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Copyright © 2019 Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs

  • Amanda Russell

Radio Communications in World War II

Naval radio communication played a vital role in World War II efforts and Hawaii’s defensive installation. The wireless was invented by Marconi in the late nineteenth century and the Navy was quick to make use of the new technology. The basic wireless invention went through a rapid evolution between the first and second World Wars. By 1940, the Naval communication system included technology capable of high, medium, and low frequencies that could send signals out to all corners of the globe (U.S. Dept. Navy, 1947:401).

     In Hawaiʻi, Navy communications began in September, 1916, at Hospital Point, Pearl Harbor. In 1920 a receiver station was constructed at Wailupe. At the time it was considered one of the largest radio receivers in the world and could receive six messages simultaneously. In 1931 land was bought in Lualualei Valley for the purpose of constructing a new transmitter facility. In 1936 the Lualualei Valley transmitter was activated (HABS, 1997:6).

     With the outbreak of World War II, radio communication stations in Hawaiʻi were built as rapidly as all other military operations that combined to make the Pacific offensive. The result was an overseas radio facility program that was advanced in proportion and technology above other area installations. The Army had three major and several minor radio installations. The Navy’s radio station installations grew rapidly. Along with the previously erected Naval station at Lualualei Valley was a naval communications station at Wahiawa, near Schofield Barracks. The station was commissioned on December 21, 1941, and grew to be one of the largest Naval radio stations in the world at that time (Allen, 1950: 226).

     However, the Naval fleet expansion into the Pacific created communication needs that were not yet being met. The Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, established in 1919, found itself at the forefront of war operations for the Pacific during World War II. As the submarines left the harbor and ventured into Japanese waters there was an exigency for communication (Allen, 1950: 225).


One more item was needed to give the Pacific fleet full striking power: absolute certain means of radio communications with headquarters at Pearl. The new receiving station at Wahiawa amply met these requirements but the main Navy transmitter at Lualualei was not powerful enough for an all-ocean war. A giant sending station must be built that would reach not only to the waters of Australia and the Indian Ocean but also to every Allied submarine-submerged-especially if she were on the bottom of Tokyo harbor (Woodbury, 1946:349).

     It was deemed that the 600 foot tower at Lualualei was not powerful enough to send radio waves of the length necessary for communication in the Pacific. A system was needed that could send messages to the bottom of Tokyo harbor. The initial problem was how to build a tower higher than 600 feet. The Navy believed it possible to use the natural geography to create the necessary height. In Java there had been successful experimentation by the Dutch of such a facility using cables strung between two mountain peaks (Woodbury, 1946: 350).

     The Navy quickly decided to build a long range low frequency radio station in Hawaiʻi using this type of natural resource. The station was highly experimental and also highly classified. The station would be able to obtain long range signals because it would use a very low frequency. The huge, high powered antennas would send out stable, long waves that were able to travel long distances and penetrate intrusions, such as mountains and water. The system would also require a transmitter building at the bottom of the valley, placement of anchors at the ridge of the cliffs, wires running from the anchors to the transmitter, and a copper grid system in the valley to assist in conducting the signals.


Building for war: Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases

     How to make this low frequency radio system become reality was one of the most complicated jobs in the Pacific during the war. The project was one of hundreds that were completed under the coordination and leadership of the Pacific Naval Air Base (PNAB). The PNAB was initiated in the 1930s as turmoil was mounting in the Pacific. At that time, the mood of America was one of caution. People were very hesitant to become involved in another war, particularly if America was not directly involved. However, in 1938, there were also many officers and political leaders that sensed the seriousness of the rising turmoil in China and the growing interest of the Japanese in the Pacific, including Hawaii. These individuals, including Charles Edison as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, the head of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, met with President Roosevelt. Working towards the same goal, they slowly and stubbornly inched towards a proposal for Pacific Naval Bases (Woodbury, 1946: 65).

     At this point in time the proposal for the Pacific Naval Air Bases was being limited to defensive measures. In January of 1939 the Naval Affairs Committee opened hearings on the specifics of the proposed new Naval Bases. During this hearing Admiral Moreell laid out the exact method that would be used in building the bases. The Admiral proposed:

” . . . the vital issue of using private contractors to do the work in the pacific. There would be no bidding on the island contracts. The Navy would choose the contractors it believed competent to do pioneering work under stress of emergency, then pay them on a cost-plus-fixed fee basis. This would be the first time that the Government had ever used this method on a big job” (Woodbury, 1946: 52).


This innovation constituted the Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Base (CPNAB). In the hearings of 1939 were stated several points that convinced skeptics of the decision to use this system of CPNAB. First, that private contractors would be used because the use of civil service engineers was too slow. Second, the contracts were awarded to large firms because small ones did not have the experience or talent for this large scale operation. Lastly, contracts should be paid a fixed fee instead of the conventional percentage of cost because it does not benefit the contractor to spend money but instead rewards him for not spending money (Woodbury, 1946:59). On May 25th, 1939 Congress passed an appropriation bill providing 63 million dollars for Naval Air Bases. In the near future the unique and innovative organization of the CPNAB set forth by Admiral Moreell would prove indispensable for expeditious construction in Hawaii after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor (Woodbury, 1946:55).

     Over one hundred firms applied to be the Contractors used for the Pacific Naval Bases. After much deliberation and intensive screening three companies were determined to be the strongest competitors having knowledge, experience, and imagination. The original contractors were Turner Construction Company of New York, the Raymond Pile Company of New York, and the Hawaiian Dredging Company. On August 9th the contract (No y-3550) was approved and the Contractors began work. Logistics were quickly decided upon and offices began to function. One of the first tasks was building the Operation Office in Alameda. This office would be responsible for coordinating all of the purchasing and shipping of supplies (Woodbury, 1946:68).

     By the winter of 1940 Congress began to understand the full impact of the Pacific turmoil and approved a bill that included $31 million specifically for the Pacific island bases. With this increase in appropriations the Contractors also needed to expand their resources and invited in two new private companies, the Morrison Knudsen Company, Inc. and the J.H. Pomeroy and Company, Inc. On July 11th, 1940, a new bill was approved (Woodbury, 1946:140). Over the next three years the contracts given the CPNAB grew to be the largest contractual award in history. When the contract was finally terminated, December 31, 1943, the total construction and cost amount of their contracts was over $692,000,000 (U.S. Dept. Navy, 1946:139).

The CPNAB had an interest in Haʻikū Valley as soon as the war broke out. Workers hiked up the back side of the cliffs, from the Red Hill side, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The men that reached the ridgeline were pondering the possibilities and problems of construction at the site. In particular they questioned how the wires would be brought to the top of the ridge from the Valley side. More to the point, how might the workers themselves reach the top of the ridge (Wainwright, 1997). The contractors did not reach any definitive conclusions but very quickly the prospects of a radio station in Haʻikū Valley took on a demanding nature and immediate decisions began to be made about the construction as the plans for the Pacific Naval Air Bases took on an offensive position.

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