Signal Corps

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CBIVA Soundoff
Winter 1998 Issue

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

The Signal Corps in the CBI
The Calcutta-Kunming Pole Line

Among the major Signal Corps (Sig C) projects approved for the CBI in 1943 was the start of a pole line eventually to run nearly 2,000 miles from Calcutta through Assam, to Ledo, and on across N. Burma to Kunming. It would run beside the Ledo (Stilwell) Road. The line was to be built in two major segments - the first through cultivated land from Calcutta to the Chabua-Ledo area; the second crossing wild mountain terrain from Ledo to Kunming.

The logistical build-up for the war in Burma and the support of China required large-scale road building and such supply facilities as pipelines. These in turn required communications of high capacity, able to handle thousands of words day in and day out. "You can't pump oil," General Reeder wrote in Oct. '44 to the War Dept, "without wire communications."

Switchboard at Base Section No. 2, CBI Theater HQ, November 1944.

The Chief Signal Officer in Washington gave priority to CBI requests for sufficient signal corps troops to do this job. Gen. Somervell, Chief of the Army Services of Supply (SOS) in Washington, having just returned from a visit to the CBI, put the road and pipeline at the top of CBI needs.

The necessary wire communications facilities were planned and provided by the Sig C. They had long provided Army Air Forces radio communications between Chabua and Kunming. 'The remarkable results being achieved over the Hump," General Reeder noted in Sept. '44, "are due in large part to excellent communications in the Chabua district." And, he added: "In order not to impede rapidity of communications, we are doing some things that violate crypto security. The onus is on me if anything ever happens and I will accept it." In this matter. Gen. Reeder accepted responsibility for a practice that Stilwell himself had authorized on the recommendation of his NCAC Signal Officer, Col. Moynahan.

Meanwhile, the reliable longdistance wire facilities that the Sig C had planned were becoming available. Earlier in Jan. '44, the Army Communications Service in Washington had completed the engineering of a long distance high-capacity wire line system - C carrier - from Calcutta to the Chabua-Ledo area. It also completed by that spring, a complete circuit plan for the Chabua-Kunming stretch, that is, across rugged country into N. Burma, across still more rugged country and mighty river chasms, then over the Chinese border to Kunming. This Involved 1,234 miles of 10-wire line, excluding poles, as follows:

10 C-type carrier telephone systems
16 carrier frequency telegraph systems
47 carrier repeaters
96 voice frequency repeaters
13 repeater stations
7 common battery exchanges

Communications of the Calcutta-Kunming pole line was comparable in length with that other great wire project, the Alcan Highway pole line in Canada and Alaska. It began with the erection of the first 750-mile leg of the overall project along the river valleys and rice paddies from Calcutta to Chabua. Sig C units completed this portion by Dec. '44. They also built a parallel line from Parbati-pur, some 200 miles north of Calcutta, to Ledo. This followed the tracks of the Bengal-Assam Railroad. It was started in August '44, and completed in December and provided 560 miles of supplementary wire facilities. It was built under most difficult conditions; the paddies were flooded at that time of the year; vehicles could not be used, and men had to work In deep mud and water all the time. Sig C men also built other lines in the Calcutta area, linking bomber bases at Chakulia and Kharagpur.

Work on the Ledo Road pole line had begun in mid-'43 in a small way when Major Clinton W. Janes, commanding a group of QM troops and a few Indian Pioneers (for want of enough Sig C men), built the first 37 miles of line out of Ledo using British materials. Later that year, the 430th Sig Heavy Construction Co., Avn., helped push the line eastward. The work proceeded slowly over the mountains, but upon the arrival of the 9th Signal Bn, at year's end, progress became more rapid. The poles, bearing five circuits, reached Shingbwiyang in the Hukawng Valley of N. Burma by April 7, 1944.

Throughout the year, 1944, as additional Sig C units and materials arrived, this pioneer line was pressed close behind the troops fighting towards Myltkyina by August '44; and soon after, to Bhamo and juncture with the Burma Road, which the Japanese closed in 1942.

Some of the earliest wire connections were made by spiral four. The first shipment had just arrived at Calcutta when Gen. Stllwell advanced into N. Burma shortly before the monsoon season of 1943, despite the engineers warning that they could not get a roadway into the Hukawng Valley ahead of high water. Col. Neal rushed quantities of the valuable field cable from Calcutta over the Naga Hills and strung it before the floods came. Though the water rose on schedule, Sig C men kept the lines serviced, using boats and elephants to do the job.

Nor were monsoons and elephants the only oddities in CB1 signal experience. There was, for instance, Col. Janes' laconic and startling report of a temporary outage of communications: "Monkey in switchboard truck; operator fainted." Neal recalled the incident. Soon after Stilwell's descent into the Hukawng Valley and his first combat with the enemy in the vicinity of Shingbwiyang, a switchboard had been set up in a 2 1/2 ton truck at his headquarters, when suddenly the wire service went dead. It was expected that a Japanese infiltrator had sabotaged the truck. Looking into it. Investigators found a monkey fiddling with the board mechanism and the operator out cold. It seems that the latter, tense and tired, when he suddenly discovered his strange co-worker, could take no more of the strain of the jungle and fainted dead away.

Open wire lines were installed along the jungle road. All kinds of wire were used. "We even got 10,000 miles of wire from S. Africa" recalled Col. Neal, "Every kind of wire except what the T/O&E called for." That the lines worked well was due to the skills of such signal engineers as Col. Janes and Maj. Clarence D. Sheffield. The latter could make the necessary calculations on the spot whenever unexpected developments occurred, such as catenary suspensions across obstacles that desk engineers, plotting the first blueprints in New Delhi, could not forsee. Sheffield could determine at the site the correct transposition needed to keep the lines electrically balanced. "He must have walked every foot of the Ledo-Muse stretch a dozen times," said Neal with pardonable exaggeration.

Wire supply difficulties in CBI had at least one light moment. It occurred after a U.S. Senator had visited the theater. When he asked the troops what they most wanted, they answered "beer." Some weeks later, Col. Neal received word that a ship was docking at Calcutta with urgently needed wire. When the holes were opened, they all contained nothing but beer. A recreation camp was set up in Calcutta, complete with beer, and troops were rotated there on rest leave from the jungles.

As the copper wires stretched on, carrying direct communications to the front from as far away as New Delhi, Gen. Reeder commented to the Chief Signal Officer in Washington on Dec. 30, 1944, that these tremendously long lines "bring forcibly to mind the fact that we of these theaters are definitely in the trans-continental telephone business."

The opening of the Calcutta-Chabua circuit, making possible successful conversations between Delhi and Myitkyina, brought an immediate request from the Air Forces for a through circuit from Calcutta to Bhamo. The eventual wire plant in CBI would call for engineering and maintenance skills beyond the know-how of the usual Sig C wire units.

Gen. Reeder, urging that something be done about an organization for a long lines team wrote: "Petzing and Borgeson who recently completed a painstaking tour from Calcutta and Myitkyina have evolved a special long lines team and have convinced me of the need for it. It Is not to be found among any of the T/O&E 11-500 at the present time."

Lt. Col. Carl A. Borgeson had pointed out that the main wire line traversing the India-Burma and China theaters was "becoming rapidly the longest military wire network of all time." Borgeson buttressed his claim with a tabulation that showed the status of the enormous project as of December 29, 1944.

Among the Sig C units that worked on the Calcutta-Kunming pole line were a number of Sig C battalions - the 31st, 96th, 428th, 432d, 445th, Co. B of the 3199th Signal Service Bn., and a detachment of Co. C of the 835th. The 432d helped complete the last link in China early in 1945, the linemen working both ways out of Yunnanyi - westward to Paoshan, and east to Kunming. Three Indian pioneer companies also helped -the 1296th, the 1297th, and the 1298th.

The work was accomplished under the most trying conditions. Besides the hazards of tropical jungles - diseases and pests, the monsoons and the mountains -there were great rivers to cross, the rivers subject to extreme flooding. Across the Brahmaputra on the way to Chabua, a group from the 31st Signal Construction Bn, laid a heavy 15-pair cable obtained through lend-lease.

Testing a 200-line switchboard installed in a British Bedford QL truck ready to move, July 1945.

"Just east of Chabua, on the road to Ledo In India, lay the Burhi Dihing River, over which the men stretched 10 wires in a single 1,300-foot Jump. Using flat bottom boats, they made 18 attempts to pull the wires across the swift moving current before they finally succeeded.

In Burma the Irrawaddy, athwart the Ledo Road near Mylt-kylna, presented the greatest challenge. At the narrowest point, the river channel was 2,300 feet wide. Sig C men put up teakwood poles 65 feet high on either bank and stretched 32 strong copper-steel wires over the flood. Because the high water in the monsoon season might reach and wreck these wires, the men erected a supplementary catenary suspension cable. Here they put up even taller teakwood poles - the two primary ones next to the river bank ran up to 76 feet. Two secondary poles standing behind them stood 65 feet tall. Each was guyed to teakwood anchors. Across the top from bank to bank a 26-pair cable was run, held taut and high by a messenger wire to which the cable itself was lashed - the messenger wire taking the weight of the suspension.

Elephant draws wire taut during pole line construction near Shampur, India.
31st Signal Construction Battalion

The far-reaching pole line progressed section by section. Not every section was finished before work on the next section began. On Oct. 1944, when the line was advancing through Burma, activity began in the eastern portion of the wire line in China. Equipment arrived first. Then in December, near Paoshan, Sig C men commenced stringing the wire. There were delays because of the monsoons.

In September, the region around Mogaung In Burma was so flooded that the men could not place poles. They continued working nevertheless, trimming treetops and placing crossarms on them. Elsewhere, there were problems of clearing the line right of way and keeping it cleared. Engineer construction on the road and the pipeline used powerful equipment that often sideswlped poles and knocked over trees that fell on the wires.

Progress was rapid through the last months of the war. The five wire pairs that reached from Calcutta to Chabua and Ledo, thence over the Naga Hills Into Burma and across to the China border at Muse, had been extended as of late 1944 by four pairs stretching to Paoshan. From there, two pairs ran deeper into China, to Yun-nanyi. Additional circuits were added to some sectors and the eastern terminus continued to be extended to Kunming, the first major Chinese city linked by wire to India, then to 30O miles further east to Kweiyang, and finally by July 1945, another 100 miles to Tushan, some 2,300 miles from Calcutta.

The India-Burma Theater headquarters, announcing in June 1945, that the Kunmlng-Calcutta link had been finished, gave the dates of some of the first longdistance calls over these wire lines: from Chabua and from Ledo via Calcutta to New Delhi to Dec. 22, 1944; from Myitkyina on Dec. 25, 1944; from Bhamo on Feb. 1, 1945, and from Muse, Paoshan and Yunnanyl on March 5, 1945, April 20 and May 1, 1945 respectively.

"Over this vast communications system, men were now talking by telephone and sending telegraphic messages over one of the most rugged and undeveloped regions on earth," concluded the India-Burma Headquarters.

Repairing telephone lines, March 1944, 835th Signal Bn. Photo from National Archives provided by
Ross Netherton, Stilwell Basha.

Of this tremendous and remote military wireless system. Gen. Reeder made a comparison in one of his letters to Washington. Writing about construction problems, Reeder said: "My only comment has to be that the Alcan Highway must have been a very quiet sector as compared to Upper Assam." Jungles and floods presented Immense difficulties and men had to work overhead lines by boat. The Signal Supply Officer of NCAC, Capt. George A. Welss, obtained "through some undisclosed source," Moynahan later recalled "pontoons and outboard motors and employed them to set up a supply line which kept signal construction In operation.

Taking pride in these accomplishments, the Sig C men were understandably annoyed when a War Department publicity release bestowed credit on other CBIers, especially members of the Corps of Engineers, and overlooked such other Army supporting troops as the wiremen. Gen. Reeder was also annoyed, as he had received letters from his men who had toiled in the forward areas of Burma: he said that he'd have to remind the powers-that-be that all last summer his bridges were out and his roads under water, while the Sig C men rowed along and kept wire circuits In operation.

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