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Civilians contributed to war effort

by Lisa Alley

In talking about Signal Corps contributors to the war effort, we've noted the Signal Corps was long accustomed to working with civilians — both in private industry and as its own employees.

A civilian employee who was working on a radio compass figured in a furor between the Air Corps and Signal Corps over navigational-communications equipment. The Air Corps "stole" the civilian from a Signal Corps laboratory.

Civilians answered the Signal Corps' call when the corps found itself desperate for manpower. For instance, when signal installations were set up in Iceland, civilians responded to Signal Corps pleas.

"It hadn't originally been contemplated civilians would be sent to overseas defense areas, but the Icelandic radar could never have got into operation so early if they hadn't been called upon," wrote historian Dulany Terrett in his work on Signal Corps' World War II history. "Signal Corps laboratory engineers who had studied Signal Corps radar almost from the beginning answered an appeal made a day before sailing time and, reaching Iceland, did at Grindavik what they had been learning to do in New Jersey at Sandy Hook and Twin Lights."

Signal Corps employees' duties ranged from clerk-typist to handling contracts to scientific work. Specialists included accountants, engineers, statisticians, lawyers and plant inspectors. Women served ably in jobs ranging from typist to laboratory assistant or cryptanalyst.

An employee installs and tests equipment on a tank, 1942 Signal Corps civilian employee installs and tests equipment for the armored force in 1942.

By Aug. 1, 1941, Signal Corps civilian employees numbered 6,902. By summer 1942, there were 66,000 employees in "the field" and 5,000 in the office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington.

Civilians figured heavily in radar's success. "It was the uniform opinion," said LTC George Metcalf, chief of the electronics division, office of the Chief Signal Officer, "of all Air Forces and Signal Corps officers consulted that the successful operation of (the radar) equipment would have been impossible without (the Signal Corps laboratories)' civilian specialists."

Engineer Hurach Abajian helped develop the SCR-584, the gun-laying radar that stopped German air attacks at Anzio. The Army sent him to the Pacific to try to solve early problems with the 584, which Abajian found out were due to lack of instructions — the troops were using the 584s like the old 268s or not at all. Abajian demonstrated the 584's capabilities and taught the troops how to use it.

Civilian radar crews operated in far-flung places such as Alaska, Puerto Rico, Panama, Hawaii, Trinidad, Ascension Island or Australia.

Ms. Alley, editor of the Army Communicator, holds a degree in communications. She has been a civilian and military journalist and editor for 15 years.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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