RAAF Radio “Voice of the Islands”

The Radio Heritage Collection is the realisation of David Ricquish’s ambition to bring together radio stories in a readily accesible media. Too often these stories are published in a monthly magazine and thereafter rarely see the light of day.

RAAF Radio “Voice of the Islands” Milne Bay, New Guinea

[In mid-1944, various articles on this radio station appeared in the press throughout Australia. The articles all appear to be sourced from one censor approved press release, and were accompanied by a pen and ink sketch of the studio location. From three separate sources, we’re trying to piece together the entire article. This is what we’ve found so far.]

Somewhere in the Jungles of New Guinea

Somewhere in the jungles of New Guinea, near Milne Bay, there is a small studio in a native-built grass hut. A cheery Australian voice emanates from here, travels along two miles of precarious land-line through jungle growth and is transmitted, to be picked up by receivers in warships, tankers, transports, patrol aircraft, hospital wards and outlying units. Thousands of Australian and American servicemen are its listening public.

The voice says “This is RAAF Radio – The Voice of the Islands. We now bring you……………..” Music of all kinds, light entertainment, news and sports.

The accent is on music, for that’s what the men like the most of all, men who must spend weeks and months doing tedious and necessary jobs in these tropical outposts. To these men, RAAF Radio has become a great factor in keeping morale high. Many units, previously supplied with small receivers, were unable to pick up Australian stations satisfactorily. RAAF Radio was able to bring thousands of servicemen a constant source of good entertainment.

Sgt Phillip Hargrave broadcasting live over RAAF Radio in Madang in October 1944. Hargrave was an eminent Australian pianist in civilian life, and part of a touring group of performers in Papua New Guinea in late 1944. Australian War Memorial ©


Creating Country Radio in a War Zone

RAAF Radio’s beginning was a hazardous one, and fraught with obstacles. A small committee was formed to operate the station, very like that of a country broadcasting station.

‘Business Manager’ was Squadron-Leader H W Shirley who has had many years of radio experience in Melbourne, with Flying-Officer B A Clark, a former NSW grazier as his right-hand man. Flying-Officer F Lasslett took charge of ‘live artist’ programmes, and is the former principal of the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera in Melbourne.

Flying-Officer Ralph Turner bore the biggest initial burden as chief technical engineer. Formerly a ‘ham’, conducting his own station in Adelaide (VK5RT), Turner had the necessary experience to overcome innumerable technical problems.

The stations initial transmitter, years old, had to be completely rebuilt and adapted. The unit set-up demanded that the transmitter should be two miles from the studio, and the only wire available was ordinary twisted telephone cable. It had to be strung through the dense growth of trees, creepers and foliage.


Bulldozers and Bullets were Natural Hazards

Once the lines were strung from studio to aerials, the jungle station’s troubles weren’t over. American engineers were still making roads, and their bulldozers showed painful lack of respect for the precious wires. Once the wires were shot down. Eventually the difficulties were overcome by the telephone mechanics who laid a second set of wires, independent of the other.

Gradually the broadcast studio and transmitter took shape. Bits and pieces were scrounged from neighbouring units. U.S. units were interested too, and gave odds and ends of equipment. Transformers had to be designed and handwound, then redesigned to overcome the effects of humidity. Gum trees 85 feet high were earmarked for the aerials, but they were too high. The natives refused to climb them, so a wireless mechanic, Sergeant Hugh Wallace, of Brisbane did the job.

Pencil sketch of the entrance to the studios of RAAF Radio Voice of the Islands at Milne Bay. The sign reads RAAF Radio The Voice of the Islands. The sketch was made by FO Oliver Campbell, RAAF in June 1944. Australian War Memorial ©

On Air at Last

At last, on January 26, this year (1944), RAAF Radio ‘The Voice of the Islands’ went on the air.

The first two months were, in effect, a testing period. RAAF Radio gave only a 60 watt coverage and began with only a limited supply of records. Turntables, supplied by the Australian Comforts Fund, were adapted for studio use; a studio, acoustically correct and neatly set out, was built inside a grass hut.

Auditions had been made, and among RAAF personnel, likely voices and talent were found.

Experienced On-Air Team

A strong team of announcers was found as the result of these auditions. It included Corporal John Greathead (formerly of 2GZ, 2KA and 4BU); LAC John West (formerly ABC announcer on 2BL and 2FC); LAC F E (Shep) Sheppherd (ex-ABC announcer and regional officer for Townsville and Atherton); FO Ron Petty (a former amateur announcer); W/O Bailey of Adelaide (a former amateur theatre player); and two assistant announcers, LAC A J Fehilberg of SA, and LAC K Lyons of NSW. Flying Officer John Eldon of Melbourne, a follower of the little theatre movement and a keen collector of gramophone recordings took charge of recorded programmes and announcing.

Sporting editor and announcer was F/Sgt J R Page of Flemington, Vic, previously on the staff of the former official RAAF newspaper ‘Air Force News’, and before enlistment an employee of ‘Truth’. Assistant sporting editor was Sgt. W Hamdorf of Port Pirie, SA, formerly of ‘The Recorder’.

To assist F/O Turner, two wireless mechanics joined the station staff as assistant engineers. They were Cpl. R Williams of Cairns, Q, and LAC R Stockwell, both electrical and radio technicians in civilian life.

Power Boost and Popular Shows

Today, RAAF Radio is a going concern. It’s new transmitter, constructed along modern lines, has an output of 250 watts. Thanks to the generous co-operation of the ABC and the Federation of Australian Broadcast Stations, its programmes are wide and varied. Two new turntables have been supplied by the Australian Comforts Fund. Its studio even has a felt floor-covering now.

Highlights of its programmes are ‘Out of the Bag’, ‘Dick Bentley’s Show’, Victory Show, Spotlight, Shoulder to Shoulder, Comrades in Arms, You Shall Have Music, Road-house, Witch’s Tale, One Night Stand, Bob Hope, Fred Allen’s Show, Command Performance, and Front-Line Theatre.

Each Sunday night, a padre from one of the units in the area conducts an undenominational service with sacred music entitled ‘Jungle Cathedral’.

For the patients of Australian and US hospital wards, regular sessions of popular music numbers are broadcast. Other musical sessions include Know Your Artists, These Were Hits, Listen to the Band, and You Asked For It.

And Now the Results From the 3rd Race in Sydney

Sports programmes have a wide appeal. Each Friday evening, the station broadcasts a half-hour sports resume by Cyril Angles of 2UW.This recording is flown from the mainland the previous day.

On Sunday at midday, recorded descriptions of all Sydney’s leading races are broadcast. The recordings are made in Moresby by ABC station 9PA and flown to Milne Bay. At midday Saturday, sporting editor Raymond Page conducts his ‘Page of Sport’. There are other highly appreciated sports programmes covering results of all the sports.

News from ABC, BBC, AFRS

As would be expected, in these areas, good news broadcasts are a ‘must’. Morning, midday and evening news sessions are regularly taken from the ABC on relay. BBC, Australian and American news services are relayed each evening. In addition, there is the RAAF Radio Service Bureau, which advertises all the local entertainment, picture programmes, sporting fixtures.

The work of the staff of this RAAF Radio station is purely honorary and spare time. The men who run it and work to bring greatly needed entertainment to the troops in New Guinea, do it because they like doing it.

Moving Towards Japan, Perhaps Soon

Perhaps soon, as the war moves on toward Japan, the station will have to move on too, and the work of initial establishment will have to begin all over again. In any case, RAAF Radio has already done a worthwhile job.

Broadcasting in the Milne Bay Area

Milne Bay is now the name of a province in Papua New Guinea, with provincial headquarters located in the town of Alotau, on the mainland. It covers the extreme eastern end of the mainland and 160 islands including groups such as the Trobriand Islands. In this maze of jungle and islands, Milne Bay in WWII was part of the Australian controlled League of Nations mandate of New Guinea. Formerly a German Pacific colony, New Guinea was captured by Australian forces in 1914.

RAAF Radio 1250

RAAF Radio is believed to have operated from a mainland site near the current provincial capital of Alotau. The former provinical capital was located at Samarai, an island about 5km from the mainland. It was destroyed by the Japanese in 1942.

As mentioned in the article, RAAF Radio initially used a 60 watt transmitter, later upgrading to 250 watts. Available information suggests the frequency used was 1250 AM. This was the same frequency later used by 9PA in Port Moresby.

RAAF Radio Moves to Madang

Shortly after the article appeared, RAAF Radio did indeed move. There is an unconfirmed suggestion that it broadcast briefly from Nadzab, on the Markham River near Lae, still in New Guinea. However, by November 10, 1944 RAAF Radio was broadcasting from the town of Madang.

It appears to have continued using the 1250 AM frequency, and was using the 250 watt transmitter originally used at Milne Bay. By March 1945, we believe this had been doubled in power to 500 watts, and the frequency had moved to 1130 AM.

AFRS Jungle Network Arrives

About midway through RAAF Radio’s time in Milne Bay (which was only a relatively short nine months or so), it was joined by an AFRS station of the Jungle Network. Initially using the callsign WBPC, this station was physically located close to RAAF Radio and began operations on July 16, 1944.

WVTC 1450 AM

It used a low powered 50 watts mobile transmitter on 1450 AM. It later regularized its callsign to WVTC to fall in line with other Jungle Network stations in the New Guinea area. As WVTC, the station also broadcast on 1480 AM and confirmed a New Zealand reception report as operating on 1420 AM as well.

WVTC was dismantled in September 1945, and moved to Nagoya in occupied Japan where it eventually became part of the Far East Network.

Just Passing Through – Ex WHMS and WDAM

Milne Bay seems to have been an active radio broadcasting center in 1944. We have reports that another mobile AFRS transmitter, previously used as WHMS in Port Moresby, was active in the general area in early 1944 (before WBPC). This operated variously on 1550 AM and 1580 AM.

Another early AFRS station was located at Samarai, the former administrative center island, and reportedly used the callsign WDAM and the frequency of 1415 AM. This was a mobile transmitter with a low power, believed to be 50 watts. This particular station was in the area only a short time, as it soon reappeared in the Lae area, still using WDAM and 1415 AM.

From this information, it appears that WDAM 1415, and ex WHMS 1550/1580 were very temporary broadcasters in the zone as troops moved on towards Lae and Rabaul. As the front-line moved further north and northwest, the area became a supply and hospitalization zone.

Australians Wanted Aussie Radio

With low powers, their signals are unlikely to have reached all temporary and permanent units in the Milne Bay area around Alotau. Australian units, as reported in the article, were unable to hear mainland Australian stations clearly, and there were possibly political reasons why the Australian Government wished to see Australian servicemen having access to their own broadcasts.

After all, this was an Australian territory, with many Australians fighting there, but only able to access AFRS radio stations for news and entertainment. The RAAF with their air base were in a good position to bring in regular discs direct from Australia, and had greater use of and access to electronics gear and trained personnel. Hence, RAAF Radio getting on air in late January 1944.

Aussies Move On, Yanks Stay Until Jap Surrender

Again, as the war moved on, RAAF Radio had to be prepared to move as well, relocating to Madang. In the meantime, with WBPC (later WVTC) coming on air in July 1944, and less Australian forces in the Milne Bay area, the airwaves could safely be left to a larger AFRS broadcasting facility which endured until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

The War Moves On, and Milne Bay Airwaves Fall Silent

With the departure of WVTC for Nagoya, the airwaves of the jungle and the islands of Milne Bay Province fell silent again. It was to be some time before the Australian government would again operate a radio station in Milne Bay.

End note: The two illustrations for this article on RAAF Radio are from the Photographs Collection of the Australian War Memorial.
Permission to access a limited number of photographs has been granted to the Radio Heritage Collection (c) and licencing fees of A$200 each have been waived.
Australian War Memorial material is copyright. GPO Box 345, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia.

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