Amateur Radio: The Ultimate WWII Ally, Plus December Special Events to Remember Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor: A Catalyst to War

One hour and fifteen minutes. That’s how long it took for Japanese forces to bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, with devastating results. The toll? 2,403 military lives lost, 1,178 injured, 169 Navy and Army Air Corp. planes destroyed, and six naval ships sunk or inoperable. Japan would attack Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and what is now Malaysia the same day.

Of course, there were consequences. The U.S. formally entered WWII the next day on December 8. Bad news for bad guys worldwide. But amateur radio operators would also take a hit, of sorts. Hams with transmitting stations were fingerprinted and had to show proof of citizenship to help weed out on-air spies. They were then banned from operating on all bands to keep airwaves clear for urgent wartime communications—with a few exceptions.

At the time, there were more than 60,000 licensed amateur radio operators (compared to three million today). Of those 60,000, nearly half were servicemembers. And it was these hams who continued to operate on the VHF bands at 112 MHz during the conflict. But this was no frivolous on-air operation. These hams were fighting against what Neville Chamberlain described as “evil things” including “brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression, and persecution.” Most notably working to free the men, women, and children enslaved in concentration camps by Adolf Hitler.

War Emergency Radio Service

To better prevail against these evil things, the War Emergency Radio Service (WERS) was established in June of 1942. It was the precursor to today’s Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES)—an organization activated on the local, county, or state levels during declared emergencies and able to authorize communication when the War Powers Act is invoked by the President elect.

During WWII, amateur radio activity remained on hold for most hams. WERS was the exception. Established by the FCC at the strong insistence of the ARRL, it enabled communications about air raid protection and natural disasters. It would remain in operation until 1945. WERS licenses were granted to communities, not individuals, but membership required an amateur radio license. Frequencies used: 2 ½ meters, 112-116 MHz, and 1 ¼ meters, 219-225 MHz.

Wireless Interceptors

Another way that hams were an integral part of the war effort was as message interceptors who monitored enemy intelligence on the bands. In the U.S., hams worked for the FCC, and in Britain, they were civilian volunteers.

Volunteer Interceptor Quick Facts (Britain):

  • Around 1,500 operators; often recruited for volunteer work with the Radio Security Service (RSS)
  • By 1941, Volunteer Interceptors were turning in about 10,000 message reports per day
  • Operated from home using their own equipment
  • Their work was top-secret, and they weren’t even allowed to mention their involvement to their families
  • Worked frequencies between 3 to 12 MHz; much enemy activity discovered between 4 to 9 MHz
  • Were often reported as spies by neighbors due to their frequent “suspicious” radio activity
  • Carried documents explaining the special duties they were carrying out
  • Read about how ham Bob King was recruited at age 16 as a Volunteer Interceptor

Civilian Interceptors, FCC Radio Intelligence Division Quick Facts (U.S.):

  • The FCC Radio Intelligence Division was established in 1934
  • Almost all civilian intercept in the U.S. was done by ham operators working for the FCC
  • Organized into three units based in Washington, San Francisco, and Hawaii
  • Included sixty fixed and ninety mobile units
  • In 1942 they teamed up with Britain’s RSS to monitor German spy networks in Europe
  • Monitored German weather reports to plan for allied bombing efforts

Pearl Harbor Special Events: December

Make an impact of your own by participating in these upcoming Pearl Harbor special events to honor those who gave their lives to protect our freedoms. Or visit the ARRL website for a full list of upcoming special events.

  • Amateur Radio Club of the National Electronic Museum (K3NEM) with special event station W2W
    • Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration
    • December 1 to December 11, 2023
    • 1300-2200 UTC each day  
    • Frequencies on or about 14.241, 14.041, 7.241, and 7.041 MHz
    • For a certificate and QSL contact: W2W Special Event Station, Box 1693, MS 4015, Baltimore, MD 21203
  • USS Midway (CV-41) Museum Ship from NI6IW in San Diego
    • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day
    • December 9, 2023
    • 1700-2359 UTC
    • Listen for NI6IW on or about 14.320 and 7.250 MHz SSB, 14.070 MHz PSK31, and D-STAR on REF001C
    • QSL to USS Midway CV-41 COMEDTRA, 910 N Harbor Dr., San Diego, CA 92101
  • American Legion Post 275 Radio Team with special event station N3TAL.
    • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day
    • December 7, 2023
    • 1800-2100 UTC
    • Frequencies on or about 7.275 MHz +/- LSB, 14.275 MHz +/- USB
    • QSL to American Legion Post 275 ART Team, 8201 Martin Luther King Jr. Hwy., Lanham, MD 20706
  • Baton Rouge Amateur Radio Club with special event station W5KID.
    • Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance
    • December 7, 2023
    • 1600-2130 UTC
    • Frequencies on or about 7.040, 7.250, 14.040, 14.250
    • QSL to USS Kidd Amateur Radio Club, 305 S. River Road, Baton Rouge, LA 70802

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