Hams in Combat -One Life to Give
July 1944 QST Article
QST did a regular series of articles titled "Hams in Combat" during World War II. This story is unique in nature in that it tells of a newspaperman-turned-soldier who, in the story writer's mind, would have been the most suited for the job of author. It tells a far different story of the South Pacific than we were treated to in weekly episodes of McHale's Navy!
July 1944 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
"Had this story been written by the man who should have written it - Capt. William H. Graham, W9BNC - it would have been one of the greatest "Hams in Combat" yarns ever told in these pages. But Bill Graham never got around to writing his story. He was too intensely occupied with the living of it - too keenly aware of the new paragraph that was the moment, too eager to learn what was on the next page. And then, on March 20th, in the dark jungles of New Guinea, he came to a page that bore the words: 'The End.'"
- This letter was received today that helps me justify going to the trouble of posting these old articles:
"I just wanted to send my immense gratitude towards an article published on 4/5/2011 by a "C.B.D." titled "Hams in Combat" about First Lt. William H. Graham has given me an incredible amount of information. I am the great grandson of Mr. Graham and my grandfather, Bill Graham's son, Roger Graham just passed away a few days ago. As such, I have been trying to find out as much information as possible given what I have from my family. Your article has single handily given us more information than I have heard all of my life and believe me, I've been prodding for military history for years from my family. With that being said, can I inquire as to where many of these quotes were sourced from? I've been given a handful of photos of my great grandfather but and constantly looking for more. I really appreciate the fantastic article and I hope you have the time to reply."
My response in part was, "When QST does not print an author's name with the article, it usually means it was written by a staff editor. In this case, my guess would be QST editor Clinton B. DeSoto (call sign W1CBD) is 'C.B.D.' You can see Mr. DeSoto's name on the Table of Contents.
Hams in CombatOne Life to Give ...
For twenty-five years Bill Graham was an ace newspaperman - one of the best in the game. He was a reporter. He wasn't a news analyst or a commentator or a columnist. He was the kind of newspaperman who digs out the facts - the exact facts, all the facts and nothing but the facts - and writes them up in straightforward, understandable language.
That kind of talent - the ability to collect, analyze and interpret information accurately and cogently - is precisely the kind required in military intelligence work. By training and experience, therefore, Capt. Graham was exceptionally qualified for his Army duty: he was a combat intelligence officer. It was in the performance of that duty that he met his death.
Bill Graham was also a ham - a devoted and proficient ham. That, of course, is why his story belongs in QST. As told here, it is based in part on bits of the letters he sent back home and on fragments from the pieces he wrote for his paper. The rest of the story comes from the record.
In Bill Graham's case that record is both a full and distinguished one.
Bill was born a Kentuckian, with all the fire and chivalry indigenous to his breed. Beattyville, Ky., was his birthplace, but he was still in his teens when he left there, drawn by the lure of a roving newspaperman's life.
He started his journalistic career as a sports reporter on a Nashville, Tenn., paper. He was a bright-eyed cub, hardworking and friendly. His versatility and zeal attracted the attention of the local Nashville AP bureau. Soon he was offered a better job with the Associated Press.
The AP packed Bill off to South Dakota to serve his novitiate as correspondent at Sioux Falls. It wasn't long before he proved himself capable of a bigger assignment. In 1921 he was sent to Omaha, Neb., as a vacation relief man in the AP office there.
"We strafed hell out of the place ...slugging it out at tree-top level with the Nips."
Omaha seemed to Bill a pretty good place in which to forsake the roving life and settle down. In the fall, when his summer relief job was ended, he left the AP to join the Omaha World-Herald as an assignment reporter.
Omaha and the World-Herald became home to Bill Graham. He liked them and they liked him liked his refreshing personality, his energy and drive, his uncompromising fearlessness and his equally relentless tenacity in digging out the truth. Above all, they liked him because he was a conscientious and competent reporter.
Bill occupied just about every desk on the paper at one time or another. He was state editor for several years. As an assignment reporter he covered many of the biggest news stories in Omaha and in the state at large. His reporting of the Nebraska state legislature won him laurels among newsmen.
It was in covering the Douglas County courthouse beat that he did his most notable work, however. A journalistic Jeremiah, he was the bane of chiseling politicians. Single-handed he wrecked a powerful but corrupt machine. In his obituary write-up the World-Herald said: "He was the journalistic broom which swept out a number of commissioners, .and brought about numerous reforms. It was there that his courage and tenacity were best exemplified...."
Bill Graham's introduction to radio came as an offshoot of his journalistic enterprise. In 1923. at Omaha's WOW, then just beginning to build its subsequent nationwide reputation as a pioneer broadcaster, the revolutionary idea was conceived of broadcasting news summaries as interludes between the recordings and home-talent artists. Bill did the broadcasting, and thus became one of the country's pioneer newscasters.
Bill's insatiable curiosity about everything under the sun soon led him to explore the technical aspects of broadcasting. That, inevitably, brought him into contact with the hams who were running WOW's transmitter.
Five years passed before that first tentative contact culminated in the issuance of the license for W9BNC. Actually, they were years of preparation. When Bill Graham went into anything he first equipped himself painstakingly, and that was true of ham radio.
W9BNC soon became well known on all bands, 'phone and c.w. Bill participated actively in every phase of the game. He worked DX, handled traffic, and was always willing to chew the rag. Working WAC and WAS was a commonplace achievement to him.
Unlike many another competent and active operator, however, his vision extended beyond the knobs on the panel. He had a thorough technical grounding and the restless, questing spirit of the true experimenter. He was not a . "tinkerer" - he was an inveterate experimenter and a competent researcher.
On the organizational side of amateur radio, as might be expected, Bill was equally active. He took an active interest in both local and divisional affairs and served as a valued advisor to each successive Midwest Division director.
In 1938, under the traditional system of rotating divisional conventions, it was Omaha's turn to sponsor the Midwest Division ARRL Convention. At the time, however, there was no active amateur club in Omaha to run the affair. To Bill Graham that was a challenge. He got together the leading hams in Omaha and Council Bluffs and organized them into a convention committee. They retaliated by electing him general chairman. He threw himself into the job with all his abundant energy and turned out one of the most successful ham conventions ever held in the Midwest.
For several years he served as assistant division director for Nebraska, and in 1941 he was elected alternate director for the Midwest Division. When his first two-year term ended he was far off in the wilds of New Guinea.
The fact that Bill hadn't been in touch with his constituents for over a year didn't affect their support. He was reelected without opposition.
In New Guinea, some three months after the event, he received official word from ARRL Hq. of his reelection. In reply he wrote: "Thanks for your notification upon my 'reelection' as alternate director, which came via Omaha and Mrs. Graham. I must confess I feel pretty helpless to serve from this vast jungle-land!" And he went on: "Some of my constituents write me that they hope the ARRL will keep on its toes and see that we don't lose any frequencies when peace comes and the airways are opened again. I pass this word along, knowing that the Headquarters gang is doing and will do all possible to guard our interests in all directions.'
That letter was dated March 19th. On March 20th Bill Graham was killed in an airplane crash while on a reconnaissance mission.
He need not have been concerned about his ability to be of service. He and the scores of other hams in this war who have given their lives for their country - and for amateur radio - are its surest guarantee for the future.
Bill hadn't been in uniform in World War 1. For that reason he felt that he had to get into this one. And so, immediately after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered in the Air Corps. In May. 1942, he was commissioned a first lieutenant.
He was given training at the Harrisburg (Pa.) AAF school, majoring in combat intelligence. In July, 1942, he was sent to the South Pacific to join MacArthur's command. When he arrived down under he was assigned to the 43rd Bombardment Group (Heavy). He was stationed at Fifth Air Force headquarters in Australia, a member of the headquarters squadron. For nearly a year he served on detached duty with the Aussies and later the Dutch.
In March, 1943, he was transferred to New Guinea. In his own words: "I came back with our forces - Yanks, as they call us, much to the consternation of the boys below the Mason-Dixon line. We are pretty deep in the New Guinea wilds. Near enough that the Japs pester us nearly every night with nuisance raids. They only make us climb out of bed at all hours and lose some sleep, though. Actually, their bombing is impotent."
Capt. William H. Graham, W9BNC.
About his new assignment he wrote: "For security reasons I cannot tell you exactly the kind of work I am engaged in, except to say that. it has its exciting moments. I've had nearly 100 hours of combat flying in heavy bombers and have been lucky enough to get in on three of our major landings on Jap strongholds." The three major actions to which he referred included the Allied landings at Lae and Cape Gloucester.
When Los Negros Island in the Admiralty group was seized he was official observer for the AAF and witnessed the entire action from a bleacher seat in a combat plane.
Preceding the Los Negros invasion Bill played an impromptu supporting role in the softening-up bombing operations. As he described it:
"Over Momote, the Japs' fine airport on Los Negros Island, I had a hell of a lot of fun. The heavy bombers were scheduled to go in first and bomb the harbor shore where our land forces were to go in. Then we were to be followed by the mediums, and finally the strafers. But the weather was foul and few of the lighter boys got through that morning. So we took this big, lumbering bomber down to strafing level and decided to do the job ourselves. Inasmuch as I had replaced a gunner, it was up to me to man a couple of machine guns. So we strafed hell out of the place and I shot away nearly one thousand rounds of ammunition. I don't know how much damage, if any, my lead caused. It must have looked funny to the amphibious forces to see that bomber slugging it out at tree-top level with the Nips."
It was in New Guinea that Bill Graham saw most of his active combat experience. About his ham encounters down under he wrote:
"Most of my foreign service (nearly two years now!) has been in the New Guinea wilds and as you know there aren't many Fuzzy Wuzzy hams here. I did meet some of the lads down in Australia, chiefly Wal Ryan, VK2TI, of Sydney .... When he heard I was in town for a day he used up his entire month's gas ration - taking me to his home for the day, showing me some sights, then to the airport in the evening, etc. He wouldn't have it any other way. He had quite a bunch of the Sydney amateurs in for the evening, too, and honestly, Ken, I never saw such hospitality. They made me feel like the great white warrior come from America to save their country singlehanded! I was prouder, I believe, than at any time in my life that I was an amateur."
Underlying the tales he sent back from that theater, even when describing hardships, always was a characteristic lightness of touch:
"Here where I am located, deep in the New Guinea wilds, we don't even try to cope with the abundance of bug and insect life. The 'krud' is the name we have given to some three thousand jungle itches that bother us here.
"A tentmate of mine got up the other morning to get his mess kit, hanging on a tent pole. It was covered with big yellowish green ants. As fast as he'd flick off one ant two others would crawl back on, rearing on their hind legs and, literally leering at him. Finally, in a pathetic tone, he addressed the ants: 'Please, boys, let me have my mess kit!' That tickled my funny bone all day."
This account of a native celebration is excerpted from a World-Herald Sunday feature - the last piece he wrote for his paper:
"For many days we had noticed great numbers of Fuzzy Wuzzies trooping in from miles around . . . . We learned they were trekking here for some kind of ceremonial. . . . The ceremonial turned out to be a photographer's paradise. . . .
"We could hear the drums pounding away long before we reached the ceremonial ground in our jeep. . . . There were big Fuzzies, fat ones, slim ones, dwarfish ones, albinos and the usual droves of native youngsters, stark naked. . . . They were beating their drums, howling and stamping their feet up and down Indian fashion, only not so fast. . . . I snapped pictures, fully expecting my head to be chopped off or a spear impale me. But nothing happened. They went right on dancing, not noticing me at all. . . . A lass of perhaps 17 . . . even flashed me a smile as she pranced past. She wasn't half as embarrassed in her semi-nude state as I snapping her picture.
"An Aussie captain, noting my American technique, approached and offered to wager I couldn't get a photo of a particularly attractive (to another Fuzzy) girl of 18 who was standing near by watching the dancers. He'd been trying to photograph her for half an hour. And in that time three or four others had failed, he said. Remembering some tricks of the World-Herald photogs, I said: 'Look, buddy!'
"I focused my 35-mm. camera on a blade of kuai grass at right angles and about the same distance as the girl from me. The girl eyed me over her shoulder, her back to me - a pose, incidentally in which no self-respecting Yank photographer would ever take a native girl. Finally she turned away from me, satisfied I wasn't interested in her .... I pointed the camera at the girl. . . .
" 'Now yell at the top of your voice,' I told the Aussie. He was embarrassed and wouldn't. Then I asked him to whistle as loudly as he could and he let loose a blast that could be heard at Blup Blup. The girl, of course, turned to see what the commotion was and I snapped. She may have a surprised look when the negatives come out.
" 'Uncanny blokes, you Yanks,' the Aussie commented as I wound the film for the next shot ...."
At the last Bill was getting homesick. For two years he had seen only one member of his family - who was, singularly enough, a stranger! His daughter Marilyn had married an Army lieutenant after Bill left the U. S. The new son-in-law himself subsequently was shipped to Australia, and the two met there. Bill had a son, too Roger. On the very day - March 29th - that the Graham family was notified of Bill's death, Roger was to have left for duty in the Navy.
In January Bill wrote to a fellow World-Herald staff member: "This leaves me disgustingly healthy, and as happy as a fellow could be who has been away from his family for darn near two years. Good gosh, I just happened to think. I'm now eligible to wear four service chevrons. . . . It doesn't seem two years since I last visited the old gang. I wonder what changes there will be when I return? I'd give four front teeth to be able to sit in on a party with you all tonight - even if you only served ice-water! ... I'm expecting to get home later this year. Feel as though .... "
And then, just before his death, he wrote: "I hope that before the end of the year I will get leave back to the States. Unfortunately, in my line of work, the longer I am here the more valuable I can be. They never figure we, too, can get war-weary."
It was the next day he set out on the mission from which he did not return.
How he met his death we do not know. The official report states only that "Capt. Graham was killed in an airplane crash in New Guinea on 20 March 1944." That's all the War Department will say about it. The Public Relations Branch, the Press Branch, the War Branch, the Casualty Branch - each is silent about the details.
There is a reason for their silence, of course. We have learned, informally, that the mishap was not classified as a "combat" crash. That indicates that it occurred on a reconnaissance mission. And reconnaissance was Bill Graham's job - or a part of it, at least. It wasn't coincidence that, in the past, he happened to be around a number of Jap bases not long before things suddenly started to get hot for the Sons of Heaven.
If the Army doesn't want to say how or where Bill came to his last landing, therefore, we don't propose to speculate about it in print. We know only that, however or wherever it happened, he was doing his duty per orders - doing it with unflinching courage and unswerving determination.
Before he made his final unanticipated rendezvous with the Master Pilot, Bill Graham left a prophetic legacy to the game he loved. In the final paragraph of that letter dated March 19th - the day before his death - he wrote:
"In nearly everyone of my missions there has been a ham at the bomber's radio - a mighty important fellow on the crew of a bomber. No, after this is over, the amateur will have no excuses to offer for his part in this three-dimensional war. He has functioned to the everlasting glory of us all."
- C. B. D.
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