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Robert K. Henderson

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Freelance Writer, Editor, Translator, and Photographer

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Subherbs: Foraging for "Wild" Herbs in Your Own Backyard Food and medicine from common weeds and ornamentals.

Labrador Tea Rediscovering an important part of our herbal heritage.

Brass Under Fire: World War II Army Signalmen in the Amateur Radio Service Hams who answered the call.

Real Men Drink Tea Hold on to your boxers, brothers! Tea's back for a rematch.
On other sites:
Foraging in Residential Areas is my overview on collecting wild edibles in urban and suburban settings, available from Herbsearch.com.


Brass Under Fire: World War II Army Signalmen in the Amateur Radio Service

Copyright 2001 by Rob Henderson, KB7PWJ

(Originally appeared in QST.)

An extension cord could save your life.

That's why the US Army Signal Corps depended on amateurs during World War Two. Most had homebrewed their first rigs from scraps and junk amid bleak Depression poverty. Their ability to find practical solutions to unexpected problems was crucial to America's war effort.

Ken Johnson, W6FU, was one such Depression-era whiz kid. While manning a jeep mobile station in France, he and three fellow signalmen found themselves in a life-threatening situation: the Germans had learned to recognize their generator's distinctive whine and were lobbing shells at it. All hams, the team responded with Field Day ingenuity: they improvised a long extension cord. "If the enemy laid in any mortar fire, the jeep would take it and not us," laughs Ken. "The difference between the Germans and the Americans was that we were innovative and could get ourselves out of a jam. If a situation wasn't in the book, the Germans didn't know what to do."

Ken got his first whiff of amateur radio on a boyhood visit to the local railroad telegrapher's house. "He had an amateur rig, and I could smell the Bakelite," Ken remembers. "What a beautiful smell!" He was hooked. Determined to earn his Class C amateur ticket, Ken started practicing Morse code... on a cow! He sent CQs against the side of the pail as he milked. The "Elsie method" worked, and soon Ken tore into ham radio from a homebrew, battery-powered station. (The family farm had no electricity.) "I used to take the crystal out and suck on it to make it oscillate better," he remembers.

Radio was an expensive hobby for a farm boy, so in November of 1941 Ken joined the Army. He'd heard infantry radios had VFOs and was hoping to use one. Unfortunately the Army had other ideas. Ken was trained as a rifleman. One day he happened on a grizzled sergeant swearing at a jeep's mobile rig. Ken suggested he connect the radio to its antenna. The impressed sergeant got Ken a Signal Corps try-out, which led to regimental radio duty. "If that hadn't happened, I'd probably be dead," he says. "My rifle company's casualty rate in Europe was 80 percent."

But Ken's radio duties rated combat pay, too. During General Patton's grueling drive through France and Germany, Ken and three comrades roamed the lines in a jeep, relaying vital intelligence via CW and FM phone. It was line-of-sight operation, and in battle that means line-of-fire as well. They banged out code on a leg key while jolting down shell-torn roads, or stood beside the jeep and transmitted from the roadside. They also tapped into telephone lines with a TG-6 portable telegraph and shouldered a 50-pound "portable" SCR 284 HF rig. In the winter of 1944 Ken's battalion attacked Fort Driant, a training center for Hitler's elite SS near Luxembourg. The Americans suffered appalling casualties as crack SS troops shredded the assault. As the tide of battle turned, GIs stripped to their shorts and swam the icy river to escape the German counter-assault. Because Ken and his teammates were essential to communication, they were among the last to pull out. "We could actually see the road by the light of the tracers flying over our heads," Ken remembers. "We lost a lot of guys that night."

A Frontier Lifeline

Sometimes danger comes from unexpected places. As an Army signalman in the Alaska Communications Service (ACS), Milo Rousculp, NL7SA, felt fairly safe from enemy attack. Even when the Japanese invaded the outer Aleutian Islands, Milo figured they didn't have the logistical support to take the mainland. The Anchorage Home Guard was another matter. "There were an awful lot of armed civilians trying to 'protect' us," he remembers "You're walking home in the dark and someone shouts 'Halt! Who goes there?' It's kind of scary."

Milo joined the Army Signal Corps in 1940 to gain experience for a job in civilian air communications. His Signal Corps preparation included rigorous course work in radio operations and theory. In one class, the final exam was to build a working radio from loose parts. When he'd mastered the Monterey, California training program, the Army sent him north to pound brass for the ACS.

Assuming his duties in Alaska shortly before the US entered the war, Milo provided lifeline communications to an immense, sparsely-settled territory practically without telephones or commercial broadcast radio stations. Part soldier, part telegraph agent, Milo handled traffic for banks and canneries as well as the military. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he relayed the news along with orders to the military establishment in Alaska from General Buckner in Seattle.

Milo purchased a used Vibroplex semi-automatic code key, the industry standard, early in his ACS career. The bug keyed high-powered remote transmitters, mostly on HF bands. When these were closed he switched to VLF. The ACS used the low frequencies as little as possible, however, because VLF signals were as easily copied in Japan as they were in Seattle. The receivers were commercially-available sets of various makes, and were sometimes set up in a diversity configuration. Rhombics and diversity antennas strung on fifty-foot poles rounded out the average ACS station.

War brought an endless stream of hard work as Milo's duties became even more critical. The Japanese raid on Dutch Harbor, an Aleutian town near the mainland, applied extra pressure. "I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week," he recalls. "I was too busy to be scared." A typical day started at four in the morning. Most ACS posts were duplex operations. Two operators sat side-by-side, and one sent information to a distant station while his partner copied traffic coming in from that station. Every two hours the partners switched positions. In practice it was a well-choreographed dance between four radiomen. "If I missed something while copying, I'd just reach over to my partner's key and make a long dash," Milo recollects. "Then my partner would back up a few words in the copy he was sending and start transmitting again. Hearing this, the guy copying my partner would reach over and do the same to his partner, whom I was copying. Then my sender would back up, too."

It was monotonous, stressful duty. Milo recalls the wave of relief that passed over him on VJ Day. Only then did he realize the strain he had been under. But he never complained. "Considering what some people went through in the war, it was a piece of cake," he says. Milo believes the presence of highly-skilled people, united by a clear and universal goal, made the intense ACS operations successful.

Almost fifty years later, after a long career in radio communications, Milo got a yearning to hear CW again. He got his old bug down from the attic and earned an amateur radio license, his first. Today his ACS-honed fist can be heard once more around the Pacific.

Foxhunting Hitler's Army

Don Grenseman, W7GJZ, earned his first ham license as a teenager on the Nebraska prairie. He and his brother then scrounged the parts to build a rig. Since they also lived on a farm without power, they assembled a wind turbine from a Model T generator and a hand-whittled rotor to charge the shack's batteries. When war was declared, Don joined the Army and became a signalman. By war's end he had marched from North Africa to Germany. Of the desert he remembers broiling sun, constant thirst and enemy planes strafing so low he could see the pilots' faces. Following a stay in a field hospital for malaria, he marched through Italy and Southern France, then joined the Battle of the Bulge, bitter winter warfare that preceded the invasion of Germany.

Operating from the back of a truck or half-track, Don's radio team performed two vital intelligence functions. They monitored German communications, passing the copy on to cryptographers who deciphered it. Also, as one of only three high-tech direction-finding teams in Europe, they triangulated enemy positions for artillery and air support. Most World War Two DF rigs had a loop or coil that the operator turned to null out a signal, providing a rough estimate of a transmitter's location. Don's more sophisticated station used an oscilloscope fed by four antennas about five feet high, staked into the ground around the truck. When the enemy transmitted, DF teams compared their bearings and pinpointed his location. It was a kind of high-stakes foxhunt. Swift Panzer tank units, the scourge of the Allied armies, were among the most important targets. And the Germans DFed Don too, calling in their own deadly air support when they got a fix on his signals.

These tasks kept Don's team in close proximity to the enemy. Sometimes too close; when they got lost in a blizzard in northern France, they joined a passing column of vehicles, hoping to end up back at camp. When they spotted a soldier wearing the distinctive Wehrmacht helmet, the American intelligence truck turned abruptly out of the queue. "I think we were part of a German convoy!" Don laughs.

The pain and suffering of war left a lasting impression on Don. When his unit liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau, the horrors of Hitler's "Final Solution" sickened the young signalman. "My grandparents all came from Germany," he says. "I was mad at my own people after I saw that." But he remembers kindness, too. Once, while the radio teamed shivered in the Christmas snow, two little French girls appeared and begged for sugar. The GIs handed over their K-ration packets of the precious staple. The next day the girls returned with a traditional log-shaped French Christmas cake. "Even though it hardly had any sugar in it," Don says, "it was the sweetest cake we ever ate!"

Stalked by U boats

At 15, Joe Fenn, KH6JF, hitchhiked from Kokomo, Indiana to Chicago to take the amateur license exam. Though he was still in high school, his skills won him a job as radioman in the Indiana National Guard. Later he joined Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, where he manned a rig for a large tent city. One day an Army Signal Corps sergeant contacted him at the CCC camp with an incredible offer. "He said, 'We'll get you straight into a station," remembers Joe. "No boot camp, no training, no nothing.'" But Depression poverty had taken its toll on Joe's teeth, and an induction center dentist disqualified him. Joe sadly called the sergeant to say he was heading home. "No you're not!" the signalman answered. He immediately sent a truck to bring Joe to his station. To the recruiters' amazement, the highly-selective Signal Corps inducted Joe right off the street, then ordered the glum Army dentist to fix his teeth.

Joe's first billet was Army station WUO at Fort Benning, Georgia. There he handled Western Union and postal traffic as well as military. Because he couldn't afford a Vibroplex bug, he pounded a sideswiper, or "cootie key," homebrewed from an old hacksaw blade.

The Army next transferred him to the unusual post (for a soldier) of ship's radio operator. The problem was, Joe knew nothing about maritime radio. "I could tune up the equipment because I had been a ham," he says. "The other things--what frequencies to use, where to tune for a weather report--I had no idea." But there he was in the radio room of the Army transport Colonel Penrose, steaming out of Miami. When the captain called for a weather forecast, Joe contacted an Army station and was told to monitor Navy bulletins from Key West. But Joe couldn't figure out how to break the Navy's secret code. Finally he admitted his failure to the skipper. "The captain said, 'Oh yeah, I've got the code books,'"Joe chuckles.

Sailing south through the Caribbean, the crew of the Colonel Penrose were alarmed to discover a German U-boat stalking them. Happily, the enemy skipper decided an empty transport wasn't worth blowing his cover. When the ship made port in Trinidad, Joe was sent back to the Army's control station in Puerto Rico, located in a web of tunnels under San Juan's El Morro Castle. There he worked all duty stations, rising to chief operator while maintaining the equipment and working in cryptography. From San Juan, Joe's key moved men and supplies all over the region.

Joe's can-do reputation continued to draw his superiors' attention. Once the Navy asked him to Elmer a coastwatcher in Britain's Leeward Islands. U-boats were surfacing to recharge their batteries in a remote lagoon, and a Brit had offered to keep an eye on them. So Joe flew out in a tiny seaplane, clutching a transmitter on his knees, to set up a shack.

In 1943 the Army acknowledged Joe's rich service record by reassigning him to Batista Airfield in Cuba to build a new War Department nerve center. By war's end Joe had risen to master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank in the Army. "My Army service was an exciting adventure," Joe says. "I enjoyed every minute of it."

Is Amateur Radio Still Important?

After the war, each of these signalmen parlayed his radio skills into a stimulating civilian career. Ken became an electronics teacher, passing his knowledge on to generations of high school and college students, while Milo and Joe put their expertise to work in air traffic communications. Don took a job in broadcast radio but moved to television in 1949. He stayed with the new medium through its formative years before leaving in 1960 to manage missiles as a civilian Department of Defense employee.

Since Internet newsgroups and local club meetings are abuzz with commentary on the role of our service today, I asked these four senior statesmen of radio, is amateur radio still important? All rose to the challenge.

"When a disaster happens, hams are always on the scene," Ken points out. He himself was active in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake emergency net. He also notes that it's a positive hobby for kids. Joe, who may hold the record for continuous participation in Army MARS, sees a changing service. "Amateur radio has shifted toward computerization," he says. "MARS now turns people down if they can't work with computers. But that doesn't mean computers are replacing amateur radio." Milo believes hams are an important national resource. "I don't think the ACS could have existed without them," he says. Don agrees. "Something could still happen where amateurs would be indispensable," he says.

And he knows what he's talking about. Like Ken, Milo and Joe, and hundreds of other amateurs, he's answered that call.

Copyright 2002 by Robert K. Henderson


Email: rkhen@softhome.net



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