Signal Corps

Part II

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CBIVA Soundoff
Fall 1998 Issue

(Excerpted by Joe Shupe from the History of the Signal Corps in World War II.)

The Signal Corps (Sig C) in the CBI

In the CBI, the struggle with the Japanese sprawled over an immense area. This contrasted sharply with the relatively compact and homogeneous theaters of operation against Germany. In both areas. Signal units served within a similar organizational framework.

The circumstances and problems, however, differed. In Europe, massive supply of equipment, specialists and communications services for large armies in relatively small areas, were seldom approached in the CBI. Instead, CBI had relatively small forces and little equipment, all widely dispersed.

The various headquarters contended with problems of water and air movement over enormous distances, measured in the thousands of miles, rather than in the hundreds. More often than not, CBI signal units operated In regions where there had existed previously no communications facilities.

In Europe, the Sig C regularly rehabilitated and then heavily used facilities that had long served those nations. In the CBI, Sig units had to bring virtually everything with them, all the radio and wire the Army required for both headquarters and field use. Sig C men also had to construct the buildings for the facilities, from the ground up, such as in wilderness areas in Assam and Burma.

The First Sig C Troops in CBI

In February 1942, some Sig C men from the 52nd Sign Bn., were sent to Java together with a number of Sig C teams, which had recently arrived in Australia. They never reached Java. At Fremantle, in W. Australia, they found themselves suddenly transferred to vessels which sailed into the Indian Ocean. In Mid-March, the ships docked Karachi. Seven of these men immediately set up a message center while Teams C, J, and a part of E went to work erecting a radio station.

Team H went to New Delhi to construct a station which would control the future radio network of the CBI Theater of Operations.

Back in Karachi, they first installed a 300-watt transmitter in an airplane crate, and made contact with New Delhi on April 7th.

What they wanted most was to contact station WAR in Washington. They had a powerful 10-kw transmitter but no generator which was left behind in the States. But they had a smaller 1-kw transmitter with a suitable generator. They improvised by sending a strong signal across the North Pole to Station WAR by April 22. Station WVNA Karachi thus entered the ACAN system. This was not always dependable, so they later installed a 10-kw transmitter and got a 75 KVA generator from Standard Oil Co., in Arabia. In May, they were able to reach Chungking where a Navy transmitter, taken from a Yangtze River boat, replied.

During April and May, other teams moved from Karachi throughout India. The movement increased after the 835* Signal Service Co. (which later became a battalion) arrived on May 16 when the BRAZIL docked in Karachi. Men of the 835th were amazed to find that other Sig C troops had preceded them; they commiserated with them about conditions as they moved to barracks at New Malir, about 17 miles from Karachi. Communication nets had to be setup and maintained over the large area comprising the CBI, where teams would soon penetrate, even outside to Asmara in Eritrea -team 7 went there to install a relay station. That allowed the unreliable circuit over the North Pole to be bypassed.

Even before the 835th arrived, the first Sig C teams were on the move. In April, Team L went to Asanol (north of Calcutta) to service the RAF who were operating against the Japanese in Burma; they were later sent to Allahabad (halfway to New Delhi). As the airbase there became the headquarters of the 9th Bomb Group, they set up a 300w transmitter, but were asked to set up wire lines. Being unfamiliar in telephone and wire work, they soon leaned and put in and operated 30 miles of wire, 40 telephones and two switchboards.

Team I tossed a coin with Team J, to see which would win a better assignment to Bangalore. Team I lost and was sent to Assam. Before the team could set up, they were ordered into Burma to provide communications for Gen. Stilwell, then at Lashlo. which the enemy was attacking. As the British, then the Chinese, abandoned Lashio, the Sig C men stayed on, except for a detail of seven men who were to report to Stilwell's headquarters at May mo. Even as the detail forced its truck through retreating troops, it found that Maymo too was already being abandoned, but the men pushed on to Mandalay, and then turned northwards under Japanese bombing, to Schwebo where Gen. Stilwell halted briefly. During their four days there, they set up and operated a message center, amid bombing each day.

As the Burma campaign ended. Stilwell called for air transport and it was the detail from Team I that sent the call. One plane flew in. Part of the detail boarded it, the rest remained and escaped on foot with Stilwell. At first their radio truck accompanied the Stilwell party, later it had to be abandoned in the jungle along with the rest of the party's motor vehicles. The remainder of Team I had stayed at Lashio which was not cut off by the enemy. These forgotten Sig C men never got orders to retreat. They now had only one escape route left, the Burma Road leading into China. They loaded their equipment, including a 300w transmitter, into broken down trucks. Two sergeants in one of the trucks won out against the heated argument of a colonel who wanted to throw off the signal supplies and load some relatively useless equipment instead. After some bad moments when they were pursued by the enemy, they reached Kunming early in May. Their transmitter was the first large Sig C radio in that area of China. A month later, the men were ordered to Chungking. The equipment they brought in was worth its weight in gold. The transmitter then became the circuit between Chungking and New Delhi and for over a year it transmitted allied traffic.

Signal Corps Problems

The first signal officer in China was LCol Joseph Heinrich, who served with the mission under Gen. " Magruder in Chungking before Pearl Harbor. Sttlwell's party (who arrived in March 1942) included Col. George Townsend as his signal officer. When Stilwell went into Burma, Townsend was his acting signal officer. Team I of the Sig C shared with Gen. Stilwell and his staff, the bitter defeat in Burma.

Later in 1942, as Gen. Stilwell sought to train and equip the Chinese forces, and as the Army Air Force built up an airlift over the Hump, Col. Townsend left the theater, and was replaced by Col. Samuel S. Lamb, signal officer of the 10th AF, who became the acting signal officer on the CBI staff In New Delhi. During the months thereafter, Sig C men fared austerely in their operations support of the Allied effort in CBI.

Signal Corps supported the Army Air Forces and assisted In training of Chinese troops toward the day when offensive action against the enemy in Burma might resume. In small detachments, stretched from Karachi to Chungking, they built and operated facilities for ACAN and for AAF operations, which during the two years the enemy sat astride the Burma Road, provided the Hump lifeline to China.

From the early days of 1942, until late 1943, Sig C men In the CBI continued to struggle with chronic communications exigencies and shortages. Those who worked for the ACAN stations at Karachi, and at New Delhi, were somewhat better provided for, as were also those serving at some of the AAF activities, such as the Hump airlift. But, for many others - those with the Chinese, and the teams that put them In remote AWS jungle sites in Assam, and in N. Burma - the story was much different.

Among the latter, were small teams serving as aircraft observers who radioed out their sightings of enemy planes amid most primitive wilderness environments. Their neighbors were sometimes head-hunters. Experiences with the tribesmen were often weird and occasionally hair raising. Such was an incident that befell members of a Signal EEIS team in the Naga Hills on the India-Burma border, seeking the electronic equipment of a wrecked Japanese airplane. Spending a night near a Naga village, they found that the natives had placed a guard over them. Late in the night awesome torch rites were performed close by, which the uncomprehending Americans feared were hostile. Not until morning did they learn that the guard and ceremonies were intended to defend them from evil spirits.

The Naga tribesmen prized not money but salt, and took it as pay for their occasional services to the Americans. Their chieftans hankered for red blankets, which Capt. John G. Haury of the 679th Sig A/C Warning Co., Judiciously gave out to win native allegiance. None of Haury's teams ever suffered violence at the hands of the natives, but at times they were worried, as evidenced by a radio message Haury once received from one of his spotter groups: "Haury from Cranmer. Party Nagas went seven miles from here. Wiped out village of 250. Passed through with 30 heads. Have photos verifying this. Would like hand grenades. May need them!"

The lack of equipment and supplies that were badly needed harrowed the spirits of many Sig C men, while other items that were not needed might abound. 'The soldier starts out young and full of hope," said a sergeant of the 835* Signal Service Bn describing the CBI trooper, "Then he does not get equipment. At first, he thinks he will make up for the lack of material by putting in more effort.

After a while, he finds out that equipment Just Is not coming and that effort is not enough. He feels forgotten and discouraged." He added, "We get little information, instruction books or the like. When we got something, it was 7-8 months old. In the early days of the war, communications equipment, if it arrived at all, arrived in poor shape." "It almost broke our hearts to get a set in China and find 2-3 tubes out," CBI veterans recalled later. "We might just as well not get any set."

Communications in CBI depended frequently upon the initiative of individual members of small Signal Corps units.
From the swamps and plains of India (upper left and right) to the rice paddies of China (below) Wire
lines were installed and maintained.

There were other supply problems summed up by a CBIer who said, "You have to revise your thinking about signal supplies when you are fighting in a part of the world where everything that doesn't rust quickly will corrode or rot away even faster, where batteries have less than half the normal life, and insects do everything but march away with your poles bodily."

Amid these harassment's, the Sig C men first on the CB1 scene did as well as they could with what they had. In India, they supplemented their meager supplies with odds and ends of British equipment. Everywhere they used whatever salvaged parts they could obtain. Wire circuits were simple, often primitive, and radios, even ancient types, were few.

The theater signal officer, Gen. King, stated that during the early months of the war "little more was provided than the minimum needed to support the Army Air Forces. Gen. Stilwell recognized the Signal Corps plight, and he, in fact, took upon himself some of the onus for CBI communications inadequacies during the early months of the war, subsequently admitting that communications had been "handled very poorly, principally due to my own ignorance."

A Sig C footnote to the Allied defeat in Burma in 1942 was put on record two years later: "It now seems apparent that the unsuccessful defense In Burma In April-May, 1942, can be attributed, in part, to a shortage of signal communications equipment and an inadequate co-ordination of the communications facilities which were available."

By mid-1943, conditions in the Theater were at least improving as Gen. King arrived to become the CBI chief signal officer, in June, bringing with him Col. Paul L. Neal who would become the SOS signal officer under Gen. Wheeler.

By July 1943, the number of Sig C troops in the CBI had Increased to several thousand. The majority of them supported the AAF. The remainder, under the Theater chief signal officer, Included the 955th Radio Intelligence Co., a few V-mail personnel, and, of course, the 835th Signal Service Bn., whose men operated in detachments scattered all over China and India. Gen. King soon would have more troops. By June 30, 1944, Sig C troops in CBI would number about 800 officers and warrant officers and nearly 13,000 enlisted men.

The Hqs Signal Section in New Delhi was expanded to 60 officers and 196 enlisted men. The SOS Hqs Signal Section numbered nearly as many. Entire new units soon arrived. Two signal operation companies, the 988th and 993rd in mid-1943, to meet the need of Chinese forces readying to retake Burma.

In October 1943. the 219th Depot Co., and the 181st Signal Repair Co., arrived for duty in signal depots. In December, the 96th Signal Bn, and half of the 31st Signal Construction Bn, arrived, the former to work on pole line construction along the Ledo Road, and the latter to build lines in India from Calcutta to Kharagpur, and along the route to Assam. Not all of the remaining half of the 31st arrived. Their transport, HMS ROHNA, was sunk by enemy action in the eastern Mediterranean.

There were still shortages, of course - the universal lack of spare parts and of maintenance facilities, as Col. Heinrich the signal officer of the Y-Force (Yunnan Chinese divisions) lamented in December 1943. That same month. Col. Neal urged that he be enabled to stockpile pole line material (despite War Dept. strictures) and switchboards to meet needs presently unspecified but certain to arise. He cited needs for cable types, of which there were no supplies in India. And, he added that nowhere in the country was a single set of cable splicer's equipment to be found. In September 1944. the new CBI chief signal officer. Brig. Gen. Wm. G. Reeder, explained, "We will work up a project for a stockpile without using the word and make It modest enough to be defensible."

But, already, before the end of 1943, as Allied combat troops and the Ledo Road builders drove eastward from Ledo over the Naga Hills of India, and down into the narrow valley of N. Burma, troop and supply activities were mounting and so were the enabling communications - both wire and radio.

Radio, in fact, preceded the wire. Along the Ledo Road, for example, as bulldozers first broke track into Burma in 1943, Sig C men at a 75-watt radio station in Ledo maintained communications with mobile radios at the advancing roadbed. By the time the workers pushed the track to Shingbwiyang, in N. Burma, 100 miles across the mountains from Ledo, the Sig C had six stations operating in the net, which primarily supported the road construction. Traffic over these radio channels alone reached 25,000 messages a week before wire service took over.

By the spring of 1944, as Sig troops erected the pole line along this stretch, the radio net began to revert to a standby status in case the wire lines went dead. Radio continued to be needed, however, for the initial communications along the advance sections of the road as it penetrated deeper into Burma, until wire lines could catch up.

By August 1944. there were 12 stations in two nets serving the road. As the route reached China, the last radio stations In this network opened at Wanting, on the China border, on February 21, 1945, and at Kunming on March 5, 1945.

In addition to these local radio services, the Sig C was making progress in long-range radio-communications spanning the CBI. On December 23, 1943, the radio sites numbered 22, scattered over 3,500 miles from Karachi to Kweilin.

The year 1944, would bring tremendous progress, as rapidly as equipment arrived, toward faster, large communications capacity with the increasing application of radio-teletype and on-line automatic cipher sets.

When Gen. King, former CBI chief signal officer came back to the Pentagon, he labored to improve signal service in the CBI. He helped in assuring that the CBI got more people and equipment. Much Impetus toward better communlcatlons arose during 1944 because of the MATTERHORN project, In which the XX Bomber Command would attack Japan from B-29 bases from Chengtu, China, with support from India airfields. Operational control over that command came direct from Hqs AAF In Washington, from Lt. Gen. Henry Arnold acting for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was the first time that military operations in an Army theater were commanded over such great distances, much In the manner in which the Navy Dept., In Washington, operated its ships over the seven seas. Tremendous radioteletype facilities provided by the Sig C would give Gen. Arnold the singular control that he desired.

Gen. King, exhausted and broken in health, he could no longer carry on with his tasks and was replaced In June 1944, by Gen. Reeder who with fresh energy attacked signal operations. On November 17, 1944, the chief signal officer of the War Dept. appraised the Sig C job of CBI: "In my opinion. Gen. Reeder has the most difficult Signal job in any of the overseas theaters. 1 want all staff divisions and services of this office to give him. all possible assistance. It is particularly desirable that the Plans and Operations Diutstons do everything possible to fight his battles in the War Dept., and secure War Dept. approval of actions he desires to take."

Gen. Reeder soon visited the widely scattered signal activities and noted variations in each area. He found that in road and pipeline operations under Gen. Pick, SOS was the commanding authority, and the signal officer of the area reported directly to that officer. Also, that the signal officer serving the X-Force in the 1944 Burma campaign, LtCol Geo. Moynahan, Jr., reported to Gen. Stilwell, who commanded the Northern Combat Area Command (NCAC), and the CBI Theater. Regardless of the ambiguous theater relationships In general, Reeder wrote on September 14, 1944:

"There is an area of twilight between the combat authority of the X Force (under Gen. StilweU), a case of Grant Jighting Meade's Army, and the authority of Pick. This is occasioned by the fact that the X Force has no army troops other than the S(g C troops we have assigned them. Therefore, Pick builds their roads, bridges, run their depots, handles their air dropping and a host of other things.

"For certain other reasons, the rear echelon of the X Force remains west of Ledo although the forward echelon is 160 miles further down the road and will soon be in Myitkyina. There results from this set-up, a rather difficult problem for the theater signal officer."

Col. Moynahan was Inclined like the rest of the staff, Reeder recommented, to issue orders In the name of Gen. Stllwell, the theater commander. This could raise doubts as to Just who might be Gen. Stilwell's signal officer -the chief signal officer of the CBI theater or the NCAC signal officer. But Reeder said, "I have no doubt," and he set about doing his utmost to exert strong control over this most ambiguous tortured of theaters.

In his visits, Gen. Reeder probed all Sig C Installations from Calcutta to Chungking, finding in general great growth and improvements. In supply, so much signal equipment was at last arriving that there now arose the problem of having enough troops to handle It; In the China area, he found the signal depot at Kunming had but one officer and seven men to do the work. He found his message centers prospering everywhere. The one In New Delhi was moving as many as 400,000 groups of traffic a day; at Chabua, 120,000 a day. "Compare the number of personnel doing it with big headquarters of other theaters, and I think the CBI is doing all right," he exulted in September.

During 1944, a CBI attempt was made to combine the two signal sections of SOS and CBI theater headquarters. Since SOS already handled the signal supply system (except for AAF and part of the China signal supply), that headquarters felt that they should set up a signal communications service to take over construction, installation, operation and maintenance of all permanent and semi-permanent signal facilities in the theater, except those serving the AAF and combat troops. This was meant to conserve personnel, but the idea was rejected by theater headquarters.

Hardly had Gen. Reeder begun to consolidate and strengthen his signal responsibilities than he lost a third of his area of responsibility. In October 1944, the War Dept. separated the China portion of the theater from the India and Burma portion. Gen. Reeder remained the chief signal officer of the I-B Theater under Lt. Gen. Daniel Sultan. Just before breakup, Reeder went to China to strengthen Sig C support. There had been much unhappiness in those quarters regarding theater signals.

The Signal Section at New Delhi had tried to control Army communications in China through three signal area officers assigned to Chungking, Kunming and Kweilln, but the three officers had too few troops for efficient operations.

The 14th Air Force had many more, and It was they who actually did most of the signal work in China. Consequently, the 14th Air Force tended to regard the ineffective area signal officers "rather a nuisance," and seven proposed to take over all signal communications in China. Reeder sought to placate the air-men, and to convince them that he would provide them with better signal support in the future.

But all this was to no avail, as on October 27, 1944, Maj. Gen. Wedemeyer took command of the China Theater, and the new theater's signal responsibilities devolved upon Col. James H. Marsh, who had been the China area officer in Chungking, with a total office force of one enlisted man. Being understaffed, he asked Reeder to continue to operate as the theater signal officer for both theaters. Wedemeyer rejected Reeder's offer to send either Col. Neal or Col. Petzlng there.

As Gen. Reeder saw it, the separate China Theater was a mistake. As new people were brought into China, they did not have the experience of the old India-Burma hands. And, as expected, after the collapse of the enemy in Burma late In 1944, the I-B Theater became primarily a source of supply to China, which was being increasingly isolated by Japanese advances in E. China.

For purposes of supply. Col. Guest in Washington, told Reeder "We still would like to consider the two theaters as an entity and hope there will be no attempt to set up separate stocks..." That wish, Reeder replied was "optimistic," and he added "The War Dept. could have thought up other ways of confusing our complicated situation, but I believe they have hit upon the best."

Actually as matters did turn out, Reeder did manage to maintain close relations with Col. Marsh and to provide men and supplies (particularly toward completion of the Calcutta-Pole line into China.

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