55 Years of Army Radio on Kwajalein
By Eugene Sims
Most of us remember the hilarious routines of actor Robin Williams in the movie Good Morning Vietnam. The monologue spiels by Williams as he portrayed Adrian Cronauer, the offbeat disc jockey, are a comedy classic.
Very few realise the disc jockey character, along with much of the procedural beginnings of Armed Forces Radio in the greater Pacific Ocean area, had their start on Kwajalein from 1944-46. Fewer realise that Kwajalein also had a unique disc jockey on its first radio station in the Marshalls clear back in 1944. The station was WXLG, and the DJ routines were much the same as heard again some 21 years later in Vietnam
After things settled down following the American invasion of Kwajalein in February 1944, a small Welfare and Recreation office was established by the joint Army-Navy command. Located In a Quonset hut behind the present day Richardson Theatre, the first radio station in the Marshalls went on the air In June 1944. By the end of the year, the call letters “WXLG Radio Kwajalein” were heard throughout all of the Marshall Islands, and as far south as the Gilbert Islands
Starting as an outgrowth of the local radio repair shop, the first transmitter was powered at only 50 watts. In May of 1944 a call went out to several island military groups for anyone having radio broadcast experience. The results were surprising. Within a few weeks an 11 man staff of radio experienced personnel was put together. The new staff’s backgrounds ranged from a radio station manager to a major league baseball announcer in addition to several well known DJs and news announcers from radio stations throughout the U.S.
The programs were an instant success, with a daily schedule of music, a running commentary about sports and island events and, most importantly, the latest war and world news broadcast three times each day. WXLG became one of the biggest single morale boosters across much of the South Pacific. The Marshallese were also included when some Marshallese singers made live broadcasts, and later, recordings of their music. There was a weekly live amateur hour of local talent broadcast generally from the stage of the Richardson, a daily chaplain’s program, interviews with notables in the passing USO shows and, of course, the canned and prerecorded shows like Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and many more.
By February 1945, WXLG was able to boast a 13 hour, seven day schedule, broadcasting from a new 500 watt transmitter located on Carlson Island. The station was dubbed “Radio Kwajalein – Crossroads of the Pacific.” In 1946, during the nearby Bikini A bomb tests, Admiral Blandy’s staff named their atomic bomb tests Operation Crossroads after the WXLG name.
“Rock Happy Roger”
Of all the program entertainers, the most popular during the 1944-45 period was the daily DJ show by a young Army sergeant named Russell Beggs. His byline was “Rock Happy Roger” and his talk show was called “the Kwaj Lodge.” He billed himself as the ‘maitre d’hotel – Kwaj Lodge.” His two hour show was broadcast every weekday just after the world news at noon. Like Cronauer’s flashy pitch from Saigon years later, Beggs touched on all the laughable, sad or daily goof ups on the huge base at Kwajalein and Roi-Namur, much to the delight of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel. There were no holds barred, and Beggs would lament about the dull daily living on the rock. Beggs and his audience formed a club called the ‘Fraternal Order of the Rock Happy Residents of Kwajalein.” Even today, many of my veteran friends from that era have told me it was Rock Happy Roger and his club that got them through the arduous daily routine on Kwajalein.
After WW II came to an end, WXLG settled down to a shorter broadcasting day. The airport at Roi-Namur was eventually closed, and most of the Army and Marine forces went home. The Navy took sole command of Kwajalein, with the Army Air Corps Military Air Command operating the terminal. The population dwindled until the Korean War started.
WXLG – The 1950s
During the height of the Korean War, with the arrival and departure of military aircraft at all hours of the night and day, WXLG returned to a 17 hour a day broadcast schedule. The island became a busy refueling station for the many aircraft and ships en route to or from Korea. Some new military residents were now being accompanied by their families, including children. There were several construction companies and a new logistics company, MidPac, on island.
By now, WXLG was boasting some 12,000 popular records, 3,500 semi popular, more than 3,000 country and 2,500 classical in addition to a large inventory of religious hymns and Latin numbers.
In late 1953 and early 1954, a program called “The Night Watch” which broadcast every night from 10 PM till sign off at midnight. This show was diskjockeyed by Navy Fireman first class Johnny Johnson. The format was popular and jazz music request, and news.
Other announcers at WXLG at this time were Bob Clifford, Mac McChapery, Roger Wiborg and Don Howard (Station Manager).
The biggest single improvement was a new 1000 watt transmitter and antenna installed May 1953.
The final switch for the new transmitter was thrown by Captain George Dufeck, Commanding Officer.
In late 1954, the station was moved to its present location on the second floor of the new Recreation Services Building 805. Besides having new studios, the station also obtained much needed newer equipment.
After the end of hostilities in Korea, the population on Kwajalein again began to dwindle down. By 1957 there were less than 1,000 people on Kwajalein, and the island base was put on the government surplus list. WXLG, or Armed Forces Radio Service, AFRS as it was now called, was on the air only a few hours a day.
A New Beginning
The fate of Kwajalein in 1957 vacillated back and forth after the island was considered a surplus military facility. In far off Huntsville, Ala., the U.S. Army rocket research team reorganised into a new group called the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. In October 1957, the Russians successfully launched Sputnik, and the ICBM ‘K space race was on. Within a year, the Army at White Sands, N.M., had made successful firings of the Nike -Ajax rocket. The Air Force was getting ready to launch a series of ICBMs from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The call went out to set up a facility test site for Nike and other rockets against Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBMs. Kwajalein was given new life as it became part of the Navy operated Pacific Missile Range.
By 1962, with the arrival of KREMS/Press staff at Roi and several Bell Telephone engineers with their families, the population of the little base at Kwajalein grew quickly. AFRS had a new life broadcasting seven days a week.
AFRS continued broadcasting world news 11 times daily, interspersed with new variety music and prerecorded network shows from AFRS Los Angeles.
1220 on the AM radio now had a new competitor with the addition of KVZH-FM. The FM idea was the result of several new residents wanting to listen to good background or classical music during the evenings and week ends.
In 1968, long time Kwajalein resident Frank Bowling was able to buy the necessary FM equipment, paid for by private donations and proceeds from the Kwajalein carnival. Off duty volunteers manned the new FM program schedule using a 100 watt transmitter mounted on Building 805.
During this same period, new arrivals on island brought their televisions and VCRs only to find there was no TV station at Kwajalein. A whole new pastime was started with the mailing of prerecorded tapes by mainland friends to Kwajalein residents. TV parties became the social pastime, particularly when local residents watched a taped show, football games or World Series. Island residents wanted more than just a radio station. They wanted television broadcast from Kwajalein.
Jim Denny, the new AFRS station manager, came up with what was called “Mini TV.” By using tapes and a makeshift transmitter, TV programs were shown in specific areas like the Oceanview Club, Yokwe Yuk Club and the Teen Center. The TV programs only ran about 28 hours per week. Roi and Kwaj residents now clamoured for a full-time network channel. In the fall of 1978, the Mini TV program was upgraded to a full-time channel 9. The station on Kwajalein had now passed from WXLG to a full-time television station with the designation of Armed Forces Radio and Television Network, or AFRTS – Kwajalein.
By 1978, AFRTS Kwajalein had joined the big leagues of radio and television after the station became part of the Central Pacific Network, or CPN. No longer was the station called a Mini TV unit. Within two years, the tiny station was rebroadcasting several programs each week, prerecorded at AFRTS in Los Angeles. The Kwajalein station, now under the guidance of manger Larry Malinowski, continued to improve programming throughout the 1980s with the addition of channel 13 for all and a channel 8 just for Roi-Namur.
By 1985, the addition of channel 13 allowed Kwajalein to receive some live programs via the SATNET satellite system. This meant newscasts and sporting events could be seen live from the U.S. mainland. Over the following years the wide range of programming via SATNET has allowed the station to show many of the programs found on mainland TV channels.
In 1997, CPN, including Kwajalein, converted to the Armed Forces Network, which allowed the small station to be on a full-time satellite pick up. Island residents were now able to see current news, the soaps and evening talk shows. Certainly no one back in the days of WXLG ever envisioned the truly great AM/FM radio and television coverage on Kwajalein today. I wonder what Rock Happy Roger might have to say about that?
Gene Sims is a Kwajalein historian.
This article was originally published in the August 29, 2000 issue of the ‘Kwajalein Hourglass’ newspaper.
Permission of Gene Sims and the Kwajalein Hourglass is required for further use of this article and the image ‘USO Showgirls’.