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Veterans of Secret Unit Celebrate Their War Hero: Radar

From the New York Times, September 10, 2002

Nowadays, radar is probably mentioned most often in connection with a weather forecast or a speeding ticket.

But to a small group of American World War II veterans who helped pioneer its use 60 years ago, the word radar evokes their secret effort to turn radio waves into a system that could detect German fighter planes and submarines. Their success, besides changing the course of the war against the Axis powers and saving thousands of lives, changed the course of their lives, too.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Members of a secret World War II radar program reunited last month in New York. From left: Harrison W. Moore, Howard Hall, Isaac Blonder, Richard F. Koch, Elies Elvove, Jerry Stover and Joe Mazur.

On a recent summer day in the luxurious surroundings of the Harvard Club of New York City, about a dozen members of the Electronics Training Group, formed during the war to put radar to use for the military, reunited to reminisce about those times and to make their stories known to the public.

The history of the group, and of wartime uses for detection by radio waves, traces back to about 1940, when Britain was besieged by the Germany Luftwaffe, the largest and most formidable air force in Europe. Though German fighter planes relentlessly bombed British cities and airfields, the British had one huge advantage that helped them endure and eventually prevail: radar.

Several years earlier, Dr. Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, then head of Britain's Radio Research Laboratory, found that reflections of radio pulses from aircraft might be detectable. A short while later, England established a chain of Radio Detection and Ranging, or radar, stations along its south and east coasts to detect enemy planes and ships.

Though the nascent technology, which the United States and Germany, among others, were also trying to develop, was not always reliable, it often helped the British determine where German planes were headed so the Royal Air Force knew where to send its planes.

In 1940, military experts for the United States who were posted in Britain took note of the role that radar was playing in air defense for the British and sent word back home.

The United States Army Signal Corps and the Navy, sensing possible future involvement in the war, started to recruit radio and electronics experts for a top secret program to develop what it called radiolocation devices. One of the first such training units was the Electronics Training Group.

"One day I came across an article that said the Army was looking for recent college grads with science backgrounds and an amateur radio license for a classified project," said Harrison W. Moore, who at the time was taking a year away from college to serve in the National Guard. "It seemed interesting and I had all the qualifications, so I signed up. They did my interview through the mail; every two weeks I got a note from Washington. The program was so secret that they did not use the word `radar' — it was classified."

Within a couple of months, Mr. Moore, who is from Bronxville, N.Y., was accepted into the program and was put on active duty, in the process jumping from private first class to second lieutenant. In December 1941, he arrived at Fort Monmouth, N.J., and it was only then that he learned his mission: he was to be sent to England where he and about 50 other electronics specialists, would learn radar from the British. In exchange, Britain would receive American military equipment.

"The British realized how important it was and developed it faster than anyone else," said Jerry Stover, another member of the Electronics Training Group. "They won the Battle of Britain because they used radar to guide their fighter planes, which essentially allowed them to multiply their forces. The E.T.G.was part of a reverse-lend lease program. We started training with the Royal Air Force and our job was to learn and bring radar knowledge back to the U.S."

Over the several months before the United States entered the war, it sent about 200 plainclothes E.T.G. officers to England. Hundreds more would follow after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Richard F. Koch, an E.T.G. officer from Lynbrook, N.Y., who was sent over in August 1941, was taught to operate and maintain radar devices by the Royal Air Force. After less than a year in England, he was sent back to Camp Murphy in Florida, where he wrote some of the first training manuals for radar technology in the United States.

"Hitler was arrogant and decided that German radar was A1 and so he shouldn't waste any money improving it," Mr. Koch said. "Meanwhile, the British and the Americans were charging ahead with our program."

Some E.T.G. officers were sent to universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they developed new ways to use radar. Even though the Allied powers had superior radar technology, Mr. Stover said, the Germans were often able to detect it so, microwave radar was developed, which the Germans were unable to pick up. Today most, if not all, radar operates on microwave frequencies, said Mr. Stover, who lives in Dallas.

Many other E.T.G. officers were dispersed throughout the world to set up radar devices, known as signal corps radar units, or S.C.R.'s.

In England, Mr. Moore worked on a network of radar stations along the eastern approaches to the country.

"We had a system set up so that radar would direct a series of large searchlights to spot German aircraft entering the country," he said, adding: "I had to make sure each radar light was operational, which wasn't easy. They were each a little different because they were being modified as fast as they came off the production line."

Once a German plane was located, Mr. Moore said, the lights would frighten it out to the Bristol Channel, where a British Spitfire plane would try to shoot it down.

In 1942, Mr. Moore returned to the United States and ran a ground radar supply unit in Ohio for the Air Force. Because the radar sets that were being used by the Allies were the first ever, he said, they needed constant servicing and he had to send the supplies needed to fix them all over the world.

"Part of the problem was deciding whether to ship to General MacArthur in the Pacific or to General Eisenhower in Europe," he said. "They were in such demand from both sides that we couldn't keep up."

Another E.T.G. officer, Tom Friedman, worked on a locating system by which aircraft would emit a series of pulses that caused a receiver on the ground to transmit a corresponding series of pulses, ultimately providing the pilot with his position. The system, called pulse navigation, is an early predecessor of global positioning system technology.

After the war ended, many of the E.T.G. officers went on to become pioneers of radio, television and other fields in the electronics industry. Mr. Friedman, who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., founded one of the first television stations in the country, in Cleveland, and then went to build and operate others in the early 50's. In the cold war era, he helped equip spy satellites with countermeasure systems that could confuse Soviet radar so the satellites would not be shot down.

In 1950, Isaac Blonder of Shrewsbury, N.J., another E.T.G. officer, became famous when he helped found Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, one of the first producers of cable television equipment.

Today, many of the remaining E.T.G. officers are reminded of what they accomplished in World War II when they see the applications of radar in everyday life.

"A lot of veterans get to see the old tanks and military equipment they used once a year when they're put on show during parades," Mr. Stover said. "We get to see ours on the Weather Channel every night." Still, many radar veterans feel the crucial role radar played in the war has been overshadowed by the atomic bomb.

But although the bomb brought a quick, thunderous end to the war in the Pacific, they point out that without radar, military successes in Europe would not have been possible.

"Most people don't realize that though the United States may have spent about $2 billion on creating the bomb, it spent nearly $3 billion on developing radar," said Elies Elvove, another former E.T.G. office, now of Scarsdale, N.Y. "Who knows how the war would have ended without it."

  Copyright  Isaac Blonder
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