December 1960 Issue
By William D. Joyce
North Burma Radio Network
Aviation Engineers on the Air
The 930th Engineer Aviation Regiment, Headquarters Company, left Camp Patrick Henry, Va., on a cold damp night in December, 1943, and embarked on a slow-moving Liberty ship bound for Oran, North Africa. Two months later the Company disembarked at Bombay, India, after an eventful trip from Algiers on a British-operated Greek liner through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean. Its mission was to build bases in eastern India for the 20th Bomber Command. From these bases, B29's would take off to make their strikes against Japan.
Included in the Regimental Headquarters Company were four radio operators. James Katopes from New York, Merrill Phanco from Montana, James Rice from South Carolina, and myself from Massachusetts. Although T/5 Phanco was the only one of us who had had any pre-service experience "pounding brass," it was to be our job to set up an engineer radio network wherever it might be needed. We had received most of our training at the Signal Corps School at Gowan Field, Boise, Idaho. Phanco and Katopes came to us, if memory serves me correctly, from radio school in St. Louis, Mo., and together we learned the use of the mobile field transmitter and receiver with which the engineers were originally equipped. It was a miserable little set with so little power that communication was more a matter of guess-work than expertness. Frequently it was difficult to distinguish the dit-dahs of transmission from the background hash emanating from our Idaho surroundings.
TENT AREA of 930th Engineers, west of the airstrip at Myitkyina.
In India we located at Kalikundah, a furnace-hot ex-British airdrome in the midst of a desert of red clay not far from the rail center of Kharagpur, 70 miles south of Calcutta. The radio team was placed in charge of Headquarters' switchboard, a job we had never trained for. Fortunately, operating this size board (about 60 connections) requires a minimum of skill, and we were able to puzzle out its intricacies in short order, and even learned to play games with it to While away the long, dull hours while staring at its ugly face, waiting for the drop of a jack flap.
We sweated out seven months of this duty, six hours on and eighteen off, and managed to get pretty tired of Kalikundah with its hot south wind and ferrous clay. Then orders came that we were to ship out for Burma.
We had been hearing about the terrific job that Merrill's Maurauders were doing there, but none of us had given much thought to our own possible involvement in jungle warfare.
However, we had long since exhausted our interest in the Midnapore district in which Kalikundah lies, and the possibility of new scenery was a welcome one. In the late summer of 1944, our motor pool began slicing up its heavy equipment with cutting torches and loading the pieces into Combat Cargo planes bound for Myitkyina. The erstwhile telephone operators were bundled into a C-47 with no door and smelling strongly of the stable and arrived at "Mitch" with the first of the Headquarters contingent.
Naturally, when we arrived on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, we were issued a set none of us had ever laid eyes on before, a powerful SCR 188, scrounged in some mysterious fashion from the 10th Weather outfit. We managed to put the brute together (with some difficulty), following the directions in the tech manual which was packed with it, and got it into operation.
We were told that it was our job to serve as the net control station, call letters S5N, for the network of engineer battalions and companies which were already scattered through the Burmese boondocks. Most of these were airborne outfits which had flown in with the Cochran invaders, while others were old buddies whom we had last seen on the banks of the Snake River, back in Idaho. When the net was finally going full blast, we had sub-stations in Sam'haw, Katha, Bahe, Bahmo, Lashio, and Muse. With the SCR 188 powered by a one-cylinder gasoline putt-putt, we had little trouble working even Lashio, 178 miles away. This was quite a contrast with our original sets (SCR 193's, I believe) which operated either from a truck battery or with power supplied with a hand-wound generator invented by the devil himself. These could hardly push out a signal intelligible 40 miles away, except under perfect conditions.
They say communications are the nervous system of any military operation. Our operation became a lot more nervous after the Japanese hit us on a beautiful moonlight night in November, 1944. They scored a direct hit on our antenna while Phanco, Katopes, and I were fleeing to the slit trench the medics had thoughtfully dug a hundred yards away. When we came back, I found a neat, three-cornered hole in the back of the chair I had been sitting in a few moments before. This convinced us that we should follow orders, so we dug our own trench a little closer to the radio shack and sandbagged the walls of the radio room. As Captain Suter said, "Those radio sets are hard to replace, men." We had the station back on the air less than half an hour after the bombing.
Mountains of China can be seen faintly in the background.
STATION Sugar Five Nan, at Myitkyina, Burma, in October 1944 before the Japs hit it.
Up until the first air raid a short time before this, when a Betty roared in while we were watching Gary Cooper as "Casanova Brown" at an ack-ack outfit's screen down by the runway (by the way, did they ever find out the name of the control tower man who turned on the field's landing lights that night when the first Jap flew in?), we had considered ourselves as practically non-combatants. Aside from the popping of rifle fire from the front some fifteen miles away when we first arrived, and the doughfeet of the Mars Task Force who ate in our messhall as they passed through leading their mules south, and the litter of scrap iron left by the Chinese and Maurauders when they had plowed through, we had not given much thought to flying bullets or exploding bombs. In fact we hadn't even been issued ammunition for our weapons, except for a few sportsmen who wanted to hunt tigers. So we all felt a little resentful at the unsportsmanlike conduct of the Nipponese air force, particularly at the rascal in the Zero who strafed our messhall early one Sunday morning and made Sgt. Cate burn the officers' french toast. Luckily, in none of these unheralded forays did any of our fellows get injured except for one chap who made the mistake of getting up and running for his tent during the first attack. He caught a chip of shrapnel in his shoulder. He was the only one of us to get a Purple Heart.
The North Burma engineer network was established quickly after the 930th E.A.R. arrived on the scene, because it was very evident that if headquarters was to direct the operations of the battalions and companies working on outlying landing fields in rugged country such as this, an independent and fairly certain method of communication was a prime necessity.
Before the network, there was no means of getting messages back and forth other than by air couriers flitting hither and yon in Piper Cubs. The constant shortage of these liaison planes and the monsoon weather made this a most inconvenient way to keep in contact.
Tenth Air Force, our new boss, authorized the establishment of the net with a single frequency and CW operation. The net was constantly monitored, not only by our own authorities, but also by the "other chaps" as our British friends used to say. In fact, I was startled one day to hear an irate voice break in on my code copying saying, "Gor damn aviation engineers, get off the air," and as we continued to transmit, "Gor damn American engineers, go home." The inflection was pure Nipponese, and it was rather disquieting to hear ourselves personally addressed by the enemy.
All our traffic was encoded, so we never found out exactly what we were transmitting or receiving. We knew that the bulk of our messages concerned daily morning reports from the orderly rooms of the various working outfits, deadlined equipment reports, changes in specifications, requisitions for spare parts, travel orders, storm warnings, and the like. We also handled messages for Service Group, Liaison Squadron Detachments, and grounded pilots at new fair-weather fields, where often our net was the only means of communication available.
All in all, the operation was routine and quiet, and except for the few weeks when the Nips were flying up the Irrawaddy by moonlight and batting our brains out, Errol Flynn or Frank Sinatra would have been bored, no end. I would also like to report that none of us saw Gina in Calcutta between shifts at the key. I guess that was some other war.
When we finally packed the SCR 188's away and trucked our equipment over the Burma Road into Chiang Kai-s'hek's back yard in August, 1945, the Japanese had pretty well been driven out of Burma and the airfields were going back to jungle and rice paddy. But I will say this, atabrine or no atabrine, North Burma is mighty pretty country. -THE END