The RO's Work is Never Done

by Lawrence Merz Persons

Mastering the Morse Code is only a minor task for the Radio Operator of a Flying Fort, for in an emergency he has a dozen jobs to do.

This is about a fellow named "Joe."

Of course in the newspaper feature stories and some of the "slick" magazines, writers who want to be poetic give him a label like "The Ears of the Eagle," or something even fancier — but to his buddies in the service and particularly to the crew of his bomber he's just "Joe."

In case there's somebody in the audience not familiar with the service lingo, a "Joe" is of course a radioman, who, on a bomber, doubles as a gunner, when he isn't sending or receiving the dahs and dits that hook the plane in flight to the control tower back at the base.

Joe is a product of the American genius for educational organization. In the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, when the Yanks decided to build the biggest air force the world has ever known, there were a lot of problems. Not the least of them was finding a supply of technicians for every plane.

Now, in peace time there are a lot of folks engaged in a lot of different trades. But in peace time, did you ever stop and consider how relatively few young men of the gage deemed most eligible for military service were engaged in learning the International Morse Code? Not so many, eh? In fact most young fellows only knew enough about radio perhaps to install a receiver in their car in order to tune in a swing rhapsody, or to plug in a new tube when one burned out on the set in the front parlor.

To be sure, there were the "hams" — those amateur radio enthusiasts who fixed up stations in the attic or the basement of their homes and chattered an unintelligible language about direct current, monitoring, amplifiers and AMP current, across the world. But add 'em all together and what have you got? A mere handful to meet such a demand as had never before existed.

When you're turning out bombers on production lines, you've got to turn out radio Joes on production lines too, or you'll find your supply of qualified men so far behind the demand that you never will catch up. And a "deaf" combat crew is really in a tight spot. Every white-starred bomber plane that takes off from an air base headed for either friendly or hostile territory carries on board a "Joe" who knows his code. And back there at the airport or bomber base there are other "Joes," able to send out the dope, competent to rip a wireless set apart and put it together again, able to keep the "ears" of the air forces turned to that all-important "coaching" from the sidelines.

They are the ears and voice of the Army Air Forces. They are needed to start the planes on their way, to guide them on their missions and to bring them safely back to their bases once that mission is completed. Without the skilled radio operators and their brother mechanics and trouble shooters our Air Forces would be quickly grounded.

To supply these vital radiomen, to give thorough training in a highly technical field to solders anxious to take their places side by side with pilot, bombardier, navigator and gunner, is the business of the Technical Training Command. Back in 1939 Scott Field, IL, a base for training flyers in World War I, became the "parent" of the modern radio school system when the initial communications school was moved there from Chanute Field at Rantoul, IL. For a time all of the radiomen for the entire Army Air Forces were trained in the classrooms and laboratories constructed at Scott Field at a cost of millions of dollars. Today, however, Technical Training Command radio schools are going full blast at Sioux Falls, SD, Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, to mention only a few.

To one of these schools, fresh from a reception center and chosen, as are all soldiers of the Technical Training Command, for his high ratings in intelligence quizzes, comes Joe. If he happens to be a former "ham," he probably won't experience too much difficulty, even though practically he may have to learn over a lot of things he thought he knew pretty well, in order to make sure that in future he'll do them "the Army way."

If he's never even "monkeyed around" with radio before, Joe may shake his head a little when he's told of the grueling hours of concentrated study that lie ahead. But then he figures he's "in for it" and Joe is not a guy to give up without having a try at it. Besides, nine out of ten of his buddies aren't any more familiar with short-wave radio than he is.

Once he is assigned to classes Joe finds he is facing a radio course of eighteen weeks duration. He studies seven hours a day. Recesses account for another hour. Classes are staggered, so the school operates a full seven days a week, though each student gets one day off a week. During a part of his course Joe will find himself on a night shift.

The course is really divided into two parts — the Radio Operating division and the Radio Mechanics division. During the Operators course Joe must attain a minimum of sixteen words a minute, receiving and sending the International Morse code. In fact, half of the 558 hours of study is spent on the Morse code which has twice the penetrating power of human speech. The mastery of this code requires the learning of a foreign language in a very special sense. For while all the spoken languages, be they English, Greek or Chinese, are phonetic, made up of sounds produced by the human tongue, lips and teeth, the Morse language requires an entirely different approach, the sounds being produced by a mechanical device with dots and dashes being the symbols or letters. For this reason previous formal education hasn't much to do with the progress of a student in mastering the Morse code. Both the highly educated and the less well educated lads start from scratch and their inherent aptitude is largely the factor of success.

Students gradually advance by successive stages from four words per minute until they reach a required maximum of sixteen words a minute — and some are capable of as high as fifty words a minute.

The soldier is also being taught operational procedure including methods of establishing communications, message handling, the use of various signals used by the United Nations, direction finding procedure, position fixes and blind letdown procedure. Joe practices hour after hour upon wired nets where he can concentrate without interference or distraction. After a couple of weeks of this he commences operating procedure over low-powered classroom receivers and transmitters. These miniature sets form the transition period between the wired nets and the high powered equipment used in the field. For — after he has become more proficient — Joe's instruction takes place not only in the elaborately equipped classrooms of the radio schools, but also in mobile units, when he is taken out into the field on a truck and practices sending and receiving with actual high powered Air Forces equipment, simulating actual tactical procedure between the truck and the school. For the more advanced students there are always the "Flying Classrooms" which circle high above the field.

Meanwhile in the Radio Mechanics' course Joe's time is about equally divided between classrooms and laboratory work on actual equipment, including parts from old radios. He's taught, first, the fundamentals of direct current, alternating current, radio frequency current and how they apply to equipment used in the service. He studies series and parallel circuits containing resistance, inductance and capacitance. He learns the principles of transformers, rectifiers and electrical measuring instruments.

Joe's second seventy hours in the Mechanic's Course are devoted to a study of the theory of antennas, vacuum tubes, and the construction of radio transmitters. Here he is introduced to the principles of operation o f vacuum tubes as oscillators, radio frequency and audio frequency amplifiers.

The student finishes his fundamental training with a thirty-five hour course in radio receivers and by the time he has completed that he has a well rounded understanding of radio reception, detection, amplification and the elementary theory of the operation of tuned radio frequency and superheterodyne receivers. He is now deemed ready to take up the study of actual radio transmitters and receivers, in the Aircraft Radio division of the school. He spends a full 175 hours on the operation, tuning, trouble shooting, maintenance and inspection of aircraft transmitters, receivers and radio compasses. His course is climaxed with ten days of actual operation of a ground station.

While all this is study has been going on Joe is also spending some time each day galloping over obstacle courses and taking long hikes in preparation for the arduous work that lies ahead. Approximately fifteen percent of each starting class finds the going too tough and drops out of the school, according to statistics compiled by the Army. But not your average Joe. He "sweats it out" and when he leaves the chapel on graduation day is apt to be brandishing his diploma with an air that he thinks he is quite a guy — and take it from us — he has a right to feel just that way.

For the youngest and healthiest "Joes" — the lads who'll actually go aloft as part of a bomber crew — there are plenty of more classes ahead. They'll go next to gunnery school, where they will become familiar with those machine guns that come in so handy between "dahs and dits." Oh yes, your radioman has to be a competent gunner, too. In fact, in actual combat that little guy called Joe is something of a "man of all work." He has his own gun to man when Jap or Nazi fighter planes attack, or he might be called on to replace some other gunner who has become a casualty. And all the while he is responsible for maintaining communications with the control tower back at the home base. In describing the radioman someone has paraphrased the old axiom thusly:

"In fights he runs from gun to gun, the RO's work is never done."

The radioman has proven his worth times without number. It's his job to keep that steady radio contact with the home base until the "zone of silence" is reached. And then, on coming out of combat, he's got to reestablish that contact. He's got to receive the orders — clearly, accurately. He's got to jot down the weather data and other vital information broadcast to him, if the mission of his crew is to be successful.

There was a Joe with Jimmy Doolittle when our planes went in to surprise Tokyo. The Joes aboard our wrecking crews helped guide our planes back home after the Ploesti raids. The Fortresses and Liberators that rained destruction down upon Berlin and Hamburg and Bremen carried an all essential Joe. Times without number or huge bombers, riddled with bullets, all but unflyable, have struggled home to belly landings in England because Joe, putting to work the knowledge gained at Scott Field's radio school of the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command picked up the proper homing signal and brought her safely in.

Again you ask, why do they call him "Joe?"

Brother, I'm frank to confess you've got me there.

I just don't know. But maybe it has something to do with naming that chap out in the rear turret "Tail-End Charley." I've never heard two answers to that were alike to that one either.

But, after all, what's in a name?

This article was originally published in the May, 1944, issue of Flying Aces magazine, vol 47, no 2, pp 39, 46, 48.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 3.1 MiB ] includes three photos showing Radio Operators: at gun, at the radio, in class.
Photo at gun not credited; photo at radio credited to Wide World; class photo credited to US Army Signal Corps.