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Island-hopping in the rainforest: the Signal Corps and the Pacific front
by Carol Stokes
American GIs serving in the Pacific theater included many Signal Corps members. Not a theater at all in the European sense of the term, the Pacific area comprised continental Australia, New Guinea and other islands, large and small, separated by an endless, expansive sea.
Because of its magnitude, the Joint Chiefs of Staff divided the Pacific Ocean area in March 1942 into administrative subtheaters. The Southwest Pacific and Pacific Ocean areas, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, included Australia and islands to its north including New Guinea and regions further north and west, especially the Philippines.
Subdivided into three parts, POA included the North Pacific Aleutian Islands as well as Central and South Pacific. (The Aleutians, the scene of heavy Signal Corps involvement, are covered in "Alaska: new challenges on old ground," this edition).
The Signal Corps supported mostly Army operations in SPA and CPA. They saw action at New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and smaller islands. Communicators, usually working as small teams and units, accompanied task forces, installing, operating and maintaining a limited variety of equipment.
Island hopping, a totally new concept of war for Americans, soon became the norm for the Army and its communicators in the Pacific theater. Their experiences differed tremendously from signalers in Europe, who established communication lines contiguous to troops' advancement. Signal soldiers in the Pacific learned, according to the official World War II history, The Signal Corps: The Outcome, that "... each island was a self-contained entity a series of almost unrelated activities."
Unlike Europe, where wire lines usually sufficed, radio provided the only link between islands; 60 percent to 70 percent of all Pacific-theater communications traffic was in radio-message form.
In SWPA signalers carried out their duties in a tropical inferno, enduring excessive heat and rain. They were challenged to establish communications both intra-island and over great distances between islands. Joint operations experienced there portended future norms as Signal Corps soldiers operated with Allied and amphibious commands, and often closely coordinated with Navy, Marine Corps, British and Dominion forces.
Signalers in the Pacific theater accepted joint communications as an expediency of war. Signalers of 37th Division learned that lesson well. In the 1942 battle for Tongatabu Island, these communicators operated a message center, while the Navy handled cryptographic work for all interisland radio traffic, including Army signals. Tongatabu, Bora Bora and Samoa-Ellice Islands were just a few of the many locations where joint communications were practiced 50 years ahead of their time.
CPA, mostly Navy and Marine Corps territory, received a great deal of Signal Corps support. The reason was simple the Navy and Marines liked Army radios, especially the 500 and 600 series FMs.
Discovering weaknesses in its radios in the Guadalcanal and Tarawa campaigns, the Navy turned to Army communicators to support amphibious operations. The Signal Corps furnished the communications command and control that warships were unable to provide. During the Marshall Islands assault, for example, the Navy's specially-equipped headquarters ships were crammed with Signal Corps-type radios.
The joint-assault signal company, a unique Signal Corps unit, was born in the Pacific theater in late 1943. An aggregate of various communication teams too small or ineffective to operate alone, JASCOs were much larger than normal signal companies. Seeing action in CPA, Philippines, Okinawa and Iwo Jima (as well as in the European theater), each JASCO was made up of several hundred Army, Army Air Force and Navy communications specialists specially trained to link land, sea and air operational elements.
One JASCO, the 295th, from April 17-July 1, 1945, as stated in its War Department citation, accompanied initial assault elements in landings on Mindanao, the Philippines, and effectively directed supporting naval gunfire. Like so many other JASCOs, the 295th acted heroically. Specifically, it "remained continuously with front-line infantry battalions of two infantry divisions" for the campaign's duration.
New type of fighting
JASCOs represented but one of many unprecedented Signal Corps' activities in the Pacific theater. Shipboard fighting was a new kind of combat for Signal Corps soldiers. Army communicators sometimes plied their trade aboard Navy and civilian ships. They also served on Army communications ships such as Harold and Argosy.
SSG Arthur Dunning and six other enlisted men from Headquarters Company, 60th Signal Battalion, had an entirely different experience aboard the three-mast sailing vessel Argosy Lemal off New Guinea's coast. Dunning's team successfully carried out its communications duties despite the perils of an incompetent civilian skipper and constant Japanese aircraft attacks.
Other seaborne communicators, like crews from Team K of 989th Signal Service Company, operated from Navy ships. In addition to handling heavy message flows 10,000 to 25,000 words per day Team K fought alongside the sailors, manning a 50-caliber machine gun. A ship's officer remembered their valor: "They were absolutely unflinching. I saw them staying at their posts without showing a sign of fear when Jap planes were coming right at their guns." (The Signal Corps: The Outcome)
Withstanding the enemy
Signal Corps soldiers also engaged in land combat in the Pacific campaigns. On the islands of Bougainville and New Georgia, 271st Signal Construction Company's men worked under heavy shelling.
Some enemy contact on New Georgia was more subtle. Soldiers of 43d Signal Company encountered interference from Japanese stations sending bogus messages. Although authentication charts revealed the duplicity, the enemy, on this and many other occasions, successfully interfered with American traffic and breached security.
On Bougainville in March 1944, following the New Georgia campaign, the defense of airfields and their perimeters required reliable communication systems. Linemen of 271st Signal Construction Company, working under the cover of darkness, endured heavy shelling while repairing wire-line airfield-communication systems.
Climate a foe, too
But the Japanese represented only one enemy in the Pacific theater. Climatic conditions were a constant problem for Signal Corps people. The elements played havoc with communications propagation and equipment. After encountering numerous problems, including fungus, mold and rotting components, the Signal Corps learned how to modify its equipment. In one case, the tropicalization of SR-536 and 284s late in 1943 tremendously improved their serviceability.
Intelligence-gathering activities figured prominently in Signal Corps activities in the Pacific theater. In an important facet of the mission, they maintained communications with the Japanese-occupied Philippines.
The 978th Signal Service Company operated clandestine radio nets blanketing the archipelago. Activated in Brisbane, Australia, July 1, 1943, the men of the 978th were primarily Filipino-Americans recruited in the United States. Some 200 of these brave men voluntarily infiltrated their captive homeland, building, operating and maintaining radio stations. They gathered intelligence and passed it along through cryptographic systems.
On Luzon, these unsung heroes operated a dozen radio stations, with some 60 subsidiary radio stations within the island net. Communicating directly with their message center at SWPA headquarters, the 978th's hidden stations helped soften Japanese resistance and pave the way for MacArthur's famous return to the Philippines.
Other Signal Corps heroes were Capt. Robert Arnold, who sent the first word in June 1942 from American survivors of the Japanese takeover. Arnold operated secretly from Luzon, using a transmitter made from junk parts.
Another heroic signaler was Capt. Truman Heminway Jr. Heminway and another signaler established a guerrilla radio-communications network on Leyte, sending radio reports on hundreds of enemy ships passing through the waters under his observation.
MacArthur relied on the Signal Corps throughout the war, delegating extensive powers to his area chief signal officer, BG Spencer Akin. Gaining experience and a reputation that would elevate him to Chief Signal Officer of the Army in 1947, Akin supervised MacArthur's communications throughout the war. Departing Corregidor with his boss in March 1942, Akin accompanied him to Australia and on to Tokyo at the end of the war.
Because of total confidence in him, MacArthur gave Akin control of Allied and U.S. signal-intelligence services, radio and radar, signal supply, aircraft warning and research-and-development activity. Of Akin MacArthur said, "I regard him as the best signal officer I have ever known. ..."
Okinawa and Japan
Signal Corps' activities in the Pacific reached their peak during the Okinawa campaign. Tenth Army officers praised signalers shipboard communicators who moved ashore with mobile units and established land-based communications centers once the island was secure.
As the end neared, signalers of 232d Signal Operations Company, 4125th Signal Service Group and a seaborne-communications detachment accompanied 6th Army into Japan after the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Signal Corps continued to serve after the war on duty with occupation forces in Japan. It could be said the Signal Corps had the final word in the Pacific when a communications unit in the Yokohama Customs House rebroadcast to the world the Japanese surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri Sept. 2, 1945.
Dr. Stokes is U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon's command historian.