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.