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National Guard's 34th Signal Company serves with 34th "Red Bull" Division
by Mark Dunn
In pre-World War II days, the Signal Corps accounted for a small part of the Army's personnel strength 1.5 percent and 2 percent of officers and enlisted, respectively. But with events around the world casting a gloom over the future, Signal Corps planners felt the corps' increasing personnel needs could be met in several ways.
First would be allocating draftees as signalmen. This proved to be a problem as a short-term solution, however; the men hadn't trained to use or maintain signal equipment and couldn't be used immediately.
Another solution was an affiliation-mobilization plan in which private-industry employees such as AT& T and RCA workers entered service with the required skills to form the signal units' backbone.
Lastly, Reserve and National Guard units would be called up. Included in this group was 34th Signal Company, part of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.
A small National Guard unit, the company was initially comprised of men from Watertown, S.D. The 34th, organized July 18, 1929, originally with six officers and 60 enlisted men, trained for the next 11 years in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.
Slow pre-war awakening
The road to North Africa and Italy, where the 34th eventually served, began in the isolation of the 1920s and '30s. Communication units, like the rest of the Army, began a slow awakening, and 34th Signal Company was no different.
In training at Camp Claiborne, La., the Red Bull Division operated with either a lack of or obsolete equipment. Many units had to use wooden tanks or broomstick rifles. While the U.S. military had started to increase expenditures, supplies had not yet caught up to demand.
At the end of 1941, the division received orders to report to Fort Dix, N.J., and prepare for shipment overseas. The Dix stay lasted a little more than five weeks, then 34th Signal Company boarded the USS Neville for Northern Ireland as part of the first American combat division to be shipped to Europe.
While manpower continued to increase as men were drafted and National Guard and Reserve units were activated, problems persisted in obtaining enough new equipment.
As of February 1941, the signal company had two SCR-171 and two SCR-177 radio sets; a few BD-14, BD-9 and BD-4 switchboards; some EE-4, EE-5 and EE-8 telephones; RL-26 and RL-27 reel units; and an M-94 cipher device. With this old equipment the unit had trained and participated in various maneuvers. But, during the first two months in Northern Ireland, the unit received new equipment, including teletype machines and BD-71, BD-72 and BD-96 switchboards. By the end of April 1942, new SCR-299 radio sets were received.
The Red Bull Division, which spent more time away from the United States than any other division in the European theater, formed part of LTG Mark Clark's 5th Army.
Their overseas service began with Northern Ireland, where the division prepared for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. From the first day of the invasion of Algiers Nov. 8, 1942, to May 4, 1945, the 34th spent 550 days in combat. Some of the division's subordinate units actually counted up to 650 days in "contact" (but not combat) with the enemy.
Troops from the 34th Division's 133d Infantry Regiment were the first to enter Bologna, Italy. Through all the Red Bull Division's actions, Signal Corps units, including the 34th Signal Company, played a vital role in these successes.
During advances into Africa and Italy, 34th Signal Company's radio operators maintained contact with higher headquarters in the rear as well as with those units leading the charge. The men hauled and laid wire, day and night, for hundreds of miles, to tie the various units together.
In the drive toward Rome in April 1944, when 5th Army rested after overcoming stubborn German defenses in the Cassino area and counterattacks at Anzio, the 34th Signal Company message-center section handled 5,921 outgoing and relay messages; its messengers drove 9,000 miles in performing their duties.
During June 1944, 34th Signal Company men laid nearly 400 miles of wire. Ordered to advance, they were able to recover just 125 miles of it.
On one hand, wire and cable shortages hindered operations and could have seriously affected the signalmen but for their ingenuity and the "good old American know-how." On the other hand, new radio sets were developed and sent to the field throughout the war. As late as February 1945, 34th Signal Company received sets such as the SCR-506 radio to replace the SCR-163, which had been used since 1942.
On Dec. 9, 1944, 34th Signal Company was awarded a meritorious-service plaque. The dates of the award, Jan. 1 to July 28, 1944, covered three phases of the Italian campaign: one, San Pietro, San Vittore, Cervaro, Cairo, Cassino; two, Anzio beachhead, pursuit through Rome to Civitavecchia and on to Tarquinia; and three, Cecina to Rosignano to Leghorn.
While the recommendation mentioned the outstanding work done by all the men, three areas stood out particularly. The first was the work done by the wiremen. Overcoming adverse conditions on the march to Cassino, the men brought together division units, separated by up to 16 miles, by laying 160 miles of wire over deplorable terrain, dodging "friendly" vehicular movement and enemy shellfire.
In fact, another U.S. division located near the 34th Infantry Division, using lines laid by the 34th Signal Company to maintain contact with its forward units.
Enemy fire and "friendly" flak at the Anzio beachhead made improvising a plow necessary to bury important telephone trunklines. However, a nearly trouble-free telephone service was the result.
Altogether, from January to July 1944, 2,019 miles of wire were laid, with 1,307 recovered. Forty switchboards were installed and operational. Total teletype traffic came to 453,707 groups. All of this with 96.5 percent of the circuit hours operational.
The signal company's radio operators maintained three radio nets corps, division command and liaison 24 hours daily for nearly two months during the battle for Cassino. At Anzio beachhead, these three nets continued their normal operations, and a fourth link, to the division's rear echelon at Naples, was added.
The Naples link operated 10 hours a day. The only other way to get information into Naples was by boat, a three-day trip. This rear link required superior technical skills on the operators' part; the range covered was three times their SCR-193's normal range of 60 miles. A special antenna had to be constructed at both ends to increase the sets' capacities.
Message-center troops did exemplary work during the first seven months of 1944. Messengers contended with bad roads and enemy shellfire while delivering and picking up "special" messages. The only time a message run failed was when the two messengers were killed by enemy fire. Message-center men handled 60,236 written messages, 123,400 radio groups and 420,034 teletype groups over 45,412 miles of dangerous roads.
The war took a heavy toll on the division: 3,300 killed in action; 3,400 missing; and more than 15,000 received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained during their 550 days in combat. Of the division's 3,300 killed, nine belonged to the signal company; there was also one man reported to have drowned. Of the 15,000 Purple Hearts awarded to the division, 20 were given to 34th Signal Company men.
In addition to the Purple Heart, other unit awards and decorations included four Legions of Merit; 13 combat infantry badges; one Silver Star; 18 Bronze Stars; and nine division citations.
The 34th Signal Company was not unusual. They did a herculean job under difficult conditions. The rapid advance through Italy tasked the company; wires not only had to be laid as the division moved forward but had to be reclaimed. Allied vehicle traffic had to be navigated and enemy artillery and an occasional air raid had to be ignored. This, in addition to operating radios, switchboards and other day-today duties.
Despite hardships and demands placed upon the unit, 34th Signal Company did its part to "get the message through."
Mr. Dunn is a historian/archivist in the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon command historian's office.
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