American Military Radio in the Solomon Islands During WWII
By Martin Hadlow © 2006
“RADIO CITY” In The Tropics
Once ashore, Captain Spencer Allen was relieved to find that Army engineers and Signal Corpsmen had constructed a studio building for the radio station, “the first made of clapboard in the camp,” he recalls, and a smaller transmitter shack about 200 yards away (S. Allen, personal communications, 1983–1989). The studio building was in a huge military encampment about half a mile from Lunga beach and one mile from Henderson Field, the airstrip wrested from the Japanese. The base comprised tents, huts, and storage facilities in an area still being used by the Lever company as a commercial coconut plantation, copra being a prime ingredient in soap making. “There was a major east-west road just south of us which we called Highway 50″ Spencer Allen recalls (S. Allen, personal communications, 1983–1989). Coast watcher Martin Clemens distinctly remembers AES-Guadalcanal, as announcing “It was between Fifth Avenue and unimproved ground” (*M. Clemens, personal communication, n.d.).
Continuing the New York theme, the AES staff dubbed their small studio shack in the coconut grove, Radio City, an ironic reference to the imposing headquarters of the NBC network in New York City. Meanwhile, under the command of the radio station’s Chief Engineer, Captain Wilford Kennedy, Rudy Luukinen and his fellow technicians, Rudolph Rubin, Ivan Saddler, and Steve Johnson, were hard at work placing studio equipment in the new station building. They had been given 2 weeks by Island Command to get everything in place. In reality, the job took about 10 days.
One of the more complicated tasks was to install a flat-top (long-wire) antenna between two coconut palms. Luukinen called on his Signal Corps training experience to get him up the trees. He used “climber’s hooks” on his boots. Normally, they were used for scaling telephone poles, but they had the same effect on coconut palms. Carrying the long-wire, he reached the top and, inadvertently, put his left hand into a wasps’ nest. “I just about fell from a 60-foot coconut tree, but luckily I grabbed the tree with my other hand and hung on until I got the wasps off my face and hands” (*R. Luukinen, personal communication, 1988).
On the evening of March 2, 1944, AES-Guadalcanal, first broadcast a test signal. It was an historic day because it also marked the inauguration of structured radio broadcasting in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. The Station Manager, Captain Spencer Allen, had sought assistance from the Navy in checking the strength of the signal from a range of locations. These sites were between 25 miles and 60 miles away from the transmission point near the Lunga River. “At the moment, we’re putting out about 800 watts,” he wrote to Major Mike Gould in Noumea (*S. Allen, personal communication, 1944).
Already, the station was being deluged with queries as to when it might begin a regular schedule. Captain Allen, in liaison with South Pacific Radio Command in New Caledonia, had chosen March 13 at 05:30 hrs as the date and time when full AES-Guadalcanal transmissions would commence. On the night before the opening broadcast, Captain Allen gathered all the station staff for a last check session. Then he took out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky. Corporal Botzer enjoyed it. “We each had about two drinks to toast the success of the station. Man, that tasted good!” (*A. Botzer, personal communication, 1944).
Broadcasting starts on Guadalcanal
Regular programming started, as scheduled, at 05:30hrs on March 13, the Dedicatory Show being planned for transmission on March 22. Daily programs from AES-Guadalcanal were broadcast from 05:30hrs to 08:05hrs, again from 11:00hrs to 13:00hrs, and with evening sessions from 17:00hrs to close-down at 22:00hrs (AES Program Schedule, 1944). The station broadcast on a frequency of 730 kilocycles with a power of one kilowatt, although the frequency was later changed to 690 kilocycles. Originally, it did not use any call letters and just announced itself as AES-Guadalcanal. It also proclaimed that it was part of The Mosquito Network (A. Botzer, personal communication, 1944).
Credit for creating the Mosquito Network name has been attributed to several people. However, the consensus indicates that it was coined by AES-Guadalcanal’s Program Director, Staff Sergeant George Dvorak. When consulted on the matter, almost half a century later, Dvorak modestly said that he did not remember the real truth. “Probably I did [devise the name], I don’t know. The big issue at the time was malaria and they had some fancy name for the radio station, which was American Expeditionary Forces, or Services, or whatever it was. And that was a little cumbersome. And it didn’t give a personality. So, we just all decided, and probably I was the first one—I don’t know— to call it The Mosquito Network and it caught on. Everybody liked it. They remembered it. So, we dropped all the rest of it” (*Personal interview with George Dvorak, 1990).
On opening day, things went mostly as planned, and a day-to-day routine was soon established. George Dvorak operated the morning shift, with Hy Averback taking over from him as required. Allen Botzer started at 13:30hrs, prepared programs during the afternoon, and then announced the evening transmission until sign-off. On Sunday, all staff operated shifts during a 12-hour working day (*A. Botzer, personal communication, 1944). The system that Colonel Tom Lewis had put in place in 1942, namely providing recordings of major American network radio shows (from which the commercials had been deleted) to US military radio stations, ensured that AES-Guadalcanal could present top programs to its audience. The very latest and most popular radio shows from the USA were soon available on the island, the transcriptions being on 16-inch acetate discs.
Apart from the “decommercialized” (or “denatured”) network transcriptions, the Armed Forces Radio Service in Los Angeles also produced a range of specific programs tailored to American service personnel overseas. The weekly package contained 42 hours of radio programming. Lieutenant Bob LeMond wrote in the trade magazine, Broadcasting, that 28 hours of this programming comprised “de-commercialized” shows. “[These] included the Bob Hope Show, Bing Crosby’s Music Hall, Jack Benny, Radio Theater, The Boston and NBC Symphonies, and many others. The remaining 14 hours were made up of programs that were produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service especially for the men [sic] overseas. These shows were rarely heard by civilian audiences, but to the man [sic] in the service, such names as Command Performance, Maiil Call, Jubilee, G.I. Journal, G.I. Jive, Sound Off, and others are ‘tent-hold’ words” (*Broadcasting magazine, 1944).
As each American Expeditionary Station (AES) broadcast, on average, 85 hours per week, half of its output came from transcription programs from the USA, the remainder being produced locally. Religious programming usually emanated from the Chapel adjacent to the military cemetery near the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal. Church services, both Catholic and Protestant, were rebroadcast. News broadcasts continued to be primarily relayed “live” from short-wave transmissions received from the West Coast of the USA. The AFRS had its own news service based there and Mosquito Network stations would pick-up and carry the signal on the hour. Local news was difficult to collect and broadcast because of security regulations. Even local weather forecasts were considered of possible use to the enemy and thus could not be broadcast (*A. Botzer, personal communication, 1944).
Admiral Halsey Misses A Beat
The Dedicatory Show, or official launch, of AES-Guadalcanal, took place on March 22, 1944 (A. Botzer, personal communication, 1944). The weekly Command Performance program was especially dedicated to AES-Guadalcanal, with messages from such stars as Kate Smith, Randolph Scott, Billy Gilbert, and Jimmy Wakely. Although the Guadalcanal radio station had received an advance copy of Command Performance on transcription disc, short-wave reception from San Francisco was of such quality on the night of the Dedicatory Show, that they simply relayed the program. However, the transcription disc was synchronized and running on the station’s turntables, just in case reception deteriorated and the recording had to be cut in (S. Allen, personal communication, 1944).
Apart from Command Performance, AES-Guadalcanal, had prepared its own additional programming to celebrate the launch. The senior officer on the island, Vice-Admiral Aubrey Fitch, then Commander of Allied Air Operations in the Southwest Pacific (ComAirSoPac), gave a “live” address. A prerecorded message had been made on disc by the Naval Commander, Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. However, this speech caused the only problematic moment of the entire Dedicatory Show. In a letter the next day to his superiors in Noumea, Captain Spencer Allen reported accordingly: “During Admiral Halsey’s speech, the goddam pickup head jumped a groove and skidded all over the transcription. We got it going again after about a ten second pause. We did a dry run on the whole business that afternoon, and everything was jake then. But it would have to happen on Halsey, of all people!” (*S. Allen, personal communication, 1944).
Regular daily programming then set into a routine pattern. After opening day, the technical facilities of AES-Guadalcanal, both the transmitter and the studio equipment, had been performing well. Programming was becoming increasingly innovative, with air time being made available for indigenous Solomon Islanders to be featured on musical programs. Captain Allen visited one of the camps used by Lever plantation laborers, mainly recruited from the island of Malaita, and talked with their Australian overseer about having some choral groups record programs. “We learned that there were two groups of natives who had nothing to do with each other because of their songs. One sang only Anglican hymns—the other, nonsecular songs such as ‘Humonderange’ (Home on the Range) and ‘Cummin round the montan’” (*S. Allen, personal communications, 1983–1989).
The two groups visited the AES-Guadalcanal, studios and made recordings that were broadcast on April 12. During the studio sessions, Captain Allen tried to explain to the indigenous Solomon Islanders what radio was all about. The Australian overseer translated it into Pidgin as “Music-him-fella-go-long-way-round-come-out-someplace-else” (S. Allen, personal communications, 1983–1989). In his diary, Spencer Allen noted the occasion: “Much laughter when they heard themselves on the loud-speakers. We gave them [the recordings] to play on their gramophone back in the camp. I don’t know if the natives were from Guadalcanal or Malaita—maybe both. That might be the rivalry because of their song preferences” (S. Allen, personal communications, 1983–1989).
News broadcasts were becoming more numerous as AES-Guadalcanal, developed. By May 1944, it was presenting complete news bulletins 7 times a day. In addition, 2-minute Headline Highlights bulletins were featured on the hour. A few months later, news in Pidgin was being broadcast on an occasional basis (S. Allen, personal communication, 1990). A Fijian medical Doctor, Dr. Eroni Leauli Taoi, who was serving on Guadalcanal, visited the station to translate the scripts into Pidgin and present the newscasts on the air (Ministry of Health, Suva, personal communication, 1985).
Apart from locally produced programs and the regular transcription package, visiting United Services Organization (USO) shows often traveled to the island. Ray Milland and three Hollywood actresses visited Guadalcanal in February 1944. In May, Eric Peabody came with a small group. Other visitors included entertainer Bill Lundigan and, later, Lieutenant Bob Crosby with a troupe of Marines. In August, Bob Hope arrived with his entourage, including showbiz personalities Francis Langford, Jerry Colonna, Tony Romano, and a bevy of singers and dancers. Captain Spencer Allen interviewed Bob Hope for AES-Guadalcanal. Allen Botzer recalled that Bob Hope’s show, held at the outside theater, was attended by “to put it mildly, an enthusiastic crowd” (*A. Botzer, personal correspondence, 1944). Jack Benny visited the island in the latter part of August 1944; his concert was broadcast “live.”
- AFRTS. (2004). The American armed services radio (www.afrts.osd.mil)
- American Legion Magazine. (1942, February).
- Broadcasting Magazine. (1944, May 8).
- DeLay, T.S.,Jr. (1951) An Historical Study of the Armed Forces Radio Service to 1946. Unpublished thesis. University of Southern CA at Los Angeles Kirby, E.M., & Harris, J.W. (1948). Star-Spangled Radio. Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.
- New York Times. (1944, December).
- NZDXTRAmagazine. (1946, September). Christchurch, NZ: NZ DX Club.
- Tompkins, T. (Ed.). (n.d.). FEN: The Far East Network. Tokyo: AFRTS.
- Tune-In Magazine. (1945, January). NZ Radio DX League.
This article originally appeared in Vol. 11, No. 1 of The Journal of Radio Studies (Broadcast Education Association, Washington, DC) and is being reprinted here with the permission of the author.
The Mosquito Network
Martin is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Communication for Development & Social Change at the School of Journalism & Communications, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.
He’s passionate about radio history and has a varied and distinguished broadcasting and media career across the Pacific, Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, recently holding senior positions with UNESCO in Paris.
The work of Jerry Berg and others named in this article contributes a great deal to community led radio heritage initiatives and we strongly support and endorse their activities.