Listening Post in the Philippines
April 1946 QST

April 1946 QST

April 1946 QST Cover - RF CafeTable 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.

Here is a fascinating story from a 1946 issue of the ARRL's QST magazine of the ordeal one Catholic priest experienced while serving in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Father Visintainer exploited his personal interest in radio communications to help keep local residents apprised of the war's progress and talk to the outside world. Japanese troops confiscated all the existing shortwave radios and converted them to their own frequencies. Some were re-converted by daring servicemen and then hidden. Batteries were recharged using covert water wheel powered generators located in the woods. Drama hit a peak one day when an attempt to formulate a make-shift battery electrolyte resulted in an explosion that brought Japanese running to the church lab. For a guy who claims, "But I am not a chemist," he has an amazing knowledge of chemicals. Read on to learn how Father Visintainer escaped certain death.

Listening Post in the Philippines

Radio Servicemen Were Wary - RF CafeThe Story of an Italian Priest's Struggle to Maintain Underground Reception During the Japanese Occupation

By F. Joseph Visintainer *

We admit that this is not a story of radio amateurs or of their activity during the war. However, F. Joseph Visintainer demonstrated the outstanding qualities of a true amateur. His loyalty, persistence and ingenuity qualify his story for these pages, and the success of his ventures should he an inspiration to us all.

We present the following excerpts from a letter accompanying his article.

"This is the account of something we did here in the Philippines in order to hear the truth of what was going on. Of course, what I am telling is only my story but I think that, more or less, it was the same throughout these Islands, and my story may be the story of many others who were lucky enough to come out with their lives. Alas! That many more had to succumb - the story of their trials and martyrdom will never be related. As I am a Catholic priest, radio is only my hobby, but during this war it served me well."

Are you interested in knowing all that the Filipinos did to keep in touch with the world outside during the Japanese occupation? The Japs did everything in their power to shut us off from every avenue by which we could know what was happening in the world. That they did not succeed was certainly not their fault.

One of their first acts was to banish all sort of antennas. Then all radios had to be reconditioned, that is, all those parts that served for the reception of short waves were to be taken out, so that only long waves could be picked up. Of course, with all the receivers in the Islands working only on long waves, and all antennas banned, only locals could be heard, and no outside broadcasts reach the Filipinos.

Some of the sets, after being reconditioned by the Japs, were repaired again, but to do it was a risky enterprise and radio servicemen were wary. Life, under the Japanese rule, counted very little, still the average serviceman did not relish the prospect of losing his. With all parts necessary for short-wave reception missing, the reconversion was not a quick and easy job. Besides, we were kept under close vigilance and knew that spies were at large. Sometimes we knew beforehand of the approaching military police, but never knew how to distinguish between a common citizen and a Japanese spy. Building converters and adapters was easier if we were able to secure the needed materials. Converters are very small things and easy to hide. Many of them were built and used. But when some of the short-wave listeners got caught, and had to pay very dearly, some even with their lives, many grew afraid and gave up.

Many others, however, went into the mountains and to places far away from towns and other localities where the Japs and their spies used to prowl.

There was no electricity in such out-of-the way places. Storage batteries could be used, it is true, but only for sets built or adapted to the purpose.

The trouble was that batteries needed recharging, and there was no fuel to charge them. Some tried to distill their own fuel - alcohol obtained from sugar cane or, more commonly, from coconut wine. But it was a long and not easy procedure, because of the lack of proper apparatus. They made stills out of tin cans and copper tubing taken out of old cars. In such crude retorts, instead of having alcohol distilling and water left behind, nine times out of ten you had the water distilling and the alcohol going out the wrong way.

Others in order to charge their batteries by hand made crude contraptions with cartwheels and auto generators. They worked, but it was too tiresome a task. Then waterwheels were tried. The wheels were installed in some deep gorge of very difficult accessibility. Batteries were carried to the charging place by men walking up or down the bed of the river from the nearest ford, in order not to leave tell-tale tracks. But here in the rainy season rivers grow so suddenly that there was no time to remove the wheel. At the first downpour upstream, many a wheel went merrily sailing down the river and was seen no more. Some were found again, but so disfigured, that it would have baffled anyone who had had the wish to know what they were used for.

Then we thought of charcoal. Crude gas producers were built and proved satisfactory. We had only to be cautious and use a good exhaust silencer, otherwise the military police would have been there before long. A windmill would have answered the need nicely, but as it had to be installed in the clear and quite above ground, it would have had the noses of the military stuck into it in no time.

 The Japs Couldn't Find What They Hoped For - RF CafeAt last the Japanese got so frantic about news coming in and circulating everywhere despite all their efforts, that they began to look for radios in every nook. Spies were busy and with the soldiery and the police scouring the country, of course some got into trouble. Sets were seized and owners brought to military prisons from which one seldom, if ever, came back alive.

It was on one of these raids that one of the sets I had made was discovered. In the fright of the moment the owner told where the set had been made. It was his salvation. They dropped everything, forgot even to arrest him, and came straight to Ibaan where I was then residing. They were so excited and so angry that there was ground for fears that my last hour was at hand. In fact, I thought that the least they were about to do was to shoot me. Luckily, it never came to that. I led them into my workshop where I opened all the drawers and showed them everything. I tried to behave courteously, gave them all the explanations they asked for, and led them in their search throughout the house from the cellar to the attic. They searched, rummaged, threw everything into disorder, but could not find what they hoped for. True, they found many things, but nothing incriminating - no short-wave radios or antennas. There were five old long-wave sets, all of them duly registered, some test instruments, many spare parts, about fifty new tubes, and yes ...a storage battery, but as I explained that the storage battery belonged to the church, and was used for the processions, which was true, and I being a priest, and living in the rectory, that was not incriminating.

"Had I not built many short-wave sets?" ...

"Yes, I did build some short-wave sets, but it was long ago, before the prohibition." "Did I not belong to the guerrillas?" ... "No! I did not, I was a priest, and priests are forbidden to take part in political issues. And besides, I was an Italian citizen."

While the search was going on I ordered my boy to prepare some coffee. Japs, as a rule, like coffee very much and, little by little, they cooled down. When they had had their coffee they became almost courteous. Then they began to carry out all my things. They were about to carry away one of the boxes full of junk. I told them to take them all if they wished, but that I was so sorry that there was nothing but junk in them. So they let it down and inspected the contents, saw that I had told the truth and left the boxes there. Before going they told me that I was pardoned for that first time. I thanked them. But, they continued, they would be coming back again, and then if I would be found tinkering with radios ... it would be only too bad ... Did I understand? I did. "So," they finished, "beware! Let us not find you tinkering with radios again if you prize your life." I did prize my life, and, of course, if I could only help it, I was not to let them find me again at work on radios.

When they departed, they took all my things including the storage battery belonging to the church. Left alone, I came to life again but now I was shut off from the world. One of the sets they had taken had a secret contrivance built in, by the use of which I was able to listen to the San Francisco broadcasts. I must build myself another set, but where were the necessary materials? To buy them was not wise ... I began rummaging into the junk. There were many things there that with a little patience and some skill could be fixed up. There I found a tube I had discarded only because it was gassy. As a detector it might work. There were resistors, condensers with nothing wrong but broken pigtails. There was an old dial plate, knobs, sockets, volume controls, tubes, a little of everything, even headphones. The only trouble was that every item had been discarded because it was not in working order. The following day I had enough parts repaired to make a little one-tube set. It worked wonderfully. The tube was a 35A5. Our light plant was a 32-volt Delco-light, so with 32 volts on the plate, and without a shadow of an antenna, I could hear San Francisco, Sidney and many other places very clearly on the phones.

So I was not shut off from the world after all. People continued to come in for news as before, and the military police never found out. After some months, that is, in June 1943, I was removed to San Jose. As there was also a 32-volt plant operating for the church, I brought my radio along. There were Japanese soldiers in San Jose, a lot of them. They had occupied all the principal buildings of the town and most of the rectory, and they had a lookout on the roof of the church. That complicated things considerably. Nevertheless, when at home I always listened regularly to the San Francisco news. Indeed, it was very exciting to be in the midst of those who sought by every means to hinder you of doing something and had the power for it, and yet to be able in spite of all, to do this thing. But, it was also sufficiently dangerous, because they entered our rooms without knocking. Being in danger of being discovered at any moment was not a very pleasant thing to bear. But the people had to have their news. And news was becoming more and more interesting every day.

Water Wheels Were Contrived to Charge Batteries - RF CafeSpies there were, the Japs were ever on the alert, but in spite of it all, news was brought out and kept circulating. The Japs knew it, what they did not know was - what to do next? All means had been tried but in vain. All? No! They still had another trick in their bag. They seized all the small electric plants. All the farm lights went out, and ours in San Jose were not excepted. I was in the dark again and all the radios for miles around were silenced. The nearest receiver still operating was situated about thirty miles away. In my situation only dry batteries or primary cells could be taken into consideration, all of the other means having been rendered impossible. Dry batteries were out of the question. From the time the Japanese boots had begun to tread our shores, dry batteries had literally disappeared, and that was a long time ago. (About three years, to be sure, but they seemed more than thirty.) Primary cells? I began to collect what was necessary. I found plenty of zinc. It was not pure, and I had not a single drop of mercury to amalgamate it, but it had to do. I found plenty of old flashlight cells, from which I took the carbon element. Next came the electrolyte. Ammonium chloride was nowhere to be found. If I could only prepare it myself! Ammonium sulfate I found, and lime and manganese ore. I had common salt and some very diluted sulphuric acid. I got plenty of calcium hypochlorite for the latrines from the Japanese.

But I am not a chemist. I hoped to obtain ammonium chloride by mixing the hypochlorite with the sulfate. The result, I hoped, was to be insoluble calcium sulfate and soluble ammonium chloride, to be separated later by washing. The result - a loud explosion. An embarrassing and very loud explosion that rocked the rectory and filled the room with poisonous fumes. A hailstorm of Japanese soldiers poured down on me. When they tried to enter the room to see what was going on inside, they were hurled back by the gas streaming out. Angry words were heard. They would not believe that I was only trying an innocent experiment to get some plaster of Paris in a hurry, and that I had got a detonation instead. Maybe they thought that I was manufacturing explosives. In order to convince them; I had to repeat the experiment. The first detonation had left the jar intact. In it I again introduced the two ingredients, and put the jar outside in the open. The explosion did not keep us waiting. It was like a cannonade. When we went to look for the jar, it was not there, but we saw bits of it everywhere. The soldiers withdrew satisfied - almost. After that, I do not know how many experiments I tried but all to no avail. Finally, I began to saturate water with ammonia and then introduce chlorine into the solution. Then, by evaporating the mixture I got my sal ammoniac. It was a long process. I had to make my own tools with old bottles and rubber hose and tin cans, and I never knew when the solution was neutral. At last, I had to look for the pots. They were made of bamboo. The stems of bamboo are hollow inside, very hard outside, and their joints are very thick. Every joint was cut to the desired length and impregnated with tar from old dry batteries. I put together a battery of thirty cells. The voltage was somewhat low. That I ascribed to the impurities in the zinc. It could be remedied by adding more cells.

And now to look for a battery-operated tube. I knew where to borrow a 3Q5 and got it. The few necessary changes in the wiring of the set were made and when the hour came I was so thrilled to hear San Francisco again that I felt well repaid for all my work and all the risks connected with it. The day was the 26th of December, 1944. It had taken me 35 days to get going again. The Americans had made big gains meanwhile. Liberation was nearing.

After the landing of the Americans in Lingayen, the garrison of San Jose was sent north and I was left alone. But on the 27th of February, 1945, I was arrested and placed, for the space of more than three hours, before a machine-gun. I feared that my hour had come at last. It did not. After an interminable time of waiting to be shot, I was released once more. They had nothing on me so far. Radio and batteries were well concealed. To find them it was necessary to rip up the floor of my room, and they did not do it just then, and of course I had no mind to tip them off. By now the Americans were nearing Manila. Two days later I was again arrested while in the country. This time I managed to escape from their very hands by jumping into a very deep gorge, the almost perpendicular edges of which were covered by thick thorny bushes. When I came out, I had become perhaps a fit model to pose for the painting of an Ecce Homo, but I was still alive.

On the evening of the 13th of February, 1945, while yet under the Japanese oppression, I listened for the last time to the news from San Francisco. Not because the Americans entered San Jose the following day, but because the Japanese military police had encircled the rectory and I was barely able to jump out and escape in my pajamas and without shoes. It was then that they discovered the batteries. They looked for me everywhere. Doors were smashed, cupboards and wardrobes broken into. But they did not find the radio, and what's more, its owner!

After that, I deemed it best to go away. It was too hot for me in San Jose, and besides I knew the liberation was but a matter of days. I went into the hills and on March 14th I was happy to meet the first Americans, and on the 30th of the same month I was able to return to the now liberated San Jose. There I found my radio where I had left it.

It is a wonderful little set and it draws 80 little current that any rundown battery can work it. I am using an antenna now, and with it have sometimes to cut down the volume because it is too loud to be comfortable to the ear, in spite of the fact that San Francisco lies seven thousand miles away and I am hard of hearing.

* Cuenca Batangas, Philippine Islands.



Posted March 7, 2022
(updated from original post on 4/8/2016)