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.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the research.

    20% seems similar to the rate for the general population. 16 million people served in the US military during WWII, about 11% of the population. Assuming that nearly all hams were male and that those serving were almost all male and that half the US population was male, that’s about 22% of the population. Total population also includes children, so hams probably served at a slightly higher rate than the general population.

    Older hams were essential in the design and production of radio equipment for the war. There is a great movie about Hallicrafters building the BC-610 transmitter, with comments about that. “The Voice of Victory” made in 1944. It is online in two parts at the Prelinger Archive.

    http://www.archive.org/details/VoiceofV1944

    http://www.archive.org/details/VoiceofV1944_2

  2. AD7MI says:

    Great videos!

    You help make my point concerning the role hams played in WWII was no greater than the general population. I believe that American radio amateurs role in support of WWII is quite often overstated. In no way am I saying US hams shirked their responsibilities during WWII – just that they served in the same capacity as all other Americans… and not more than that.

    The video was sponsored by Hallicrafters and serves as a great PR tool for the company, but the assumption that the Signal Corps used primarily commercial off the shelf radio equipment is not correct. Mobile radios have been in the Signal Corps inventory even prior to WWI. The Signal Corps leveraged existing commercial production capabilities to augment its ability to field radio equipment to units – but the vast majority of R&D in support of Signal Corps equipment was done at Fort Monmouth, NJ at the radio lab.

    73 Scott HL9MI