Signal Improves Field Communications

August 1, 2016
By Julianne Simpson
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The message becomes more important than the messenger.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with signaleers, one for each of SIGNAL Magazine's seven decades, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of AFCEA International.


David L. Woods quite literally wrote the book on signal. In 1965, Woods’ A History of Tactical Communication Techniques was published with a foreword by Col. W.J. “Sparky” Baird, USA (Ret.), former general manager of AFCEA and editor of SIGNAL Magazine for 18 years. 

Col. Baird writes, “To the best of my knowledge, this history of tactical communication is the most valuable and complete presentation about the subject to be found anywhere.”

Woods has every issue of SIGNAL Magazine, from its founding in 1946 to present day. He served in the Navy and retired as a captain. He has written about and witnessed firsthand many of signal’s changes over the decades.  

The 1950s and 1960s were largely about polishing various communication systems, particularly in the field, Woods relates. Line-of-sight technologies still were being used, but by the 1950s, telephone and radio signals were becoming a much easier means of messaging for warfare, combat and search groups. 

The decline of visual signals after World War II changed the signaleer profession, and new technologies came to the forefront in the 1950s. “It was a lot safer sending a signal over radio behind a log than being prominent on a boat or in a field, holding a flag, where people can easily shoot at you,” Woods describes.  

The lone signaleer was not common during this time period. There were usually groups of three to four people completing missions. 

For example, during the Korean War, signaleers were in charge of intercepting the enemy’s radio transmissions. These personnel were not yet counterintelligence specialists. “What you usually had was an operational radioman to intercept the message, a Korean linguist to translate the message and a tactical soldier who understood the battlefield,” Woods says. 

Getting the enemy’s messages back to a commander or a general was usually done via radio or telephone. Although telephone was preferred because it was more secure, this was a tedious task because a second group of three or four men was needed to lay a wire. 

“Laying that wire wasn’t quite the same as standing out and waving flags, but it was equally difficult,” Woods says. The wire came on a large, heavy spool that required two men to carry. They could not also carry rifles. “So now you need two men to lay the wire and one or two men with rifles protecting them,” he adds. “That’s a lot of people. When you have wires and radios involved, you have to use more people to do your signaling.” 

The emergence of telephone and radio signals during this era allowed leaders to send more complicated, strategic messages, Woods states. “I think the messages became more thoughtful and provocative and probably based over a longer period of time,” he says. “There was a blurring of tactical and strategic objectives. 

“In earlier tactical situations, it was more or less, go there, shoot him, cover them. The message wouldn’t necessarily give as much specificity as it might give philosophy,” Woods offers.

Today, he says he sees a major difference in the volume of messages. With the development of fax machines, the Internet and email, the volume is much larger because it is easier to send all types of messages—long messages, short messages—and to do so almost instantly. In turn, though, “paper has become less significant because of the storage capacity of computers.” 

Woods also has witnessed a new layer of administration over signaleers. Signaleers used to develop their own messages and send them after being told what someone wanted to say. “Now you have people who come in specifically to write 200- to 300-word messages that are then reviewed by seniors or their executive assistants before they get sent,” he says. “Messages like that were not sent very often in the 1950s.” 

Today, many communications do not deal directly with battle. “There is a litany of logistical messages,” Woods says. “For example, if you want to have 28 tanks at point X on June 15, you probably need to send four or five messages to different places … to get tanks ready, put fuel in them, get ammunition there, etc.” 

He continues that the scope of messaging increased enormously in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to radio and telephone signals. Through World War I, simply delivering the message was critical, but by the 1950s, it was safe to assume it would get there. “The message and the person writing or preparing the message became more important than the person sending it,” Woods declares. 

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In researching the Little Big Horn Battle, I came across a comment from David L. Woods about the lack of communication on the Little Big Horn Battlefield. I wish I could get my hands on a copy of his book. There is supposed to be a chapter on that battle. I can no longer find the thread, but I recall a comment about sending the only man who could not speak English to deliver a rather important message. Does anyone know how I might get a copy of the book and if there indeed is a chapter on failed techniques at the Little Big Horn. Many researchers are more interested in frivolous things about the people rather than the real failings at the battle. I appreciate any help.

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