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The Signal Corps During The Cold War

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- This is Part I in a Three Part Series -

This article originally published on our Home Page in December 2011

Signal Corps During The Cold War

Going into World War II it wasn’t that obvious, but by the time the war ended everyone around the world knew it: the United States was the most powerful nation in the world. By 1945 the US had literally half of the world's wealth, incomparable military power and security, and it was in a position to reorganize much of the world so that it would finally function properly. Whether it wanted to or not, the country would never again return to the isolationist mindset that its people held prior to WWII.

More than just a desire to stick our noses into everyone else's business, the US was mandated, in part by the rest of the world, to help get things back to normal. In particular, the US had entered into what was called the “four powers agreement,” an accord between the Allies that required US troops to maintain an ongoing presence in Europe. This, plus Uncle Gulliverthe Marshall Plan, involvement in the new United Nations, an obligation to administer Japan, Korea, Austria, and Germany, an obligation to help the Jews settle into and form a state of their own, along with a bunch of other international commitments that flowed from WWII, all served to tie the US down like Gulliver being bound to the ground with thousands of Lilliputian strings. Powerful as America was, within a few months of the end of WWII it found itself tied to the Lilliputs of the world, every one of them—whether it wanted to be or not—from the ones decimated by the war itself and in true need of America’s help, to the ones who still thought of themselves as powerful nations, but whose place and position in time had forever slipped to that of a third rate country.

As to how the US was going to go about meeting its increased world responsibilities, strangely, that fell to the military… and the Army in particular. If one wonders today why the State Department didn’t step into Afghanistan and take over responsibility for the “nation building” that was, and still is, needed in that country … leaving it instead to Rumsfeld and his Defense Department people to do… or why in Viet Nam the effort to win the hearts and minds of the people was conducted by the Army instead of State Department specialists with the skills needed to guide a nation’s development (where in this author’s view, all of these types of tasks rightly belong), one need only look at what happened after WWII.

War Lord or Patriot?After World War II McArthur ran Japan… more like a War Lord than a civilian administrator, while other leaders throughout the Army policed and administered Korea, Germany, Austria, the rebuilding of the Philippines, and many other countries. To round matters off, US leaders used the military, helped at later stages by the CIA, to undertake an effort to create a 'philosophy of new nationalism' in Latin America (one byproduct of which was the advent of a US-backed military coup in Brazil), while at the same time other US military ‘groups’ worked to bring Marshall Plan benefits to the 16 countries that asked for Marshall Plan help, supported Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists, ‘assisted’ in the elections in Italy to prevent the Communist Party from coming to power in 1947-48, changed governments in Guatemala, placed benevolent dictators in power throughout the many islands in the Pacific, helped Burma get back on its feet, influenced what happened in Palestine and trans-Jordan, intervened in the Greek civil war (taking the side of the neo-fascists against the Greek left which had fought the Nazis courageously), helped overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran (in a joint U.S./British operation), and on, and on. On the heels of WWII the precedent was set: when needed, the US military will do the fighting, and when the conflict ends, the military will then go about rebuilding or reorienting the country so that it supports US ideals.

With the military taking such a front role seat in this global game of ‘let’s rebuild the world in our image,’ it was only natural for the Signal Corps to have to step up its support for these efforts and make sure that US military and government administrators around the world could communicate with each other. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

WWII Phrase BookIn spite of the critical position the US held in overseeing most of the world’s post-war international affairs, and the central role the Army played in all of this, the Signal Corps was ordered to begin dismantling its post-WWII global military communication system. Whether part of the normal demobilization process that takes place at the end of most wars, or simply an oversight on someone’s part, it’s hard to say why the Signal Corp was directed to break down its infrastructure and head homebut it did.

Fortunately, Maj. Gen. Frank E. Stoner, wartime administrator of the Army Command and Administrative Network of the Signal Corps, fought the policy, and while he was criticized for it, he threw as many road blocks and speed bumps in the way of the deconstruction of the US’ only global commo network as he could. And while breaking down the Army’s worldwide communication system continued apace despite his efforts, of equal importance, technology moved forward faster than the breakdown process did. The result was that by the early 50s revolutionary technological changes in how communication was handled help to usher in an even better system than the one that was being scrapped. Of equal interest, along with these technological improvements in the means and methods of communication came more responsibility for the Signal Corps. Between 1950 and 1965 the Signal Corps’ domain of responsibility was expanded to include all sorts of new areas… both around the world, as well as up into the heavens.

parabolic antennaDuring this time things like the following were perfected, all through Signal Corps led efforts:

Parabolic Antennas: As a former Signal Officer, you should know what a parabolic antenna is… an antenna consisting of a parabolic reflector and a radiating or receiving element at or near its focus. If the reflector is in the shape of a paraboloid, it is called a paraboloidal reflector.

Parasitic Array. Neat name, even neater use. The Signal Corps perfected the form and structure of Parasitic Arrays. An antenna of this type is an array containing one or more elements not connected to the transmission line. Basically, it’s an antenna with a driven element, and one or more parasitic elements. Makes sense, right?

Tracking Radar: Tracking Radar was a form of radar that provided continuous range, bearing, and elevation data by keeping the RF beam on the target. Tracking radar had its greatest impact in the then upcoming Korean war… when an early form of it was used to determine where incoming mortar and artillery fire was coming from, not to mention in Vietnam, where in places like Nha Trang and Camranh Bay it allowed EMs and Officers to sit out the usually fortnight mortar attack in comfortable hooches and bars until the enemy was disposed of by outgoing artillery fire.

Parasitic ArrayOther things perfected by the Signal Corps during this period included:  

Uniform Linear Arrays: An antenna composed of a relatively large number of usually identical elements arranged in a single line or in a plane with uniform spacing and usually with a uniform feed system.

Varactor Diodes: A P-N junction employing an external bias to create a depletion layer containing very few charge carriers. The diode effectively acts as a variable capacitor.

Varactor Tuned Oscillators: Once the varactor diode was invented, it was a natural next step to use it as a voltage-controlled capacitor in a tuned circuit, to control the frequency of a negative resistance oscillator. The major feature of this oscillator was its extremely fast tuning speed. A limiting factor was the ability of the external voltage driver circuit to change the voltage across the varactor diode, which is primarily controlled by the driver impedance and the bypass capacitors in the tuning circuit.

Voltage Standing Wave Ratio [VSWR]: More a matter of defining what a VSWR was than anything else, the Signal Corps determined that in a waveguide, the ratio of the electric field (at a maximum point) to that of an adjacent minimum point would henceforth be called a VSWR.

Whip Antenna: Ah yes... who can forget these? The Signal Corps defined a whip antenna as a vertical monopole. Gosh, that definition leaves me speechless... I thought a whip antenna was that thing you tied a squirrel tail to.

Tracking RadarXCO: Considering that you knew that the Signal Corp developed the first viable way to grow large structure quartz crystals, you should have expected them to define many of the things these crystals were used in. One of them was the Crystal controlled oscillator, aka an XCO. An XCO is an oscillator which uses a crystal to control the oscillation frequency.

The Early Cold War Period - From WWII to Korea: 1946-1950

During the period between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Korean War, while the Signal Corps was busy breaking down its old WWII network, the War department was busy rebuilding and reorganizing itself to command a newer, more modern military, befitting a world at peace. Expecting there not to be a new war for eons to come, the War Department revamped its internal organization so that all of the service branches could live harmoniously under one tent, smiling, laughing, and back slapping each other in never ending camaraderie. Sarcasm aside, what resulted was the creation of what we know today as the ‘unified’ Department of Defense.

To bring the DoD into existence, a board of Officers was appointed, and fortunately for the signal Corps, Chief Signal Officer Harry C. Ingles was appointed as one of the members. From 1945 through 1947… and even into 1949… the US military went through all sorts of reorganizations, on its way to becoming the DoD that we all know and love today.

From functional decentralization of the War Department, to the dissolution of the Army Service Forces, the return of the technical services (such as the Signal Corps) to their prewar independent status, through to the passage in Congress in 1947 of the National Security Act (that created a unified National Military Establishment headed by a civilian Secretary of Defense), to the creation of a new Air Force, to the alteration of the duties of the old Secretary of War position into a newly named Secretary of the Army role, on to still another realignment in 1949 to make the recently created National Military Establishment a department within the Department of Defense, to giving the new Secretary of Defense a level of control over the all of the services, to the final loss of their cabinet status by the Joint Chiefs… the US military bounced from one side of the pool table to the other like a drunken cue ball.

Overarching all of these changes was the mantra that the new military would be a peacetime military. And in this regard, General Ingles, while he may have disagreed with it personally, got the message and began in earnest to oversee conversion of the Signal Corps to take on a different role than the one it was leaving behindand do so with far fewer troops. By the end of June 1946, the Signal Corps had shrunk in size from over 336,000 a year earlier, to just over 56,000 Officers and men. Of greater damage however was the fact that the Joint Chiefs felt that postwar activities would not require the training of an endless supply of new recruits.

With this in mind, the Signal Corps saw the consolidation, and in most cases dissolution, of many of its training facilities. One of the first to go was the Central Signal Corps School at what was then called Camp Crowder (Neosho, Missouri). With Camp Crowder’s Signal Corps training programs closed, the little bit of training that was left was relocated to Fort Monmouth, with the small supply school that supported the Signal Corps’ task of running unit supply being relocated to Fort Holabird, Maryland. It was at this time too that the Signal Corps lost many of its old functions… like control over air corps operations and military intelligence, to the newly formed Air Force and the Army Security Agency.

But this wasn’t the worst of it. As we all know, the Army Signal Corps develops, tests, provides, and manages communication and information systems for the command and control function and information systems for the command and control of all the U.S. armed forces. It does this by connecting military posts around the world with each other, and with the continental US.

ACAN NetworkBack at the end of WWII this system was known as the ACAN system (Army Command and Administrative Net-work, a network of radio stations that made up a thin thread of Army strategic communications binding the U.S. military missions and outposts around the world). In 1946 Eisenhower, believing that such a system should not be left in the hands of the military, ordered that ACAN be turned over to a syndicate of commercial companies (think: Ma Bell). The intent was that it be operated as a diplomatic and government network, and as such, if the military ran it, they would be able to know and read the traffic that it was carrying. Eisenhower thought this was too much of a risk—for the military to know what was going on throughout the entire government—this even though the US military had always deferred to civilian leadership since its inception, when the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775, and named General George Washington as its commander. Even so, with Eisenhower thinking that the US military should not be eves-dropping on the civilian side of government, ACAN was dismantled and sold off.

The plan was that in the event of war the system would be returned to the Army, but in the mean time, civilians would oversee and run it. Impractical as this was, the program was put in place, and the Army soon found itself stripped of its most strategic network. In the process, stations in places like Korea and Vietnam were dismantled, effectively isolating these places from communication with the US. That is, isolating both the civilian side of US government operations in these countries, as well as the military side. Little did anyone know that within a few short years this shortsightedness would bite us in the pants.

Project Diana, New JerseyOf lesser impact, the Signal Corps suffered other setbacks during what we today call the Cold War period. The Army Pictorial Service was severely reduced in size, as it most likely should have been since, without an active war going on, the need for propaganda films and photojournalism was much less. Similarly V-Mail services (victory mail)were discontinued. And, while Signal Corps cameramen continued on with their job of documenting war crimes trials, atomic bomb testing, and various occupation activities, the Army War College photographic laboratory was closed, along with the Pictorial Service's Western Division.

On the positive side, while operationally the Signal Corps was scaled back in some areas, in other areas it was expanded. In 1946 the Signal Corps' undertook Project Diana, successfully bouncing radar signals off of the moon. While seemingly a self indulgent bit of technical wizardry at the time, today we recognize this as an important first step in staging the way for space communication.

Similarly, in 1948, Fort Monmouth researchers grew the first synthetically produced large quartz crystals (see comments above). Used in the manufacture of electronic components, they quickly made the US independent from the foreign import of quartz, leading to both an improved sense of national security, as well as the first mass production of printed circuits (in 1949).

This in turn spurred Ft. Monmouth engineers to pioneer a technique for assembling electronic parts on a printed circuit board, rather than via the old hard wiring method. And this in turn led to means to fabricate miniature circuits for both military and civilian use. By the time the Signal boys at Monmouth were done, the world was ready for the transistor. 

Condition of Sign Corps in early Cold War periodAbout this time world tensions began to increase. The Berlin Airlift made it clear that the Soviet Union was not going to roll over and play dead every time America barked. And so just like that, where the Signal Corps only a few years earlier seemed like an ancillary arm of the service that had no place in a peacetime Army, now it was back in vogue. As US diplomats around the world quickly began to realize, when incidents occurred, without the Army Signal Corps, there simply was no way for them to timely communicate with those back in Washington… either to report on events, or receive instructions and guidance on how to handle them. Just like that, the government realized that it needed to rebuild the Signal Corps to sustain both the Army's and the government’s worldwide commitments. And so the race was on to enlarge Signal Corps capacities, across the board. 

In November 1948 the Signal Corps marched back into Georgia, taking over its old facilities in what was then being called Camp Gordon. Originally begun as a Signal Corps winter flying school over 40 years earlier, it was now to become the home of the Southeastern Signal School. With Fort Monmouth as the Signal Corps Center, and its supportive training facilities at Camp Gordon, the Signal Corps was the new darling in the Army. Able to provide everything from training to a governing board, Signal Patent Agency, Signal Corps Publications Agency, Signal Corps Intelligence Unit, photojournalism group, movie making center, and even a Pigeon Breeding Center, the Signal Corps was readying itself for anything and everything that the US government and military could throw at it. One can clearly see that those who led the Signal Corps back to the forefront saw their opportunity and moved to capitalize on it. After all, they named their Camp Gordon school the Southeastern Signal School. Why would they do that, if they didn’t have plans for a southwestern signal school… or a central, or even south-central signal school?

Tactically, the changes that did occur to the Signal Corps during the early Cold War period proved to be beneficial for its own operation. New tables of organization that came out in 1948 reaffirmed and strengthened the Signal Corps’ duty to provide signal companies for infantry, airborne, and armored divisions, thus assuring that the Signal Corps became even more central to everything that the Army did. Like today’s modern I.T. department that has its hands in the operation of 1st Cav Divisionevery department in a company, most businesses can not survive without I.T.'s support, and the same was proving to be the case with the Signal Corps of old. Without the Army Signal Corps no one in any branch of service, as well as most of the government, would have any idea what was going on. .. simply because they couldn't communicate with each other. 

Proof of this can be seen in the 1st Cavalry Division of that time. Reorganized as infantry, but still holding on to its historic designation, it found itself in 1950 with its own signal company assigned to it, instead of a troop. And as in this author’s case, whose first assignment out of Signal OCS in 1967 was as a platoon leader in the famous Old Ironsides (1st Armored Division), everyone in every tank unit I ran across wanted to be my friend, because without me and my men they had no way to communicate with the rest of the division.

Once rebuilding Signal Corps strength began again in earnest, it seemed like everything was going its way. In 1952 revisions to the TOE authorized helicopters for Signal Companies. Where only a few years earlier it had lost them, now the Signal Corps had regained its wings.

1st Armored DivisionIn part this was because during World War II the Signal Corps had used planes belonging to the Field Artillery to lay wire and deliver messages. Recognizing a good opportunity when they saw it, Signal corps DoD staff used this fact in the late 40s to lobby for planes to be allocated as a standard part of the Signal Corps' Table of Organization and Equipment. It took a while, but eventually in 1949 the Signal Corps was authorized to take control over what were called “liaison planes,” with helicopters eventually being added in 1952.

About the only negative thing to occur to the Signal Corps in those early years of the Cold War was that in June 1950 the Army Reorganization Act supplanted the Defense Acts of 1916 and 1920. The original Defense Acts provided the statutory basis for the technical services. The 1950 revisions changed how this was done by giving the Secretary of the Army authority to determine the size and strength of the Army's combat arms, as well as the Army technical services, such as the Signal Corps and Corps of Engineers.

Shortly after approval of the Army Reorganization Act the Secretary of Defense, now almost omnipotent, decided to reorganize things again, this time to match his own view of how things should be structured and what everyone should be doing. Three branchesInfantry, Armor, and Artilleryreceived statutory recognition as combat arms… but the Signal Corps lost this designation. The Signal Corps thus having officially lost the combat status originally conferred on it in 1920, was little more than one of the fourteen service branches the Army maintained. Yet while the Signal Corps felt slighted, worst was to come for the entire Army… by June,1950 the U.S. Army's size had shriveled to less than 600,000.

One wonders if this downsizing of the entire U.S. Army alone wasn’t all the temptation Kim Il-sung needed when on June 25, 1950, he ordered his North Korean forces to invade South Korea.

No longer a combat arm, one could be forgiven for wondering what would become of the Signal Corps. Little did anyone know, the Korean War would help answer that question, and give the U. S. Army Signal Corps a purpose and value that would stick with it even until today.

In The Next Article: The Signal Corps During The Korean War.

Advertisement As Originally Posted in December 2011




READ MORE  - -  Go to Part II:  The Signal Corps During The Korean War    

READ MORE  - -  Go to Part III: The Signal Corps During The Vietnam War  


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Reference Materials Used In This Article Came From The Following Sources:

Power in The Global Arena, Noam Chomsky, Amiel Lecture, London, May 1998

Mueller, J.,E. (2004). The Remnants of War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Chojnacki, S. (2006). Anything new or more of the same? Wars and military interventions in the international system, 1946–2003. Global Society 20: 25–46

Dobra, A. (2010). Thucydides: An Author Still Relevant for the Contemporary Analysis of International Relations? Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, 9 (2), 91.

Dobra, A. (2010). New Wars, Old Wars: Is the Distinction Valid? November 16, 2011;

Links: Ingles: 

This page originally posted 18 January 2012 

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