We can’t fully appreciate the importance of news from home to those who served in World War II. In the Pacific campaigns, G.I.s, sailors and Marines fought bloody island-hopping battles; as each island was cleared, garrison troops and hospitals moved in and carried on their own war against mosquitoes, isolation and boredom. The island fighters were fortunate if dated mail caught up with them before they moved on to the next target. Timely personal-level communications were pretty much absent.
Radio programming from America was available but only on shortwave. And shortwave radios were not generally available. The fortunate few had been issued “Buddy Kits” that included a radio, a small PA system and a record player for discs sent by mail. But for most there was no way to receive short-lived information such as news and sports. They were left with enemy radio propaganda such as Japan’s “Orphan Ann/Annie” (aka one of several Tokyo Roses) and the “Zero Hour” program.
No wonder that the idea of having a local island radio station doing “live from home” was so fiercely supported. Enlightened commanders saw the idea as a terrific morale-builder. The only problem was how to pull it off.
A solution, not uniquely, came from within the ranks. It started with the work of some bored but talented soldiers in the Panama Canal Zone who in 1940 built a couple of 50 W transmitters and put them on the air without authorization, labeling them “PCAN” and “PCAC.”
In Alaska, 7,500 miles northwest of Panama City, what started as programming through a loudspeaker system became a bootleg radio operation at Kodiak. Coming on the air in January 1942 and calling itself “KODK,” it delivered a whopping 15 watts to the troops. Sources with hindsight later said that the Armed Forces Radio Service (“AFRS”) was born here, when one of its progenitors visited the Alaska operations and “came up with the idea.”
There were similar stations in Hawaii and the Philippines, including the ill-fated island of Corregidor, where a station called “The Voice of Freedom” was an AM repeater for shortwave broadcasts from the U.S.
As troop buildups began in the South Pacific, joint Allied radio operations were established, notably in New Zealand and Australia. These stations were popular with Americans but they also kindled an appetite for “real radio from the States.”
Meanwhile things were happening in Washington. The government’s “Morale Services Division” had been created in 1940, though its mandate hadn’t focused on radio. But as cumbersome as government can be, soldiers’ demands for American radio content eventually reached the right people. Increased priority was given to the recording and distribution of network radio programs by electrical transcription. But that still wasn’t live broadcasting.
The Morale Services Division was renamed the “Special Services Division” (SSD) and tasked with live broadcasting. The broadcasting division of the SSD would become the fabled Armed Forces Radio Service.
AFRS began to place “local/relay stations” among the troops. In the Eastern theaters such stations often used existing facilities, but in the Pacific they had to build from the ground up. To facilitate the effort, AFRS created a “station in a box” package that included a transmitter, long-wire antenna and recording and reproducing equipment. Installation teams boated from island to island to plant these mini-stations. Most of them came alive in 1944 and 1945 and, as the island-hopping campaign moved toward Japan, many were soon abandoned, some after only a few months’ operation.
“Stations in a box” were first unpacked in Noumea, New Guinea; then it was on to New Caledonia where AFRS hatched the first of the “Mosquito Network” stations. As WVUS it was among the first such to be given an FCC license (most of the Pacific’s licensed-station calls would then begin with “WV”).
Guadalcanal was the next priority for AFRS. Space precludes station-by-station descriptions, so I’ll use Guadalcanal as a definitive example. The “studios” were in a wooden shack humorously called “Radio City.” The first antenna was a 60-foot-high long-wire stretched between two palm trees (climbed by the more dexterous of the youthful assembly gang). Somehow the wire was “tuned” to work on 730 kHz. Later the antenna was raised to 90 feet and the frequency to 690 kHz. “AES-Guadalcanal” would be licensed as WVOQ.
The “studio” was equipped with a rudimentary mixing console and a Presto Model “Y” disc recorder that doubled as the program-transcription playback turntable. A good shortwave receiver was critical (a favorite shortwave receiver was the Hammarlund “Super-Pro”). Some stations actually built diversity-receive systems to improve reception.
A staff usually consisted of five or six soldiers. The station kept an intermittent schedule based around troop down-time and usually went quiet around 10 p.m. local time. The typical broadcast week was 80 to 90 hours; part of that filled by shortwave programs from the states. Forty to 50 hours per week were taken by transcribed network programs shipped by AFRS, and the rest of the flexible schedule was “live and local” — GIs-talking-to-GIs (a precursor of “Good Morning Vietnam!”).
Power for the station came from a shared generator. At night, when the load on the generator often increased, record speed would vary with generator load.
Of course each island station had its own story to tell: soldiers shinnying up palm trees with a wire in their teeth; “studios” usually in tents (sometimes made more soundproof and weather-impervious by the addition of a second tent above the first). Some listeners may have had the “Buddy Kits” or perhaps a radio sent from home … or maybe something home-built by the tech-savvy soldier. The stations were also rebroadcast on hospital and mess-hall PA systems and on ships within reach.
It didn’t take long before each station had 100% listener penetration.
Live stateside programming was usually captured from shortwave stations in California (John Schneider and Dr. Adrian M. Peterson have told their stories in Radio World). There were, however, two problems with this arrangement: 1) Shortwave propagation to the Pacific was generally at its best during the period when American radio networks were silent and 2) the politics behind AFRS and the rules of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) dictated that programming must be shorn of its commercial content. This last was a new task for pre-eminent studios such as Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Such service providers had been recording network shows for delayed West Coast broadcasting. Deleting commercials from these disc-recorded network programs required them to learn “The Three-Turntable Two-Step.”
Many of the Pacific island stations were informally part of the “Mosquito Network” or affiliates of the “Jungle Network.” Stations in the Central Pacific (often by and for the Navy) were part of “PON” (The Pacific Ocean Network).
There were probably 50 or more island stations installed, removed and relocated in 1944 and 1945. Their numbers diminished rapidly as the Allies congregated closer to Japan. And as the war wound down and ended, the AFRS stations came together in the Philippines and Japan as the long-lived “Far East Network.”
Chances are that if your father or grandparents served in the Pacific during World War II, he, she or they would have been informed and entertained by these stations.
They brought the front lines just a little closer to home.
Mark Durenberger is a technology consultant with the Minnesota Twins and has six decades of broadcast and satellite experience. Mark began his contributions to Radio World forty years ago. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.