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Hams in Combat
April 1945 QST

April 1945 QST

RF Cafe - April 1945 QST CoverTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

While recently watching the classic film "The Longest Day," about the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion, I paid particular attention to the electronics being featured. During World War II, means of communications were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are today with cellphones, the Internet, and readily affordable, high quality portable Ham gear. Large, heavy radio, teletype, and radar gear made portable by equally large and heavy batteries, often significantly hampered progress under fire. As illustrated in the movie, relying on easily cut or blown up landlines caused significant loss of strategic capability. Thousands of experienced Amateur Radio operators provided the Allied forces with out-of-the-gate communicators and electronics technicians. Many had, prior to enlisting, donated some of their equipment and components to the Department of War for use, ultimately, in securing victory.

Servicemen relied on the various forms of public and government media to get their messages through to home, and censoring crews removed information deemed potentially compromising. Even commercial radio and television (TV being a newcomer to homes - the very few which had them) had relatively limited access to first-hand news from the front. Ham operators possessed the advantage of already being part of an established comms network.

QST magazine did a top-notch job of keeping its readers apprised of the situation during war years by publishing multiple articles every month that addressed issues related to the war effort. This article from the April 1945 edition is a prime example. See also the Hallicrafters ad in the April 1945 issue QST.

Hams in Combat - Invasion Hams

RF Cafe - Hams in Combat, It was a long hard trek from the Normandy beachhead to Germany, April 1945 QST

It was a long, hard trek from the Normandy beachhead to Germany - the route the invasion hams of VII Corps traveled.

By Capt. John Brawley, SC, W9GYZ (W1LVQ)

Many were the hams who landed in the initial stages of the invasion of France. Some waded through the surf at H−hour, carrying radio equipment with which to establish the first com-munications from the assault forces to the head-quarters ships. Some manned the sets aboard those ships and communicated with the various elements of the invasion forces, including the air-borne troops who had parachuted with their equipment down behind the enemy lines some-time before H-hour.

The airborne link was probably one of the most important QSOs ever held by radio. The suspense and tension aboard the floating headquarters was terrific as the hour grew nearer for radio silence to be broken by the paratroopers. Operators strained their ears for the first dit dah signifying that the airborne forces had landed successfully. For many it was their first combat experience and their first live messages. But when the tension was broken and signals started coming through, these opera-tors copied them. They were handed messages to transmit - and they sent them. QRM mounted - but these lads fought through and over and around it. Searching out the signals, they stuck to them with the tenacity of a DX hound on the trail of an XU. They weren't all hams, by any means - but they were all well-trained operators, and they did a superb job.

There were many other communications needs to be met. There was the great concentration of ships to be controlled by radio and blinker; there was split-second firing data to be radioed to the warships from shore fire-control parties; there was the enormously complex job of control by the convoy commanders and the beachmasters to time the arrival of landing craft at the beach where they would disgorge their cargoes of men and materiel. There were calls for air support, and there was the tremendous job of coordinating the fighting forces on the beaches.

One radioman off a headquarters ship started ashore shortly after H-hour. He was carrying a portable voice set. As he neared the beach the LCVP was forced aground. He made his way ashore through waist-deep water, only to find that his radio set had been damaged by the brine. Without hesitation he climbed aboard the first returning craft and went back for another set. Again he plunged through enemy fire to the beach, where he put the set in operation. Twice through that withering fire - and not a scratch!

Major Charles T. Wesner, ex-W9BIM, waded to the beach with a radio set under each arm and a bottle of scotch tucked into the front of his trench coat. There was considerable unfriendly activity on the beach, and in his haste to clear the area he lost the bottle of scotch. Needless to say, he did not tarry long enough to pick it up. "It was a snap decision," declared the major, "but the scotch had to go. War certainly is hell!"

Later Major Wesner and I together "liberated" a town in. Belgium. Armored units had been advancing ahead of us all day. The natives were deliriously happy to see the Allies come and the Germans go. Belgian, American and British flags decorated the streets. Hastily prepared banners were strung up, reading: "Welcome les Liberateurs" and" Viva les Americans." Crowds of civilians lined the roadsides, waving, cheering, heaping our vehicles with fruit and flowers, shout-ing "Viva la Amerique! Vive les Allies! Vive las Belgique!" In fact, they yelled "!Jive" everything. Seeing "PRESTONE '44" lettered on the radiators of our vehicles, they shouted, "Viva la Presume!'

Major Wesner and I rode our jeep gaily through the holiday atmosphere. After a while we arrived at this little village. Although we didn't know it then, we were the first Americans to enter the town. Before long we were stopped by a civilian. Although we spoke no French and he spoke no English, we soon realized that the villagers wanted us to join them in the celebration. We permitted ourselves to be dragged (ahem l) to the civilian's home. From the basement he brought dusty bottles of champagne, while his wife took shiny glasses from the cupboard. People began coming in from all over the village. By the time the champagne was poured there were more cus-tomers than there was wine. Everyone shook hands and kissed everyone else.

The problem of language didn't bother us very long. I raised my glass and shouted, "Hello CQ! CQ twenty-meter 'phone!" "Vive la Amerique!" they responded in unison, and we all had another round of drinks. Major Wesner raised his glass and said, "Brawley, we'd better be on our way." "Vive la Belgique!" they yelled, and then we had a round of kisses.

Personally, while I hold no strong objection to unpremeditated kissing I do feel that, even on the spur of the moment, it is my privilege to select my opponent. But such was not the case here. I was constantly pursued by an elderly gentle-man who hadn't shaved for several days. Each time I spotted a likely subject and moved closer to make myself available, I was intercepted by the oldster with the "five-o'clock shadow."

We weren't accustomed to such demonstrative people. When we left our jeep looked like a float in a Mardi Gras parade. It was covered with wreaths, bouquets, streamers and flags. The Belgians are surely a friendly and hospitable race.

We have a versatile radio crew in the VII Corps. The first press news from the beachhead was flashed back on c.w. by our operators with their 399. As fast as the reporters handed in their copy it was transmitted direct to London.

We also furnished radio facilities for psycho-logical warfare purposes. During the peninsular campaign, when the fortress of Cherbourg was being assaulted by VII Corps, we took SCR-399s up to the front lines and broadcast an ultimatum to the enemy. Handling the technical side of these broadcasts were T/4 John F. Wilson, T/4 Albert Yokym, W8SGW, and T/4 James Coleman. To insure a proper audience, we picked up German operational frequencies and put the 399s right on zero-beat. Then our interpreters read the ultimatum in German, Polish and Russian. The broadcasts went on all night. To prevent the enemy from pinpointing our transmitters and knocking them (and us) out with artillery fire, we stopped in anyone spot only long enough for one brief transmission.

Since I have been in the service I have yet to meet a ham who has not been benefited by his amateur experience. Nor have I met one ham who hasn't been able to contribute something tangible to his branch of service. There are many others to whom immense credit must go, as well - the technicians and commercial operators who made radio a business instead of a hobby, and those men who learned radio in the service schools.

RF Cafe - Hams in Combat, We were the first Americans to enter the town , April 1945 QST

We were the first Americans to enter the town ... and the villagers wanted us to celebrate with them.

Take, for example, Major Gene M. Ranvier, the radio engineer who interviewed me upon my arrival in Iceland. The memory of our meeting is still vivid. He chose to discuss the design and application of a proposed v.h.f. automatic relay circuit. The only image the words "automatic relay" conveyed to me was that of a mythical ambidextrous operator who could copy with his right hand and simultaneously transmit with his left. To add to my confusion, Major Ranvier then threw in a few queer-sounding geographical locations, such as "Hvalfjordur" (pronounced KWAL-four-ther) and "Budayeyri," by way of orientation.

"Amazing, isn't it?" was all I could say when he had finished.

Major Ranvier did much for radio communications in Iceland. When he didn't have the proper spare parts for repairs, he improvised, often by redesigning the circuits to fit the available parts. He had a most practical, common-sense approach to a problem which invariably produced results.

While in Iceland I also met Glen Davidson, W9DDU; John R. Swink, WSTEF; Wm. Brooks, WSFKT; Walter H. Bales, W9ADH; James A. Shanks, W9JCI, and Joseph Palm, OPLO. There were others, too, but their calls slip my memory. We fought the battle of boredom and the peculiar atmospherics that play havoc with all radio communications in Iceland. In the postwar era, when you QSO Iceland, don't be surprised if the TF suddenly does a fade-out in the middle of a QSO. The air goes completely dead in a matter of seconds. Sometimes it stays dead for several hours; sometimes for only a short while. The result is un-predictable, intermittent communication. We usually blamed the northern lights for this phenomenon. In fact, we blamed the aurora for almost every radio trouble - including power failure!

Iceland is cold and stormy in the winter months - and so is the North Atlantic! No one knows this better than Lt. James A. Shanks, W9JCI, who spent several hours in a small lifeboat after his ship was torpedoed somewhere off the coast of Iceland. The torpedo hit during the early morning hours, in pitch dark and bitter cold. The ship listed badly but Lt. Shanks and other passengers launched lifeboats before the ship went down. They drifted in darkness through the rough seas for over four hours. Soaked to the skin by spray, by dawn they were nearly frozen. W9JCI almost qualified for Silent Keys before their flares were sighted by a Coast Guard cutter.

Another Signal Corpsman, Lt. William Valen-tine, was aboard the ship with W9JCI. When the torpedo struck he made his way below deck to the sick bay to help get the patients into the lifeboats. Disregarding his own safety, Valentine stayed aboard until all the launchable boats were filled. By then the ship was sinking fast. A few seconds before it went down Valentine climbed to the bridge, cut loose a small life raft, and slid with it into the sea. He was picked up several hours later, nearly dead from exposure and fa-tigue - but on the raft with him were three other survivors he had fished from the sea. Upon reach-ing Iceland Lt. Valentine was awarded the Soldiers' Medal. His citation read "for extraordinary heroism" - and justly so.

However, Iceland isn't always a land of ice and snow. In the summer it is a beautiful place where the sun shines twenty-three hours each day. The Icelanders are an intelligent, progressive people. Indeed, at times I felt they were a bit too progressive. Once I paid 20 kronur for a bunch . of grapes. To satisfy my curiosity, I counted the individual grapes and divided by the rate of exchange. They had cost me the equivalent of ten cents each! Another time I bought a genuine hand-made Icelandic souvenir in a curio store. It seemed a steal at 150 kronur ($10.00) - until I found, marked inconspicuously on the bottom, the label "Made in U. S. A."

Icelandic hams seemed to be a scarce in person as they used to be on the air. Unscrupulous DXer that I am, if I could have found one I'd have tried to snare a QSL card - or at least arrange a postwar schedule. In the past I've spent many fruitless hours at Babler Park in St. Louis County pounding out answers to Icelandic CQs on 14-Mc. c.w. But even in Iceland I couldn't raise a TF.

There are other foreign hams whom I hope to meet in person while I am in Europe - particularly ON4HC, whom I once talked to from W9JWJ at Ferguson, Mo. The fact that I couldn't work him on the same band at home, with 300 watts as compared with W9JWJ's 30, is better not discussed. I think he discovered that W9JWJ. is a YL and picked his QSO accordingly.

The following amateurs of VII Corps are currently living on the German side of the Siegfried line:

W1BLO, Pvt. Eugene J. Gaumont, SC

W1GKJ, M/Sgt. Lionel Simon, SC

W4EVH, S/Sgt. Ralph Jenkins, SC

W4IDI, Cpl. Edward Talley, SC

W5FRP, Colonel John H. Sampson, FA

W5KHZ, CWO Hilton J. Allen, AUS

W8QMK. T/4 Chester E. Riker. FA

W8UBF, T /3 Mitchell A. Paniwozik, SC

W9MNS, T/3 Irving E. Olsen, SC

W9YVR-ex- W5GQQ, Capt. Alexander S. Turner, SC

K5AT, 1st Lt. Francis X. Knopp, SC

K5GQO-ex-W2MAP-KA1US, WOJG, William R. Scott, AUS

OPLO, T/Sgt. Joseph T. Palm, SC

Obviously, the hams mentioned in this account represent only a fraction of the total of those doing their bit in the ETO. Even in VII Corps undoubtedly there are other hams who have not been included but who have also experienced the long, hard trek of VII Corps from the Normandy beachhead to the interior of Germany.



Posted February 4, 2021
(updated from original post on 4/1/2011)

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