Signal Corps

Ex-CBI Roundup
September 1951 Issue

By Boyd Sinclair

High Wires and Deep Cables

Monsoon, Monkeys, Dust,
Snakes, Ants, Fungus,
And Chinese Sometimes
Played Hell With

Signal wallahs in CBI built a trans-Himalayan telephone line, approximately 1,800 miles long, linking Calcutta. India, with Kunming, China. When the Army announced the line was complete in June 1945, it was ding-how with the Chinese, teek hai with the Indians, and "damned glad it's finished" with American soldiers who did the job. Master Sgt. Robert D. Jenkins put in the first call over the Asiatic hook-up. He had been working on the project about 18 months, and his was a test call to set up the initial greetings from China to Gen. Dan Sultan, commander in India and Burma.

UNDER THE same climatic and combat hazards overcome in building the Ledo Road and The Pipeline, Signal Corps wallahs worked and cursed their way from India through Burma into China. Men were supplied in every way-once by Japs. Elephants, boats, airplanes, and captured Jap trucks got materials to them. At Kamaing, Burma, the Japs airdropped supplies to them-since word had not reached Jap headquarters that their own units had been forced to withdraw. Sometimes, during the monsoon, boats were the only means of transportation. The completed job probably has no parallel in communication history of wire and pole - in either peace or war. Initial construction was started in April 1943. With opening of the Stilwell campaign to clear North Burma, communications work was speeded up. One line was built east from Ledo through Burma, another brought up from Calcutta to Ledo. Later the two lines were joined to make one circuit. From Burma the line was extended to China. One of the feats was laying of a submarine cable across the Brahmaputra River.

Signal Corps outfits taking part in stringing wire across the backbone of the world were: the 445th Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Carroll Scott, formerly the 430th Company, a Negro unit; the 96th Battalion, Lt. Col. Robert Disney, commanding officer; the 21st Battalion, commanded by Maj. Edward F. Jaros; the 432nd, Maj. Edmund E. Johnson, commander; the 428th, Lt. Col. Forrest H. Riordan, Jr., commander. The 428th was another Negro unit. The 430th started the work, taking over from Quartermaster troops. With completion of the line, maintenance, of course, became the primary job. Rains caused short circuits, dust clogged mechanisms, animals tore out parts. Three signal service battalions were assigned to keep the lines open. They were the 3199th, commanded by Maj. John B. Whitmore; the 3105th, Lt. Col. Clyde D. C1ancy, commander; the 236th, operating at that time as a company, Capt J. Y. Kisinger, commander.

MEN OF THE 81st Signal Construction Bn. lay cable across the Brahmaputra river near Bilasipara, India, April 18, 1944. Each barge carries one mile of submarine cable, weighing 19 tons per mile. U.S. Army photo.

FANTASTIC incidents that could never happen in the world of fiction, accompanied the work of communications along the Ledo Road. Some Chinese troops, ignorant of the purpose of communications wires, sometimes cut out large sections, Brig. Gen. William O. Reeder, India-Burma Signal Corps chief, said on the occasion of an award to Lt. Col. C. E. "King" Janes for communications work along The Road. Jungle trees fell across the line. Men had to be routed out at night to make these repairs. Burmese animals produced trouble, one big monkey walking in on an astounded switchboard operator to play with the pretty cords and plugs. Signal Corps men were frequently under fire. They worked with a carbine slung on one shoulder and equipment on the other. When fighting was about four miles south of Lashio, open wire pole lines had reached two miles north of the town.

SPECIALLY-EQUIPPED rail Jeep strings signal wire along the railroad from Pinwe to Naba Junction in Burma. Operators are men of the 96th Signal Bn., Co. A. U.S. Army photo taken Dec. 15, 1944.

Either a snake or an ant could cause trouble. In Assam, Sgt. Leonard J. Straus and T/5 William L. Lynch were trouble-shooting on an open-wire circuit at night in search of a short. They finally saw something dangling over the wires. It looked like a routine job. Straus climbed a pole and leaned over to pull off the object. But when he saw what it was he did not pull - he got a pole and pushed. It was a snake. That resulted in trouble-shooting crews getting anti-snake venom kits.

"We are awaiting weekly lectures on snake nomenclature and fuselage recognition," Straus said.

Ants made trouble in telephones at Calcutta. There must have been millions of them in Services of Supply headquarters there. When a telephone went dead in headquarters, Sgt. Paul Wagner, Atlantic City, New Jersey, signal center wire chief, usually offered 10-to-1 odds the trouble was ants. For his work in disassembling phones and going after the invaders with aeresol bombs, he became known as "The Bug Exterminator."

WIRE-STRINGING crew of 2nd Platoon, 432nd Signal Construction Bn., lay out wire in China mountains above the Ledo Road. Photo taken March 17, 1945, by U.S. Army.

But out in the jungles of Assam and North Burma, Signal wallahs fought a battle against a more elusive enemy that the ant. That enemy was fungus, caused by the damp, humid climate of the jungle land. Sgt. C. M. Buchanan told how the 191st Signal Repair Company fought fungus attacks on delicate radio, telephone and teletype equipment. The acidy green mold ate away insulations, corroded plates, and promoted rust and short circuits.

The 191st repaired and rebuilt walkie-talkies, transmitters, receivers, teletype and signal machines, switchboards, hand sets, Special Service radios, and operated power shops to repair generators. Headquarters of the outfit was at Ledo, but detachments operated at Myitkyina, Bhamo, and other points where conditions demanded it. To get rid of fungus, one man trouble-shot the equipment. Then equipment was sent to the fungus treating department, where a lacquer was sprayed over internal parts. They were then baked in an oven. Equipment would then usually last through a monsoon season, when it would again be necessary to treat it by the same process. Several men of the 191st devised instruments and checking apparatus to speed up work and do it more efficiently. Technical Sgt. J. P. Wright of the Myitkyina detachment developed a short-cut test set which combined several separate units in one outfit. Two men designed and built special wrenches for the repair of delicate teletype equipment at Ledo.

MEN of 885th Signal Construction Bn., Co. C, stringing telephone wire at SOS Headquarters in Myitkyina area, August 17, 1944. Photo by U.S. Army.

THE GREATEST laughs these 191st GIs had came with work on Special Service radio sets used by the soldiers. One Negro brought in a set for repair, and when it was opened there was only two tubes and a few stray pieces of wire inside. In another radio set they found a rat's nest and all the wire coverings eaten. They had trouble with Chinese bringing in equipment for repair. The Chinese invariably sent a soldier unable to speak a word of English, and hence could not help in quickly locating cause of the trouble.

The 835th Signal Service Battalion was the oldest Signal outfit in CBI and was best acquainted with how things were in communications in the early days. The 835th men became convinced crossed flags meant they might be called upon to service anything from an electric toaster to a radio station. They say some men of this outfit swapped their bunks for lanterns.

The outfit was activated in Washington in February 1942 as the 835th Signal Service Company, with Capt. W. A. Muir as commanding officer. Its later commanders from April 2, 1943, through April 18, 1946, were Lt. Col. Joseph E. Heinrich, Maj. James H. Caddess, Lt. Col. Charles G. Eubank, Lt. Col. Charles T. Cabrera, and Lt. Col. Morris S. Schwartz. The 835th's objejctive was to set up communications in the Orient. The men docked at Karachi on March 12, 1942. A GI heaved a roll of toilet paper to an Indian on the dock, then watched as the recipient fashioned a turban. That was their introduction to India.

T/4 E. PIQUARD, 81st Signal Construction Bn., anchors submarine cable to tree on south shore of Brahmaputra river. U.S. Army photo.

One unit was sent to the Ramgarh training center where "Uncle Joe" Stilwell was to train Chinese divisions for Burma. When Chinese troops came in from Stilwell's Burma retreat, the Signal wallahs met them at the station. Only U.S. troops in the area, they acted as guides, Ordnance, Quartermaster and Engineer troops for the Chinese. They even were asked to build flagpoles. The explanation for this was simple and a tribute to Oriental reasoning. The Chinese assumed an antenna was part of a radio station. A radio station was the responsibility of Signal. A flagpole and an antenna were similar. Therefore, erecting a flagpole was the responsibility of Signal. Faced with such masterly logic, the Signal wallahs capitulated. The flagpole requests mounted. Each new request asked for a pole a foot higher. Thus the men learned what was meant by "face." When their own flag arrived, they erected a super-mast in front of their headquarters. But soon the Chinese persuaded a recently-arrived Engineer outfit to erect an even higher pole. The Americans also lent the Chinese their equipment a few hours each night to clear messages to Chungking. This caused an aspirin deluge for stand-by operators at rear echelons who were monitoring the net, as the Chinese had their own versions of the International Code.

65TH REGIMENTAL HEADQUARTERS field radio station in Burma. Left to right are T/5 John J. Boyle, Edward F. Thornill operating the radio; T/5 Aaron H. Levine at the generator; T/5 Wm. J. Dunn by the radio set. All are listening to Major Quentin S. Quigley, radio liaison officer, extreme right, describe conditions at the front. U.S. Army photo.

AS ADDITIONAL American troops arrived in the theater, communications problems multiplied. Necessary liaison with Chungking, Delhi and Assam sent the volume of traffic up. The Ramgarh detachment generator, over-loaded, caused trouble. Only limited frequencies were available. All over the theater men of the 835th were meeting the same difficulty. From Karachi a unit had contacted Washington. A set was installed in a discarded P-40 crate on the edge of the Sind Desert. The beam passed over Berlin and the North Pole. Polar disturbances cut transmission to a few hours a day. To eliminate this trouble, a team of 835th was rushed to Eritrea and a relay station built there. That was in early 1942.

Pfc. T. J. DOYLE, 81st Signal Construction Bn., drills hole in rock with jack hammer as Pvt. W. Brenen keeps the hose untangled. Photo at Goalpara, India, June 18, 1944, by U.S. Army.

By the middle of that year, teams of the 835th were scattered all over the theater. They were in Kunming in June 1942 working in slit trenches on the edge of the field. The transmitter was a homemade job. It quit the first week. They tore it apart and rebuilt it. It didn't quit again. It was still in use in 1944. The first Army transmitter used in Chungking came out of Burma with the Stilwell retreat. The personnel were caught in a Jap drive, but were flown out on a transport plane. Others walked out with Stilwell. Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill remembered the 835th at Shwebo. "We got the hell beat out of us and retreat was the only answer. I was given two enlisted men to find a way to walk out. These two men were members of the 835th."

835th men also did communications the hard way in Assam in June 1942. They were not pole linemen, but they built pole lines. They hung 20 or 30 pairs of field wire on single bamboo poles, and the way they did was a way they had not learned in earlier training-for line trucks they sometimes used elephants. Another 835th team was in Ledo later in the year when construction began on the Ledo Road. The radio men hauled a transmitter up a hill so steep they had to use block and tackle. The wire men built the first 37 miles of pole line along The Road. They ran message centers and code rooms.

CBI grew up and the 835th along with it. It became a battalion in April 1943. Communications became big-time with modern equipment. Before old-timers left for the states after more than three years overseas, they knew their outfit was in Burma again. While the Japs were still at the far end of the airstrip at Myitkyina, an 835th radio station went on the air.

Pvt. BRENEN takes cover as charge of dynamite is set off. Holes are being blasted in rock for telephone pole construction. U.S. Army photo.

Signal wallahs also used pigeons. One pigeon with Merrill's Marauder's hanged itself in its cage. One facetious GI told Roundup's editor of the "problems" of a pigeon unit. "Dear editor," he wrote, "six months ago I was sent to China with a Signal Corps pigeon unit, but our operations have been a failure. The pigeons have a critical altitude of 12,500 feet and conk out trying to carry messages across The Hump. Do you think we will be sent back to the U.S.?"

"No," replied Roundup's Staff Sgt. Karl Peterson. "The Army never admits defeat. Services of Supply informs us you will shortly receive a supply of 'masks, oxygen, pigeon, M-2,' newly-developed in America, which will add 5,000 feet to the birds' service ceiling. Remember the motto of the Pigeon Corps and pigeons in general, 'straight to the mark.' "

SAFETY BELT holds T/Sgt. Alfred Holden from a 75-foot drop into the Ganges as he makes the last tie-in on the project at Hardings Bridge, Paksey, India. Holding him are T/3 Wm. D. Geer and T/Sgt. Hugh Hurrell. All are men of the 432nd Signal Construction Bn. U.S. Army photo.

IN THE LATTER days of the war, the Signal Corps blazed communications on down to Singapore, where the 3115th Signal Service Company established communications between Southeast Asia Command headquarters at Kandy, Ceylon, and Singapore headquarters. The 3115th went from Rangoon, where it did a similar job for the British. The Yanks landed in Singapore in the advance party on September 6, 1945, six days before the official surrender of the Japs. When the boys got to Singapore, they were given an empty house. The American knack of collecting provided them with interior decorations enjoyed by British burra sahibs. Included in the Yank Signal wallahs in Singapore were T/4s Tom Asheley, Arthur Gray, Kenneth Kehoe and Charles Prunty; T/3s John Byrne and Peter Walcott, Staff Sgt. Bernard Cave, Pvts. First Class John Dickson, Robert Gallear, Henry Geils, John Provost, Lester Roberts and Bernard Zimmerman; T/5s Leonard Walker and Alf Hanson; and Lt. Joseph Littlebeck.

FOUR MEMBERS of Co. A, 96th Signal Bn., prepare hangers for messenger strands. Lines were laid across the Irrawaddy river for communications between Myitkyina and China. U.S. Army photo.

Things had really changed in Signal-wallah circles by the spring of 1946. GIs heard sweet, feminine voices at the boards when theater Signal headquarters put civilian operators in to replace GIs going home. Previously the only place to employ women was Karachi. Women were put to work in Calcutta and New Delhi, not only for switchboard work but also as teletype operators. The Signal wallahs reported these "Switchboard Suzys" took to the cords and plugs as naturally as if they were bubble baths. -THE END.

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