Between the World Wars
World War I abruptly ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. At that time the United States Army had nearly four million men in uniform, half of them overseas. President Wilson negotiated the peace treaty in Paris with other world leaders against a backdrop of immense if short-lived American power. As in the aftermath of the nation's earlier wars, a massive demobilization began which soon reduced the Army to about 224,000 men, a force far smaller than that of the other major powers.1 Limited budgets as well as reduced manpower became the order of the day.
Despite Wilson's efforts, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, and the nation hastened to return to its traditional isolation. The League of Nations, centerpiece of the president's peace plan, was formed without U.S. participation. Yet the years that followed, often viewed as an era of withdrawal for the United States and of stagnation for the Army, brought new developments to the field of military communications. Technical advances in several areas, especially voice radio and radar, had major consequences for the Signal Corps. When events abroad made it clear that the Wilsonian dream of a lasting peace was only that, such innovations helped to shape the nation's military response to the new and more terrible conflict that lay ahead.
Organization, Training, and Operations, 1919-1928
The silencing of the guns in November 1918 did not complete the U.S. Army's work in Europe. In spite of pressures for rapid demobilization, shipping shortages delayed the departure of most units from European shores until the spring and summer of 1919. Although Pershing embarked for home on 1 September 1919, American troops remained in France through the end of the year. For its part, the Signal Corps gradually turned over its communication lines, both those it had built and those it had leased, to the French. In addition, the Corps had to dispose of vast quantities of surplus war materiel and equipment.2
According to the terms of the Armistice, the Third Army (organized in November 1918) moved up to the Rhine River, and American soldiers continued to occupy a zone in the Rhineland until 1923.3 The 1st Field Signal Battalion comprised part of these forces and operated the German military and civilian telephone and telegraph lines, which had been turned over to the Americans. The unit returned home in October 1921.4
In addition to these activities, the Signal Corps provided communications for the Paris Peace Conference, which began in January 1919. Brig. Gen. Edgar Russel placed John J. Carty of AT&T, who had not yet doffed his uniform, in charge of setting up this system. The Signal Corps installed a telephone central switchboard at the conference site in the Crillon Hotel and provided communications for President Wilson at his residence. Several of the women operators from the front operated these lines. The Signal Corps could also connect the president with the American forces in Germany.5
Despite the importance of its work in Europe, the main story of the Signal Corps, as of the Army, was one of rapid demobilization. From a total at the Armistice of 2,712 officers and 53,277 enlisted men, the Corps had dropped by June 1919 to 1,216 officers and 10,372 men. A year later its strength stood at less than one-tenth its wartime total, with 241 officers and 4,662 enlisted men on the rolls.6
As the soldiers came home, the government lifted the economic restrictions imposed during the war, restored control over the civilian communications systems to the commercial companies, and dismantled most of the wartime boards and commissions.7 These changes were aspects of the return to normalcy, reflective of the nation's resurgent isolationism and its desire to escape from the international arena it had entered during the war.
Meanwhile, Congress debated the future military policy of the United States. The War Department favored the maintenance of a large standing Army numbering some 500,000 officers and men, but its proposal failed to win the support of the war-weary public or their representatives in Congress. As part of the usual postwar review of lessons learned, Congress held lengthy hearings on Army reorganization, but twenty months passed before it enacted new defense legislation.8
On 4 June 1920 President Wilson signed into law the National Defense Act of 1920. Written as a series of amendments to the 1916 defense act, the new legislation enacted sweeping changes and remained in effect until 1950.9 It established the Army of the United States, comprised of three components: the Regular Army, the Organized Reserves, and the National Guard. It set the Regular Army's strength at approximately 300,000 (17,700 officers and 280,000 men), with 300 officers and 5,000 men allotted to the Signal Corps.10 The act also abolished the detail system for Signal Corps officers above the rank of captain. In the future, they would receive permanent commissions in the Corps. Congress also abandoned the system of territorial departments within the continental United States and replaced them with nine corps areas. These were intended to serve as tactical commands rather than simply as administrative headquarters. Each corps area would support one Regular Army division.11 Hawaii, the Philippines, and Panama continued to constitute separate departments. Other significant provisions included the creation of the Air Service as a new branch along with the Chemical Warfare Service and the Finance Department.12
Ironically, while the Signal Corps received recognition in the new defense act as a combat arm, changes in doctrine concurrently took away its tactical
communications function.13 In April 1919 Pershing had convened a committee of high-ranking officials, called the Superior Board, to examine the organizational and tactical experiences of the war. Col. Parker Hitt, who had served as chief signal officer of the First Army, represented the Signal Corps' interests. Drawing upon the proceedings of boards previously held at the branch level, the board concentrated on the structure of the infantry division and recommended that the division be increased in size to achieve greater firepower even at the expense of mobility. Because Pershing disagreed with the panel's advice, favoring a smaller, more mobile organization, he withheld its report from the War Department for a year.14
For the Signal Corps, the Superior Board's recommendations resulted in a dramatic change in its role within the Army. In their postwar reviews, both the infantry and artillery boards had expressed a desire to retain their own communication troops. The Superior Board agreed and, with the approval of the secretary of war, this modification made its way into policy. Henceforth, the Signal Corps' responsibility for communications would extend only down to division level. Below that echelon the individual arms became responsible for their own internal communications as well as for connecting themselves with the command lines of communication established by the Signal Corps.15 Although the Signal Corps retained overall technical supervision, it no longer controlled communications from the front lines to Washington as it had done successfully during World War I. Understandably, Chief Signal Officer Squier protested the change, arguing that it would result in confusion:
This office is more than ever of the opinion that the present system of dividing signaling duties and signaling personnel, in units smaller than divisions, among the various branches of the service, is not wise and a return to the former system which provided Signal Corps personnel for practically all signaling duties is recommended.16 But his protest fell on deaf ears. The Army's revised Field Service Regulations, approved in 1923, reflected the doctrinal changes.17
In a further departure from the past, Congress had given the War Department discretion to determine the Army's force structure at all levels.18 Col. William Lassiter, head of the War Plans Division of the General Staff and a member of the Superior Board, presided over a panel to study the Army's organization. Unlike the Superior Board, this body, designated the Special Committee (but more commonly known as the Lassiter Committee), favored a reduction in the infantry division's size, while retaining its "square" configuration of two brigades and four infantry regiments. Much of the reduction resulted from proposed cuts in the number of support troops. Under its plan, divisional signal assets were reduced to a single company, reflecting their reduced mission under the postwar doctrine. Approved by the Army chief of staff, General Peyton C. March, and written into the tables of organization, the new policy placed the infantry division's signal company (comprising 6 officers and 150 men) in the category of special troops, along with a military police, a light tank, and an ordnance maintenance
company.19 For the cavalry division, a new unit, the signal troop, was specified. At the corps and army levels signal battalions replaced the telegraph and field signal battalions.20
Yet few of these units were actually organized. For most of the interwar years the Army had just three active infantry divisions in the continental United States (the 1st, 2d, and 3d) and the 1st Cavalry Division. Thus the Signal Corps contained very few tactical units. Signal service companies, meanwhile, served in each of the nine corps areas as well as at Camp Vail, New Jersey, and in Alaska, Hawaii, the Canal Zone, and the Philippines. A shrunken organization carried out a more limited mission in a nation that seemingly wanted to forget about military matters.
Despite a booming national economy, the Army did not prosper during the "Roaring Twenties." Budget-minded Congresses never appropriated funds to bring it up to its authorized strength. In 1922 Congress limited the Regular Army to 12,000 commissioned officers and 125,000 enlisted men, only slightly more than had been in uniform when the United States entered World War 1.21 Eventually Congress reduced enlisted strength to 118,000, where it remained until the late 1930s. Army appropriations, meanwhile, stabilized at around $300 million, about half the projected cost of the defense act if fully implemented. The Army remained composed of skeleton organizations with most of its divisions little more than "paper tigers.”22
Under these circumstances, the fate of the Signal Corps was not exceptional. But it did suffer to an unusual degree because its operations were far-flung and its need for costly materiel was great. The Corps' actual strength never reached the
SIGNAL STUDENTS TAKE A BREAK FROM THEIR CLASSES
figures authorized in the defense act; in 1921 Congress cut its enlisted personnel to 3,000, and by 1926 this figure had dropped to less than 2,200. At the same time, officer strength remained well below 300.23 Moreover, the Signal Corps lost a significant percentage of its skilled enlisted personnel each year to private industry, which could offer them significantly higher salaries.24 The branch's annual appropriation plummeted from nearly $73 million for fiscal year 1919 to less than $2 million for fiscal year 1923, and by 1928 it had risen only slightly.25 The War Department's financial straits dictated that surplus war equipment be used up, even if obsolete, and only limited funds were available to purchase or develop new items.
Signal training suffered as well. During demobilization, most of the wartime camps had been shut down. The Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, which had been closed during the war, opened briefly to conduct courses for officers from September 1919 to June 1920 before shutting its doors permanently. But there was an important exception to the general picture of decline: Camp Vail, New Jersey, became the new location of the Signal School, officially opening in October 1919. The school offered training for both officers and enlisted men of the Signal Corps as well as those from other branches.26 In 1920 the school began instructing members of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and the following year added courses for National Guard and Reserve officers. Students from foreign armies, such as Cuba, Peru, and Chile, also received training at Camp Vail. Here the Corps prepared its field manuals, regulations, and other technical publications as well as its correspondence courses and testing materials.27 The post also had the advantage of being close to New York City, where the students trav-
eled to view the latest in commercial communication systems. They gained practical field experience by participating in the annual Army War College maneuvers. Signal officers could further enhance their education by attending communication engineering courses at such institutions as Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.28 In 1925 Camp Vail became a permanent post known as Fort Monmouth.29 Here the 51st Signal Battalion (which had fought during World War I as the 55th Telegraph Battalion), the Signal Corps' only active battalion-size unit, made its home during the interwar years, along with the 15th Signal Service Company and the 1st Signal Company.30
Fort Monmouth also became the home of the Signal Corps' Pigeon Breeding and Training Center. Although the Army had sold most of its birds at the end of the war, the Signal Corps retained a few lofts along the Mexican border, in the Panama Canal Zone, and at several camps and flying stations. At Monmouth, the Corps' pigeon experts devoted much effort to training birds to fly at night. Some may also have wished that they could breed the pigeons with parrots so the birds could speak their messages.31
Each year the Corps entered its pigeons in exhibitions and races, winning numerous prizes. In April 1922 the Signal Corps' pigeons participated in a contest that, however ludicrous to a later age, was taken seriously at the time. Responding to an argument raised by the San Francisco press, Maj. Henry H. Arnold of the Army Air Service challenged the pigeons to a race from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco, to determine whether a pigeon or a plane could deliver a message faster. As the race began, the pigeons disappeared from view while Arnold struggled for forty-five minutes to start his airplane's cold engine. Then he had to make several stops for fuel. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, citizens received telegraphic bulletins of the race's progress, with the pigeons apparently holding their early lead. Bookies did a brisk business as bettors began backing the birds. When Arnold finally landed in San Francisco after a seven-and-a-half-hour journey, he expected to be the loser. But surprisingly, no pigeons had yet arrived, and none did so for two more days. Perhaps aviation was not just for the birds after all.32 Despite the outcome, the Signal Corps did not abandon its use of pigeons, and in 1927 was maintaining about one thousand birds in sixteen lofts in the United States, the Canal Zone, Hawaii, and the Philippines.33
Although the Signal Corps had lost much of its wartime mission, it still performed an important peacetime function by providing the Army's administrative communications. As it had for many years, the Corps continued to operate the telephone and telegraph systems at Army installations and to maintain coast artillery fire control systems. In addition, the Signal Corps received authorization in 1921 to set up a nationwide radio net. Stations were located at the headquarters of each corps area and department, as well as in certain major cities. Each corps area in turn established its own internal system connecting posts, camps, and stations. The 17th Service Company (redesignated in 1925 as the 17th Signal Service Company) operated the net's headquarters in Washington, D.C., which bore the call letters WVA (later changed, appropriately enough, to WAR).34
SIGNAL CORPS SOLDIER DEMONSTRATES THE EMPLOYMENT OF PIGEONS AT CAMP ALFRED VAIL;
Stations at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Fort Douglas, Utah, relayed messages to the West Coast. Due to atmospheric disturbances and other forms of interference, good service meant that a message filed in Washington reached the West Coast by the following day.35 Although established to serve as an emergency communications system in the event of the destruction or failure of the commercial wire network, on a day-to-day basis the radio net handled much of the War Department's message traffic formerly carried by commercial telegraph, saving the government a considerable expense. By 1925, 164 stations, including those on Army ships and in Alaska, came under the net's technical supervision, and the chief signal officer described it as "the largest and most comprehensive radio net of its kind in the world today."36
The success of the radio net led to the establishment of the War Department Message Center on 1 March 1923, through the merger of the War Department's telegraph office with the Signal Corps' own telegraph office and radio station. The chief signal officer became the director of the center, which coordinated departmental communications in Washington and dispatched them by the most appropriate means, whether telegraph, radio, or cable. Although originally intended for War Department traffic only, the center eventually handled messages for over fifty federal agencies.37
In an attempt to supplement its limited regular force, the Signal Corps formed the Army Amateur Radio System in 1925, with the net control station located at Fort Monmouth. The system operated every Monday night except during the summer months, when static interfered too greatly. The volunteer operators constituted a sizable pool of skilled personnel upon whom the Army could call in case of emergency. Each corps area signal officer appointed an amateur operator, known as the radio aide, to represent the operators in his area.38
Among President Wilson's concerns during the 1919 peace negotiations in Paris had been the future of postwar communications. In the past British companies had controlled global communications through their ownership of most of the world's submarine cables. During the war the British government had exercised its jurisdiction by intercepting cable traffic. Wilson sought to prevent such a monopoly in the future, and debate at the conference revolved around how the captured German cables would be allocated.39
Radio did not appear as an issue on the agenda at Paris, even though it constituted a new force in international communications that would greatly change the balance of the equation. Indications of its potential importance had appeared during the war when the Navy used its station at New Brunswick, New Jersey, to broadcast news to Europe-in particular, the Fourteen Points enunciated by President Wilson. The Germans in turn had used radio to transmit to the United States their willingness to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. When Wilson crossed the Atlantic to attend the peace conference, he had maintained communication with Washington via radiotelephone. (Due to technological limitations, there would be no transatlantic voice telephone cables until after World War II.)
Despite these early achievements, radio remained in its infancy. Lacking a nationwide radio broadcasting network, Wilson was compelled to fight for the peace treaty by embarking upon a strenuous barnstorming tour that destroyed his health.40
After the war the new medium soon fulfilled its promise. Radio technology rapidly moved away from the spark-gap method to the continuous waves generated by vacuum tubes, which were capable of carrying voice and music. Radio's ability to be broadcast made it more difficult for any one party or nation to control the dissemination of information. Instead of the point-to-point communications of the telegraph and telephone, radio could reach all who wanted to listen and who possessed a simple receiver. The era of mass communications had arrived.
Within the United States, the Navy endorsed the retention of governmental control over radio as a means to prevent foreign domination of the airwaves. Congress did not act accordingly, however, and the government returned the stations to their owners.41 To counter foreign competition, particularly that of the British-controlled Marconi Company, a solution was soon found. In 1919 an all-American firm, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), was formed through the merger of General Electric and the American Marconi company. By means of cross-licensing agreements with the industry's leaders (AT&T, Westinghouse, and the United Fruit Company), RCA obtained the use of their radio patents, thus securing a virtual monopoly over the latest technology.42 Under the leadership of its general manager, David Sarnoff, a former Marconi employee, RCA helped to create the nation's first broadcasting network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), in 1926.43
With the wartime restrictions lifted, an extraordinary radio boom swept over the United States. It began in November 1920 when the nation's first commercial radio station went on the air, KDKA in Pittsburgh, owned and operated by the Westinghouse Company.44 In 1922, when more than five hundred new stations went on the air, Chief Signal Officer Squier referred to the radio phenomenon as "the outstanding feature of the year in signal communications."45 The thousands of veterans who had received wireless training during the war plus legions of amateur "hams" with their homemade crystal sets fueled the movement. The spectacular growth of private and commercial radio users necessitated, however, more stringent regulation of licenses and frequencies. A power struggle ensued over who should control the medium, the federal government or private enterprise. Since the Commerce Department had been granted certain regulatory powers under the radio act of 1912, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover attempted to bring order out of the chaos by convening a series of conferences among radio officials in Washington. Ultimately, in 1927, Congress enacted a new Radio Act that created an independent agency to oversee the broadcasting industry, the Federal Radio Commission, forerunner of the present Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Radio thus remained a commercially dominated medium, but subject to governmental regulation.46
The Signal Corps played a role in the industry's growth. The Fourth International Radio Conference was to have met in Washington in 1917, but the war forced its postponement. In 1921 Chief Signal Officer Squier headed an American delegation to Paris to help plan the rescheduled meeting. The rapid technological changes of the next several years, however, caused a further delay. When the conference finally convened in Washington in October 1927, a decade after its initial date, one of the chief items on its agenda was the international allocation of radio frequencies.47
Radio technology was beginning to link the entire world together, including remote and inaccessible regions such as Alaska. Radio had a considerable impact upon the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, which continued to serve as an important component of the Signal Corps' chain of communications. By 1923 over 40 percent of the Alaskan stations employed radio.48 Meanwhile, the deteriorating condition of the underwater cable, nearly twenty years old, mandated its replacement as soon as possible. Despite the Army's restricted budget, the Signal Corps succeeded in securing an appropriation of $1.5 million for the project. First, the Corps acquired a new cable ship, the Dellwood, to replace the Burnside, which had been in service in Alaska since 1903. Under the supervision of Col. George S. Gibbs, who had helped string the original Alaskan telegraph line as a lieutenant, the Corps completed the laying of the new cable in 1924. With five times the capacity of the earlier cable, it more than met the system's existing and anticipated needs. On land, the total mileage of wire lines steadily dwindled as radio links expanded. Radio cost less to maintain both in monetary and in human terms. No longer would teams of men have to endure the hardships of repairing wires in the harsh climate. In 1928 the Signal Corps discontinued the last of its land lines, bringing a colorful era of WAMCATS history to an end.49
Weather reporting continued as an important Signal Corps function, even though the branch had lost most of its experienced observers upon demobilization. New personnel were trained at Fort Monmouth, and officers could receive meteorological instruction at the Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology. By July 1920 the Corps had fifteen stations providing meteorological information to the Field and Coast Artillery, Ordnance, and Chemical Warfare branches as well as to the Air Service. As in the past, the Signal Corps' weather watchers made their observations three times daily.50 The Corps refrained from duplicating the work of the Weather Bureau, however, and passed its information along for incorporation into the bureau's forecasts. In 1921 the Corps began exchanging data between some of its stations by radios.51
The Air Service, soon to become the Army Air Corps, placed the heaviest demands upon the Signal Corps' meteorological services. In 1921 the Air Service established a model airway between Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio. Although the Signal Corps provided weather information to the Army pilots, it did not initially have enough weather stations to provide the level of assistance needed. In the meantime, the Air Service depended upon the Weather Bureau, only to find that it too had difficulty meeting the airmen's requirements.
Consequently, by 1925 the Signal Corps had expanded its meteorological services to include a weather detachment at each Air Service flying field.52 As planes became more sophisticated and powerful, Army pilots attempted more ambitious undertakings. In 1924 they made their first flight around the world, assisted by weather information from the Signal Corps. At its peak the Signal Corps maintained forty-one weather stations across the country.53
The Corps also retained its photographic mission, even though it had lost responsibility for aerial photography in 1918. The branch maintained two photographic laboratories in Washington, D.C.; one for motion pictures at Washington Barracks (now Fort Lesley J. McNair), and the other at 1800 Virginia Avenue, Northwest. Among its services, the Signal Corps sold photos to the public. Its collection of still photographs included its own pictures, as well as those taken by other branches. The Corps also operated a fifty-seat motion-picture theater where films could be viewed for official purposes or the public could view films for prospective purchase.54 In 1925 the Signal Corps acquired responsibility for the Army's pictorial publicity. In this capacity it supervised and coordinated the commercial and news photographers who covered Army activities.55
Following their successful use during World War I, the Army increasingly relied upon motion pictures for training purposes. With the advent of sound films in the late 1920s, film production entered a new era. In 1928 the War Department made the Signal Corps responsible for the production of new training films but neglected to allocate any funds. To obtain needed expertise, the Signal Corps called upon the commercial film industry for assistance, and in 1930 the Signal Corps sent its first officer to Hollywood for training sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.56 While photography played a relatively minor role in the Corps' overall operations, it nonetheless provided valuable documentation of the Army's activities during the interwar period.
The Signal Corps underwent its first change of leadership in half a dozen years when General Squier retired on 31 December 1923. In retirement Squier continued to pursue his scientific interests. One of his better known inventions, particularly to those who frequently ride in elevators, was Muzak. Based on his patents for "wired wireless," a system for transmitting radio signals over wires, Squier founded Muzak's parent company, Wired Radio, Inc., in 1922. He did not coin the catchy name, however, until 1934, when he combined the word music with the name of another popular item, the Kodak camera. In that year the Muzak Corporation became an entity and sold its first recordings to customers in Cleveland.57 In addition to his commercial ventures, Squier received considerable professional recognition for his contributions to science, among them the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal and the Franklin Medal, both awarded by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In 1919 he had become a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and he also received honors from the governments of Great Britain, France, and Italy.58
The new chief signal officer, Charles McKinley Saltzman, was a native of Iowa and an 1896 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. As a cavalry officer, he had served in Cuba during the War with Spain. After transferring to the Signal
Corps in 1901, Saltzman embarked upon a new career that included serving on the board that examined the Wrights' airplane during its trials at Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909. During World War I he remained in Washington as the executive officer for the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. Saltzman possessed considerable knowledge about radio and had attended the national and international radio conferences since 1912. With this background he seemed extremely well qualified for the job when, as the Signal Corps' senior colonel, he received the promotion to chief signal officer upon Squier's retirement.
The four-year limitation placed on the tenure of branch chiefs in the 1920 defense act obliged General Saltzman to step down in January 1928.59 But retirement did not end his involvement with communications. In 1929 President Hoover appointed him to the Federal Radio Commission, and he served as its chairman from 1930 to 1932. He also played an important role in the formation of the Federal Communications Commission.60
Saltzman's successor, Brig. Gen. George S. Gibbs, also hailed from Iowa but had not attended West Point. He received both the bachelor's and master's degrees of science from the University of Iowa. During the War with Spain he enlisted in the 51st Iowa Volunteer Infantry and sailed for the Philippines. There he transferred to the Volunteer Signal Corps and distinguished himself during the Battle of Manila. In 1901 he obtained a commission in the Signal Corps of the Regular Army, and several highlights of his subsequent career have already been mentioned. Immediately prior to becoming head of the branch in 1928 he was serving
as signal officer of the Second Corps Area. Under his leadership the Signal Corps entered the difficult decade of the 1930s.61
World War I had witnessed the growth and strengthening of ties between government and business, the beginnings of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower later called the military-industrial complex. But the drastic military cutbacks following victory endangered this relationship. While research became institutionalized in the commercial sector with the rise of the industrial labs, such as those of AT&T and General Electric, the Army lagged behind.62
The Signal Corps' research and development program survived the Armistice, but in reduced form. The scientists recruited for the war effort returned to their own laboratories, although some, like Robert A. Millikan, retained their reserve commissions. While the Signal Corps lacked the money to conduct large-scale research, it did continue what it considered to be the most important projects. However, as Chief Signal Officer Saltzman remarked in his 1924 annual report, "The rapid strides being made in commercial communication makes the military development of a few years ago obsolete and if the Signal Corps is to be found by the next emergency ready for production of modern communication equipment, a materially larger sum must be expended on development before the emergency arises.”63
Because radio had not yet proved itself on the battlefield, wire remained the dominant mode of communication. The 1923 version of the Field Service Regulations reiterated the traditional view: "Telegraph and telephone lines constitute the basic means of signal communication. Other means of communication supplement and extend the service of the telegraph and telephone lines."64 Hence the Signal Corps devoted considerable energy to improving such familiar equipment as field wire, wire carts, the field telephone, and the storage battery. Until 1921 the Signal Corps conducted nonradio research in its electrical engineering laboratory at 1710 Pennsylvania Avenue. In that year the laboratory moved to 1800 Virginia Avenue, Northwest. The Corps also continued to support a laboratory at the Bureau of Standards, where Lt. Col. Joseph O. Mauborgne was in charge from 1923 to 1927.65
One significant advance made in wire communications during the interwar period was the teletypewriter. Although printing telegraphs had been used during World War I, they had not achieved the sophistication of the teletypewriter, which was more rapid and accurate than Morse equipment yet relatively simple to operate. Like the Beardslee telegraph of the Civil War, the teletype did not require operators trained in Morse code. On the other hand, teletype machines were heavier, used more power, and were more expensive to maintain than Morse equipment. Teletypewriters came in two general versions: page-type, resembling an ordinary typewriter, and tape-type, which printed messages on paper tape similar to ticker tape that could be torn off and pasted on sheets. By
the late 1930s the Signal Corps had converted most of its administrative telegraph system from Morse to teletype. Teletype's adaptation to tactical signaling awaited, however, the development of new equipment that was portable and rugged. After making a good showing during the Army's interwar maneuvers, such teletype machines were on their way to the field by the time the United States entered World War II.66
Although wire remained important, military and civilian scientists attained advances in radio technology that launched Army communications into the electronics age. The Signal Corps conducted radio research in its laboratories at Fort Monmouth. Here in 1924 the Signal Corps Board was organized to study questions of organization, equipment, and tactical and technical procedures. The commandant and assistant commandant of the school served as its top officers.67 A second consultative body, the Signal Corps Technical Committee, had the chief and assistant chief of the Research and Development Division as its chairman and vice chairman, respectively.
Transmission by shortwaves, or higher frequency waves, enabled broadcasts to be made over greater distances using less power and at lower cost. Consequently, the Corps gradually converted most of its stations, especially those belonging to the War Department Radio Net, to shortwave operation. By 1929 direct radio communication with San Francisco had been achieved.68 Meanwhile, work continued on the loop radiotelegraph set, first devised during World War I, which became known as model SCR-77. Other ground radio sets included the SCR-131 and 132, the latter with both telegraph and telephone capabilities.
Signal Corps engineers made other significant discoveries, among them a new tactical communications device, the walkie-talkie, or SCR-194 and 195. This AM (amplitude-modulated) radiotelephone transceiver (a combination transmitter and receiver) had a range of up to five miles. Weighing about twenty-five pounds, it could be used on the ground or in a vehicle or carried on a soldier's back. The Signal Corps field tested the first models in 1934, and improved versions passed the infantry and field artillery service tests in 1935 and 1936. Lack of funds prevented production until 1939, when the new devices were used successfully during the Plattsburg maneuvers. Walkie-talkies provided a portable means of battlefield communication that increased the ability of infantry to maneuver and enabled commanders to reach units that had outrun field telephone lines.69
As the Army slowly moved toward motorization and mechanization during the 1920s and 1930s, the Signal Corps also addressed the issue of mobile communications. Without radios, early tankers communicated by means of flags and hand signals. As in airplanes, a tank's internal combustion engine interfered with radio reception. The friction of a tank's treads could also generate bothersome static. With the development of FM radio by Edwin H. Armstrong, vehicular radio finally became feasible, but the Signal Corps was hesitant to adopt this revolutionary technology.70
FM eliminated noise and static interference and could transmit a wider range of sound than AM radios. When coupled with crystal control, permitting a radio
to be tuned automatically and precisely with just the push of a button, rather than by the intricate twirling of dials, FM radios could easily be used in moving vehicles. Although demonstrations at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1939 did not conclusively prove FM's superiority over AM, the chiefs of infantry and field artillery recognized FM's potential and pushed for its adoption. The mechanized cavalry also called for the new type of sets. Nevertheless, the Signal Corps remained skeptical. The Corps' preference for wire over radio, the shortage of developmental funds, and the resistance to FM within the communications industry (where it would render existing AM equipment obsolete) delayed FM's widespread introduction into military communications. Meanwhile, with the Army far from being completely motorized, the Signal Corps continued working on a pack radio set for the Cavalry. Only in late 1940 did the Signal Corps begin to respond to the demands from the field for FM radios.71
When the War Department reduced the Signal Corps' communication duties in 1920, it gave the Air Service responsibility for installing, maintaining, and operating radio apparatus for its units and stations. The Signal Corps retained control, however, over aviation-related radio development. The rapid improvements being made in aircraft design necessitated equal progress in aerial radio. In its Aircraft Radio Laboratory at McCook Field, Ohio, the Signal Corps conducted both the development and testing of radios designed for the Air Corps.72
Expanding on its work during World War I, the Signal Corps made significant strides in airborne radio during the postwar period. Improvements took place in the models of the SCR-130 series. Sets were designed for each type of aircraft: observation, pursuit, and bombardment. The pursuit set (SCR-133) provided voice communication between planes at a distance of 5 miles; the observation and bombardment sets (SCRs 134 and 135) had ranges of 30 and 100 miles, respectively. The SCR-136 model provided communication between ground stations and aircraft at distances of 100 miles using radio and 30 miles using telephony. Many technical problems had to be solved in developing these radios, including the interference caused by the plane's ignition system. With the installation of proper shielding, this difficulty could be overcome.73 But despite advances in aerial radio, pilots in the 1930s still relied to some extent on hand signals to direct their squadrons.74
The Signal Corps also developed radios for navigational purposes, basing its technology on work done during the war in direction finding.75 One of the most important navigational aids was the radio beacon, which enabled a plane to follow a signal to its destination. When equipped with radio compasses, which they tuned to the beacons on the ground, pilots no longer had to rely on their senses alone; they could fly "blind," guided by their instruments. This system proved itself in June 1927 when it guided two Army pilots, 1st Lts. Lester J. Maitland and Albert F. Hegenberger, on the first nonstop flight from California to Hawaii. This milestone occurred just a few weeks before Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic.76 Lieutenant Hegenberger later became head of the Air Corps' Navigational Instrument Section at Wright Field, which was located in
the same building as the Signal Corps' Aircraft Radio Laboratory. (McCook Field was incorporated into Wright Field in 1927.)
However, the Signal Corps did not always enjoy a cordial relationship with the Air Corps regarding radio development. In fact, Hegenberger, in an attempt to take over the Signal Corps' navigational projects, went so far as to lock the Signal Corps personnel out of his portion of the building they shared. When the Air Corps failed in its attempt to carry the mail in 1934, suffering twelve fatalities and sixty-six crashes in four months, some senior Air Corps officers tried to blame the high casualty rate on the Signal Corps for neglecting to develop the appropriate navigational aids. In fact, inexperienced pilots and inadequate training had accounted for many of the accidents. The chief signal officer at that time, Maj. Gen. James B. Allison, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, chief of the Air Corps, finally agreed in 1935 to discontinue Hegenberger's laboratory.77
In August 1929 the Signal Corps consolidated its research facilities in Washington with those at Fort Monmouth, establishing the Signal Corps Laboratories at Fort Monmouth. In 1935 a modern, permanent laboratory opened there to replace the World War I-vintage buildings previously in use. The new structure was named, most fittingly, Squier Laboratory, in honor of the former chief signal officer and eminent scientist, who had passed away the previous year at the age of sixty-nine.78 Meanwhile, the Signal Corps' Aircraft Radio Laboratory remained at Wright Field because the equipment produced there required continuous flight testing.79
Probably the most significant research undertaken by the Signal Corps between the wars was that pertaining to radar, an offshoot of radio. The word radar is an acronym for radio detection and ranging.80 In brief, radar depends on the reflection of radio waves from solid objects. By sending out a focused radio pulse, which travels at a known rate (the speed of light), and timing the interval between the transmission of the wave and the reception of its reflection or echo, the distance, or range, to an object can be determined. The resultant signals are displayed visually on the screen of a cathode-ray oscilloscope. During the interwar years many other nations, including Germany, Great Britain, and Japan, conducted radar experiments, but secrecy increased along with heightening world tensions. In the United States credit for the initial development of radar belonged to the Navy, which conducted its seminal experimentation at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington during the 1920s and 1930s. While the Signal Corps did not invent radar, its subsequent efforts played an important role in furthering its evolution.81
The origins of the Army's radar research dated back to World War I, when Maj. William R. Blair, who then headed the Signal Corps' Meteorological Section in the American Expeditionary Forces, conducted experiments in sound ranging for the purpose of locating approaching enemy aircraft by the noise of their engines. After the war Blair served as chief of the meteorological section in Washington and in 1926 became head of the Research and Engineering Division. In 1930 he was named director of the laboratories at Fort Monmouth. In February
1931 Blair began research on radio detection using both heat and high-frequency, or infrared, waves. Known as Project 88, this undertaking had been transferred to the Signal Corps from the Ordnance Department. When these methods proved disappointing, Blair began investigating the pulse-echo method of detection.82
Contrary to its usual procedure, the Signal Corps conducted all of its developmental work on radar in its own laboratories, rather than contracting components out to private industry. Chief Signal Officer Allison did not believe that commercial firms could yet "offer useful results in practical form."83 Although Allison requested additional money for radar research, the War Department provided none, and the Signal Corps obtained the necessary funds from cutbacks in other projects. In December 1936 Signal Corps engineers conducted the first field test of their radar equipment at the Newark, New Jersey, airport where it detected an airplane at a distance of seven miles. In May 1937 the Signal Corps demonstrated its still crude radar, the future SCR-268, for Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring; Brig. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, assistant chief of the Air Corps; and other government officials at Fort Monmouth.84 Impressed by its potential, Woodring later wrote to Allison: "It gave tangible evidence of the amazing scientific advances made by the Signal Corps in the development of technical equipment."85 Arnold, also responding favorably, urged the Signal Corps to develop a long-range version for use as an early warning device. With this high-level support, the Signal Corps received the funds it needed to continue its development program.86
The Corps' application of radar to coast defense was an extension of its longstanding work in the development of electrical systems for that purpose, which had begun in the 1890s. Because national policy remained one of isolationism, American military planners envisioned any future war as defensive. Consequently, the Army placed great reliance upon warning systems to protect against surprise attack by sea and especially by air. Hence the Signal Corps developed the SCR-268, a short-range radar set designed to control searchlights and antiaircraft guns, and subsequently designed for the Air Corps two sets for long-range aircraft detection: SCR-270, a mobile set with a range of 120 miles, and SCR-271, a fixed radar with similar capabilities.87
In an interesting historical parallel, the Signal Corps carried out its radar testing at the same locations-Sandy Hook and the Highlands at Navesink, New Jersey-where Assistant Surgeon Albert J. Myer had tested his wigwag signals with 2d Lt. Edward P Alexander prior to the Civil War. While Myer had favored these sites for their proximity to New York Harbor, the later generation of experimenters found them convenient to Fort Monmouth. Here and elsewhere the Signal Corps was bringing the Army into the electronics age.88
Organization, Training, and Operations, 1929-1939
While the cost of technology steadily rose, the amount of money the nation was willing to spend on its Army tended to decline during the early 1930s, as the
nation plunged into the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of October 1929. Two veteran Signal Corps officers led the branch during this difficult period: General Gibbs and his successor, Maj. Gen. Irving J. Carr. Gibbs, who remained at the helm until 30 June 1931, counted among his major achievements the consolidation of the Corps' laboratories and a reorganization and restructuring of the Signal Office that endured until World War II.89 Upon retirement he became an executive with several communications firms, an indication of the increasingly close relationship between the military and industry, based in part on the growing similarity of military and civilian technology.90
General Carr, who received a degree in civil engineering from the Pennsylvania Military College in 1897, had served as an infantry lieutenant during the Philippine Insurrection. Graduating from the Army Signal School in 1908, he was detailed to the Signal Corps during World War I. Carr served in France successively as chief signal officer of the 2d Division, the IV Army Corps, and the Third Army. In addition to attending the General Staff School and the Army War College after the war, he served as signal officer of the Western Department and as chief of staff of the Hawaiian Division. At the time of his appointment as chief signal officer, Carr held the position of executive officer in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War.91
General Carr faced a situation that had been transformed by the economic crisis. While Americans stood in breadlines, the Army, already experiencing hard times because of national pacifism and war-weariness, felt the added impact of the Great Depression. In the midst of this national tragedy, military preparedness took a backseat to social and economic concerns. Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur did nothing to improve the Army's image by dispersing with unnecessary brutality the so-called Bonus Army of World War I veterans who marched on Washington in the summer of 1932. This violent incident may also have contributed to President Herbert Hoover's defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election that fall.
Despite its lack of funds, the Army sought new roles to assist the nation through its time of economic distress. Its contribution to the organization of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal in April 1933, proved popular but a drain on its limited resources. The CCC's activities included reforestation, soil conservation, fire prevention, and similar projects. The Army set up and ran the camps and supplied food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and recreation. For its part, the Signal Corps provided radio communication and linked radio stations at CCC district headquarters with the War Department Radio Net. Members of the Army Amateur Radio System participated in this effort. The Signal Corps also helped to advertise this least partisan of New Deal ventures, completing a three-reel historical film about the CCC in 1935.92
The Second International Polar Year was held from 1932 to 1934, fifty years after the original event. Financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation helped make this effort possible in the midst of the worldwide depression. While
Arctic studies remained the focus, more countries participated and more branches of science were included than before. Although the Signal Corps did not play as prominent a role as in the 1880s, it nonetheless lent its expertise to the scientists involved in polar research. The Corps established communication facilities for the Army's station near the Arctic Circle and supplied equipment for studying problems of radio transmission.93
With General Carr's retirement, Maj. Gen. James B. Allison became chief signal officer on 1 January 1935. Allison had received extensive experience in signal training during the years 1917-1919 when he commanded Signal Corps training camps at Monterey, California; Fort Leavenworth; and Camp Meade, Maryland. From September 1925 to June 1926 he served as commandant of the Signal School. Prior to becoming chief, he had been signal officer of the Second Corps Area at Governors Island, New York. Allison was fortunate to assume his new duties during the same year that the Army acquired a new chief of staff, General Malin Craig, who recognized the value of communications. Craig, concerned about the threatening world situation in both the Far East and Europe, pressed for a limited rearmament. He also supported increases in the Signal Corps' budget that finally ended its years of impoverishment.94
The growing danger of war, the demands for improved technology, and even the Great Depression itself improved the Signal Corps' prospects. The turnover rate of its enlisted personnel dropped as joblessness increased in civilian life. When Congress enlarged the size of the Army in 1935, the Signal Corps received an additional 953 enlisted men, enabling the Corps to handle the growing demands on its services caused by the public works programs of the New Deal and the expanding activities of the Air Corps.95
The Corps also held onto one of its traditional activities, WAMCATS, in the face of renewed demands that the government sell the Alaska system because of its predominantly commercial nature. It was also argued that the release of the more than two hundred enlisted men assigned to duty in Alaska would help ease the Corps' overall personnel shortage. But Chief Signal Officer Gibbs had opposed the sale, and Congress did not act upon the War Department's enabling legislation. While the long-standing debate continued as to whether to transfer the system to another agency or turn it over to commercial interests, WAMCATS remained in the Signal Corps' hands.96
Under the Corps' stewardship the system continued to develop. By 1931 radio had overtaken the use of cables, but the underwater lines were kept in operable condition in case of emergencies. In 1933 the Army transferred the Dellwood, now left with little to do, to the U.S. Shipping Board, which in turn sold it to a commercial cannery.97 To reflect its new image, the WAMCATS underwent a name change in 1936, becoming the Alaska Communication System (ACS).98
WAMCATS continued to render important service to Alaskans, proving itself to be a "lifeline to the north." In 1934, when much of Nome went up in flames, the city's WAMCATS station stayed on the air to coordinate relief and rescue
work. WAMCATS also played a key role in the drama surrounding the plane crash that killed humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post near Point Barrow in August 1935. Sgt. Stanley R. Morgan, the Signal Corps radio operator there, learned of the accident from a native runner. After summoning help, Morgan traveled to the crash site to do what he could. Unfortunately, both men had died instantly. Returning to his station, Morgan signaled news of the tragedy to the world.99
The Signal Corps' photographic mission continued to expand during the 1930s. Photographic training was briefly transferred to the Army War College, but soon returned to Fort Monmouth. In 1933 the Corps produced its first feature-length sound movie, depicting infantry maneuvers at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Corps also released several new training films, including such action-packed features as "Cavalry Crossing Unfordable Stream" and "Elementary Principles of the Recoil Mechanism." The shortage of funds, however, prevented the Signal Corps from making many films prior to World War II. The Corps did work diligently to index and reedit its World War I films, making master copies and providing better storage facilities for these priceless records.100
Despite many difficulties, the Signal Corps' operations increased overall during the 1930s. But it lost one function, military meteorology. As the decade progressed, the branch simply could not keep up with the demands made on its weather service by the Air Corps. Following the airmail fiasco, the Air Corps sought to upgrade operations at some stations to provide weather service around the clock
and throughout the year. With its limited manpower and varied missions, the task was beyond the Signal Corps' capability. In his 1936 annual report Chief Signal Officer Allison recommended that "if the required additional personnel could not be given [to] the Signal Corps, all meteorological duties ... be transferred to the Air Corps which is the principal user of the meteorological service."101 The secretary of war agreed, and returned weather reporting and forecasting to the using arms effective 1 July 1937. As a result, many of the Signal Corps' meteorologists transferred to the Air Corps. Although the Signal Corps retained responsibility for the development, procurement, supply, and maintenance of meteorological equipment, the sun had set once more on its weather service.102
Upon General Allison's retirement at the end of September 1937, Col. Joseph O. Mauborgne was designated to become the new chief signal officer, effective on I October. Originally commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry in 1903, he had served with the Signal Corps since 1916 and transferred to the branch in 1920. A well-known expert in radio and cryptanalysis, Mauborgne had been chief of the Corps' Research and Engineering Division during World War I. His postwar assignments included heading the Signal Corps Laboratory at the Bureau of Standards and commanding, for a second time, the Research and Engineering Division in the Signal Office. He also served as a technical adviser at several international communications conferences, including the radio conference held in Washington in 1927. After becoming a colonel in 1934, he was the director of the Aircraft Radio Laboratory from 1936 to 1937. In addition to his scientific expertise, Mauborgne possessed considerable artistic talent as a portrait painter, etcher, and maker of prize-winning violins.103
Among its many duties, the Signal Corps held responsibility for revising and compiling all codes and ciphers used by the War Department and the Army. Under General Mauborgne, himself a gifted cryptologist, activities in this area expanded. In 1929 General Gibbs had established the Signal Intelligence Service to control all Army cryptology. In addition to code and cipher work, the Signal Intelligence Service absorbed the covert intelligence-gathering activities formerly conducted by the so-called Black Chamber within the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department General Staff.
WILLIAM F. FRIEDMAN, CENTER BACK, AND THE STAFF OF THE SIGNAL
William F. Friedman became the Signal Intelligence Service's first chief. After serving in the intelligence section of the General Staff, AEF, during World War I, Friedman had joined the Signal Corps in 1921 to develop new codes and ciphers. In 1922 he became chief cryptanalyst in the code and cipher compilation section of the Research and Development Division where he became known for his remarkable code-breaking abilities. In addition to cryptographic skills, Friedman shared Mauborgne's interest in the violin and formed a musical group that included the chief signal officer and several friends.104
In 1935 the Army reinstituted its program of large-scale maneuvers, which it had not held since before World War I. The 51st Signal Battalion, the only unit of its type, provided the communications for these exercises. In 1937 the Army tested its new "triangular"-three regiment-division at San Antonio, Texas. This streamlined unit, reduced from four regiments and without any brigade headquarters, had been favored by Pershing in 1919. Providing more mobility and flexibility than the square division of World War I, the triangular division would become the standard division of the next war. While the divisional signal company was somewhat larger (7 officers and 182 men) than that provided for in the 1920 tables of organization, the signal complement of the combat arms was cut in half.105
Thus, helped by a variety of factors, the Signal Corps weathered the years of political isolationism and economic depression. As a technical service, it benefit-
ed from the rapid development in communications technology pioneered by civilian industry and from the growing realization among military and civilian leaders alike that science would be a crucial factor in any future conflict. Unfortunately, that future was closer than many Americans liked to think.
Throughout the 1930s the world situation had grown increasingly ominous. Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and, denouncing the Versailles treaty, undertook a program of rearmament. Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini, began a course of aggression by attacking Ethiopia in 1935. In 1939 Hitler signed a treaty with the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, and invaded Poland, precipitating a general war in Europe. Across the Pacific, Japan unleashed its power, seizing Manchuria in 1931 and invading China in 1937. Finally, the formation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis in September 1940 appeared to unite three heavily armed and aggressive nations against the ill-armed democracies.
After years of stagnation, the United States began a gradual military buildup in the late 1930s. President Roosevelt, who had once served as assistant secretary of the Navy, at first championed only a naval rebuilding program, but the Army eventually began to receive greater attention. In his annual message of January 1938, Roosevelt requested an Army budget of $17 million, a substantial sum but considerably less than the Navy's allotment of $28 million.106
Having learned some hard lessons from its unpreparedness for World War I, the War Department devoted considerable attention during the interwar period to planning for future wars. Responsibility for strategic planning rested with the War Plans Division of the General Staff, while the 1920 defense act assigned supervision of procurement and industrial mobilization planning to the assistant secretary of war.107
Despite the power wielded by the General Staff, considerable administrative control still existed at the branch level. For its part, the Signal Corps contained a procurement planning section which prepared estimates of requirements, conducted surveys of manufacturers, and identified scarce raw materials, such as the Brazilian quartz used in radios.108
The Army's Industrial Mobilization Plan of 1930 established procedures for harnessing the nation's economic might, while the Protective Mobilization Plan of 1937 set forth the steps for manpower mobilization, beginning with the induction of the National Guard. These plans failed, however, to envision a conflict on a scale larger than World War I. For instance, estimates placed the Signal Corps' monthly requirement for batteries during wartime at five million; the actual number later proved to be more than four times that amount.109
With the outbreak of war in Europe, the United States undertook a limited preparedness effort with the emphasis on hemispheric defense. President Roosevelt declared a "limited national emergency" on 8 September 1939 and
authorized an increase in the Regular Army's enlisted strength to 227,000.110 Public opinion, however, remained committed to staying out of war and protecting "America First."
The blitzkrieg tactics of the Nazis in Poland suggested that this war would be a mobile one, unlike the stalemate of the Western Front during World War I. By 1939 the United States Army had undergone extensive motorization, although mechanization remained in its early stages. For the Signal Corps, motorization meant developing light automobiles equipped with radios as reconnaissance vehicles and adapting motor vehicles to lay wire.111 But little had been done to integrate communications into larger, combined arms mobile formations.
During the spring of 1940 the Army held its first genuine corps and army training maneuvers. The exercises, conducted in May 1940 along the Texas and Louisiana border, "tested tactical communications more thoroughly than anything else had since World War I”112 Unfortunately, much Signal Corps equipment proved deficient. The W-110 field wire, for instance, worked poorly when wet and suffered considerable damage from motor vehicles. (Local cattle also liked to chew contentedly upon it.) Moreover, the SCR-197, designed to serve as a long-range mobile radio, could not function while in motion. Intended for operation from the back of a truck, the radio could only send or receive messages after the vehicle had stopped. First, however, the crew had to dismount to deploy the antenna and start the gasoline generator. The allocation of frequencies also became a problem with the proliferation of radios throughout the Army's new triangular divisions. In part, the frequency issue arose because the radios in use were obsolescent. They did not reflect the most recent innovations-crystal control and FM-that would both increase the range of available frequencies and enable operators to make precise adjustments to particular frequencies with just the push of a button. Until the Army adopted improved radios, it could not fight a modern war successfully. Moreover, in addition to highlighting the general inadequacy of tactical communications, the 1940 maneuvers demonstrated that the Signal Corps needed additional men and units to carry out its mission.113
Although technically a neutral nation, the United States gradually began to prepare for the possibility of entering the war and increased its support to the Allies. On 10 May 1940 Germany invaded France and the Low Countries. The subsequent defeat of the Allied armies, followed by the narrow escape of the British expeditionary force from Dunkirk and the fall of France in June 1940, brought Allied fortunes to the brink of disaster. At the end of August Congress authorized the president to induct the National Guard into service for a year and to call up the Organized Reserves. Furthermore, the Selective Service and Training Act, signed into law on 16 September 1940, initiated the first peacetime draft in the nation's history. While the United States was not yet ready to become a direct participant, the signing of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 officially made it the world's "arsenal of democracy."114
While the nation moved toward war, the Signal Corps underwent some changes of its own. The pressure of the impending conflict resulted in enormous
demands for new communications equipment. The Air Corps, in particular, grew increasingly impatient with the slow pace of progress, especially in relation to radar. Under intense criticism from the airmen, Chief Signal Officer Mauborgne was suddenly relieved of his duties by Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, Jr., in August 1941. Pending Mauborgne's official retirement the following month, Brig. Gen. Dawson Olmstead stepped in as acting chief.115
On 24 October 1941, Olmstead officially became chief signal officer with the rank of major general, the fifteenth individual to hold that post. A graduate of West Point, class of 1906, Olmstead had received his commission in the Cavalry. During 1908 and 1909 he had attended the Signal School at Fort Leavenworth. After World War I, during which he had served in the Inspector General's Office of the AEF, he held a number of Signal Corps-related assignments. These included signal officer of the Hawaiian Department from 1925 to 1927, officer in charge of the Alaska communication system from 1931 to 1933, and commandant of the Signal School at Fort Monmouth from 1938 to 1941.116
For the new chief signal officer, as for the nation, war was now close at hand. Despite outstanding work by the Signal Intelligence Service, now comprising almost three hundred soldiers and civilians, the exact point of danger eluded American leaders. In August 1940 William Friedman and his staff had broken PURPLE, the Japanese diplomatic code, and the intelligence received as a consequence became known as MAGIC.117 While MAGIC yielded critical information regarding Japanese diplomatic strategy, the intercepted messages did not explicitly reveal Japanese war plans.118 American officials knew that war was imminent, but considered a Japanese attack on Hawaii no more than a remote possibility.
During 1940 President Roosevelt had transferred the Pacific Fleet from bases on the West Coast of the United States to Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, hoping that its presence might act as a deterrent upon Japanese ambitions. Yet the move also made the fleet more vulnerable. Despite Oahu's strategic importance, the air warning system on the island had not become fully operational by December 1941. The Signal Corps had provided SCR-270 and 271 radar sets earlier in the year, but the construction of fixed sites had been delayed, and radar protection was limited to six mobile stations operating on a part-time
DAVID SARNOFF OF RCA (LEFT) AND CAPTAIN STONER, IN CHARGE OF THE WAR
basis to test the equipment and train the crews. Though aware of the dangers of war, the Army and Navy commanders on Oahu, Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, did not anticipate that Pearl Harbor would be the target; a Japanese strike against American bases in the Philippines appeared more probable. In Hawaii, sabotage and subversive acts by Japanese inhabitants seemed to pose more immediate threats, and precautions were taken. The Japanese-American population of Hawaii proved, however, to be overwhelmingly loyal to the United States.119
Because the Signal Corps' plans to modernize its strategic communications during the previous decade had been stymied, the Army had only a limited ability to communicate with the garrison in Hawaii. In 1930 the Corps had moved WAR's transmitter to Fort Myer, Virginia, and had constructed a building to house its new, high-frequency equipment. Four years later it added a new diamond antenna, which enabled faster transmission.120 But in 1939, when the Corps wished to further expand its facilities at Fort Myer to include a rhombic antenna for point-to-point communication with Seattle, it ran into difficulty. The post commander, Col. George S. Patton, Jr., objected to the Signal Corps' plans. The
new antenna would encroach upon the turf he used as a polo field and the radio towers would obstruct the view. Patton held his ground and prevented the Signal Corps from installing the new equipment. At the same time, the Navy was about to abandon its Arlington radio station located adjacent to Fort Myer and offered it to the Army. Patton, wishing instead to use the Navy's buildings to house his enlisted personnel, opposed the station's transfer. As a result of the controversy, the Navy withdrew its offer and the Signal Corps lost the opportunity to improve its facilities.121
Though a seemingly minor bureaucratic battle, the situation had serious consequences two years later. Early in the afternoon of 6 December 1941, the Signal Intelligence Service began receiving a long dispatch in fourteen parts from Tokyo addressed to the Japanese embassy in Washington. The Japanese deliberately delayed sending the final portion of the message until the next day, in which they announced that the Japanese government would sever diplomatic relations with the United States effective at one o'clock that afternoon. At that hour, it would be early morning in Pearl Harbor.
Upon receiving the decoded message on the morning of 7 December, Chief of Staff Marshall recognized its importance. Although he could have called Short directly, Marshall did not do so because the scrambler telephone was not considered secure. Instead, he decided to send a written message through the War Department Message Center. Unfortunately, the center's radio encountered heavy static and could not get through to Honolulu. Expanded facilities at Fort Myer could perhaps have eliminated this problem. The signal officer on duty, Lt. Col. Edward F French, therefore sent the message via commercial telegraph to San Francisco, where it was relayed by radio to the RCA office in Honolulu. That office had installed a teletype connection with Fort Shafter, but the teletypewriter was not yet functional. An RCA messenger was carrying the news to Fort Shafter by motorcycle when Japanese bombs began falling; a huge traffic jam developed because of the attack, and General Short did not receive the message until that afternoon.
Earlier that day, as the sun rose over Opana on the northern tip of Oahu, two Signal Corpsmen, Pvts. George A. Elliott and Joseph L. Lockard, continued to operate their radar station, although their watch had ended at 0700. At 0702 a large echo appeared on their scope, indicating a sizable formation of incoming planes about 130 miles away. They telephoned their unusual sighting to the radar information center at Fort Shafter, but the young Air Corps lieutenant on duty told them to "Forget it." An attack was not expected, and the planes were assumed to be American bombers scheduled to arrive that morning from California. Nevertheless, Elliott and Lockard tracked the planes until they became lost on their scope. Just minutes before the attack began at 0755, the two men left their station for breakfast.122 Despite the breaking of PURPLE, the surprise at Pearl Harbor was "complete and shattering."123
The following day President Roosevelt went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan. In an eloquent speech, he called 7 December "a
date which will live in infamy," and the House and Senate voted for war with only one dissenter.124 On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and Congress replied in kind. Despite Woodrow Wilson's lofty intentions, World War I had not made the world safe for democracy; with Hitler's armies supreme in Europe and Japanese forces sweeping through the Far East, freedom appeared to be in greater peril than in 1917. In just twenty years the hopes for a lasting peace had vanished, and once again the United States prepared to throw its might on the side of the Allies.
Angered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American people entered World War II with a strong sense of mission and purpose. At the same time that Japanese war planes shattered the Pacific Fleet, they also destroyed the American sense of invulnerability-the nation's ocean bulwark had been breached. Nevertheless, displaying his characteristic optimism, President Roosevelt proclaimed on 9 December: "With confidence in our armed forces, with unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph.”125 In this triumph, the Signal Corps would play a pivotal role.
Return to Table of Contents