Friday, February 07, 2020

Jungle Radio on Bougainville Island

WSSO Radio (Radio Heritage Foundation)
An additional story on Bougainville Island, from my earlier post, The Early Wireless Scene on the Tropical Pacific Island, Bougainville on 30 January 2020.

It was in March 1942 that the Imperial Japanese Army made its first landings on Bougainville Island as part of their onward progression through the islands in the South Pacific.  At the time, there were some 50,000 local people on this island, though most of the foreigners had already evacuated in advance of the Japanese incursions.

In April 1943, the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto began a tour of the Japanese occupied islands in the South West Pacific.  Admiral Yamamoto was the key architect in the planning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than two years earlier, the event that brought the United States into the Pacific War.

American surveillance teams at three widely different locations learned via Japanese coded radio transmissions from nearby Rabaul on New Britain Island that Yamamoto was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to Balalae Island, just to the south of Bougainville Island, on the morning of April 18, 1943.  A flight of 16 American fighter planes intercepted the flight of 8 Japanese planes over southern Bougainville and they shot down the Admiral’s plane, killing all on board.

Just six months later on November 1, 1943, American forces landed at Torokina on the central west coast of Bougainville Island and there they established a temporary air force base that was carved out of the surrounding tropical jungle.  Ultimately a total of 60,000 American personnel were staged at the Torokina Air base, and at the same time it is estimated, there were also 65,000 Japanese service personnel on that same island.  There were times of open conflict. 

The American base at Torokina had a frontal area against the ocean 15 miles wide, and it extended 5 miles inland up against a rugged jungle covered mountain range.  One month after the initial American landings, the first American planes landed on the jungle airstrip at Torokina (December 10, 1943). 

A temporary communication radio station was installed in a primitive jungle building on the edge of a very muddy road in a freshly made clearing in the jungle.  They also established a hospital at Torokina, with a holding capacity for 500 patients in a cluster of 70 Quonset Huts.

The first American radio broadcasting station at Torokina was a joint co-operative volunteer effort on the part of American service personnel from the army, navy, marines and seabees.  They assembled whatever radio equipment was available, and they launched a low power radio broadcasting station on 670 kHz on February 16, 1944 under the self-designated callsign WSSO.  The first station manager was Staff Sargent John A. Ettinger 

Radio station WSSO was established by the Special Service Office (hence the callsign WSSO) and it identified on air as the First Entertainment Station in the Solomons.  This new and informal station also identified on air as AES, an American Expeditionary Station, as did many other stations in the Mosquito and Jungle Networks during the latter part of the Pacific War.  There are no known loggings of this informal low power American AES station, not in Australia nor in New Zealand during the one month that it was on the air. 

The second American radio station at Torokina was an official broadcasting station that was set up by a small group of specially trained men who were flown in from California.  In the winter of 1943, AFRS Los Angeles received a request for equipment and personnel to set up three mediumwave entertainment radio stations in the South Pacific; New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and Bougainville.

On January 15, 1944, the three radio teams, together with their equipment, were flown out to the Admiralty Islands, and then from there each team flew onward to its own appointed destination.  The Bougainville team installed their station, both studios and transmitter, in a prefabricated wooden Dallas Hut imported from the United States, and it was inaugurated on April 15, 1944 as AES Bougainville. 

This new station, initially without a formal callsign, radiated 1 kW on 670 kHz, the same channel as the previous informal WSSO.  At this stage, the Torokina station formed part of the loosely federated Mosquito Network. 

This new AFRS station on Bougainville Island was on the air for two months before it was suddenly noted in both Australia and New Zealand.  One of the first radio monitors to hear the new station was the Radio & Hobbies mediumwave columnist Roy Hallett in Sydney.  In mid June (1944), he noted this station with a good signal just before the morning sign on time for mediumwave stations in eastern Australia.  The station sign on announcement stated AFRS Bougainville.

However, a few months later, three major changes took place at AES Torokina.  AFRS management in California had determined that each of the AFRS stations in the Pacific should be granted an American style four letter callsign, and AES Torokina became WVTI.  Station WVTI dropped its Mosquito Network affiliation and it joined the Jungle Network instead, along with half a dozen other stations in the New Guinea area, all with callsigns that began with the two letters WV.  In addition, the operating channel for WVTI was changed from 670 kHz to 680 kHz. 

As time went by, American forces began to move further northward in the progress of the war in the Pacific islands during the year 1944, and thus the American usage of the Torokina Base on Bougainville Island was phased out. and Australian forces began to move in.  The Australian army officially took over the Torokina base on November 22 (1944).

The Torokina AFRS station WVTI was on the air for only nine months; it was closed on January 21 (1945) and it was then transferred to the Philippines for installation in Manila.  However in its place, a temporary low powered Australian mediumwave station superseded the now transferred American station.  It is understood that this new temporary Aussie unit was on the air under the Australian Army callsign 9AC, in anticipation of the arrival of a 200 watt transportable station under the same callsign.
More about 9AC next time.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 571)