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.

Does the US Military issue Amateur Radio Licenses?

Yes, they do! At least over here in South Korea.

Before arriving to Korea last year, I began researching the licensing procedures. I have known fellow soldiers who have served over here in Korea and were able to get an HL callsign and get on the air. By reviewing an old Army regulation that was specific to Korea, I saw that there was a process where a soldier could submit a memorandum requesting to be issued an HL9 prefixed callsign. The soldier is required to already possess an FCC amateur license. However, a problem emerged. No one knew who to submit the request to. There are a number of American hams over here, most who work in some aspect for the US military. These individuals generally do not qualify for an HL9 callsign and therefore the general knowledge of how to go about applying for these HL9 licenses was lost. The process to apply for a standard South Korean amateur radio license is straight forward and is what I did. I was subsequently issued the callsign HL2/AD7MI, with the “2″ in HL2 signifying the geographical area where I am stationed. The callsign got me on the air, but I soon learned the difficulties in using such an unwieldy callsign (“Hotel Lima Two Stroke Alpha Delta Seven Mike India” is a mouthful).

The good news – an Air Force ham, who is stationed down at the US military headquarters in Seoul, kept plugging away at the HL9 issue and was successful in not only getting issued an HL9 callsign but also was able to define the process for the rest of us. Finally having an organization identified to submit my request to, I was issued my new callsign: HL9MI. I am looking forward to getting on the air and breaking it in.

As far as I know, Korea is the only place where the US military issues callsigns. Back after WWII, it was a common practice but it was discontinued in Japan and Germany once their amateur radio programs stood back up with their civilian governments. Amateur radio licenses for US military in Germany is issued through the US military (at least that is how it worked in 2002), but that program is run by the German government. Even in Iraq, licenses were initially issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority before the responsibility was transferred to the Iraqi civilian government. The Afghan government is responsible for the issuing of callsigns for NATO military serving in Afghanistan. It is interesting that here in Korea, 60 years after the civilian government of South Korea stood up, there is still an active provision for the US military to issue amateur radio callsigns.

The Fourth Tower of Inverness

The Fourth Tower of Inverness is a radio series that made its debut back in the fall of 1972. The series follows the adventures of Jack Flanders as he unravels the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of his uncle, the great explorer, Lord Henry Jowls and the strange incidents that keep occurring around the Inverness estate.

I first heard the radio drama back around 1981 when I was in the 7th grade. One way or another I stumbled across public radio and quickly discovered that on Sunday nights, they aired radio dramas. The ones that most stand out in my memory are the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Lord Peter Wimsey, a BBC production of The Lord of the Rings, and the Fourth Tower of Inverness. There were two radio stations that featured radio dramas that I could pick up on my FM stereo: KQED from San Francisco and KCSM in San Mateo. The broadcasts would start around 7pm and go until 11pm (well past my bedtime, but I would listen with my headphones to avoid getting caught).

The radio shows really pushed my imagination – something I wasn’t used to. Although I have always been an avid reader, the TV was an always present source of entertainment as I grew up. When I listened to these radio shows it opened up an entirely new dimension.

I recently rediscovered ZBS Foundation, who produces a number of modern radio dramas, to include the Forth Tower of Inverness. It has been a pleasure to dive back in. The Forth Tower of Inverness stands the test of time – ZBS’s other offering are also worthy. Check ‘em out.

Spy Radio: AN/PRC-64

Richard Fisher, KI6SN, had a post back in August 2009 that talked about an interesting transceiver that was in use by the military in the 1960s and 1970s: the AN/PRC-64. The radio is crystal controlled, limited to four channels between 2.2 to 6.0 MHz, has a max output of 5W for CW and 1W for AM PHONE. Its distinguishing factor is the rigs small form factor: 9.8 x 5.1 x 4.7 in.

What really makes this a spy rig is its ability to be paired with another device: the AN/GRA-71. The AN/GRA-71 is a burst encoder. The encoder allows the transmission of CW messages of speeds up to 300 wpm… some serious QRQ.

A government evaluation report on the radio concluded, based on tests conducted in Vietnam supporting Special Forces teams, that the radio had an effective range while operating in CW mode of between 40 and 300 miles. I imagine with both the power output and frequency range (and assuming the use of a field expedient wire antenna) the radios were not normally used for long haul communications… probably more like a range of not more than 75 miles.