeeded. Shafter responded, and “Washington No. 1” went on its way. “Washington No. 2” followed it at 1110. To make sure, both messages were also beamed at Del Monte; and to make trebly sure, commissioned couriers rushed them to the naval radio station, for a third transmittal by equipment which was already being systematically wrecked. Successively, the messages to Melbourne and Del Monte sped out, blind, at ten-minute intervals. Working one of the positions prior to 1037 that morning a soldier named Irving Strobing had been filling in the time with poignant if unauthorized farewells to his family.44
The surrender was about to be broadcast again, and its terms allowed no destruction of equipment after noon. The men began tossing equipment into big containers. A cryptographic machine, a typewriter, and an adding machine. They swung axes, pounded the battered pieces, mixed them, and cast them into piles of wreckage already cluttering the tunnel. The Melbourne and Del Monte messages went on their way again. Now the delicate interior mechanisms of radio sets were destroyed with heavy blows. The panels were left intact, so that the Japanese could not accuse the garrison of having broken up the equipment in violation of the surrender. Chief Warrant Officer Robert L. Scearce sent out “Washington No. 3,” the last word from Corregidor before it blacked out. The broadcasting transmitter repeated the capitulation for the last time; it was the only piece of equipment not demolished. The Japanese found the offices neatly swept and bare, the floors washed, and blank dials hiding gutted equipment. The surrender involved Signal Corps losses which the Operations Branch in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer set at 712: 50 officers and 662 enlisted men.45