April 1946 QST
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
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
Listening Post in the Philippines
The 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.
At 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
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.
Spies 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
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)