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When you thought you'd seen it all: obstacles to the Signal Corps in the China-Burma-India theater

by Danny Johnson

Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 had cut off the last land route by which the Allies could deliver aid to the Chinese government. The only supply route available was the costly and dangerous "Hump" route for transport planes over the Himalayas.

In spring 1944, the Allies were finally able to attempt the reconquest of Burma. A force under LTG Joseph Stilwell fought down the Hukawng Valley and reached the vicinity north of Myitkyina, a key communications center and Japanese stronghold, in May 1944.

Signal Corps soldiers, as part of Stilwell's forces, worked their way from India through Burma, finally into China. Their task was not an easy one; frustration was an everyday occurrence.

Problems in theater

Jungles, swamps, mud, corrosion, fungus, rain, ticks, snakes, ants, malaria, dysentery, typhus, humidity, lack of roads, lack of communications, lack of equipment and, of course, the Japanese were only a few of the obstacles facing the Signal Corps in the sometimes-overlooked China-Burma-India theater (called the CBI, which soldiers there said actually meant "confusion beyond imagination").

Commanders had to get used to the limited number of Signal Corps soldiers in the CBI theater. There was a lack of equipment and sometimes a lack of replacement personnel. Elephants, boats, airplanes and even captured enemy equipment were pressed into service to get the job done.

During the monsoon season, rains could last anywhere from two to three months at a time; boats were sometimes the only way to get through. The climate severely handicapped laying wire and cable lines. In some places along Ledo Road (later renamed Stilwell Road by Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek), submarine cable had to be laid across rivers to make the link.

Supplies were transported any way possible — planes, barges, parachutes, donkeys, barefoot porters or camels.

Over time, equipment became inoperable because of the climate. Low ground conductivity and the masking effect of heavy vegetation and high mountain ridges adversely affected radio communications. Dirt clogged equipment and rains short-circuited radio sets. Radio batteries had less than half the normal life expectancy.

Animals tore out equipment parts. Chinese troops along Ledo Road cut out pieces of communications wire, not knowing what the wire was used for. The natives thought Signal Corps wire made the great lashings for their packs. Trees along Ledo Road fell over telephone lines, cutting off all communications.

Ants caused all kinds of trouble in telephones, which had to be disassembled to spray for them. Fungus attacked all types of equipment — including radio, telephone and teletype — eating away at insulation and rusting circuits. Equipment had to be treated to stand up to jungle fungus and mold.

CBI routine

Elephants became a standard item of equipment, used very effectively by signalmen in the CBI theater. Elephants helped stand up telephone poles when line trucks weren't available. The Army also used elephants to carry heavy equipment and as a "platform" to work on telephone lines from.

Some Signal Corps soldiers, like 679th Signal Aircraft Warning Company (Visual), lived in primitive areas near headhunter tribes and in places the British would not enter except in force.

Troops fighting in the jungle depended on radio, the main means to command and control soldiers in an area with no real road network. What little air support was available in the CBI depended on signal communications to get it where it had to go. But the jungle absorbed electromagnetic radiation, so signalmen routinely struggled to raise antennas above the forest roof. This was difficult and time-consuming.

Radio failures happened that many times weren't the operator's fault; ionospheric reflection could sometimes fail to reflect high-frequency radio waves after sunset, in effect blacking out radio communications.

Corps accomplishments

One Signal Corps unit well-known in the CBI theater was 835th Signal Service Battalion. Originally activated as 835th Signal Company at Fort Dupont, Del., it was one of the longest-serving signal units in the CBI.

Three other units were 31st Signal Heavy Construction Battalion, 432d Signal Heavy Construction Battalion and 988th Signal Battalion.

Starting in April 1943, Signal Corps soldiers built the trans-Himalayan telephone line — some 1,800 miles long, linking Calcutta, India, with Kunming, China. When the Army announced the line was complete in June 1945, American soldiers responded they were "damned glad it's finished."

MSG Robert Jenkins, who worked on the line 18 months, put in the first call over the Asiatic hook-up: a test call to set up the initial greetings from China to LTG Daniel Sultan, then commander in India-Burma.

When World War II ended in August 1945, the Allies kept the enemy out of India, drove him out of Burma and helped China fight off the conqueror that had invaded Manchuria before Hitler began his blitzkrieg in Europe.

Mr. Johnson is the command historian for U.S. Army Information Systems Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The China-Burma-India theater is an area of special interest to him.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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