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Ears on the World: Civilian FCC operatives fought on the front lines of the radio war, catching spies, blocking leaks, directing lost planes, and saving ships from U-boat wolves.

IT TURNED OUT THAT CHOPMIST HILL in Scituate, Rhode Island, was the center of the world. That's what the Federal Communications Commission discovered in 1941. The hill's geographic and atmospheric conditions were extremely favorable for radio reception. Receivers could grab wireless signals not only from the entire United States but from much of the world.

With America on the verge of joining a sprawling global war, this was good news, especially for the FCC's hardworking Radio Intelligence Division. Chopmist Hill would become the most productive listening post for the men of this little-known civilian agency, whose work helped clinch victory for the United States and her allies.

From large but hidden radio listening posts--not only on Chopmist Hill but also in Maine, New York, Maryland, Florida, and Washington State--the FCC's Radio Intelligence Division (RID) saved lives, uncovered German spies and saboteurs, and more. Future FCC Commissioner George Sterling, the RID's wartime director, described his radio surveillance personnel as "patrolmen of the ether." RID personnel aided lost airplanes--more than 600 by Sterling's count--locating and redirecting them by locking onto their radio signals. They monitored foreign radio stations for information, and intercepted enemy agents' secret transmissions to their bases and submarines. They built radio equipment for Office of Strategic Services operatives and taught them how to use it. They patrolled radio signals on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as on the Alaskan coast. They even discovered a secret German weather station in Greenland, enabling the US Coast Guard to destroy it. Amazingly, from stateside facilities, RID aided Philippine guerrilla operations.

At the end of the Pacific war, it was a RID outpost that spent "a tense thirty-seven hours establishing initial contact between the Japanese and General [Douglas] MacArthur [Allied Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area], eventually succeeding, and setting the foundation for the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri," according to Susan Brinson of Auburn University, in her article, "Politics and Defense: The FCC's RID, 1940-1947" (published in the Journal of Radio and Audio Media, May 2009).

More than Eavesdroppers

TO ACCOMPLISH THE RID'S MAIN MISSIONS of intercepting enemy transmissions and preventing America's airwaves from leaking secrets to the enemy, the agency eventually established 12 primary monitoring stations (of which Chopmist Hill was the most productive), 60 substations, and 90 mobile units in the US, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. At its peak, RID employed 893 people.

Primary monitoring stations bristled with poles and wires. There were rhombic antennas: wires strung on poles above the ground in the shape of a rhombus, or diamond. There were four-pronged Adcock radio direction finders, which could be rotated in order to home in on a shortwave signal and get a geographical fix on its source. Indoors, the primary stations had state-of-the-art receiving and recording equipment manned by highly trained operators.

The RID had mobile units, too--automobiles crammed with radio equipment, each with a surveillance man at its controls. These were able to follow up on a received signal, getting closer to pinpoint its source. The units relied on single-loop antennas, simple receivers based on a circle of wire or other conductive material. For even closer investigation, the agency developed a handheld unit called the Snifter. This device was so sensitive that a radioman could detect not just the building but the room from which a signal was emanating.

On average, the radio intelligence men pinpointed, or fixed, more than 800 locations each month. It was quite an accomplishment, considering that each fix required operators to collect 6,000 bearings. But the intensive effort paid off. Near the war's end, SS Major Wilhelm Hottl, the Third Reich's acting intelligence and counterespionage chief for Central and Southeast Europe, surrendered to US forces. Under interrogation by US Third Army officials in June 1945, he revealed that German foreign intelligence "had not been able to establish a single wireless connection in either the US or England." And in the only public account of the RID and its work, declassified by the CIA in 1994, Sterling commented that when Japanese agents had sought permission from their controllers to set up radio links, they were denied because their superiors knew "the FCC would nab them as soon as they went on the air."

Shutting Down Axis Radio

AS EARLY AS 1940, there were signs that Germany was trying to create a spy organization in Central and South America. That October, the RID station in Tampa, Florida, picked up maritime radio signals and narrowed them down to small vessels of the Gough Brothers line, operating out of British Honduras. Further investigation suggested these vessels were carrying fuel to German U-boats operating in the Gulf of Mexico and passing information to them. A sting operation snared a total of 20 men, including principal owner George Gough. They remained incarcerated until April 1943, when authorities claimed evidence was insufficient for conviction.

The persistent problem of Axis espionage in Latin America led to the formation of the multinational Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, created in early 1942 by the United States and several Central and South American states. The committee's job was to give concrete suggestions for rooting out Axis spies and infiltrators in the Americas, and for keeping them out. One suggestion involved ferreting out radio spies. To assist with that task, and to help Latin American countries set up their own monitoring networks, the FCC sent some of its top monitoring officers south of the border. They were successful everywhere except Argentina, which was officially neutral in the war and did not participate in the emergency advisory committee's work. Spies who were pushed out of other South American countries found a safe base in Argentina, where even commercial radio transmitters were sending vital information to Axis Japan, Italy, and Germany. The RID men tried to shut down enemy radio transmissions there, but the Argentine government became so hostile that the FCC had to withdraw the agents for their own safety.

The Hill with Ears

AMONG ALL THE RID LOCATIONS, in Latin America and in the States, Chopmist Hill was the top facility for radio interception. The site first came to the FCC's attention thanks to Thomas B. Cave, a RID technician. Cave was looking for the best spot to set up a listening post to detect illegal private and commercial radio transmissions, stopping lawbreakers from getting around FCC licensing regulations. He had already settled on a spot in Greenville, Rhode Island, when he discovered Chopmist Hill in Scituate. Conditions there were strangely ideal for receiving radio traffic from a large portion of the globe. Beyond its value for simple rule enforcement, Chopmist Hill was the perfect global listening post for a nation inevitably headed into a world war. Cave moved his operations there in March 1941.

Once the listening post was fully up and running, Cave claimed, he would be able to zero in on the location of any radio transmission within 15 minutes. Skeptical army brass tested Cave's assertions, secretly setting up an impromptu station and transmitting a signal. It took Cave and his crew 7 minutes to notice the signal and identify its source as the Pentagon.

What Cave had discovered up on 731-foot-tall Chopmist Hill was a quirk of nature. So good was the hill's receiving capability that line-of-sight mobile communications, and low-frequency signals that were meant to travel just a few hundred miles, bounced off the atmosphere and straight down to Chopmist Hill. His post could receive radio transmissions from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. Cave later said it could even pick up tank-to-tank transmissions from German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps in North Africa. These were forwarded to the British commander in the area, General Bernard Montgomery.

A 40-member team under Cave set up the top-secret listening post in a leased 14-room farmhouse. The complex was surrounded by fences and armed guards, with its own blockhouse, barracks, and generator. No one could approach or enter without a state police escort.

The Chopmist station's ears were antennas--more than 16 miles of them. They were strung around telephone poles set deep in the ground so they wouldn't poke up above the tree line and attract attention. The site also had two directional antennas.

To improve reception, Cave had to call the local utility company, Narragansett Electric, to send out foreman Charlie Weinert to move the antenna poles, which were sunk nine feet into the ground. Sometimes a move was just a few feet. Cave later said, "Weinert thought I was clean crazy." After the war was over and the station was declassified, Cave told Weinert, "Every time you moved those poles you were following Rommel as he was backing up across North Africa." Weinert reportedly shot back, "Why, if I had known that, I'd have dug poles all the way to Cairo."

So effective was the secrecy on Chopmist Hill that the listening post's very existence was revealed to the public only after the end of hostilities. Looking back on the war years, Sterling commented, "Many a night I wondered if everyone at the station would get home safely. If the enemy had known how we were recording messages sent between agents right in Germany, they would have eliminated the Scituate Station and everyone in it, provided they could."

The Airwave Harvest

AT CHOPMIST AND ELSEWHERE, much of what the RID intercepted was encrypted or in non-English languages. These messages were recorded and forwarded to the Signal Security Agency in Washington, DC, for deciphering or translation. How some transmissions got deciphered--specifically, messages encrypted with Nazi Germany's top-secret Enigma code--remains a mystery. "Was there a twin Ultra machine [British military intelligence's ultra-secret decryption computer] in Washington to which Scituate fed ...?" asks Paul Eno, author of the 2005 book Rhode Island: A Genial History. "If not, how were secret interceptions in the secret German code translated?" The answer may have to wait until the RID's wartime files are declassified in 2049.

One of the seemingly mundane tasks assigned to the Chopmist Hill unit was to home in on German weather reports from Central Europe. These were forwarded to the British bomber command and, once the United States joined the war, to US Army Air Forces commands based in England. The reports were essential for planning air raids over Axis targets.

On one occasion, when a USO plane carrying American actress Kay Francis got lost, the Chopmist Hill listening post came to the rescue by picking up the pilot's radio transmissions, pinpointing his location, and guiding him to safety. On another occasion the station saved many American lives aboard the British ocean liner Queen Mary, then serving as a wartime troop transport ship, ferrying US troops to fight in Europe. While the ship was docked in Rio de Janeiro for fuel and supplies in March 1942, local German spies somehow learned her future course and alerted their superiors. Fortunately, operators on Chopmist Hill intercepted the message. The Queen Mary's captain changed course, avoiding the wolf pack of German U-boats that was lying in wait and saving the lives of some 14,000 GIs on board.

On yet another occasion, a plane carrying wounded men home to the States from Europe crash-landed in Canada's far-northern Labrador province, so close to the magnetic North Pole that getting an accurate fix on the plane's exact location was difficult. But the Chopmist Hill team did it, and rescue operations got underway. Even then it took three months to get all the plane's passengers to safety.

IN A 1981 INTERVIEW quoted in Eno's book, Sterling claimed Chopmist managed to pick up Japanese radio traffic before the December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor. The Rhode Island site also detected signals from radio transmitters on incendiary balloon bombs that the Japanese had launched into the jet stream to float across the Pacific and explode in America and Canada. Each bomb-laden, hydrogen-filled balloon emitted a tracking signal so the Japanese could follow its progress. The Chopmist Hill listeners forwarded balloons' locations to West Coast fighter squadrons, which attempted to intercept and shoot down the floating bombs before they did any harm. (Most of the fighters' efforts were in vain. They managed to shoot down less than 20 of the more than 9,000 that were launched. Fortunately, few of the balloons that reached inland North America exploded, and only one of those caused casualties, killing a pregnant women and five children on a Sunday school outing in Oregon.)

Chopmist Hill Revealed

SOON AFTER THE WAR, the FCC gave agent Cave permission to grant an interview to the Providence Journal revealing the Chopmist Hill station's existence, its purpose, and some of its wartime successes.

The FCC maintained a station there until 1950 with a skeleton crew to fulfill the original purpose of catching unlicensed radio transmitters. Rhode Island's Civil Preparedness Division then took over the facility as its headquarters. In 1965 the hilltop site reverted back into private hands. One Frederick Leeder purchased it at auction in 1968; by then, a scant 5 acres of the original 183 remained. As Leeder learned about the property's history, he and others tried in vain to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was rejected because the FCC equipment had been removed, so the site did not meet the criterion of substantial conformity to how it looked during its period of historic activity.

Why isn't Chopmist Hill spiked with surveillance antennas today? The answer is simple: change. What was once a rural, backcountry location has grown immensely since 1945. Houses, factories, and other buildings interfere with radio reception. The feats performed there in the past cannot be replicated.

In an interview shortly before his death, Cave told Eno, "It was not the receptivity of the location, but the advanced secret radio equipment used there that made Chopmist Hill's place in history." He added, "Though reception was remarkably good, it was 99 percent knowhow that created such a success between 1941 and 1945."

Maybe. In 2049, perhaps we'll know the whole story of Chopmist Hill, the FCC's Radio Intelligence Division, and their role in winning World War II.

The U.N. in Rhode Island--Almost

The United Nations, the world organization designed to prevent future world wars and promote peace and cooperation between countries, was a direct outcome of World War II. And with the signing of its charter in San Francisco in October 1945, just a month after the war's conclusion, it was ready to get down to work. One of the first orders of business: establishing a headquarters. But where?

For a fleeting moment, Chopmist Hill and its surrounding area in Scituate, Rhode Island, was a contender. Stoyan Gavrilovic, head of Yugoslavia's UN delegation and chairman of the UN Committee on Site, visited the area. The Providence Journal reported on the visit on January 26, 1946, in an article titled "Chopmist Hill District is rated One of Top Potential Locations for UNO Quarters by Committee."

Numerous locations across the US were under consideration, amid substantial lobbying from each. Scituate councilman George Matteson convinced his fellow council members to put their town forward as a candidate. The UN committee received the suggestion with interest, and Gavrilovic and other members visited to take a look at Chopmist Hill and its surroundings.

According the Providence Journal article, Thomas Cave, head of the FCC Radio Intelligence Division listening post atop the hill, led Gavrilovic and his party on a tour of the site. From atop a fire lookout tower, Cave showed the committee members a panoramic view of the area and indicated where an airport could be built. Inside the RID's nerve center within the site's farmhouse, the committee learned more about the hill's astounding international radio capabilities, which were part of its appeal as a possible world headquarters. At the tour's end, Gavrilovic told reporters, "This is a possible site. It meets most of the technical points. It is good."

Alas, not Chopmist Hill and Scituate, but Turtle Bay in New York City won the distinction of hosting the UN headquarters, thanks in part to John D. Rockefeller's offer to donate the price of a large parcel of land along Manhattan's East River. Otherwise, Rhode Island might today be playing host to UN representatives from around the globe.

LEO CAISSE is a third-generation Rhode Islander. His research for this piece included articles published in the Providence Journal soon after the war.

Caption: Photo: The spy-busters of the FCC's Radio Intelligence Division (RID) put their radio listening capabilities to work intercepting transmissions from enemy agents at home and overseas. They even took their work on the road, using mobile listening posts like this one--cars crammed with direction-finding equipment--to pinpoint the sources of illegal radio signals.


Caption: Above: The RID had listening posts with powerful equipment that could home in on illicit radio signals, even distant ones. Any one of these might be from a spy. One of the RID's most reliable tools was the Adcock direction finder, like this one at a stateside listening post. Opposite, top: Technicians scan the airwaves at an RID listening post. Opposite, center: In their secret posts, the RID men were out of sight and out of mind--except in the radio and technology communities, where they were heroes featured in advertising.

Caption: Thomas Cave, who set up the Chopmist Hill post, takes a turn listening. After the war, he hosted a committee investigating Chopmist as a possible site for UN headquarters.

Caption: Left: The most productive listening post was on Chopmist Hill in Scituate, Rhode Island, where these operators are at work. Chopmist picked up signals from around the world, intercepting intelligence that saved Allied lives. Right: Equipment like this lined the walls at Chopmist.
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Title Annotation:Radio Intelligence Division
Author:Caisse, Leo
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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