Amateur Radio During Word War II

What follows is a summary of the War Emergency Radio Service (WERS). Information was gathered primarily from “Fifty Years of ARRL,” an historical record of the League and amateur radio. It was originally posted on the AC6V website.

First a bit of background: In 1939 there were 51,000 US hams. In September of that year war came to Europe. Of the 250 DXCC countries, 121 of them immediately went off the air (including Canada and the UK). The US maintained the strictest sense of neutrality. This was re-enforced by the ARRL, which came up with a neutrality code for amateurs. Hams were asked by the ARRL to voluntarily abide by the code, which they did en masse; this earned additional support for the amateur radio service in governmental circles.

In an effort to streamline its operation in preparation for possible US involvement in the war, the FCC at this time introduced multiple-choice tests.

By June 1940, the US invoked the Telecommunications Convention prohibiting US amateurs from contacting hams elsewhere; at the same time all portable and mobile operation below 56 MHz was banned (except the ARRL Field Day). At the request of the ARRL, the ban was modified to allow the League’s Emergency Corps to continue work on the lower frequencies for training and drills. All licensees were required to send a set of fingerprints, a photo, and proof of citizenship to the FCC.

The FCC needed 500 radio operators to man listening and direction-finding stations — they asked the League’s assistance — the League put out the word in QST and within days of that issue, the FCC had the 500 operators it needed. (It’s important to note for the duration of the war, the military and government always turned to the ARRL when radio operators and equipment were needed; the League would put out the call in QST and over W1AW, and the quotas were always filled in short order. Of the 51,000 hams mentioned above, 25,000 enlisted, and 25,000 remained at home to teach radio and electronics, serve in the communications industry, and serve in WERS.)

By June of 1941, tubes and other components were in short supply; each time the military asked hams to donate parts, they were flooded with whatever was needed. Many US hams were recruited for a Civilian Technical Corps to operate and repair British radar equipment. Also at this time, the Office of Civil Defense, at the offering of the ARRL, created a CD communication system with ham radio as its backbone (this relationship between between CD and ARS exists even today). Because the Army needed the 80 meter amateur band, the FCC gave hams 40 meter phone privileges for the first time, to make up for the loss of 80 (prior to that, 40m was a CW- only band.)

December 7, 1941, the US entered the war; hams were immediately ordered to go QRT. By special FCC order, the ARRL’s W1AW was to continue its transmissions.

At the request of the ARRL, the War Emergency Radio Service (WERS) was created in June 1942. The Government Printing Office was inundated so the rules for WERS appeared only in QST. At the League’s insistence, the FCC continued to offer amateur licensing throughout the war; this to provide standards for WERS applicants, and more importantly, to enable amateurs to prove their ability before enlisting in the armed services.

The purpose of WERS was to provide communications in connection with air raid protection, and to allow operators to continue their role in providing communications during times of natural disaster as they’d been doing as hams (WERS was not part of the amateur service, but was manned by hams; non-amateurs were permitted to serve in WERS in low level positions). WERS was administered by local CD offices; WERS licenses were issued to communities, not individuals.

WERS operated on the former amateur 2 1/2 meter band (112-116 MHz) and on higher frequencies. Again, WERS was not part of the amateur service but hams were asked by OCD to join — and they flocked to it. Until the end of the war, if a ham wanted to operate he could only do so as a WERS operator. QST fully supported WERS by publishing technical articles on building WERS gear and modifying existing 2 1/2 meter ham equipment so as to meet the rigid WERS standards. Nearly every issues of QST contained WERS articles – two examples:

Oct. 1942: WERS operating procedures; how to train auxiliary (non-amateur) operators; and Feb. 1943: OCD’s plan for selecting frequencies.

A sample of WERS operations: May and July 1942 — communications support for flooding of the Mississippi and Lake Erie; 1944 communications support after an Atlantic Coast hurricane; 1945 — Western NY snowstorm early in the year, spring flooding, and a September Florida hurricane.

After VJ Day in 1945, hams were given authorization to begin operating again on the 2 1/2 meter band, on a shared basis with WERS. WERS was terminated in mid-November. By the 15th of that month, the FCC released bands at 10, 5, and 2 meters for amateur use. The post-war era of amateur radio had commenced.

Thanks Jeffrey Herman, KH6O and to AC6V’s “Amateur Radio & DX Reference Guide“.